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14 November 2018

When faith won’t fit in the pagan pigeonhole.

’Cause skeptics hate it when you inform ’em you don’t believe in wishful thinking either.

When Christians define the word faith, we go with the definition found in Hebrews. “The solid basis of hope, the proof of actions we’ve not seen,” is how I usually put it. He 11.1 We haven’t seen something, but we believe it anyway—for solid reasons. Usually ’cause we’re taking someone’s word for it, like Jesus’s.

When pagans define it, they either go with wishful thinking, blind optimism, or the ability to believe imaginary things without evidence. You know, stuff we shouldn’t believe. And to be fair, some Christians do think of faith that way, ’cause they haven’t read Hebrews, or their leaders did a sucky job teaching ’em about faith. It’s not like they got their false definition from nowhere.

Yep, I read Hebrews, and my church leaders were pretty good about defining faith accurately. So when skeptical pagans start to mock faith—“Oh, you Christians only believe that rubbish because you want so bad for it to be true”—I correct ’em. Christian faith is based on evidence, not wishes. Based on the testimony of those who’ve seen stuff and shared it. 1Jn 1.1-4 Based on trustworthy, knowledgeable people, like Jesus. Based on the scriptures, which were written by such people. Wishing doesn’t make it so; wishing makes nothing so.

In Christianity, faith ultimately takes Jesus’s word for it. In the rest of life, we tend to take other people’s word for it. When reporters present the news, we take their word for it. When a dictionary, encyclopedia, or other reference work says something’s so, we take their authors’ word for it. When a scientific journal makes a claim, we take the researcher’s word for it—or we do the research ourselves and debunk ’em, but more often it’s easier to just presume they did the research properly and do take their word for it. In every last one of these areas, we’re practicing faith. ’Cause like Hebrews describes it, these are actions we’ve not seen. But we have a solid basis for believing ’em anyway.

Now. When I explain it to pagans that way, you’d think they’d respond, “Oh! That’s surprising. I didn’t realize you guys thought about faith that way. I’m still not sure I’d reach the same conclusions about God as you, but it’s good to know you put some intellectual rigor into your belief system.”

Instead it’s more like, “…No that’s not what you people mean by faith. It’s the ability to believe imaginary stuff as if it’s real. You’re trying to pull a fast one.”

And sometimes it’s outrage. “How dare you compare my trusting a scientist in any way with your religious belief in God. What I’m doing isn’t faith. Faith is a religious thing. It has nothing at all to do with what I practice.”

Either way, pagan skeptics absolutely hate our definition. They imagine they have religion all sorted out. When they’re told otherwise, they lose their cool: Their worldview is based on the idea faith is purely a religious practice—and a dumb one—which has nothing whatsoever to do with the real, material world of facts, evidence, logic, science, and reason. Faith is for the religious; they’re not religious; ergo they don’t do faith. Period. Don’t you dare use the F-word on them.

Why does it freak ’em out so much? Well they‘re gonna hate this explanation too: They’re really fond of the idea religion is intellectually pathetic. Makes ’em feel good about themselves for being irreligious. Finding out they’re wrong—that they never made the effort to find out what religion actually has in it; that their dismissive attitudes are actually based on prejudice and presumption—shakes their faith in their skepticism. Getting your faith shaken tends to freak anyone out, Christian or not.

Yep, I used the F-word to describe ’em again. Hey, if the word fits.

13 November 2018

The “Your will be done” prayer.

Not just praying it for others, but ourselves. And meaning it!

The “Your will be done” prayer is part of the Lord’s Prayer. Obviously it’s the “Thy will be done” bit. Mt 6.10 I’ve already discussed where we’re praying for his will to be done. Today it’s more about how we fulfill that particular prayer of his. Yep, it’s about doing God’s will.

Typically when Christians pray “Your will be done,” we’re not talking about ourselves. We’re talking about everyone. “Thy will be done on earth,” is how the full clause goes, so we’re thinking about how God’s will gets done on earth as a whole, and by all humanity instead of us as individuals. When we pray it, we’re praying humanity collectively does God’s will. We’re not always remembering that we—you and I and everyone else—have to do God’s will too. Usually we’re thinking about how everybody else really oughta follow God’s will, ’cause they don’t, the earth sucks, and it’s their fault.

So when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we’re not always praying that we do God’s will. We make it a prayer for everyone else. Everyone not us.

But we are part of collective humanity, and today let’s get away from how everybody else isn’t pulling their weight. When you pray “Your will be done,” trying praying it this way: “Your will be done by me.”

’Cause we do wanna do God’s will, right?

Well no, we don’t always. Let’s be honest. We wanna do our will. We’re ready and eager to do God’s will when it coincides with our will. God wants us to go to church, and if we like church, this is no problem! And if we hate church, this is a huge problem, and suddenly we’re gonna be very receptive to any Christian who tells us we might not have to go; that “the communion of saints” is an option, that you can forsake gathering together, He 10.25 and that you won’t grow undisciplined, weird, heretic, and less loving because you’ve no one to sharpen your iron. Pr 27.17 Basically we’ll just do our own thing, cling to any excuse for why God might be okay with it, and even imagine it was all his idea, if we can mentally get away with it.

So, sometimes we wanna do God’s will. Which is why we need to keep praying this prayer. We need to learn to always wanna do his will. We need God to not let us get away with weaseling out of it.

12 November 2018

Seek the living bread! Accept no substitutes.

Because some of our visions of New Jerusalem are awfully materialistic… and aren’t so much about being with Jesus.

John 6.25-29

At the beginning John’s chapter 6, Jesus had his students feed 5,000 people with five rolls and fish spread. The people’s conclusion? Jesus was the Prophet, the End Times figure, the “prophet like Moses,” Dt 18.15 whom the Pharisees wondered whether John the baptist was. Jn 1.21 Because Jesus fed ’em bread, just like Moses fed the Hebrews manna. So he’s a prophet like Moses!

The next day they sought Jesus and couldn’t find him. So they returned to Jesus’s home base of Kfar Nahum… and there he was.

John 6.25-27 KWL
25 Finding Jesus on the far side of the lake, they said, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
26 In reply Jesus told them, “Amen amen! I promise you seek me not because you saw miracles:
Instead it’s because you ate the rolls and were filled.
27 Don’t toil for perishable food! Instead seek food which lasts for eternal life.
The Son of Man will give it to you, for Father God sealed this man.”

Various preachers love to claim this lesson is all about the people coming to Jesus for free bread, and Jesus responding he didn’t come to teach people to expect handouts. And whenever I hear this, it’s obvious they didn’t study the text, and instead they’re preaching their stingy politics instead of God’s kingdom. God doesn’t want us to be dependent on him for daily bread? Have they heard of the Lord’s Prayer? What bible are they reading?

Being dependent on God is precisely what God wants. You do realize he gave the Hebrews free manna for 40 years. The only work they had to do for it, was go pick it off the ground and stick to a liter a day. (Two liters on Friday; no liters on Saturday. Sabbath, y’know.) No planting, no watering, no waiting, no harvesting, no winnowing, no grinding; just free manna. As easy as when we buy flour at the grocery store; easier ’cause you pay nothing. You wanna agitate about handouts? You need to learn about God’s generosity, ’cause you’re deficient in it.

Free bread, free food in general, is one of the traits of Kingdom Come. Because of sin, humanity was cursed to toil for our food. Ge 3.17 Once God deals with our sin, the curse gets lifted and no more toil. That’s what we expect in heaven: Eternal rest! The Galileans expected it too. And suddenly after one of Jesus’s lessons, his students walk round handing out bread the Galileans didn’t have to work for. Then Jesus tells them about “food which lasts for eternal life,” and “the Son of Man will give it to you.” It doesn’t sound at all like Jesus was telling them, “I’m not here to give people handouts.” Just the opposite!

But.

Yeah, there’s a but. A big huge one. A but which also applies to us, because we’re guilty of precisely the same thing as the Galileans. Jesus told ’em to not seek perishable bread, but eternal-life bread. Because they were seeking perishable bread. They were seeking something material. Lots of it; enough so they’d regularly be filled; an abundance of it; so they were seeking a wealth of this material. Do I have to spell it out any more? Fine: Material wealth.

So… how many Christians are hoping to make it to Kingdom Come so they can have a crown filled with jewels, and a mansion on a street of gold?

And instead Jesus wants us to have living bread. Which—spoilers—is Jesus himself. Jn 6.35

09 November 2018

“Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Don’t ever let this saying become a platitude.

When disaster strikes, whether natural or manmade, one of the most common platitudes we hear thereafter is, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

In the past several years the expression has seen a bit of backlash. Mainly because the people who say it have turned it into an empty, hypocritical saying. By their actions, they demonstrate they’re not really thinking of the disaster victims. And either they’re also not praying, or they’re praying in some manner that doesn’t change ’em whatsoever—contrary to how we all know prayer is supposed to work.

To be fair, some of the backlash comes from nontheists who are pretty sure prayer is bunk: Nobody’s listening, so we Christians are only talking to the sky; nobody’s interacting with us, so we Christians aren’t gonna change. Prayers are therefore just as useless as when some pagans attempt to send positive thoughts, vibes, and energy towards the needy: All they actually do is psyche themselves into feeling really happy things, then feel a little burst of euphoria which they figure is them “releasing” those thoughts into the universe—and then they’re back to life as usual. Unless the happy thoughts get ’em to deliberately behave in more positive, productive ways towards those around them, the universe is no different. Nor better.

Give you an example. One of the United States’ recent mass shootings might take out more masses than usual. The news media covers it like crazy; the public is horrified; the usual senators tweet that their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims and their families. And those who want gun restrictions object: These particular senators aren’t gonna change the gun laws whatsoever. If anything they’ll try all the harder to eliminate gun restrictions. Which means more mass shootings are inevitable. So what good are those senators’ thoughts and prayers?

I mean, functionally it’s the same as when James objected to “faith” which lacked works:

James 2.14-17 KWL
14 What’s the point, my fellow Christians, when anyone claims to have faith and takes no action?
This “faith” doesn’t save them.
15 When a Christian brother or sister becomes destitute, lacks daily food,
16 and one of you tells them, “Go in peace! May you be warm and fed,”
and doesn’t give them anything useful for their body, what’s the point?
17 This “faith,” when it takes no action, is dead to the core.

Our “thoughts and prayers” frequently aren’t any different than wishing the needy well, but doing nothing to make ’em less needy. Sometimes out of our own laziness, sometimes our own ill will. And the needy aren’t dense. They see the irreligiousness of it. They’re calling us on it. Rightly so.

If our thoughts and prayers do nothing, our faith is dead.

08 November 2018

Should you lead a small group?

Basically, get over yourself.

If your church doesn’t have a small group to join—or does, but not the sort of small group you’d really like to join—you do realize you can start one, right?

They’re not at all hard to start. I’ve started many. Pick some people whom you’d like to involved in your group, pick a time and place, and start meeting. Since you’re doing this above board (right?) let your church leadership know you’re meeting, but otherwise that’s all it really takes.

There are only three things that’d prevent you from starting such a group:

  • YOU. You don’t wanna run one, don’t have the time, or don’t feel you’re qualified.
  • YOUR PEOPLE. They don’t wanna come. Or they’re awful.
  • YOUR CHURCH LEADERS. They don’t want one.

I’ll deal with each of these issues in turn. First, let’s talk about you.

A lot of Christians would love certain ministries to exist in their churches… but they don’t. ’Cause reasons. They might cost money, or the church lacks proper facilities, or Jesus hasn’t specifically appeared to them in a vision and ordered, “Go thou and start a ministry.” Whatever lame excuse works for them. The reality is just about any Christian could step up and start one, but nobody wants the job. We’re all looking at one another, waiting for somebody else to do something, and in so doing get us off the hook.

“I don’t have the time” is a pretty common excuse. Some ministries do require a time commitment. A bible study requires prep time, ’cause the study leader actually has to study! A book study requires that somebody reads the book, right? So that’s a chunk of time you’ve gotta carve out from the rest of your week… which you were planning to use to watch football, play a video game, binge-watch a TV series, read a novel, sleep in on Saturday, or some other recreational activity which doesn’t build relationships with your family members. Much less the people of your church.

“I don’t feel qualified” is likewise a common excuse: Christians feel they need some training or education before they can lead others. And yeah, it wouldn’t hurt to read a book, take a class, or listen to podcasts about leadership. But God’s only qualification for Christian leaders is maturity: We gotta be fruitful Christians who can encourage others to likewise produce the Spirit’s fruit. Most of us have no problem organizing parties, or coordinating friends to meet up at some event, and really that is the extent of the actual “leadership” necessary for small groups. Seriously. Just get ’em to show up!

Our personal excuses for not starting a small group are, bluntly, crap. Don’t kid yourself. If you wanna start a small group, ain’t nothing but your own immaturity stopping you.