TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

30 December 2016

Resolutions: Our stabs at self-control.

Of course, making too many at once multiplies your difficulty level.

Speaking for myself, I’m not into new year’s resolutions. I make ’em the year round: If I see changes I need to make in my life, I get to work on ’em. I don’t procrastinate till 1 January. I may procrastinate just the same, but here’s the problem with stockpiling lifestyle changes till the new year: Come 1 January, you’re gonna have a vast pile of changes to make. It’s hard enough to make one change; now you have five. (Or 50, depending on how much of a trainwreck you are.) Multiplying your resolutions, multiplies your difficulty level.

But hey, it’s American custom. So at the year’s end a lot of folks, Christians included, begin to think about what we’d like to change about our lives. What we really should change. Too many carbohydrates? Too much time frittered away on non-productive hobbies? Too much money wasted?

Since our culture doesn’t really do self-control, you might notice most Americans’ resolutions don’t have to do with breaking a bad habit so much as adding another one—good or bad.

True, a lot of us will vow to diet and exercise. But just as many of us will choose to learn gourmet cooking, or resolve to eat at fancier restaurants more often. (Well, so long that the fancier restaurants provide American-size portions. If I only wanted a six-ounce piece of meat I’d go to In-N-Out Burger.)

True, a lot of us will vow to cut back on our screen time, whether it’s on computers, tablets, phones, or televisions. But just as many will decide time isn’t the issue; quality is. They’ll vow to watch better movies and TV shows. Time to binge-watch the shows the critics have been raving about. Time to watch classic movies instead of whatever Adam Sandler burps up. Sometimes it’s a clever attempt to avoid cutting back on screen time—’cause they know they won’t. And sometimes they honestly never think about it; screens are now just a fact of life.

As Christians, a lot of us will resolve to be better Christians. We’ll pray more. Meditate more. Go to church more consistently; maybe join one of the small groups. Read more bible—perhaps all the way through. Put more into the collection plate. Share Jesus more often with strangers and acquaintances. Maybe do some missions work.

All good intentions. Yet here’s the problem: It takes self-control to make any of these resolutions stick. It’s why, by mid-March, all these resolutions were likely abandoned. So if we’re ever gonna stick to them, we gotta begin by developing everybody’s least-favorite fruit of the Spirit.

29 December 2016

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.

28 December 2016

Three typical forms of church services.

Is church a struggle? Maybe you’re not at the church best suited to your personality.

Not all churches are alike. Obviously. But when you ask Christians what they like best about their church, they’ll emphasize a few things which they particularly like. The preaching. The music. The solemnity—or the informality. The friendliness. The kids’ program. The decor. The way they do our rituals. The amiability of the preacher. The ministries and programs. The coffee—for once it’s not Folger’s! (’Cause Folger’s is rubbish. But it’s cheap, so it’s what people serve whenever the person in charge of the coffee, doesn’t personally drink coffee.)

Practices vary from church to church. Even within the same denomination; you can have one church which focuses a whole lot on one area, and a sister church—even in the same town!—which focuses on another.

But the main focus of your church’s Sunday morning service (or Sunday or Saturday evening service; what have you) sets the tone for the sort of church you are. How do you know it’s your main focus? Simple: If you skip it, the people of your church act as though you didn’t really “have church” that week. The service wasn’t a proper service; it’s almost as if it doesn’t count. You could skip one of the other forms of worship, and it might be missed, but the main focus must be done. Must. Always.


Typically one of these three. ’Cause yes, others exist. Snake-handling churches, fr’instance.

So in a sacrament-focused church, holy communion (or Eucharist) must happen. You could skip the music, the homily, and maybe even scriptures and prayer—but probably not, ’cause scriptures and prayer are sacraments too, if not officially. But don’t you dare skip Eucharist. Otherwise it’s “not church,” ’cause the service was improperly done.

Same in a teaching-focused church. Whether it’s from a pastor in a pulpit, or from a teacher sitting in a circle with the people of the church, there had better have been a lesson, or it’s “not church.” You can skip communion; some of ’em only celebrate it once a month, or only on Easter and Christmas. Music’s optional too… which is why I find it tends to not be very good in such churches. When I was growing up, Mom had no trouble with being as much as 45 minutes late for the service, ’cause “we’ll only miss the music.” But we’d better not miss the sermon.

And the music-focused church: The people would be outraged if they didn’t get to sing. Ever been in a church service during a power failure? In teaching- or sacrament-focused churches, if the instruments require electricity, they figure, “Fine; we’ll sing a song or two a capella, then ‘get on with it’”—meaning the real part of the service, the message or the sacrament. But in a music-focused church, people won’t settle for an abbreviated songset. They’ll try their darnedest to make the musical experience as significant as the electrified experience. And blame the devil for the power failure—“Satan tried to stop us from having church!”—and pointedly make even more joyful a noise as their voices and acoustic instruments can produce. And y’know, they’ll succeed.

27 December 2016

Unidirectional prayer: We talk. God doesn’t. No point.

No it’s not how prayer works. But you’d be surprised how many Christians believe otherwise.

Lots of people firmly believe God doesn’t talk back when we pray. We talk to the sky, or we form sentences in our head, and God doesn’t respond. At all. Not a word. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. May as well have spoken to a brick wall. Heck, a brick wall’d be more responsive, ’cause people have graffito’d on it.

Now I can understand this mindset in pagans, ’cause they don’t talk to God. Or they talk to fake gods, which of course don’t speak back, ’cause they’re imaginary. So what do they know?

But a disturbing number of Christians think this way. Seriously. They’re cessationist; they think God turned off the miracles between bible times and the End Times. That includes answering prayer. He listens… but never, ever talks.

Yeah it’s crap, but they firmly believe it: That whole “I’ll never leave nor forsake you” bit in the bible? He 13.5 No he didn’t technically leave. But in order to play up how infinitely important the bible is, God left us the scriptures, and he’ll only reveal his will thataway. If he communicates at all, it’s only in feelings, which he grants us whenever we read the bible and we’re sorta on the right track. If you’ve understood it rightly, you’ll feel this powerful sense of self-righteous conviction, and your mind will snap shut like a bear trap. If you’ve not, you’ll feel anxious and unsatisfied, like an ex-smoker whose nicotine patch isn’t cutting the cravings. And if you feel nothing… well, which one do you think you oughta feel? Concentrate really hard. Maybe you’ll start feeling it!

If you can’t detect the mockery in that description: Hi there. Welcome to TXAB, my blog where I talk about following Jesus. Sometimes I use sarcasm. Read enough and you’ll get the hang of it.

Anyway, the reason these Christians believe as they do is ’cause their fellow Christians taught ’em so. Not necessarily on purpose; it’s what their teachers were taught, and it stems all the way back to various faithless individuals who guessed how God communicates with his beloved kids—and guessed horribly, woefully wrong that God’s a deadbeat Dad. Over the past five centuries* there’ve been a lot of teachings, theology, and practices centered on the idea God doesn’t talk. Instead, like a deafmute who thinks he’ll be cured soon, so he stubbornly never learns sign language, for TWENTY CENTURIES God’s supposedly been manipulating us through warm fuzzy feelings. Is it any wonder Christians come in a thousand denominations?

Obviously these folks never learned to listen to God. Or think he would only speak in an audible voice—and if he does, it’d be rarely, to only a very small number of prophets. That is, unless prophecy’s done till the End Times; till then we gotta make do with bible-based warm feelings.

I grew up cessationist, and man alive is it difficult to read anything they’ve written on prayer. It’s faithless, Godless, and largely useless. Because if prayer isn’t two-way communication, that’s what it is: Useless.


*(Only five centuries? Yep. The Orthodox, Catholics, and early Protestants rightly taught God talks back, and suppressed those who taught otherwise. When the suppression ended, the idea God doesn’t talk spread. Hey, sometimes freedom of religion is a double-edged sword.)

26 December 2016

St. Stephen, and true martyrdom.

The second day of Christmas honors the first martyr.

St. Stephen’s Day falls on 26 December, the second day of Christmas. Not that we know Stephen died on this day; it’s just where western tradition happened to put it. In eastern churches it’s tomorrow, 27 December. (And if they’re still using the old Julian calendar, it’s 9 January to us.) In some countries it’s an official holiday.

You may remember Stéfanos/“Stephen” from the Acts 6-7. Yep, he’s that St. Stephen.

In the ancient Hebrew culture, tithes weren’t money, but food. Every year you were to take 10 percent of your firstfruits and celebrate with it; Dt 14.22-27 every third year you were to give it to the needy. Dt 14.28-29 Apparently the church took on the duty of distributing tithes to the needy, but they were accused of favoring Aramaic-speaking Christians over Greek-speaking ones. Ac 6.1 So the Twelve had the church elect seven Greek-speakers to take over the job. Ac 6.2-3 Stephen was first in the list, and Luke, the author of Acts, pointedly called him full of faith and the Holy Spirit, Ac 6.5 full of God’s grace and power. Ac 6.8 In other words, a standout.

At this point in history, the church still only consisted of Jews. Christianity was still considered a Jewish religion—with the obvious difference that Christians believed Jesus is Messiah, and their fellow Jews believed Messiah hadn’t yet come. Otherwise Christians still went to temple and synagogue. And it was in synagogue where Stephen got into trouble: The people of his synagogue dragged him before the Judean Senate, accusing him of slandering Moses, the temple, and God. Custom made slandering Moses and the temple serious, but slandering God could get you the death penalty. So Stephen was brought before the Senate to defend himself.

Unlike Jesus, who totally admitted he’s Messiah, Stephen defended himself. His defense was a bible lesson: He retold the history of Israel, up to the construction of the temple. Ac 7.2-47 Then he pointed out God doesn’t live in a building, of all things. Ac 7.48-50 And by the way: They’re a bunch of Law-breakers who killed Christ. Ac 7.51-53

More than one person has pointed out it’s almost like Stephen was trying to get himself killed. Me, I figure he was young and overzealous and naïve, and had adopted the American myth—centuries before we Americans had adopted it—that if you’re on God’s side, no harm can ever befall you. That you can bad-mouth your foes, and God’s hedge of protection will defend you when they turn round and punch you in the head. That you can leap from tall buildings, and the angels will catch you. You know, like Satan tried to tempt Jesus with. Mt 4.5-7

Well, that’s not at all how things turned out.

23 December 2016

The Son of Man.

Something Jesus calls himself… which reminds us he’s Messiah.

One of Jesus’s favorite ways to refer to himself is as the Son of Man. It was a way of saying, yet not overtly saying, he’s Messiah.

Y’see, people of Jesus’s day who knew their bible would immediately catch the meaning. And people who don’t know the bible—didn’t then, don’t now—would simply assume it’s an odd choice of words, and ignore it as irrelevant. Same as they do Jesus’s parables.

The meaning comes from Daniel. In his book, Daniel described various apocalyptic visions of the then-distant future. (Most of it is most definitely in our past, ’cause the angels explicitly stated it had to do with the Persian and Greek empires—though you’ll still get a few End Times loons who insist it has to do with the future of Iran and the European Union. Anyway.) Daniel was informed about Messiah’s first coming, as well as his second.

In one of his visions, where the Ancient of Days judged the world, Daniel saw what he identified as a Son of Man. And the reason the folks of Jesus’s day were quite familiar with this passage, was ’cause Daniel actually wrote it in their language, Aramaic. Not Hebrew, like most of the Old Testament.

Daniel 7.13-14 KWL
13 I dreamt a prophetic vision that night: Look, someone like a Son of Man!
Coming in the heavens’ clouds, approaching the Ancient of Days, coming near to him.
14 The Ancient gave the Son authority, honor, and the kingdom,
and every people, nation, and language, who’ll bow to his authority.
His authority is permanent: It never passes away.
His kingdom can never be destroyed.

This is a future kingdom, one God sets up, with his chosen king running the show. By the time Daniel wrote this, the kings of Israel were gone; had been for years. So clearly this vision is about Messiah—but a future Messiah, who’d not just rule Israel and the Jews, but the entire planet.

Yep, this is the very bible reference Jesus had in mind whenever he called himself the Son of Man. We know this ’cause he quoted it. During his trial before the Judean Senate, the head priest demanded to know whether Jesus considered himself Messiah, and Jesus broke his typical silence and gave a definitive answer.

Mark 14.61-62 KWL
61 For Jesus was silent, and answered no one.
Again, the head priest questioned Jesus, and said to him,
“You’re Messiah, the son of the blessed one?”
62 Jesus said, “I am.
And you’ll see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power,
coming with the heavenly clouds.”

True, the Senate were outraged by this answer and condemned him to death for it. Mk 14.64 But there should be no question what Jesus meant throughout the gospels by Son of Man.

22 December 2016

The fear of phony peace.

When “blessed are the peacemakers” gets ditched in favor of popular End Times theories.

So as I said yesterday, we Christians aren’t necessarily known for being peaceful. ’Cause we lack peace. ’Cause we’ve adopted one of the typical incorrect notions as to how to attain it, and haven’t correctly chosen to follow God and pursue his kingdom. Mt 6.25-34

And sometimes it’s ’cause we don’t trust peace. Especially societal and political forms of peace. When our secretary of state brokers a treaty between warring nations, or between the United States and some other nation we’re not really getting along with. Definitely when the United Nations tries to do likewise. We don’t believe any of that stuff is real peace—we suspect there’s something underhanded and devilish behind it.

Why’s that? Well, in Revelation there’s this vision John had of a Beast who’s gonna take over the world. Rv 13 And according to one of the more popular End Times theories, the Beast is gonna gain its power by pretending to be a good guy. Pretending to care about the little guy; pretending to care about our values and safety; pretending to know how to fix the economy and fight terrorism. No I’m not talking about Donald Trump, much as his opponents will scream the shoe fits. But that’s what certain Christians fear most: Someone portraying a prince of peace, who’s absolutely not.

Basically they figure the Beast is gonna be Bizarro Jesus: Anything Jesus does, the Beast’ll do the opposite. Jesus says love your neighbor; the Beast’ll try to make you hate ’em. Jesus says heal the sick; the Beast’ll try to make you poison the sick. Jesus says preach the gospel; the Beast’ll try to shut you up. Black is white, up is down.

So since Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers, the Beast’ll say blessed are the warmongers. But, before it can weasel its way into real power, it’ll make like a peacemaker. By stealthily, evilly getting nations to stop fighting and love one another. That’s just how crafty it is, using goodness and kindness to lull us into a sense of security. Then bam: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. Bizarro!

Here’s the problem: What if we’ve got an actual peacemaker on our hands? Someone who actually wants nations to stop fighting and love one another? (Or at least benignly stop bombing one another?) Someone who’s trying to be a child of God like Jesus wants? Mt 5.9

…Nah, can’t risk it.

And this is how the devil regularly tricks paranoid Christians into fighting, of all things, peace.

21 December 2016

Peace be unto you.

Too many Christians lack peace, ’cause they’re trusting anything but God to grant it.

God’s into peace. It’s an aspect of his character we really don’t spend enough time on. But it’s a fruit of the Spirit, and something he wishes upon us, his creations, his children—as articulated by his angels when Jesus was born.

Luke 2.13-14 KWL
13 Suddenly there was a large number of the heavenly army with the angel, praising God,
saying, 14 “Glory in the highest heaven to God!
Peace upon the earth to the people he’s pleased with!”

Problem is, we Christians aren’t known for being peaceful.

This may be a fair assessment, and it may be unfair. After all, when Christians aren’t peaceful, it makes the news. When we are peaceful, it might become one of those happy-news stories at the end of the video, or in the back of the newspaper; it might go viral if it’s heartwarming enough. But it doesn’t always. It may very well be we Christians are doing a good job of demonstrating peace, and since the agitated minority gets all the press, we don’t look so good.

Anecdotal experience isn’t proof, but I’ll just say the Christians I know certainly aren’t all that peaceful. They freak out over every little thing. Just last Sunday, one of ’em was telling me that even though every single politician she preferred got elected, she’s still convinced it’s only a matter of time before freedom of religion is banned in the United States, and we won’t even be able to preach Jesus in private. I think she’s been reading too much Hal Lindsey, and she’s hardly alone.

But it’s not even limited to wild End Times fears. When terrorists attack, Christians want ’em dead just as much as any pagan. Lots of us own guns, and not just hunting rifles: When thieves break into our houses, we expect to shoot ’em dead same as any other vengeful homeowner. We claim it’s for self-defense and we’re being realistic and practical, but (unless we’ve got an even more twisted longing to shoot a bad guy and enjoy the experience of justifiable homicide) it’s really because we believe peace will only come once we destroy the things we fear. Or at least build giant walls to keep ’em out.

So I have serious doubts that peaceful Christians are a vast but silent majority. More than likely, they’re a tiny minority. (And I say “they’re” because neither am I as peaceful as I oughta be.)

20 December 2016

Christ is born in Bethlehem.

Where Micah foretold Messiah’s birthplace.

Around 5 BC, a crowd of Zoroastrian astrologers came to Jerusalem looking for “the newborn king of Judea,” Mt 2.2 freaking out the province largely because its paranoid king, Herod bar Antipater. Mt 2.3 They knew it was only a matter of time before Herod starting killing people over it. As he later did.

Figuring he oughta learn where Messiah was expected to come from, Herod turned to Jerusalem’s head priests and scribes.

Matthew 2.4-9 KWL
4 Gathering all the head priests and scribes of the people,
Herod was asking them, “Where’s Messiah born?”
5 They told him, “In Bethlehem, Judea. This was written by the prophet:
6 ‘You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are in no way the least of Judah’s rulers:
A leader will come from you who will shepherd my people, Israel.’” Mc 5.2
7 Then Herod, secretly summoning the Zoroastrians, grilled them on the time the star appeared.
8 Sending them to Bethlehem, he said, “Go search carefully for the child.
Once you find him, send news to me so I might also go bow before him.”
9 On hearing the king, they went.

The scribes answered with a loose translation of Micah 5.2, which pinpointed Jerusalem’s suburb of Bethlehem, about 3 kilometers away. The Canaanites called it Efratá/“fruitful,” but by the time Genesis was written the Hebrews had renamed it Beit Lekhém/“bread house.” Ge 35.16, 19 Still, the Hebrews tended to refer to it as “Bethlehem-Efratá” to distinguish it from the other Bethlehem in the tribe of Zebulun. Js 19.15 Don’t mix up your Bethlehems. God didn’t.

Bethlehem was a small settlement; small enough to get skipped in various Old Testament censuses. But it wasn’t unknown. Israel’s judge Ivchán (the one with the 60 kids) was from there, Jg 12.8-10 and King David ben Jesse was from there. 1Sa 17.12 So the town had two great rulers come from it already.

The prophecies of Micah of Moreshét were largely about how the LORD was tired of the evil which went on in Israel, and he was coming down to Jerusalem and Samaria to sort things out. Mc 1.3 Micah figured the LORD was coming to judge—you know, that part of the cycle of history.

But in reading it, you’ll notice Micah wasn’t only talking about the LORD dealing with the issues and worries of the then-present day. The terms he used include a lot about final judgment, not just one judgment among many. Finally sorting out Israel, not just currently sorting things out. Stuff that happens in the last days, not just the usual near-future prophecies.

In other words, Micah includes some prophecies about Messiah and the End Times.

19 December 2016

Growing up with Santa Claus.

My personal experiences of what happens when you take the Christmas myths way too seriously.

Dad’s an atheist. This means for him, Christmas is Santa Claus. Not Jesus. Not any of our Christian junk. He doesn’t wanna hear it. He wants nothing to do with our church functions; not our live nativities, nor our church’s Christmas services. He’ll go to the city Christmas festival, but only because the churches hand out free treats. (Cookies and cider or cocoa, mainly; I keep trying to talk my own church into serving coffee. ’Cause nobody else serves coffee. We’d corner the market.) He won’t pass up a freebie, but it’s a hard pass on the free gift of eternal salvation.


Santa getting liquored up. Hammerstone Whiskey Disks

He loves Santa. Mainly the wonder on children’s faces once you get ’em to believe Santa, and Christmas magic, are real. This is the only supernatural he believes in: The fake stuff. Tricks.

Hence when I was growing up Santa Claus was a big, big deal.

Till 1978. One day I was poking round the garage looking for something. Don’t remember what. Probably paper. I wrote and drew a lot, and in order to keep me in paper, Dad stole lots. Yes, stole. He’d find a stack of flyers someplace, and whether the function had taken place or not, Dad would swipe the stack ’cause the back of the flyer was blank, so I could draw on it. So much of my childhood art is on the back of party announcements, Chinese restaurant promotions, and newsletters. And printer paper; he’d grab a bunch after the Air National Guard was done with it. I hope all the stuff on the front wasn’t classified.

Anyway Dad stashed all the paper in a cabinet in the garage, and while I was in there getting paper, I peeked in a corner of the garage and saw what I shouldn’t: Our Christmas presents. The stuff which later turned up among the presents “Santa” had brought us. The jig was up.

I played along till about 1980 or so, once my parents figured a 9-year-old was a little old to still believe in Santa. So they sat me down and, just as they’d explained how babies were made (yes, I was told that first), explained this particular fact of life to me. And they expected me to play along with their game, and not blab to my siblings.

Yes, I blabbed.

They were extra pissed about it when I told my youngest sister. She was three. She asked me a casual question about Santa, and I came right out and said, “You realize Santa’s just a story.” She hadn’t, and immediately told on me. My parents were upset. My aunts and uncles, who were there at the time, were horrified—I’d “ruined Christmas.” They were all pagans, y’see.

If Christmas is Santa, and you take away Santa, Christmas is dead.

Dad used to love Christmas, but now that his kids don’t believe in Santa—and have raised their own children to think of Santa as a fun story, not reality—he could care less. He used to preach Santa to us kids like Elmer Gantry on meth. Now that he has no grandkids to fool, Christmas is no fun anymore.

Nowadays Mom insists she had no part in Dad’s Santa madness: It was all him. It’s not the way I remember it. She made just as big a deal about how we needed to get to bed Christmas Eve, so Santa could arrive sight unseen. She’d purchased most of the “Santa” gifts. Part of me wonders if she’s not just editing her personal history a bit… but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. She did emphasize Jesus on the holidays. It’s just on Christmas night and morning, Santa got all the attention.

15 December 2016

The “omnis” of God: The ways he’s almighty.

And the ways Christians like to show off some of the Latin we know.

Omni- /'ɑm.nɪ/ pref. adj. All. Every.

Since humans covet power, one of our favorite subjects to talk about is “the attributes of God.” By which we mean God’s superpowers. You know, the things he can do which make him almighty. Four of ’em start with the Latin prefix omni-, so sometimes Christians dumb ’em down by referring to them as “the omnis.”

  • Omnipotence (Latin omnia potens/“all power”). Almightiness: God has no physical or spiritual limits, and can do whatever he wants, whenever he chooses.
  • Omnipresence (omnia praesentia/“all at hand”). Ubiquity: God touches every point in spacetime, is consciously aware of everything he touches, and can be contacted at every point.
  • Omniscience (omnia sciens/“all knowledge”). All-knowingness: God isn’t just aware of all, but understands all—cause and effect, past and future, potential timelines, and all the complexity of the universe he created.
  • Omnibenevolence (omnes bene volentia/“[of] every good intention”). Always doing good: God holds to his own standards of right and wrong, has no hidden agenda, and isn’t secretly evil.

That last one tends to get skipped by Christians who aren’t so sure God doesn’t have a secret, evil plan. Mostly ’cause they can’t fathom how God can be almighty, yet permit evil in his universe, without some degree of moral compromise on his part—though they’ll try their darnedest to embrace logical arguments which keep him in the clear. Which is kinda impossible to do if you believe in determinism, the idea God controls absolutely everything, which many Christians wrongly confuse with sovereignty.

But that’s a discussion for another place. Suffice to say I believe talking about “God’s omnis” is seriously deficient if we drop his goodness. ’Cause power corrupts. The only way God is an exception to that rule, is because God is always good, never evil. And if God isn’t omnibenevolent, he’s in some degree evil—which, in an infinite being, is an infinite problem. It makes God evil. It corrupts all the facets of his almightiness. It makes God dangerous and untrustworthy, for he could lie to us if it suits his secret, evil plan: We have no guarantee he’s planning to save us, not destroy us. His promises aren’t yea and amen; 2Co 1.20 they’re crap.

Well, considering how irritated Jesus constantly was by hypocrisy, I can’t believe God’s a hypocrite too. So omnibenevolent he is.

14 December 2016

Why does bad stuff happen in a good God’s universe?

Your handy-dandy introduction to theodicy.

Theodicy /θi'ɑd.ə.si/ n. Explanation or argument for how God can be good, despite the existence or activity of evil.
[Theodicean /θi'ɑd.ə.si.ən/ adj.]

Disaster strikes our world on a daily basis.

Might be a huge natural disaster, like an earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, or plague. Might be a “man-made” disaster, like a war, famine, mass shooting, or some terrorist activity. Might be a small disaster: One person unexpectedly dies. Or it’s a wholly expected death; a long illness, and we knew that person wasn’t gonna recover, despite doctors and treatments and prayers.

Every time these disasters strike, people wanna know why God didn’t prevent it.

’Cause that’s his job, they insist. He’s almighty, right? He could totally stop it. But he didn’t. Why the [angry expletive] not? What’s his problem? Doesn’t he care? Does he want evil to happen? Maybe he’s not really almighty. Maybe he’s not really there.

These questions and accusations come out of suffering and loss and rage. They’re totally natural. Most of us wonder ’em from time to time: If God’s almighty, why doesn’t he intervene? ’Cause we’d intervene. If we were God, we totally would step in and put a stop to the suffering. We’d rescue everyone. Or at least the good people. I mean, if a tornado’s gonna smite a trailer park full of child molesters, meth cooks, and white supremacists, that’s fine; they’re getting what’s coming to them. But good people oughta live!

Anyway, whenever people have these questions, out come the Christian apologists, who take it upon themselves to answer the questions, instead of just letting emotional people vent for a bit. Because they’re afraid these people will get so angry with God, they’ll quit. They’ll turn apostate. They’ll spread doubt and nontheism and unbelief, and we’ll be in an even bigger mess than before. We gotta defend God. So they do.

This particular field of apologetics—defending God from people who aren’t so sure he’s good or almighty—is called theodicy. And no, it’s not an abbreviation for “theological idiocy,” though some of its arguments sure make it feel like that. It’s a compound of the Greek words Theós/“God” and díki/“behavior”—it’s an attempt to explain God’s behavior. Or absense of it.

“Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” is the usual way it’s phrased. And when it gets right down to it, there are about five typical answers.

  1. God’s not there. Nobody’s there to stop evil from happening. It’s up to us.
  2. God is there… but doesn’t get involved. Again, up to us.
  3. God’s there, does get involved, and this was him getting involved: He’s behind the disaster. (For reasons. Bigger picture, secret sins, you name it.)
  4. God’s there, involved… but isn’t God as you imagine him. (He’s not almighty, doesn’t actually know the future, isn’t actually good, has some special arrangement with Satan, etc.)
  5. God’s limited himself, and won’t always intervene. (For reasons.)

And—no surprise—those who’ve just suffered a loss, don’t like any of these answers. Because they’re not actually looking for reasons. They just want the disaster undone, and defending what we think God is actually up to, isn’t helping.

13 December 2016

Jesus, our Immanuel.

Why “fulfillment” isn’t about when predictions come true.

Isaiah 7.14

Matthew 1.22-23 KWL
22 All this happened so the Lord’s word through the prophet could be fulfilled,
saying, 23 “Look, the maiden will have a child in the womb,
and they will declare his name Immanúël, which is translated ‘God with us.’” Is 7.14

This one’s probably the most famous “Messianic prophecy”… which, it turns out, isn’t. Seriously, isn’t.

Back in 735BC, King Radyán of Damascus, Aram (KJV “Rezin the king of Syria”) joined forces with King Peqákh ben Remalyáhu of Samaria, Ephraim (KJV “Pekah the son of Remaliah”) to attack Jerusalem. 2Ki 16.5 Laid siege to it. Didn’t look good.

The prophets Isaiah ben Amóch and his son Sheüryahsúv had come to King Akház ben Yotám (KJV “Ahaz son of Jotham”) with good news from the LORD: Aram and Ephraim’s plans would come to nothing.

Isaiah 7.10-17 KWL
10 The LORD’s word to Akház, saying, 11 “Request a sign from your LORD God,
made deep as a grave, or made high as outer space.”
12 Akház said, “I won’t ask.
I won’t test the LORD.”
13 Isaiah said, “House of David, listen please.
It takes little for you to tire people, because you also tire God.
14 For this, my Master himself is giving you a sign.
Look, a pregnant maiden gave birth to a son.
She declared his name Immánuël/‘God with us.’
15 He’ll eat curds and honey,
and learn to reject evil and choose good.
16 But before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good,
the nations you fear will be laid waste before the face of two kings.
17 The LORD is bringing upon you, your people, and your father’s house days which haven’t been
since the days before Ephraim turned away from Judah to Assyria’s king.”

Meaning the days before Peqákh had allied Ephraim with the Assyrian Empire, back when there was relative peace in the region.

God had Akház’s back. Proof? Little Immánuël.

We don’t know the situation of the “pregnant maiden” whom Isaiah pointed out. Was she pregnant at the time? Dunno. Usually fathers would name their kids, but maybe he died in the siege. Regardless, she wasn’t killed by the invaders, and named her boy Immánuël. It doesn’t take toddlers long to learn right from wrong; the “terrible twos” are what happens when they test those boundaries. And in fact the siege would lift relatively soon: Aram and Ephraim would abandon Judah to fight for their lives against the Assyrians. And lose.

So what does this story have to do with Jesus? Nothing.

But it’s got a lot of significant similarities, which is why Matthew pointed to it.

12 December 2016

The live nativity.

Because nothing says Christmas like a sanitized reenactment of childbirth.

Evangelicals celebrate Christmas in all sorts of ways. Some of us decorate like crazy; some don’t. Some of us preach nothing but advent or birth-of-Jesus sermons; some preach as they’d usually do, and only preach a Christmas sermon on Christmas. Some of us have a special Christmas production; some don’t, or would if we could staff it (or afford it).

Two of the larger churches in my town do a “live nativity.” If you’re a newbie, or somehow never paid attention to Christendom all your life, this’d be a birth-of-Christ diorama with live humans instead of the typical lit plastic statues on the front lawn. (There’s an inflatable version now! But I digress.) Actors portray Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the magi, and in many children’s productions the animals. Although these two churches prefer actual animals. And use the same animals; in the proper spirit of Christian cooperation, their productions are on different weekends, so they don’t overlap.


From last night’s live nativity. Nope, blurring all their faces wasn’t deliberate; my phone can only do so much.

To my knowledge these churches have always used a baby to portray Jesus. It’s not all that hard to get one: Round February, start nudging all the young families in the congregation. “Come on, people! Give us a baby Jesus!” But the baby doesn’t have to be a newborn, although it kinda spoils the effect if the “newborn King” doesn’t need “Mary” to support his head.

Sometimes a baby won’t work. Outdoor performances might get so cold, Child Protective Services might wish to intervene. Or the church isn’t large enough to come up with a baby every year. Or the baby doesn’t wanna. For any number of reasons you might wind up with a doll. Or, if you’re going the special-effects route, a lightbulb. Last year it was something hidden in a bundle of blankets, rocked throughout; could’ve been a canned ham for all we knew.

I went to both productions. One’s called “A Night in Bethlehem,” which is designed to represent first-century BC Bethlehem, with shops and “smiths” and “Roman soldiers” and “lepers” and, for some reason, dancers—a string of people who’d dance through “town.” People you could interact with, who might tell you something historical if they know it. (Though speaking as an historian… well, they were close enough.) Every half hour, Jesus got “born” in a stable conveniently placed near the entrance. Born again and again and again. With “prophets” placed nearby so they could tell you, in English and Spanish, why this birth is a big deal.

The other’s a musical performance. (“Night in Bethlehem” had no singing.) They knock out six of ’em over the weekend; I attended the fifth. We, the guests, watched from bleachers. They always have a sketch which introduces the nativity story and reminds people of “the reason for the season.” They have a choir, who included “angels” on the roof of the church, singing some forgettable songs to a CD of background music. The only song they don’t switch up is Robert Sterling and Chris Machen’s white gospel song “I Have Seen the Light,” sung by the magi every year, which never fails to remind me of karaoke. The pastor preached a brief evangelistic Christmas message. Then we were invited to sing a Christmas carol medley, and were outa there before the next performance.

09 December 2016

Messiah and Melchizedek.

How some obscure Old Testament priest-king got so mixed up with Jesus.

Psalm 110 is a Messianic psalm, a psalm about God’s mešíakh/“anointed [ruler],” one of the kings of ancient Israel. Since Jesus is the last Messiah, it applies to him too. I’ll discuss the whole psalm another time, but today I’m gonna zoom in on just this one verse:

Psalm 110.4 KWL
The LORD swore, and isn’t turning back from it:
“You’re a priest, eternally, in the manner of Melchizédek.”

Melchizédek (Hebrew melkhí chédeq/“king [of] rightness”) is probably a title, not a name. He appeared once in the bible; he never appeared again, but he sure got everyone’s attention: David in this psalm, and the writer of Hebrews in her interpretation of the psalm.

The Canaanite king Khedorlaómer of Elam, and his allies, conquered Sodom and dragged its people into slavery. Among them was Lot ben Haran, the nephew of Avrám ben Terah, whom the LORD later renamed Abraham. Ge 17.5 So Avrám took his private army (yeah, he had a private army; dude was rich) and rescued Lot. Ge 14.1-17 And then Melchizédek suddenly, briefly, showed up.

Genesis 14.18-20 KWL
18 King Melchizédek of Salém brought out bread and wine.
He was a priest of the Highest God, 19 and blessed Avrám and said,
“Avrám is blessed by the Highest God, owner of the heavens and earth.
20 The Highest God is blessed: He handed your opponents to you.”
Avrám gave Melchizédek a tithe from everything.

“Highest God” (Hebrew El Elyón, Greek Theós Ýpsistos) is what pagans tend to call God. ’Cause they don’t know his name; they don’t know what he calls himself; they only know he’s God. And not just any god—’cause these pagans believed in all sorts of gods—but the highest God. The God beyond all the other gods. Higher than even their king-gods, like Odin or Zeus. Often the god who created the other gods—the one the gods considered God. Any time you encounter a polytheist (a worshiper of multiple gods) who really knows their religion, ask ’em about their highest God. Most will know exactly who you mean. Some will hem and haw, and try to make it sound like no, there are lots of gods—but in the end, they admit they know there’s a top God. This’d be the God. Our God.

I know; lots of Christians insist a pagan’s highest god can’t be our God, can’t be the Father of Christ Jesus. ’Cause these pagans are so wrong. I get their concerns. But look at it this way: If someone seriously misrepresented who George Washington was (say, Mason Weems, just so he could sell books), does this mean there’s not a real Washington at the back of all the made-up stories? Of course there is; and some pagan’s idea of the Highest God does have the LORD at its core. We just need to scrape off all the fictions, and get ’em to follow him.

Anyway, this was the God whom Melchizédek knew, and Avrám recognized they followed the very same God. Avrám called him El Shadda’í/“God Almighty,” Ex 6.3 and Melchizédek called him El Elyón. Same El—same God. Same as when Christians call him Jehovah and Jews call him haShem. (And then we gotta go and call him Jesus, and freak the Jews out. But anyway.) This recognition meant Melchizédek could bless Avrám, and Avrám could receive it. And bless Melchizédek right back with a tithe—a portion, usually a tenth—of the spoils of war.

Christians have analyzed this Genesis appearance like crazy. Sometimes a little too crazy, but I’ll get to that.

08 December 2016

What’s a soul?

Because Christians don’t realize there’s a difference between a soul and a spirit.

Soul /soʊl/ n. Lifeforce.
2. [in popular culture] The immaterial, spiritual essence of a human; considered immortal.
Soulish /'soʊl.ɪʃ/ adj. Having to do with one’s lifeforce.
2. [in popular Christian culture] Fleshly.

One of the vexing problems of Christianity is we have certain words we use which nobody ever bothers to define. As a result, people guess—and guess wrong. Our word “soul” is probably the most obvious example.

Years ago, a newbie Christian asked his pastor what a “soul” was, to which the pastor replied, “Oh, you shouldn’t even try to define it.” The pastor figured a soul is a mystery, a concept way beyond human understanding. Best to leave mysteries alone, and not waste our time—or make ourselves nuts—trying to understand ’em.

I admit it’s kinda western of me, but I can’t agree: If you use a word and don’t know what it means, it’s foolish. If you don’t wanna know its meaning, you’re a fool. It might be a concept that’s too vast for our tiny little minds—but all the more reason we should tackle it. We learn a lot this way.

Christians don’t entirely understand the immaterial parts of ourselves. So we mix up the soul and spirit all the time. Popular culture is no help: It confounds spirit with emotion, and it confounds soul with sensitivity and creativity. If “you’ve got soul,” you’re either emotionally intense, or intellectually intense. Or you like Motown.

But some of the culture’s uses of “soul” give hints to its proper biblical meaning. The “soul” of a movement or endeavor is the person who inspires it, embodies it, gives it that spark of life. To “bare one’s soul” means to share every part of one’s life. A “soulmate” is someone you share your life with. And when a disaster happens and “souls were lost,” it means lives.

So what’s a soul then? It’s a lifeforce.

The bible’s words for soul are nefésh in Hebrew, psyhí in Greek. Both of them literally mean “breath.” ’Cause when we’re alive, we breathe, right? And when we no longer are, we don’t.

When God made the first human—

Genesis 2.7 KWL
The LORD God sculpted the human of dust from the ground.
God breathed into his nose the breath of life, giving the human a living soul.

The KJV says the human “became a living soul,” which is another valid way to translate it. Though most bibles nowadays simply translate nefésh and psyhí as “life.”

So yes, everything that’s alive has a soul. ’Cause it breathes. When it stops breathing, its soul has gone out. That’s right: Souls aren’t immortal. In humans they were meant to be; Adam and Eve were meant to live forever. But they lost access to the Tree of Life, so they died… ’cause now humans die.

07 December 2016

The first prophecy of a savior.

The first time a savior was foretold in the Old Testament.

We have no idea whether Genesis was the first written book of the bible. Some Christians speculate Job was (and they’d be totally wrong; Job was written in a later version of biblical Hebrew, and took place in Edom). Others figure Moses wrote his psalm before he wrote the bible. In any event the first hint we have in the scriptures that humanity might need a savior, is found in Genesis 3—the story of humanity’s fall.

As the story goes: Eve and Adam, the first humans, lived in paradise. God told ’em not to eat off a particular tree. A serpent tempted Eve to eat off it anyway, and Adam followed suit. The consequence: They couldn’t live in paradise any longer, ’cause the Tree of Life was there. They were driven out; Adam was cursed to fight nature in order to gain his sustenance, Eve was cursed with painful childbirth and male domination, and the serpent was cursed like so:

Genesis 3.14-15 KWL
14 The LORD God told the serpent, “Because you did this,
you’re cursed more than any animal, more than any living thing in the wild.
You’ll walk on your belly. You’ll eat dirt every day of your life.
15 I declare war between you and the woman, between your seed and hers.
He’ll crush your head. You’ll crush his heel.”

I’ve heard young-earth creationists claim snakes used to have legs when they were first created, but because of this curse they became the legless creatures they now are. I like to mess with ’em by pointing out this sounds like a special case of evolution—and if God did this with serpents, why not other creatures? (Really bugs ’em.)

Okay, most of us Christians leap forward to Revelation and notice this serpent was actually Satan:

Revelation 12.7-9 KWL
7 War came to the heavens: Michael and its angels battling the dragon;
the dragon and its angels battling back 8 and failing.
No place was found for them anymore in the heavens.
9 The great dragon was thrown out, the primeval serpent which is called devil and Satan.
The deceiver of all civilization was thrown to the earth,
and its angels were thrown out with it.

Revelation sets this event right after the birth of Jesus. Rv 12.1-6 But Christian mythology tends to put Satan’s fall at the beginning of history, at some point between creation itself and the fall of humanity. According to the myths, after Satan was bounced, it decided to ruin humanity in revenge, snuck into paradise, became (or pretended to be, or possessed) a serpent, and led Eve and Adam astray.

But I should point out: The first versions of this myth date from our third century. They’re based on a first-century apocalypse, which got mixed up with the 15th-century-BC creation story. Which, I remind you, is at a whole different point in the timeline. Satan got booted after the birth of Jesus, remember? Lk 10.18 Did I not make that obvious?

So what did happen here? Well, yeah the serpent is Satan. But this wasn’t Satan getting revenge for a fall which hadn’t happened yet. This was Satan testing Eve. ’Cause that was its job, whether assigned (which I doubt) or self-appointed: Testing creation to see whether it’d hold up. Testing Eve to see whether she’d violate God’s will. Pushing the test too far, and slandering God in the process, which is why God was rightly pissed at it. The humans shoulda passed this test. Instead they unraveled creation.

And after Eve and Adam violated God’s will… well, God had to resort to plan B. ’Cause plan A, where they’d be his people and he’d be their God, Ex 6.7, Lv 26.12, Jr 30.22, 2Co 6.16 was shot to hell. Now God had to fix his broken creation so he could return to plan A. Which he’d do through the woman’s seed, who’d crush the serpent’s head. And we Christians figure Christ Jesus is the woman’s seed. Ga 4.4

06 December 2016

St. Nicholas’s Day. (Yep, it’s this early in the month.)

Remembering the actual guy whom Santa Claus is based upon.

Whenever kids ask me whether Santa Claus is real, I’ll point out he is based on an actual guy. That’d be Nikólaos of Myra, whose feast day is today, 6 December, in honor of his death on this date in the year 343.

Here’s the problem: There are a whole lot of myths mixed up with Nicholas’s life. And I’m not just talking about the Santa Claus stories, whether they come from Clement Moore’s poem, L. Frank Baum’s children’s books, the Rankin-Bass animated specials, or the various movies which play with the Santa story. Christians have been making up stories about Nicholas forever.

That’s why it gets a little frustrating when people ask about the facts behind St. Nicholas: We’re not sure we do have facts behind St. Nicholas. All we do know with any certainty is he was the bishop of Myra. The other stories: We honestly have no idea what parts of them are true, and what parts are exaggerations—or full-on fabrications. It could be all fiction.

But I’ll share what we’ve got, and you can take it from there.

Round the year 270, Nikólaos was born in Patara, in the Roman province of Lykia. That’s just outside present-day Gelemis, Turkey. No, he wasn’t Turkish; the Turks didn’t move in till the Middle Ages. He was Anatolean Greek. Hence the Greek name, which means “people’s victory,” same as Nicodemus.

Nicholas’s parents were Christian. When they died, he was raised by his uncle, the town bishop, who had the same name as he, Nikólaos. Seems his uncle groomed him to go into the family business: Nicholas was trained to be a reader, the person who reads the bible during worship services. Later he became a presbyter, an elder—or, as they were considered in the Orthodox tradition, a priest.

Tradition has it that Nicholas’s parents were wealthy, and he was very generous with his inheritance, regularly giving it to the needy. Probably the most popular St. Nicholas story tells of a man who couldn’t afford to marry off his daughters. Apparently they needed a large dowry in order to attract decent husbands. (Though you gotta wonder just how decent such husbands would be… but I digress.) Mysteriously, three bags of gold appeared just in time to pay for each daughter’s dowry. Of course their anonymous benefactor was Nicholas.

Depending on who’s telling the story, these weren’t bags of gold, but gold balls—and this is where the three-ball symbol on pawnshops supposedly comes from. Or the gold appeared in the daughter’s stockings as they dried over the fireplace (even though stockings weren’t invented yet) and this is where the custom of gifts in Christmas stockings supposedly comes from. Or Nicholas threw the gold down the chimney, and this is where that story comes from.

Of course, people are gonna try to connect Nicholas myths with Santa myths, so as to explain how on earth these two guys are the same person. So there’s the strong likelihood none of these stories are true. Nicholas had a reputation as a gift-giver. The rest is probably rubbish.

05 December 2016

Easy to shop for.

At least I think I am.

Some years ago my mother told me, “You’re hard to shop for.” Which is baloney: I’m easy to shop for. Just get me coffee. Everybody who knows me, knows I love coffee.


“Forget Jesus; think about the economy!” Pierre Bourgeault

They don’t always know I also love tea. Nor that I drink about as much tea as coffee. They assume the big giant travel mugs I carry around always contain coffee—even when there’s an obvious teabag string dangling from the lid. Even when it rattles ’cause I’ve got ice and water in it; they just assume it’s iced coffee.

The big giant mugs? Yeah. I’m an American. I like big mugs and I cannot lie. My largest holds 54 ounces—and yes, that’s about 1.5 liters of coffee. And I used to have a 96-ounce mug—yep, it held nearly three liters, a carafe and a half. But the most I ever filled it was halfway, if that. Not because I’d never drink 96 ounces of coffee, but because, despite the insulation, the coffee would be cold by the time I drank a quarter of it. I may drink a lot, but I don’t drink it that quickly. Best to go with 30 ounces at a time.

Of course, the 96-ouncer put fear into the souls of everyone who saw it. “You can’t possibly drink that much coffee,” was the usual reaction.

Sure I can. So could they. The typical coffeemaker carafe holds 64 ounces. My last office job, I’d drink two carafes a day. (One regular, one decaf.) So, nearly four liters of coffee. And I’ve known serious caffeine addicts who’d drink five carafes a day: 320 ounces, or 9.5 liters. I agree that’s a bothersome amount. Yet people think me nuts if I get two refills of black coffee at Starbucks.

Depending on who did the study, the average American coffee drinker downs 2.6 or 3.4 cups a day. The studies don’t say how big these cups are. I don’t believe they’re talking about the measuring-cup size of 8 ounces, but the average American coffee mug size of 12 to 20 ounces. (The 12-ounce size is what restaurants call a “medium” and Starbucks a “tall.” Starbucks does have an 8-ounce size—a “small”—but doesn’t bother to put it on the menu, ’cause come on, we’re Americans.) So my two refills likely fall within the average American’s coffee consumption.

But if you want nuts, people regularly buy, and drink, a 64-ounce Double Gulp from 7-Eleven. That’s two liters of soda, y’know. That’s a whole lot of corn syrup and—if you’re buying cola or Mountain Dew—a lot of caffeine. But swap the cola for coffee, and people leap to the conclusion the tremendous intake is gonna cause every blood vessel in my head to burst simultaneously, in a Scanners-level explosion which’ll shower everyone in the vicinity with blood and brain matter. Whenever they see my 54-ounce mug, they instinctively back away.

I do have to down the stuff in my 54-ounce mug quickly, though. Y’see, it’s not dishwasher-safe, but I tend to ignore those warnings and wash ’em in the dishwasher anyway. Well, the insulation swelled and began to burst out of the seam on the side, and give the cup a bit of a tilt. When it was finally about 20 degrees off, I had enough and took the mug apart, removed most of the insulation from the bottom, and put it back together. So it gets cold quicker than it used to. Works great otherwise.

Anyway, you get the idea.

02 December 2016

Vengeful God, loving God.

Sometimes we want God to kick some ass.

When I translate the psalms, I make ’em rhyme because I can. Iambic octometer, anyone?

Psalm 3 KWL
0 David’s psalm, while fleeing the presence of his son Absalom.
1 My enemies—ten thousand, LORD!—have multiplied and charge at me!
2 The myriads say of my life, “God’s rescue? Not for he.” Selah.
3 But you, LORD, are my shield and honor, granting my authority.
4 I call the LORD, who from his holy mountain answers me. Selah.
5 I lay my head to sleep, and wake because the LORD has strengthened me.
6 Do I fear opposition from ten thousand circling people? Nah.
7 You rose and saved me, LORD my God. Face-punched my every enemy.
Broke evildoers’ teeth. 8 You bless your own with rescue, LORD. Selah.

Psalm 3 is Adonái me-rabu (Latin, Domine, quid multiplicati), “LORD, how are they increased,” written by King David ben Jesse in the 10th century BC, and as verse 0 points out, it was when his son Absalom attempted to overthrow him.

It’s a vengeance psalm. One of many. David liked to write ’em, and he’s not the only one; a lot of the prophets wrote vengeance poetry too. Because the psalms are some of the better-known passages of the bible, it creates a lot of problems for Christians: We read this stuff, and have the darnedest time reconciling it with the way Jesus and his apostles describe his Father in the New Testament. In the NT, God is love. In the OT—if you’re selectively reading it, and most Christians do—God appears to be all outrage and wrath.


From The Simpsons episode 14.10, “Pray Anything.”

The title of this article comes from an episode of The Simpsons where Homer gets ahold one of those lenticular photos—a 3D image, some of which will change when you tilt ’em. One image is of God (or at least the old guy from the Sistine Chapel ceiling) looking wrathful. The other is of God giving a thumbs up. “Vengeful God… loving God,” Homer comments.

Bipolar God, apparently.

But is he? Nah.

So where do we get this idea? Simple: We’re overlaying our own bad attitudes onto God. We’re vengeful, so when we read the Old Testament and see God righteously judging the nations, we presume he’s vengeful. We confuse God’s righteous anger with our own far-from-righteous anger. We even use it to justify doing likewise. But we’re too corrupt to act in anger without sliding into evil. God has self-control. We don’t.

01 December 2016

Apocalypses: Those freaky visions in the bible.

Short answer: No.

Apocalypse /ə'pɑk.ə.lɪps/ n. Vision meant to reveal heavenly secrets through representative or parabolic images.
2. Any supernatural revelation.
3. [uppercase] Destruction or damage on a tremendous scale, particularly the end of the world.
[apocalyptic /ə.pɑk.ə'lɪp.tɪk/ adj.]

When people talk about “the apocalypse,” they typically mean the end of the world. “It’s the apocalypse!” means “It’s the End”—and we’re f---ed.

Not even close to the original meaning of the Greek apokalýpto/“to uncover.” It’s just our last book of the New Testament, Apokálypsis Yisú Hristú—or Apokálypsis for short, Apocalypse in Latin and many other languages, Revelation in English—is about the End. So people have come to mix up apocalypse and the End. Stands to reason.

Our word Revelation defines it best. It has to do with revealing. Uncovering. Telling us what’s gonna happen in future. Except… well… not literally.

See, an apocalypse is a type of prophetic vision. Y’know how Jesus tells parables, and explains his kingdom with weird things which represent the kingdom, but aren’t literally the kingdom? Like mustard seeds which grew into huge trees? Lk 13.19 Like yeast which infuses flour? Mt 13.33 Like seed which grows on its own? Mk 4.26-29 Now imagine actually seeing these parables. Not just as a mental picture, like we do when we picture Jesus’s parables. You look in front of you… and there’s one of those images, clear as day.

Zechariah 1.7-11 KWL
7 On 24 Šebát of Darius’s second year [15 February 519 BC]
God’s word came to the prophet Zechariah ben Barukhyahu ben Iddo, to make him say,
8 “I saw this at night. Look, a man preparing to ride a red horse!
He stood between the myrtles in the valley. Behind him, red, speckled, and white horses.
9 I said, ‘My master, what are these horses?’
Giving me the word, the messenger said, ‘I’m letting you see what these horses are.’
10 The man standing between the myrtles answered, ‘These are the horses
which the LORD sent to walk round the land.’
11 The horses answered the LORD’s messenger standing between the myrtles:
The horses said, ‘We walked round the land. Look, all the land sits, and is quiet.’”

The horses answered? Sure. Most translations simply go with “they answered,” and leave it to us to deduce who “they” are. They don’t wanna look dumb by making the very simple logical leap. Ain’t no other group of people there to answer.

Talking horses, man. But that’s the sort of thing we see in apocalyptic visions: All manner of weirdness. Deliberately weird, ’cause God’s trying to grab our attention. You know how you’ll have some freaky dream, and the images in your dream bug you for a good long time after you’ve awakened? (Happened in the bible a bunch of times too.) It’s for the same reason God shows his prophets bizarre apocalyptic visions: He wants this imagery to stay with us, and burrow into our minds. Mere words, even God’s words, won’t stick with us like these visions do.

That’s why so many Christians are fascinated, even obsessed, with Revelation’s imagery. Weird chimeric creatures with multiple heads. Women with strange names. Angels and bowls and trumpets and declarations. Prophets being obligated to eat books which, while tasty, upset their stomachs.

Now. Jesus says the reason he uses parables is to inform those who are really listening, and go over the heads of those who really aren’t. Mk 4.11-12 This is just as true of apocalypses. Those who are truly seeking God will recognize their meaning and importance: What God wants to reveal through them—and just as importantly, what he doesn’t want to reveal through them. Not yet.

In contrast, there’s those who truly aren’t seeking God. Really, they figure knowledge is power, and covet some degree of control over an uncertain future. But their interpretations of these apocalypses don’t produce good fruit. Oh, they sell books, and definitely help Jim Bakker sell loads of overpriced supplies for your End Times bunker. But they don’t spread love, peace, gentleness, patience, and hope. Just more panic and worry, and God knows there’s far too much of that in the world already.

30 November 2016

God can’t abide sin?

If true, it means God has a boogeyman.

“God can’t abide sin. It offends him so much, he simply can’t have it in his presence. He’s just that holy.”

It’s an idea I’ve heard repeated by many a Christian. Evangelists in particular.

It’s particularly popular among people who can’t abide sin. Certain sins offend us so much, we simply can’t have ’em in our presence. We’re just that pure.

Well, self-righteous.

You can see why Christians have found this concept so easy to adopt, and have been so quick to spread it around. It’s yet another instance of remaking God in our own image, then preaching our remake instead of the real God.

Don’t get me wrong. ’Cause Christians do, regularly: I talk about grace, and they think I’m talking about compromise. Or justification. Or nullification. Or compromise. Whatever reason they can think of to ignore grace, skip forgiveness, disguise revenge as justice, and claim they only have those prejudices and offenses because God has ’em. You claim you practice grace? Then grant me some so I can explain.

God is definitely anti-sin. He told us what he wants and expects of his people. Both through his Law, and through the teachings and example of Christ Jesus. (I was about to write “and he didn’t mince words,” but Jesus kinda did in some of his parables. Regardless, any honest, commonsense Christian—and plenty of pagans—can figure Jesus out.)

Yes, God’s offended by our willful disobedience. And he’s just as offended by the sins of people who don’t know any better: They do have consciences, after all. Ro 2.15 They were taught the difference between right and wrong. Even so, they chose what’s wrong.

But the issue isn’t whether sin bugs God. It’s whether sin bugs God so much, he can no longer practice grace. Whether he can’t abide sin—and therefore he can’t abide sinners.

If that’s the idea we’re spreading, we’re also spreading the idea we gotta clean ourselves up before we can ever approach God. Like when the Hebrews had to wash themselves for three days before the LORD could hand down his Ten Commandments. Ex 19.9-11 Like when the Hebrews sacrificed guilt offerings whenever they felt they weren’t right with God. Lv 5.15-19 Like when the ancients approached their kings with fear and trembling, knowing they could be struck down at any moment for daring to enter their presence uninvited. Es 4.11 The appearance of sin outrages God so much, it turns him into a bloodthirsty berzerker who can’t wait to fling people into fire and sulfur.

We’re also spreading the idea because God can’t abide sin, he won’t forgive it. Some of us went beyond the pale long ago, and can’t possibly approach him now. The magical substance of grace may exist, but it’s not for people who call out to God; it’s only for people whom God’s pre-selected long before, and everybody else is just plain screwed.

Basically, in order to defend our own lack of grace, we’re slandering God and making people hesitant to embrace him. Or even driving them away. Driving them to despair.

29 November 2016

Sacraments: Our Christian rituals. Gotta do ’em.

Though there’s more than a little debate as to what they mean.

Sacrament /'søk.rə.mənt/ n. Religious ritual which represents a spiritual reality, or represents an act of God’s grace.
2. [“the sacrament”] Holy communion.
[Sacramental /søk.rə'mɛn(t).əl/ adj., sacramentalist /søk.rə'mɛn(t).əl.ist/ n.]

God does many things in our lives. Some we see. Some we don’t.

When God cures me of an illness, it’s nice and obvious: Everybody, even skeptics, can see I’m well. They’ll totally disagree about how I got well. If they don’t believe in God (or don’t believe he still does miracles) they’ll doubt God was involved in the cure. Might even doubt I was truly ill to begin with. But they otherwise agree I’m well. That part’s visible enough.

Now, when God forgives me of sin… what’s visible?

I mean I know I’m forgiven; Jesus told us we’re given most everything. Mk 3.28 I put my faith in Jesus, so I trust when he says I’m forgiven, I am. But was there anything visible? Anything we could’ve experienced? Did I hear God’s audible voice: “Behold thou art made whole: Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee”? Jn 5.14 KJV Did I experience happy feelings which I’ve come to associate with forgiveness? Was God cursing me in some way, and now he’s not? Do (as the prosperity gospel folks insist is true) I suddenly find myself flush with cash?

In fact no: Most of the time we don’t see anything. Don’t see most of the things God does “behind the scenes,” as we put it—which is inaccurate, ’cause God’s not hiding a thing. He told us what he’s up to, He 1.1 and still tells us when we bother to ask. Am 3.7 It’s just we don’t bother to ask. Or we assume it’s part of some secret evil plan he’s up to.

But God understands how we humans tick: We want experiences. We wanna have something we’ve lived through, which we can point back to and say, “That’s when God did [something profound]. There’s the date and time.” Something to jog our memory, to remind us how and when God did something for us. Like a holiday which reminds us Jesus died for our sins at around 2:30 PM, 3 April 33. Or a handy, easy-to-repeat ritual.

And that’s why God ordained such rituals for us Christians to perform. Things we can do which represent what he did, what he’s doing, what he’ll do later. We call ’em sacraments, which literally means “sacred acts.” Or (if we think “sacrament” is too Catholic a word) ordinances—’cause God did ordain ’em.

The reason God ordained sacraments is to make his grace visible. ’Cause it’s not always. Miracles are visible, obvious forms of grace. Forgiveness… well, what’s obvious is the way we respond to God forgiving us. (If we respond to him; some of us are ingrates.) Some of us think we oughta feel something when that happens, so we psyche ourselves into imagining God’s presence, into feeling stuff, even into seeing stuff. You know, contorting our brains in all sorts of unhealthy ways. Things that’ll just get in the way once real visions happen.

In comparison God keeps it simple. Get dunked in water. Eat bread and drink wine. Set up a rock pile. Wash feet. Celebrate a holiday. Make promises. Say certain words. These rituals represent the reality. Do them and remember the reality. 1Co 11.24-25 Remember God’s grace.

28 November 2016

The TXAB Advent Calendar.

When the Christmas season well and truly begins.

The word advent comes from the Latin advenire/“come to [someplace].” Who’s coming to someplace? Jesus. Coming to earth. Either the first time around, around the year 7 BC, which is what we celebrate with Christmas; or the second time around, in the future, to take possession of his kingdom.

Four Sundays before Christmas is Advent Sunday, the start of the advent season, the Christmas season, and the Christian year. And if you’re counting down from today, the text below will update automatically through the power of Javascript. Here are the number of days till (or of) Christmas:

Javascript isn’t working this Christmas!

Many Evangelicals only know about advent from commercial advent calendars, which count down to Christmas from 1 December instead of the ever-changing date of Advent Sunday. Each “day” on these calendars usually contain a surprise; preferably chocolate. And manufacturers don’t want to keep changing the product every single year. So you’re kinda stuck with 25 chocolates, even though some years you oughta get as many as 28. But that’s what happens when Mammonists get to decide when the Christmas season begins.

Of course, commercializing the tradition is an irritating way to remember it, ’cause the point of advent is to be the antidote to rampant materialism. We’re to focus on Jesus. Not social custom. Not gift-giving. Not all the stuff we’re expected to do every single year. Jesus. We claim he’s the reason for the season; now it’s time to take that saying seriously, instead of using it as an excuse to browbeat clerks into telling us “Merry Christmas” like we prefer.

Part of getting ready for Jesus’s second advent is to stop being this sort of argumentative, frenzied, self-focused consumers, and start behaving like he’s coming back. ’Cause he is. Maybe not for the whole world just yet; he’s still trying to save everybody. But at some point you’re gonna die. (As will I. As will everyone.) So he’s coming for you personally. Are you ready?

Luke 12.35-48 KWL
35 “Be people whose toolbelts are on, whose lamps are burning.
36 You should be like people waiting for their own master when he returns from weddings:
He arrives, knocks, and they can quickly unlock the door for him.
37 These slaves are awesome. The returning master will find them alert.
Amen, I promise you the master will put on a towel and have them recline to eat,
and he’ll come in to serve them.
38 Even at the second hour after sunrise, even at the third, he can come and find them ready.
These slaves are awesome.
39 (You should know: If the homeowner knew what time the burglar came,
he’d never permit him to break into his house.)
40 You be ready: The Son of Man comes at the time you don’t expect.”
41 Simon Peter said, “Master, are you saying this parable for us or for everyone?”
42 Master Jesus said, It’s to whoever’s a faithful, wise butler.
The master puts the butler over his waiters, giving them their trays at the right times.
43 This slave is awesome when the master, coming to the butler, will find them doing this job.
44 I tell you the truth: The master will put the butler in charge of everything.
45 But when this slave says in their mind, ‘My master delays in coming,’
and might start beating the boys and girls, or eating, drinking, and getting drunk,
46 that slave’s master will come on a day they don’t expect, at a time they don’t know,
and will cut them down to size, and assign them a position with the unreliable slaves.
47 That slave who knew their master’s will, and didn’t prepare, nor do his will: They’ll get skinned.
48 The one who didn’t know, who did what deserved a smack: They’ll get skinned a little.
To everyone who’s given much, much is sought from them.
To those with much set before them, more will be asked back.”

Do you know what our master expects of you? ’Cause he’s coming when we won’t expect.

25 November 2016

Worshiping Mammon instead of Jesus.

How religion works in wealthy countries.

Matthew 6.24 • Luke 16.13

In the United States today is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and the second-biggest shopping day of the year. Used to be the biggest, but that’s now Monday. In order to get customers to shop on their day off, stores offer outrageous sale prices, and many shoppers are so greedy and impatient they’ll do horrible things to one another.

I’ve been reading a bit lately about how American merchants have exported the shopping day to other countries, in the hope of kick-starting their Christmas shopping as well. Strikes the United Kingdom’s pundits as odd; why are they suddenly participating in an American phenomenon? And if so, why don’t they get our Thanksgiving too? Although as American merchants have proven, they really don’t care so much about Thanksgiving: They’d have us interrupt our holiday and start shopping Thursday if they can. And they do try.

The myth is it’s called black because merchants do so well, their ledgers are now “in the black” instead of “in the red”—they’re finally turning profits in the fiscal year, instead of losses. This is a lie. The police, who have to break up fights, work crowd control, and deal with trampled or beaten victims, began calling it Black Friday, and the name stuck.

Black Friday is one of our culture’s more obvious examples of Mammonism, the worship of wealth, money, material possessions, and the joy of pursuing all that stuff. Our word Mammon comes from something Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, repeated in Luke.

Matthew 6.24 KWL
“Nobody’s able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”
Luke 16.13 KWL
“No slave is able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”

A few of the more recent translations drop the reference to Mammon and translate this verse, “You cannot serve both God and money” (GNB, NIV, NLT), or “You cannot serve God and wealth” (NASB, NRSV). Thing is, mamonás/“Mammon” isn’t the Greek word for wealth; that’d be hríma. It’s an Aramaic word with a Greek ending tacked on, as if it’s an Aramaic name. Hence people extrapolated the idea that Mammon is a person, and since Jesus says you can’t serve this person as well as God, it must therefore be another god.

A false god of course. But some god which competes with the LORD for our devotion. And since the Aramaic mamón is a cognate of the Hebrew matmón/“secret riches,” Mammon must therefore be a god of riches or wealth or money.

In Luke when this statement comes up, Jesus had just told the Undercharging Bookkeeper story: A shifty bookkeeper made friends by undercharging his master’s creditors. Lk 16.1-9 Jesus concludes, “Make friends for yourselves out of the embezzling Mammon.” Lk 16.9 And in the following Luke passage, the Pharisees rejected this teaching of Jesus because they were filiárgyri/“silver-lovers.” Lk 16.14

So is Mammon a money god? Or simply Jesus’s personification of money? Or a mistranslation?