TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

29 February 2016

Prayer… and morning people. (Groan.)

Prayer schedules are optional. If you can’t live with them, don’t.

Some of us are morning people: We bounce out of bed every morning ready to tackle the coming day. It’s the best time of the day!

Some of us are night owls: We don’t mind staying up late to have fun, to get work done, to do whatever. It’s the best time of the day.

I’m a night owl. And for one semester in seminary, I lived with a morning person. Thank God he wasn’t one of those annoying morning people, the sort who think everyone should love mornings the same as they, and all it’ll take to convert us is getting a good night’s sleep. I used to work for such a person. She was so chipper every morning, I wanted to stuff her into one. But I digress.

My morning-person roomie believed in starting every morning with God in prayer. Makes sense, right? But he had to take it one step further: Start every morning with sunrise prayer. He and some eager friends would wake at the crack of dawn, head to the chapel, and pray.

They’d pray indoors, in the chapel’s prayer room. Which had no windows. Which meant they didn’t see the sun rise. Which still makes no sense to me. Isn’t that the point of sunrise prayer?

More than once, he invited me to come along. I went once. That was all. Like I said, I’m not a morning person. I had no problem going to the all-night prayer vigils with our Greek-letter society; I had no problem getting to see the sun rise from that route. But rising at dawn: The only reasons I bother is when work requires it, when I go to bed really early, or insomnia. I’d make a lousy monk.

King David was clearly a morning person. ’Cause he sang about morning prayer. Ps 5.3 And now that his psalm’s in the bible, many Christians are convinced everybody oughta practice early-morning prayer. My roommate was one of them. What kind of selfish Christian chooses his comfortable bed over our Lord?

“Look,” I tried to explain, “my prayers are gonna suck when I’m sleep-deprived.”

’Cause back in my Fundamentalist days I was involved in ministries where early-morning prayer wasn’t voluntary: Everybody was expected out of bed bright ’n early, and off we’d go to morning devotions. And my prayers really sucked. First 10 minutes consisted of my complaining to God about being up so God-damned early in the morning. Followed by many apologies for saying “God-damned” to God, of all people. And for my rotten attitude. And for not really being able to focus on anything, much less God. Really, all this grousing and apologizing was time wasted. I could’ve just prayed when I was more conscious.

“Besides,” I joked to my roommate, “you don’t need to be awake to talk to God. Ever heard of prophetic dreams?”

28 February 2016

The rapture. Yes, there is one.

Happens when Jesus returns. And not before.

Rapture /ˈræp.tʃər/ n. At Christ’s return, when his living and resurrected followers are taken up, and meet him in the air.
2. v. To be taken up to meet Christ in the air.

There are a number of Christians who don’t believe in the rapture. In part because the End Times scenario they hold to, doesn’t include any rapture. The End of Days idea, fr’instance: The world ends, or we otherwise die, and we go straight to heaven. Or not. No uncomfortable, material resurrection or millennium; just bliss and ease and comfort. It’s sort of a rapture: When we die, hallelujah by and by, we “fly away”—to heaven. That’s how we meet Jesus in the air.

And there are a number of Christians who do believe in the rapture. Myself included. Nope, we don’t all agree about what it’ll look like. In fact a segment of Christendom, who call themselves “premillennial dispensationalists” (and I call Darbyists), imagine it’ll be secret: Nobody sees Jesus come and get us. One day as you’re doing your thing, whoosh and all the Christians are gone. Vanished into thin air. Them, plus any children who were too young to make decisions for Christ, whom Jesus will preemptively take ’cause Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world. Oh, and they also figure he’ll also take all the unborn babies, straight out of their mothers’ wombs. Oy, will that creep out a lot of pregnant pagans.

Most Christians consider the Darbyist belief to be the looney-bin version of the End, and wanna distance themselves from it. (I sure do.) In response a lot of ’em will claim they don’t believe in the rapture—but what they mean is they don’t believe in the Darbyists’ version of the rapture. They don’t believe in any secret rapture, any rapture which is separate from Jesus’s second coming.

Lastly we have the ignorant category. ’Bout a decade ago I ran into some guy who ranted there can’t be any rapture, ’cause the word “rapture” isn’t in the bible. Following his reasoning, there can’t be the trinity either, ’cause that word isn’t in the bible either. But whether “rapture” is in the bible, entirely depends on how you translate arpaghisómetha. Me, I translate it “will be raptured,” like yea:

1 Thessalonians 4.15-18 KWL
15 We tell you this message from the Master.
We who are still alive at the Master’s second coming don’t go ahead of those who’ve died.
16 With a commanding shout, with the head angel’s voice, with God’s trumpet,
the Master himself will come down from heaven.
The Christian dead will be resurrected first.
17 Then, we who are left, who are still alive,
will be raptured together with them into the clouds,
to meet the Master in the air.
Thus, we’ll be with the Master—always.
18 So encourage one another with these words!

Other bibles go with “shall be caught up,” (KJV) or “will be gathered up.” (GNB) It’s got the sense of a thief swiping a purse: We’ll be ripped from the earth like a waxer rips the hair off a pair of furry legs. Then we’re joining our king’s invading army before he even touches down. We’re part of his procession, as he takes possession of the world he conquered centuries ago.

26 February 2016

Jesus’s easy victory over the devil.

I know; people try to make it sound like a much grander battle royale.

Mark 1.12-13 • Matthew 4.1-11 • Luke 4.1-13

Mark 1.12-13 KWL
12 Right afterward, the Spirit threw Jesus into the wilderness.
13 Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, getting tested by Satan.
He was with the beasts. Angels were serving him.

That’s the extra-short version of Jesus’s “temptations,” as they tend to be called: Peirádzo/“test” is often meant in a tempting sense, ’cause part of the test is how badly we want what’s offered. But is it in Jesus’s divine nature to go about getting these things the wrong way? Nah. He’s never gonna put himself above his Father’s will. So let’s not treat these tests like they really made Jesus doubt his commitment to the Father. Any devout Christian can easily resist such temptations.

The Mark version doesn’t have a lot of details: Just Jesus and the devil, out in the middle of nowhere. Didn’t have to be way out in the middle of nowhere; in fact it’d be a stronger test of will if Jesus was just within sight of civilization. (As was the case in the Judean desert. Lots of hermits, nomads, even a few communes.)

If all we had was the Mark version, we’d imagine all sorts of horrors and enticements. (Especially since Mark brought up Jesus “was with the beasts”—something End Times fanatics would have all sorts of fun speculating about.)

Y’know, since it was only Jesus and the devil out there in the wilderness, it leads us to a rather obvious deduction: The authors of Matthew and Luke could only have got the particulars from Jesus himself. He shared the stories of his testing, probably with his students. Probably to teach ’em the sort of stuff the devil tries to use on us. And teach ’em how to resist.

In the Matthew and Luke versions, they’re not in the same order.

MatthewLuke
  1. Rocks to bread. Mt 4.2-4
  2. Dive from temple. Mt 4.5-7
  3. Bow to Satan. Mt 4.8-10
  1. Rocks to bread. Lk 4.2-4
  2. Bow to Satan. Lk 4.5-8
  3. Dive from temple. Lk 4.9-12

Why? There’s some speculation about the meaning of Luke’s order, but I don’t buy ’em. Luke is more likely the original story’s order. Matthew, in comparison, is focused on the kingdom, so the tests escalate from Jesus’s personal needs, to Jesus impressing Jerusalem, to Jesus conquering the world. Makes sense.

25 February 2016

Why leave your church?

Sometimes for good reasons. Sometimes bad. Up to you to decide.

As I’ve said previously, at some point Christians have to switch churches. Sometimes for good reasons; sometimes not.

Good reasonsBad reasonsDebatable reasons
  • God instructs you to go elsewhere.
  • They kicked you out.
  • Church leaders are untrustworthy. Sinning, abusive, fruitless, jerk-like, and unrepentant; or just not doing their jobs.
  • Ditto church members—and the leaders do nothing about it.
  • They’re a cult, or have a cultic reputation. Too legalistic, demanding, judgmental. If you don’t obey/conform, they have penalties.
  • They’re dark Christians: Too much fear and worry, not enough love.
  • You, or they, are moving to a new city. Or you work for another church.
  • Your spouse goes elsewhere, and isn’t coming back. Period.
  • You consider church to be optional anyway. Sleep, sports, or recreation—even doing nothing—seem better options.
  • They’re not cool enough. Or anymore.
  • You don’t like anyone there. You have no friends there. You burned a lot of bridges, so you need a “fresh start.”
  • They won’t let you lead, or otherwise get your way.
  • They’re not political enough.
  • They want you to contribute time/resources/money.
  • They denounce sin, particularly sins you commit.
  • There’s a drastic change in mission, emphasis, focus, or denomination—and you can’t get behind it.
  • You visited another church, and they felt far more right for you.
  • You don’t like their liturgical style, preaching style, or music.
  • You’re “not getting fed” or “not feeling the Spirit” or are otherwise bored.
  • Your kids don’t wanna go.
  • You want a bigger/smaller church.
  • You want more/fewer programs or resources.

You can probably think of more reasons than these. I sure can.

You might take issue with the placement of some of these things on the chart. I’ve known more than one politically-minded Christian who’s insistent the church must swing their way politically, and if it doesn’t, it’s supporting “the kingdom of this world” over and against “the kingdom of God.” Supposedly Jesus will make their party an exception when he overthrows the governments of this world. But political Christians regularly, naïvely think so, and would place politics in the “good reasons” column. I don’t.

Likewise I’ve known Christians who insist stylistic choices don’t matter in the slightest. Doesn’t matter if you hate the music, or think the sermons are useless and boring, or the kids can’t stand the youth group and would rather be pagans: That’s your church, and you stay there no matter what. For some Christians there are no debatable reasons. You don’t like your church? You don’t have to like it, you whiny muffin; you have to obey and conform. Suck it up and go to church.

Likewise I’ve known Christians who don’t want us making any such lists. Who are we to critique churches? We’re supposed to be humble, obedient, and stick with the churches God’s assigned us, rather than nitpicking their flaws, and seeking a church which suits our preferences instead of God’s. That’s just rebellion disguised as diversity.

24 February 2016

When pagans believe they’re Christian.

’Cause they like Jesus. So doesn’t that make ’em Christian?

In the United States, roughly seven out of 10 people believe they’re Christian. I live in California, where it’s six out of 10. (I’m not just pulling these numbers out of my bum; the national stats and state stats from a 2014 Pew Forum study.)

Which matches my experience. When I share Jesus with strangers, about two out of three tell me they’re Christian already. They don’t necessarily go to church; that’s another issue. But they do figure they’re Christian. For all sorts of reasons:

  • Actual individual experience with Jesus.
  • Said the sinner’s prayer once.
  • They’re a regular at their church. (How regular varies. Twice a year, they figure, counts.)
  • Got baptized.
  • Raised Christian, or their family’s Christian.
  • They consider themselves spiritual. And when they contemplate spiritual matters, Jesus is in the mix somewhere.

Now, let’s explode that last definition: They’re “spiritual,” by which they nearly always mean they believe in the supernatural, and have happy thoughts about it. And Jesus is included in their spirituality.

But once we analyze their spiritual beliefs, we’ll find what they really believe looks more like this:

  • There’s a God. Jesus is his son (but not God though, nor God’s only son) and the holy spirit (note the lowercase) is God’s power (but not God though).
  • God loves everybody and wants us to be nice to one another.
  • Death means we go to heaven, and probably watch over the living somehow.
  • Organized religion is unnecessary, and just confuses things.

Basically it’s what pagans believe. It’s popular culture. Not Christianity. These folks aren’t Christians; they’re Christianists. They’re a subcategory I call incognito pagans: They honestly think they’re Christian, because they take their cues from how popular culture defines Christianity. But they have no Holy Spirit within them, so they produce none of his fruit. And as far as their knowledge about Christ is concerned, they couldn’t tell a Jesus quote from a Benjamin Franklin proverb. They’re saved, so why bother to learn about the Savior? That’s for the clergy to worry about. Theologians. Academics and experts. They have other concerns.

Well, speaking as one of these experts, they’re not Christian. And that’s the one area they won’t concede to experts. If a pastor, professor, bishop, or pope told them they’re not Christian, they’d come back with “Who are you to tell me I’m no Christian?” Y’see, they get to define what “Christian” means. Not fruit, not orthodoxy, nor even Christ Jesus and the scriptures. They. Nobody can tell them different.

23 February 2016

Denominations: When churches network.

Official groupings, unofficial affiliations, and those bodies who go it alone.

Denomination /di.nɑm.ə'neɪ.ʃən/ n. Organized network of affiliated churches.
2. Autonomous branch of a religion.
[Denominational /də.nɑm.ə'neɪ.ʃən.əl/ adj.]

When Jesus began his church, it had a really basic organization: The Twelve, the apostles whom he hand-picked to lead his followers… and his followers.

Over time this evolved. As it kinda had to, ’cause the church spread. The Twelve didn’t stay in Jerusalem: Simon Peter went to Rome, Andrew to Greece, John to Ephesus, Jude and Simon to Syria, Bartholemew to Armenia, Thomas to India, and so forth. The followers spread out to different cities in the Roman Empire, and to the barbarians outside the Empire. They founded new groups.

All sorts of questions began to crop up about how connected these groups were with one another. Of course since power is always a stumbling-block for us humans, there was also concern about what authority various apostles and bishops in other groups had over the new congregations and their leadership.

The short version: The church remained one universal group for roughly a thousand years. I say “roughly” because it got pretty rough there near the end. Too many power struggles between bishops. Too many cultural and theological differences between Greek- and Latin- and Coptic- and barbarian-speaking churches. Too many hurt feelings. It all culminated in 1054 in the Great Schism: The bishops of Rome and Constantinople declared each another heretic. From that point on there were two official denominations: The eastern Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholic Church.

Although the Orthodox and Catholics insist on calling themselves churches, not denominations. ’Cause their original attitude was they’re the real church, and any other “chuches” were heretic. (That’s largely still their attitude, though they’re a bit nicer towards the rest of us: They’re the real church, and the others are wayward, not necessarily heretic. ’Cause some of ’em are heretic.)

They’re not alone in shunning the word “denomination.” Two churches in my city insist on calling themselves “nondenominational”—yet both are heavily plugged into the “nondenominational” Bethel Church in Redding, Calif. Because Bethel hasn’t created a formal denomination, the many churches affiliated with it, and no other group, figure they’re nondenominational. But they’re far from independent of all other churches. (Which is good. Go-it-alone churches are like go-it-alone Christians: They tend to get all weird and cultlike and heretic.)

Sometimes churches prefer another word, like fellowship or alliance or assembly or network. My denomination, the Assemblies of God, is kinda partial to “movement.” And—as is the case with episcopal groups like the Orthodox and Catholics—some consider themselves the one same single church with many, many campuses, no matter how big they are.

But despite what they call themselves, whenever we got a network of churches—loose or tight, doesn’t matter—I’m gonna refer to them as denominations. Sometimes “denom” for short. (Not to be confused with “demon.” I’ll leave that for the anti-denominational folks.)

22 February 2016

Meditation, and the fear of evil spirits.

“Oh no! They might try to take advantage when I’m sitting there with my mind open!”

Years ago in a prayer group, our prayer leader asked us to sit a moment and meditate on the lesson we’d just heard.

“And I know,” she said; “some of you are worried about this whole ‘meditation’ thing. You’re worried it’ll open you up to evil spirits or something. Well, you’re Christians. It won’t.”

She didn’t go into any further detail; she wanted to get to the exercise, and didn’t want to spend the rest of prayer time explaining why it wouldn’t.

Well I’ve got time, so I’ll explain.

There are a lot of Christians who are into spiritual warfare. (And incorrectly believe prayer is how we do it; I’ve already discussed them.) Too many of ’em are into it because they’re really fearful about anything devils might take advantage of. They’re looking for devils behind every corner. Even in the corners of our prayer closets.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and from time to time church folk would share one tale or another about a schoolteacher trying to teach her kids to meditate. ’Cause they did. I know from experience, ’cause some of my own teachers would try having us kids close our eyes, breathe in and out, and concentrate just on the breathing sounds. It does calm kids down, y’know. But according to these Christian urban legends, apparently some evil spirit took advantage, and climbed into one of the children. (This was the 1970s, when even the “good Christians” had seen The Exorcist and based their worst-case scenarios on it.) Or all the children; whatever sounded the most horrific. Whatever got Christians to clutch their pearls in fright and despair: “This is what happens when you take prayer out of the schools!”

Yes, there are such things as evil or unclean spirits, which Christians tend to call “demons” or “devils.” Yeah, they try to tempt both pagans and Christians alike, and lead us away from following Jesus. Sure, they could take advantage of grade-school meditation time, and whisper things into the kids’ souls when the adults aren’t looking.

But when are they not doing that?

21 February 2016

Kicking ass for Jesus. (Don’t.)

The use and misuse of Christian apologetics.

Apology /e'pa.le.dzi/ n. A logical argument used to justify a behavior, theory, or religious belief.
[Apologetic /e.pa.le'dzet.ik/ adj., apologist /e'pa.le.dzist/ n.]
Apologetics /e.pa.le'dzet.iks/ n. The study and use of logical arguments to defend [usually religious] beliefs.

“This is Leslie,” he said, introducing me to a new Christian he’d just met. “Leslie knows a lot about apologetics.”

“Well, theology,” I corrected him. (Among a certain Christian crowd, confusing theology for apologetics is a common mistake.)

I actually do know a bunch about Christian apologetics. Learned the field in high school; practiced it for years. I learned all the standard Christian arguments for the faith. And over time I got to know all the anti-Christian arguments, as presented me by real live intellectual anti-Christians. Arguments woefully left out of a lot of apologetics books and classes, which means they wind up blindsiding your average young overzealous apologist. Which, in the long run, is probably best. Overconfident Christians need to learn, sometimes the hard way, we don’t know it all. Jesus does, but we’re not him.

But apologetics is an area really rife with abuse. For every Christian who uses apologetic arguments to encourage fellow Christians about the solidity of our faith, there are about 50 who use them to get into verbal fights with skeptics and pagans.

Let me emphasize that word again: Fights. If you’re a brawler, if you love to argue, apologetics gives you a brilliant excuse to indulge. It’s why the practice is so common—and popular. Apologists claim it’s a form of spiritual warfare: They’re contending for the kingdom!

True, they are contending. With other people. Yet Paul explicitly said our fight isn’t with flesh and blood. Ep 6.12 We’re fighting spiritual forces and devilish ideas. I know, apologetics is supposedly all about how one idea—one rational argument—is more solid than another. It might start that way. But too often deteriorates into one person fighting another. Call it collateral damage or not; there’s still damage.

Argumentativeness, making enemies, anger, quarrels, and factions are all works of the flesh. Ep 5.20 And defending Jesus is no excuse for behaving in such ways. We don’t get a free pass just because we’re “fighting for Jesus.” In fact, engaging in such behavior alienates the people we’re fighting with, makes them more bitter and resentful, makes enemies of them, and drives them even further away from Jesus, repentance, and the kingdom. We’re unwittingly doing the work of the wrong side.

So when my discussions begin to fall apart into a debate, I shut ’em down. I don’t take issue with people who have honest questions, or think they found holes in my reasoning. But when they’re no longer trying to listen to and understand me, but defeat me: “You already have your mind made up,” I’ll point out. “So there’s no point. I’m done.”

Often they wanna argue further, and find it extremely frustrating when I quit. They try to goad me into continuing. They try insults, or claim the only reason I’m retreating is ’cause they’re winning. I try not to take the bait. I’m not gonna encourage their fruitless behavior.

So this is the sort of stuff I had no intention of teaching the newbie. Instead I stick to theology: I explain what the scriptures have to say about God, how our God-experiences and the scriptures confirm one another, the importance of the Spirit’s fruit, and I take questions. I don’t wanna create yet another Christian know-it-all who’s eager to go thump some naysayers.

19 February 2016

The baptism of Jesus. And adoption. And anointing.

If Jesus didn’t need to repent, why’d he undergo John’s baptism?

Mark 1.9-11 • Matthew 3.13-17 • Luke 3.21-22 • John 1.29-34

Mark 1.9 KWL
It happened in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of the Galilee,
and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
Matthew 3.13-15 KWL
13 Then Jesus came from the Galilee to the Jordan, to John, to be baptized by him.
14 John was preventing him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you! And you come to me?”
15 In reply Jesus told him, “Just permit it. It’s appropriate for us to fulfill everything that’s right.”
So John permitted him.

Okay: Baptism, i.e. ritual washing, was usually for Jews who were ritually unclean: They’d touched an animal they weren’t allowed to eat, anything they found dead, an open wound; they’d expelled bodily fluids of one sort or another; in general they needed to wash themselves and their clothes before they went to temple. John the baptist co-opted the ritual and used it on sinners who wanted to repent and get morally clean. Same practice, new idea.

So when Jesus comes south from the Galilee, goes to the Jordan, and wants to get baptized, John rightly objected. I’ll write it again: Rightly objected. His baptism was for sinners. Was Jesus a sinner? Nope. Did Jesus need to repent? Nope. So what’d he think he was doing? If a man goes through a baptism of repentance, yet he isn’t repentant at all and feels there’s nothing for him to repent of… wouldn’t we ordinarily call this hypocrisy?

Yeah, but it’s Jesus. So we give him a free pass.

Should we? If it were any other guy getting baptized for show, we’d point out the playacting and call it deceptive. Aren’t we letting the doctrines we cling to—that Jesus never sinned He 4.15 —blind us to the very real fact that Jesus didn’t need John’s baptism at all, yet went through it because it looks good?

Okay, now that I’ve dug myself into this big rhetorical hole, how’m I getting myself out of it?

18 February 2016

Wanna become a prophet?

Like prayer, prophecy isn’t complicated. It’s just our doubts—and our own voices—get in the way.

There are two misconceptions about the word “prophet.” One’s a minor problem; the other’s huge. Small problem first: What a prophet actually is.

Loads of people assume prophets are the same thing as prognosticators: People who know the future, or who can predict it really well. Pagans think this, which is why they treat prophecy like psychic phenomena. And cessationists think this: “Prophecy,” to them, is all about being able to interpret the End Times. It’s why all their “prophecy conferences” are all End Times goofiness instead of actual prophets talking shop.

True, God talks about the future quite a lot. Be fair; so do we all. “That’s on my schedule for tomorrow,” or “I’ll do that in the morning,” or “Can’t wait till Saturday.” Like us, God either talks about what he’s gonna do in the near future, or the soon-coming consequences of poor choices: “Stop doing that; you’ll go blind.” Since the future comes up so often, people, including Christians, assume prophecy is mostly about foretelling the future.

In fact one of the ways we test a prophet is by making sure any statements about the future do come true. Dt 18.22 (And by that metric, we should probably stone to death most of the people who hold those “prophecy conferences.” But I digress.)

A prophet is not a prognosticator. A prophet is simply God’s mouthpiece: Someone who heard God, and is sharing with others what God told ’em. That’s all.

When you pray—you do pray, right?—and God speaks back to you, usually it’s information for you. Sometimes it’s information for others. “Remind your husband I love him.” Or “Warn your daughter her so-called friend is gossiping about her.” Or “See that guy at the bus stop? Wave hi.” Or “I have just one word for your father-in-law: Plastics.” Whatever messages God wants us to pass along to others, that’s a prophecy. When you pass ’em, you’re a prophet.

Thought you needed some Isaiah-style vision, with seraphs and thrones and God calling you to the job? Nah. It’s been known to happen. But it’s far more common God’ll just tell you something, and see how you do with it. And if you do well, he’ll do it more often. And if you don’t, he won’t.

17 February 2016

The disobedient Christian.

“Not perfect; just forgiven” is how they justify their sinful lifestyle.

1 John 2.1-5

I’ve known Christians who greatly object to my using the term “cheap grace.” Grace, they insist, isn’t cheap. Well of course it isn’t. “Cheap grace” isn’t about grace being cheap; it’s about people treating grace as if it’s cheap. It’s about taking God for granted, figuring if Jesus cancelled out a trillion sins by his death, what’s another? Heck, what’s another thousand? And since we have that blank check on forgiveness, why go to all the trouble of cleaning ourselves up and sinning no more? Self-discipline is so hard. Easier to just do as comes naturally, and stay the same bitter, selfish wankers we’ve always been—but we’re saved, so we get to go to heaven!

As a result of this lousy attitude, this is the bumper sticker we find on many a Christian’s car:

Christians aren’t perfect.
Just forgiven.

Okay yes, it’s technically true. But for every Christian who’s using it with the proper sentiment, “I’m not perfect, but I’m working on it,” fifty are using it with the cheap-grace sentiment, “I’m not perfect, and Jesus loves me anyway. So [biological command] you; stop expecting better of me.”

What’re the chances today’s 1 John passage rebukes this sentiment? Better than average.

1 John 2.1-5 KWL
1 My children, I write these things to you so you won’t sin.
When anyone sins, we have an aide from the Father: Righteous Christ Jesus.
2 He’s the atonement for our sins.
Not only for ours, but for the whole world’s.
3 In this way we know we’ve known him: When we keep his commands.
4 Saying, “I’ve known him,” and not keeping his commands: It’s a lie, and truth isn’t in this.
5 God’s love is truly achieved this way: In whoever can keep God’s word.
In this way we know they’re in God.

If a person isn’t even trying to follow Jesus, they’re not Christian. Doesn’t matter what they call themselves. Doesn’t matter their church affiliation. Really doesn’t matter how they vote. (Politics are part of the wrong kingdom anyway.) Living in the light means we’re gonna draw away from sin. Living in sin, justifying it because “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” and treating God’s safety net of forgiveness like a bounce house, means we’re not in the light. We don’t know God. ’Cause God expects more.

So let’s pursue more.

16 February 2016

Patriarchy: When fathers ruled the earth.

The system of government we find in Genesis—which some try inflicting on their own families.

Patriarchy. /'peɪ.tri.ɑrk.i/ n. System of government where the father, or eldest male, is ruler.
2. System wherein women are largely excluded from positions of authority.
[Patriarchal /'peɪ.tri.ɑr.kəl/ adj.]

When people talk about patriarchy nowadays, they tend to mean the second definition above: Women can’t seem to find their way into any official or significant positions of leadership. They can have unofficial power, like a First Lady; they can have insignificant power, like being in charge of cleaning the break room. (Gee, what an honor.) But never any serious authority; the “old boys’ network” keeps shutting them out.

Because the “old boys” don’t wanna work with women. Especially don’t wanna work for women. Doesn’t matter the reasons; they’re all different forms of sexism. It’s a way-too-common problem in the present day. But actually sexism isn’t what this article is about. (Not primarily. Sexism doesn’t have to be part of patriarchy. Problem is… it nearly always is.)

What I’m writing about is the first definition: The system of government we see among the ancient Hebrews, in the families of Noah, Abraham, and Jacob before the Law was handed down; and to a lesser degree the system we see in families thereafter. Before there were judges and kings, before there were cities and nations and empires, before there was anything, there were families. The families were led and ruled by the father or eldest male: The patriarch.

Now, we Americans grew up under democracy. When we’re in a situation where there’s no leadership, we figure, “Okay, we’ll take a vote”—all of us are equal, so the majority should rule, right? If one of us tries to seize power, we object, ’cause that’s not fair. But that’s because we were raised to be democratic. The ancients weren’t. Popular vote didn’t rule the day; the strongest or loudest or most dangerous did. This is Darwinism at its simplest.

The one best able to strike down his foes was usually the physically strongest; the man. And in order to maintain power, patriarchy was the system these men put into place. The man, the father of the family, the paterfamilias, ruled. They taught their kids this was the way things worked. So whereas our culture falls back on democracy to decide things, theirs fell back on patriarchy.

Not egalitarian, where spouses get an equal say. Not democratic, where the kids get a vote too. It was a dictatorship. What the patriarch decided was how things were. No one to overrule him, no constitution to say he violated civil rights, no legislature to control his behavior, no police to stop him. If he decided he was taking a second or third or hundredth wife, he did. If he forbade his daughter from marrying a certain man, she had to obey. If he ordered his son put to death for disobedience, off with his head. Seriously.

And there are a number of Christians who read about these “good old days” in the bible, and wouldn’t mind returning to them. Oh, I’ll get to them.

15 February 2016

The kingdom of God. Or kingdom of heaven. Same thing.

You might not know it’s Christendom’s most important idea. You should.

The central belief of Christianity is God’s kingdom.

I know; you thought it was Jesus, didja? Most Christians do. He’s the king of this kingdom; Christ means Messiah, which is one of the many titles of Israel’s king. But you’ll notice Jesus, when he preached the gospel, didn’t say he was the good news: The kingdom is.

Mark 1.14-15 KWL
14 After John’s arrest, Jesus went into the Galilee preaching God’s gospel, 15 saying this:
“The time has been fulfilled. God’s kingdom has come near.
Repent! Believe in the gospel!”

I know; most folks who say they proclaim “the gospel,” or claim they preach “the gospel,” don’t define the gospel that way. They claim it’s the sacrificial death of Jesus: He saved us, and that’s the gospel. It’s actually not.

Don’t get me wrong. Salvation is totally important. ’Cause without it, we’d never have access to the kingdom, much less inherit it. But salvation is only part of the gospel; it’s the part which explains why God bothers to interact with us sinners in the first place. Being forgiven, saved, and given abundant grace: That’s definitely good news. But it’s not the whole story, and not what Jesus preached. He proclaimed the kingdom. Lookit what all his parables and stories were about: Kingdom. Lookit what he told his followers to go out and preach: Kingdom. Mt 10.7, Lk 16.16, Ac 8.12

Church is also important. But we get so focused on church functions (and busywork, and interpersonal drama), we forget the church exists to train us for kingdom living.

Jesus is definitely important. But he’s important because he rules the kingdom. Worshiping him entails doing kingdom business. Praying to him means getting kingdom instructions. Following him means developing a kingdom lifestyle. Even when he fills us with the Holy Spirit, the goal is so we’re equipped for kingdom work.

The kingdom has been God’s goal since creation. He wanted to walk with Adam and Eve in the garden; their sin botched that. Ever since, he’s been trying to bring us back to that level of relationship.

Leviticus 26.12 KWL
“I walk in your midst. For you, I’m God.
For me, you’re my people.”

He wants to live with us forever. Permanently. Physically: You may recall God became human, but you may have got the idea this was just a temporary deal so he could die for our sins. Nuh-uh. God became human so he could be human, as limiting as we might consider it, and really live with his people. Walk with us, talk with us, hang out with us, be with us. No more distance. No more separation. Just God and his kids, a king with his princesses and princes.

14 February 2016

Love and romance.

Is romance appropriate for Christians? Within the appropriate context, absolutely.

I’m posting this article on Valentine’s Day, the day named for several ancient martyrs named Valentine: Bishop Valentinus of Terni, Presbyter Valentinus of Rome, Valentinus of Raetia, Valentinus of Genoa, Valentinus the hermit, and Valentinus of North Africa. All their stories and myths got frapped together… and nobody cares about ’em anyway, ’cause Valentine’s Day is a commercial holiday. It’s meant to get people to buy stuff, or make various other expensive materialistic declarations of love, for the person they’re currently boning.

By “love” I mean one of the eight definitions of love. On Valentine’s Day, among Christians who know charity is the ideal sort of love the scriptures point to, there might be some expressions of that: They love their partners with godly love. They want the best for their loved ones, even if that means sacrificing themselves. They expect nothing in return; it’s not a love which expects, even demands, reciprocity. They really do love like God does. Or strive to.

But Valentine’s Day isn’t at all about that sort of love. It’s about the romantic sort. It’s what the ancient Greeks meant by éros, the desire one has for the objects of their affection or infatuation, the desire lovers have for one another. (Éros is where we get our English word erotic.)

C.S. Lewis spent a quarter of his 1960 book The Four Loves on éros, and when Christians speak on love, a lot of times we likewise spend a chunk of time discussing éros. Although what we tend to do is bash it.

  1. First we define it as romantic love, erotic love, or lust.
  2. Then we point out éros isn’t in the bible. (’Cause it’s not. Neither in the New Testament, nor the Septuagint.) It’s just a different Greek word for a concept we translate as “love”—which is all Lewis was writing about anyway. He was a classics scholar, after all; not a bible scholar.
  3. Then spend the rest of our sermon railing against éros for not being godly love, the agápi Paul defined in 1 Corinthians 13.

Expect all that to be part of nearly every Valentine’s Day sermon. Oh wait; let me throw in an extra bonus point:

  1. Some preachers will insist éros and romance aren’t any sort of “love.” Therefore we should only use the word “love” to mean agápi, to mean having patience and kindness and self-control and gentleness and all that other stuff Paul wrote. Romance isn’t love. Lust certainly isn’t love. So when people incorrectly use the word “love” to describe such things, correct ’em. “That’s romance. That’s lust. Not love. Real love is agápi.”

Sound about right?

But if you actually read The Four Loves you’ll notice Lewis didn’t define éros as romance or lust.

12 February 2016

John the baptist’s message for everyone else.

Someone greater than John was coming, and he was just paving the way.

Mark 1.7-8 • Matthew 3.11-12 • Luke 3.10-20 • John 1.24-28

Last time I dealt with what John the baptist had to say to religious folks—people who already followed God, or at least were active in temple and synagogue. John didn’t come to preach to them; they already had prophets, and shouldn’t need to come to John and repent. He came to reach the people who had no relationship with God, who needed to get ready for their coming Messiah.

But you might notice Luke describes John’s message to the religious folks as being directed towards everyone. Religious and irreligious alike.

Luke 3.7-14 KWL
7 John said this to the crowds coming to be baptized by him:
“You viper-spawn! Who warned you to escape the wrath of God?
8 Fine then: Produce worthy fruits, from repentant people.
Don’t start to tell yourselves, ‘We have a father in Abraham’:
From these rocks, I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham.
9 Plus, the axe lays at the root of the tree right now.
So every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire.”
10 The crowds were questioning John, saying, “So what can we do?”
11 In reply John told them, “You who have two tunics: Share with those who don’t.
You who have food: Do likewise.”
12 Taxmen came to be baptized and told John, “Teacher, what can we do?”
13 John told them, “Do nothing more than you were ordered.”
14 Soldiers were questioning John, saying, “And we, what can we do?”
John told them, “You could stop shaking people down, or stop accusing them falsely.
Be content with your paychecks.”

I explained the whole worthy fruits, making Abraham’s children from rocks, and axe at the foot of the tree stuff in the previous article. Here Luke included John’s corrections to the people who came to him for baptism.

In general the problem was stinginess. The crowds needed to share their food and clothing with the needy. Yes, the Law had a sort of welfare system built in so farmers would leave gleanings for the needy, Lv 19.9-10 and so every third-year’s tithes would go to the needy. Dt 14.28 But then, same as now, people don’t bother to do any more than their obligations, and share food and clothing only with people we consider worthy—not so much needy. Loving our neighbor Lv 19.18 gets limited to thinking pleasant thoughts about them, not doing for them. It’s an attitude which always needs breaking.

11 February 2016

The Nicene Creed.

Orthodox Christianity, in a nutshell.

I believe in one God, the Father, the almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, of all things, visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord, Christ Jesus,
the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages.
God from God, light from light, true God from true God,
begotten not made, of one being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven;
by the Holy Spirit was incarnate from the virgin Mary. He was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures.
He ascended into heaven. He’s seated at the right hand of the Father.
He’ll come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father [and the Son].
He, with the Father and the Son, is adored and glorified.
He’s spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
I recognize one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
Amen.

When Christians define orthodoxy—the beliefs Christians oughta hold to, as opposed to heretic beliefs which lead us away from God—we often do it subjectively. We figure we get to define what’s orthodox and what’s not. We set the standard.

I know; loads of us are gonna claim we do not set the standard; the bible does. Which sounds impressive, but it’s tommyrot: Their interpretation of the bible sets the standard, which means it ultimately comes back to them. Still subjective.

Others are gonna point to their church’s or their denomination’s statement of faith. Slightly less subjective, ’cause most of the time they didn’t write those faith statements. (Although some of them did. That, or they have enough authority at their churches to change these faith statements when they deem it necessary, as sometimes they do.) But sometimes they bend the faith statements to suit them, same as they do bible. If your church redefines trinity to mean “one God with three personas,” like the Oneness folks do, your faith statement may contain that word, but it’s not what anyone else means by it.

The first faith statement, the one we Christians sorted out way back before we formally shattered into denominations, is the one I point to when it comes to orthodoxy. It was first hammered out in Nikaía, Asia Minor, Roman Empire (today’s Iznik, Turkey) in the year 325, and updated in 381. We call it the Nicene Creed, although the Orthodox and Catholic churches call it the Symbol of Nicea (Greek Sýmbolon tis Nikaías, Latin Symbolum Nicaenum) or Symbol of Faith. Nearly every other creed is based on it.

10 February 2016

Step one: Admit we have a problem, and need God’s help.

Denying we have sin, or hiding it, isn’t gonna grow us any.

1 John 1.8-10

Maybe you already know this; maybe you don’t. But 12-step recovery programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery, take their 12 steps to recovery from Christian discipleship. The founders of AA, in order to get pagans to participate in the group, made it secular—considering they still talk about depending on our Higher Power (whom to Christians would be God) for help.

Step 1, therefore, is to admit we have a problem which we’re unable to solve on our own. For addicts that’d be their addictions. For Christians that’d be sin. ’Cause frankly we can’t defeat sin on our own. Legalists try, and fail. Fail hard. Their efforts to live perfect lives involve a whole lot of judgmentalism, harshness, and hypocrisy to cover up the many missteps. If you truly trust God to guide your steps, you shouldn’t require so very many of your own rules!

Step 2 is to admit we need our Higher Power’s help. We can’t defeat our problem—can’t conquer sin, won’t conquer death—without God.

We find these ideas in 1 John and elsewhere. John got directly to the idea of living in the light, the light God is—of confessing the truth, to ourselves and others, that though we really shouldn’t sin, we do. Let’s not lie to ourselves. Let’s not fool ourselves. Let’s not invent some fantasy-world fake Christianity where we’re not really sinners, ’cause Jesus’s blood magically undid our sins. Atonement doesn’t undo sin. But it does fix the sin problem, which ain’t nothing.

1 John 1.8-10 KWL
8 When we say we have no sin, we lead ourselves astray; truth’s not in us.
9 When we admit our sins, this is faith and rightness.
Thus God can forgive us of sin and cleanse us from all wrongness.
10 When we say we don’t sin, we make a liar of God: His word’s not in us.

Lots to unpack from these ideas, but again, the point is we have a sin problem and God’s here to help. 1Jn 2.1-2

09 February 2016

Really don’t wanna go to church.

Sick and tired of church? It happens for good reasons. And pathetic ones.

Though we Christians need to go to church, many of us don’t. And won’t.

And I get it. There’ve been times in my life when I didn’t wanna go to church either. So I found excuses not to, adopted them, and didn’t go.

  • “I have a home church, and I’m too far from home to go.” I used this for a semester while I was in college: I didn’t care for any of the churches in the area, and figured I did have a church back home; I did go there when I was home. But I wasn’t home. So it was okay if I missed 10 weeks of church services.
  • “I go to chapel every day, so that kinda counts.” This was my other excuse that semester. Me and a lot of other students.
  • “I can do all this stuff on my own.” My excuse for a few weeks when I was really annoyed with the people of my church. ’Cause I totally could do this stuff on my own. Pray?—no problem. Sing worship songs?—easily done. Learn from fellow Christians?—I had their books. Study the bible?—sure. Take holy communion?—well, I could eat saltines and grape juice on my own, and call it communion, but the missing element is other Christians, so that made it tricky. As are all our other practices which require other Christians.
  • “The people suck.” Yeah, sometimes they do.
  • “I don’t have to attend every week. I have freedom in Christ, y’know.” Which is true, but it’s really easy for inconsistent attendance to turn into monthly attendance, twice-a-year attendance, or no attendance.

Thing is, if you really don’t wanna go to church, any excuse will do. And lots of Christians really don’t wanna go. Their excuses are tissue-thin, misguided, selfish, or ridiculous, but because they really don’t wanna go, the excuses work. You don’t need a rope to lead a horse when they’ll willingly follow you anyway.

08 February 2016

Read the bible over Lent.

Got a spare 40 days? Do your bible.

Lent is the 40 days before Easter, during which time some of us Christians do a little fasting or other forms of self-deprivation, and meditate about what Jesus suffered on our behalf. And of course others of us contemplate nothing, but fast anyway ’cause it’s tradition. And of course still others (namely the Evangelicals I know) contemplate nothing, fast nothing, and feel smug because our religious customs don’t obligate us to do a thing.

True, Lent is voluntary. It comes from Christian tradition, not the bible. Same as every church activity, you can opt in, or opt out. You can deprive yourself of a lot of things, or just a few things. You can adopt lots of religious practices during this time, or not.

But if you’re gonna adopt a practice, why not read the bible? The whole bible? ’Cause you can. You can do it within a month, so there’s certainly no reason it can’t be done in a time-period with 10 extra days.

So if you’re giving something up for Lent, like television, there y’go: You can easily take the time you’d spend watching the boob tube, and read the scriptures. And have time left over. Easy-peasy.

And if you’re giving up nothing for Lent, ’cause self-deprivation isn’t your thing—like so many Americans, gluttony is—you can still carve out a bit of time each day to read some bible, and make up for the fact you didn’t read the whole thing back in January. Or that you started, but dropped the ball. Or that you’re doing the six-month or year-long bible track, and dropped the ball on that. Either way, it’s catchup time.

So there’s your Lenten challenge: Read your bible. You know you oughta.

07 February 2016

The sort of poetry which doesn’t rhyme.

Hebrew poetry, and how it works for those who insist “If it doesn’t rhyme it’s not poetry!”

When children are taught to read, they’re exposed to poetry. Starting with Dr. Seuss and the children’s-book poets, all the way up to Shakespeare. And what’s the one thing English-speakers are all agreed upon about poetry? I’m not gonna wait for your answer: It rhymes.

Except it doesn’t always. We were introduced to Walt Whitman in high school—to his stuff other than “O Captain! My Captain!”, which does rhyme. And a bunch of us objected—as do high schoolers across America—“This isn’t poetry. It doesn’t rhyme.” ’Cause we knew from Green Eggs and Ham on up: Poetry rhymes.

Well, English-language poetry rhymes. That’s been our literary custom, anyway. Also true for many other cultures. Hebrew poetry also rhymes.

But the Hebrew stuff rhymes in a different way than the English stuff. We rhyme sounds. Done and won, red and head, still and will, butterfly and flutter by. Sometimes you’ll find rhymes in Hebrew writings too; they’ll use them to make puns. But for rhyming, ancient Hebrew rhymes ideas: Same concept, said again in different words.

Fr’instance.

Psalm 19.2 KWL
The skies are a record of God’s glory.
The space above reports the work of his hands.

Note what lines up with what.

From line 1.From line 2.
Ha-shamáyim“the skies”Ha-raqía/“the space above”
Mesapperím/“are a record”Maggíd/“reports”
Kevód-El/“God’s glory”Maháse yadáw/“work of his hands”

Same ideas. Different sentences. (Or clauses; Hebrew sentences start with ve-/“and,” so it’s possible to treat the whole Old Testament as a giant run-on sentence. But anyway.) This, and passages which practice this very same sort of parallelism, is how we know we’re dealing with poetry.

Which we will find everywhere in the bible. Old Testament and New Testament: It doesn’t matter that the NT was written in Greek, because its writers all knew their Old Testament, and how to write poetry. The psalms are nothing but poetry. The prophets are almost entirely poetry. Even the historical books and Law are full of poetry. Jesus used poetry all the time to make his teachings memorable. Seriously, it’s everywhere.

It’s so common, whenever someone starts repeating ideas we immediately recognize it as “bible language.” (Assuming people are familiar with bible. Not so many of us are, anymore.) People pray in it, teach in it, give speeches in it, write songs in it. It’s everywhere in English-speaking culture, ’cause our literature has been so heavily influenced by the King James Version and other bibles.

Because English poetry is all about rhyme (and rhythm), it’s tricky to translate into other languages. You can’t always keep the poetry in it. But when Hebrew poetry is rendered into English—and every other language—the parallelism is still there. Almost as if God planned it that way, huh?

05 February 2016

John the baptist’s message for the religious.

Didn’t sound too pleased with them.

Matthew 3.7-10 • Luke 3.7-9 • John 1.19-23

In Matthew and Luke’s parallel stories, John the baptist comes across a bit hostile towards the religious folks who come to check him out.

Matthew 3.7-10 KWL
7 Seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, John told them,
“You viper-spawn! Who warned you to escape the wrath of God?
8 Fine then: Produce worthy fruit, from repentant people.
9 Don’t presume to tell yourselves, ‘We have a father in Abraham’:
From these rocks, I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham.
10 The axe lays at the root of the tree right now.
So every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire.”
Luke 3.7-9 KWL
7 John said this to the crowds coming to be baptized by him:
“You viper-spawn! Who warned you to escape the wrath of God?
8 Fine then: Produce worthy fruits, from repentant people.
Don’t start to tell yourselves, ‘We have a father in Abraham’:
From these rocks, I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham.
9 Plus, the axe lays at the root of the tree right now.
So every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire.”

In John, not so much, but then again they’re not there to prejudge him, but find out just who he claims to be.

John 1.19-23 KWL
19 This is John’s testimony when the Judeans sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem
so they could ask him, “Who are you?”
20 He conferred with them, and didn’t refuse to answer: “I’m not Messiah.”
21 They questioned John: “Then what? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I’m not.”
“Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”
22 So they told him, “Then what?—so we can give an answer to those who sent us.
What do you say about yourself?”
23 John said, “I’m the voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Straighten the Master’s road!’ Is 40.3
like the prophet Isaiah said.”

These folks would be:

  • Pharisees, whom I dealt with elsewhere. These are the religious Jews, as opposed to the irreligious, secular Jews. Many were actually trying to follow God. And same as us Christians, many were hypocrites, faking it for social and political acceptance. Jesus sparred with the hypocrites a lot, but don’t get the wrong idea all Pharisees were that way.
  • Sadducees. Our present-day equivalent would be those pagans who call themselves “spiritual but not religious”—they believe in God, but not religion. Freakishly, these are the folks who ran the religion: The head priest, his family, and the leading families of Jerusalem, were in this camp. They believed in God and the Law, but not the supernatural: No angels, miracles, afterlife, End Times, resurrection, or prophets beyond Moses. Just God.
  • Levites. You may have heard Israel had 12 tribes. They actually had 13, and Levi was the weird 13th tribe which had no land, lived in cities, and took turns serving in temple. Only Levites could be priests, and John was a Levite himself. Some were Pharisees, some Sadducees, some in other denominations. But all were involved in temple.
  • “The crowds.” In Luke John is hostile to everybody, not just religious folks. Everybody gets slammed with his preaching. No exceptions. But it’s fair to say most of them were Pharisees, which I’ll explain in a bit.

John’s reaction to them was essentially, “What’re you doing here? Aren’t you saved already?”

04 February 2016

When faith gets shaken. (Not if. When.)

Every Christian goes through the crisis of faith. It’s not the time to numb one’s mind.

Part of normal, healthy Christian growth is discovering we’re wrong. ’Cause we are.

I’m wrong, you’re wrong; every Christian is wrong. We all have incorrect beliefs about the universe, God, Christ, the bible, salvation, how Christians oughta behave, everything. We learned them from other messed-up Christians. Or we learned them from our messed-up world, but assume they’re still correct, ’cause our fellow Christians believe ’em too. Or even despite what our fellow Christians insist.

Fr’instance when a pagan comes to Jesus, she figures now she’s gotta give up all her porn. (Or any other frowned-upon activity.) She’s heard good Christians don’t get mixed up in that. But then she discovers all her Christian friends are super into porn, and she’s so relieved: It’s no problem! And that’s what she’ll believe from now on. If her pastor rails against it, doesn’t matter. She’ll keep her opinion, and keep it to herself.

Well, the Holy Spirit’s working on us, pulling us towards truth. But that’s gonna take time. Sometimes we’re resistant, or too distracted by all the porn. Either way, the Spirit has things to teach us, and we’re not gonna grow any further as Christians till we learned them. Because they’re just that important.

The problem is when this new information or revelation is too much. It’s really not; the Spirit knows what he’s doing. But we don’t trust him enough. We lack faith. So we hit a crisis. We either have to accept what the Spirit’s teaching us and keep moving, or we have to stop.

And by stop, I mean stop. We quit Christianity.

Which takes a few different forms. The most common one is not, as you’d suspect, leaving God and embracing atheism, or some other religion. Much easier to embrace Christianism. We stop following the Holy Spirit and start following a system. Might be the system we’re already dabbling in: We decide to get knee-deep in Christian apologetics, or Calvinism, dispensationalism, Fundamentalism, Methodism—pick any -ism. Might get heavily involved in the Christian Left or the Christian Right: Christianity becomes all about abolishing the death penalty, or same-sex marriage. Might quit church and try the go-it-alone route. Or might find a like-minded church which preaches about how the world needs to change… but us? Doin’ just fine.

We take the ideas we’ve embraced thus far, enshrine them and establish them as our system or denomination… and live in its rotting carcass, and pretend it doesn’t stink. Because once you’ve stopped growing, you’re dead.

Or, ideally, we don’t stop. We accept where the Spirit’s taking us, tough it out, and keep growing.

This is the crisis of faith. It’s a point every Christian reaches. No exceptions. You will hit the crisis at some point in your Christian life. We all do. And not just once either: Many, many times. We have a lot of wrong beliefs in us. The Spirit wants to root out every single one of them.

03 February 2016

What, you thought there were only 10 commandments?

God’s 613 commands, and how Christians treat them.

Most Christians are familiar with the fact there are 10 commandments. Ex 20.1-17 Not so familiar with the actual 10 commands, but we do tend to know there are 10 of them, and it wouldn’t hurt to live by them. In fact the politically-minded among us think it’d be a good idea for the whole of the United States to live by them… although it’s a bit of a puzzler how we might simultaneously enforce “You’ll have no other gods before me” Ex 20.3 and “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Amendment 1

Some of us have also heard the idea there are 12 commandments. Where’d the extra two come from? Well, someone once asked Jesus his opinion on the greatest command.

Mark 12.28-31 KWL
28 One of the scribes was standing there listening to the discussion.
Recognizing how well Jesus answered the Sadducees, he asked him,
“Which command is first of all?” 29 Jesus gave this answer:
“First is, ‘Listen Israel: Our god is the Lord. The Lord is One.
30 You must love your Lord God with all your heart, life, purpose, and might.’ Dt 6.4-5
Second is, ‘Love your neighbor like yourself.’ Lv 19.18
No command is higher than these.”

Since these two commands aren’t among the 10, certain Christians tack ’em on at the end.

But there’s far from just 12 commands. There’s 613.

Technically there are even more than 613. But when you combine redundant commands—namely all the commands repeated in Deuteronomy, like the 10 commandments Dt 5.1-21 —you get 613 of them. Or at least that was the conclusion of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon of Spain (1135-1204, also called Maimonides by westerners, Rambam by Jews). Moshe listed them in his book Sefer Hamitzvot/“Book of Good Deeds.” He had slightly different priorities than Jesus, which is why he put loving God at 3 and 4 in his list, and loving neighbors at 13.

These commands are mostly for everyone. There are many priest-specific commands, which don’t apply to the general population. (Although Pharisees customarily practiced ’em anyway, figuring all Jews ought to be as ritually clean as priests.) There are also many gender-specific commands, which apply to men and not women, or women and not men.

And let’s be honest: There is a double standard in the Law. Women and men may be equal in Christ, Ga 3.28 but not under Law. Fr’instance there’s a test for a wife’s faithfulness, Nu 5.11-30 but no such thing for husbands. ’Cause under patriarchy, men could have sex with any woman in their household. The Law abolished many of patriarchy’s customs—no they couldn’t have sex with just anyone they wished. But though abolishing patriarchy was God’s goal—with men in leadership or service practicing monogamy 1Ti 3.2, 12 and loving their wives like Christ loves his church Ep 5.25 —he didn’t do it outright in his Law. Though certainly the test of a wife’s faithfulness under the Law is considerably better than the previous patriarchal custom: Kills her without any trial. Ge 38.24

02 February 2016

Judge not. Or judge. Depends on the context.

Don’t weasel out of your responsibilities by misquoting Jesus.

People, Christians and pagans alike, fling around the following Jesus quote a lot.

Matthew 7.1 KJV
Judge not, that ye be not judged.

Usually for one of two reasons. Both incorrect, though sometimes with the best of intentions.

  1. Be kind to other people. When they offend you personally—when they’re clumsy or awkward, boorish or rude, look and smell and dress funny, have horrible taste in music and movies and comedy, or even sin in ways which really bug you—remember God still loves them, and so should we. Besides, it’s not like we don’t sin either. Or have our own offensive flaws.
  2. Hey, don’t you judge me. “Judge not,” right?

Since kindness is a fruit of the Spirit it makes sense to remind people to be kind and compassionate towards the weird or the sinful. Jesus didn’t drive such people away; he ministered to them and befriended them. Thing is, he didn’t just tolerate them: He forgave them. And forgiveness means they did do something wrong; otherwise there’d be nothing to forgive. Forgiveness means we did judge them as either sinning or trespassing against us—but we’re gonna overlook it, and pay God’s grace forward. It’s not mere tolerance, which ignores their behavior, pretends they didn’t sin, pretends we’re not bothered... and festers within us like a sour tumor.

As for those folks who quote that verse in order to use our religion to their advantage, so they can evade judgment and consequences… well, they’re just being jerks.

01 February 2016

What about those Christians who pray to saints?

For some it’s a regular practice. For others it’s bad and wrong. Me, I say let’s take a look at it.

When we talk about prayer, we usually mean speaking with God. But technically pray means “to ask.” Still meant that, back in the olden days. In one of Jesus’s stories, one man tells another, “I pray thee have me excused,” Lk 14.19 KWL ’cause people can request things of one another. We can ask stuff of God, God can ask stuff of us, and Christians can ask stuff of one another.

Now, here’s where it slides away from your average Evangelical’s comfort zone: When Christians ask stuff of fellow Christians… who’ve died. “Praying to saints,” we call it.

It’s found among older churches: Orthodox, Roman Catholics, or Anglicans and Episcopalians. And among Christians whose loved ones have died. To comfort themselves, figuring these loved ones are in heaven, they sometimes talk to them, hoping maybe God will pass their words along to their loved ones. God can do anything, can’t he? Why can’t he pass a message?

For that matter, why not to anyone? Including people we know God saved: Jesus’s parents (like St. Mary), or brothers (like St. Jude), or apostles (like St. Peter), or founders of great Christian movements (like St. Francis)?

Like all humans, Evangelicals are creatures of extremes, and take one of two attitudes about praying to saints:

  1. Won’t do any harm. Maybe God will pass those messages along.
  2. Praying to anyone but God is idolatry. Plus praying to the dead violates the scriptures:
Deuteronomy 18.10-12 KWL
10 Don’t have among you anyone who passes their son or daughter through fire.
Nor augurs practicing augury, nephelomancy, scrying, incanting, 11 enchanting,
asking a psychic or spiritist, nor questioning the dead.
12 For all these acts offend the LORD.
Because of these offenses, your LORD God takes them out of your presence.

So if praying to saints is the same as questioning the dead, isn’t that a serious no-no?

Well, if it were the same. Those who pray to saints insist it’s not: The saints in heaven aren’t dead. Jesus once said the way the Father perceives Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—some really long-dead saints—is that “to him they’re all alive.” Lk 20.38 When a saint dies, we perceive ’em as dead. But they’re alive in heaven—more alive than ever they were here on earth. Remember Moses died? Dt 34.5 Yet when Jesus was transfigured, Moses showed up, and they had a chat. Mk 9.4 Was Jesus questioning the dead, and therefore breaking the Law, and sinning—or is Moses in fact alive in heaven?

So, those who pray to saints claim, it’s all the same whether we’re talking to a saint on earth, or a saint in heaven. It’s all part of “the communion of saints,” as the creeds put it; the body of Christ. Which happens to have a few members in a really useful place. Namely heaven.

If they’re alive in heaven, why can’t we make requests of them, same as we would to any other living Christian? There are certain Christians I know, and if I need prophecy, healing, or any other miracle, I could ask them. As the Holy Spirit permits, they can actually answer those requests and perform such miracles. Well, how much more so might St. Mary, St. Jude, St. Peter, or St. Francis?

So that’s the general idea. When you pray to saints, you’re getting their help, same as you would any other Christian. But unlike earthly Christians, who might look like they have a solid relationship with Jesus, but secretly be major screw-ups, the heavenly saints are definitely in God’s presence. Pray to them, and your chances of answered prayer shoot way up.

(Especially, most figure, when you pray to Mary. ’Member how effectively she got her resistant son to take care of the wine situation at Cana? Jn 2.3-11 So if you’re not so sure you can get a yes out of Jesus, talk to his mom. She’ll twist his arm.)