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16 July 2019

The person who just bursts into prayer.

You might’ve been in this scenario: You’re talking with a fellow Christian about something. Could be any subject; doesn’t entirely matter. But at some point, something you mention gets ’em riled up. They wanna stop your conversation, and pray about that. Immediately. This instant. Before any more time elapses.

…Okay. Nothing wrong with prayer, so you do.

But it’s not a simple, “Lord Jesus, you know best; sort this out; amen.” Nor one of its 30-second, slightly longer relatives. It’s a full-on loud, vigorous prayer. Goes on for a while; almost as if the petitioner is trying to filibuster God.

Then they finally stop, and you can go back to your conversation. Except you’re sorta thinking, “What was that all about?”

I mean, if it were anybody but God we’re talking about—if they suddenly interrupted your conversation because they needed to talk to their spouse, then spent ten minutes shouting into their phone—you’d think something was wrong with their relationship, right? Something unhealthy’s going on.

Same deal here. We’re talking about a variant of the street-corner show-off: Somebody who wants to show off what a good prayer intercessor they are, and doing so by breaking out in intercession at the drop of a hat. Maybe they don’t think it’s showing off ’cause they’ve been doing it for years, and it’s just what they do now. But I guarantee you it began with showing off.

If a person has so little patience (a fruit of the Spirit, you recall) they simply can’t wait to pray, as if their prayers are the only thing keeping God from springing into action… yep, we’re dealing with ego. Immaturity. Showing off. Hypocrisy.

So what do we do when people interrupt a conversation with, “I wanna pray about this right now?”

Well first of all, read the situation. If you don’t know that this person wants to play “prayer warrior” on you—if they’re an immature Christian who’s not a show-off, and legitimately wants prayer because they’re really emotional right now—you don’t have to worry about discouraging bad behavior. You really oughta pray for them. So do.

Otherwise simply say, “We can pray about it later.”

Because you can. God’s not limited by time. If you pray for something after it happens, your prayers can actually still influence what happens. It’s never too late to pray for things. The only time you ever need to pray right this moment, is when the Holy Spirit orders you to pray right this moment. The rest of the time, relax.

But the immature Christian is gonna lack self-control, and gonna go bonkers at the idea. Because you’re missing an opportunity. There’s an open door right now, and God might shut it on you! There’s a kairos-moment that’s passing you by! Whatever their clichéd excuse for their bad behavior, it’s gonna eat ’em alive till they scratch that itch. And they’re actually gonna blame that uncontrollable urge on the Holy Spirit, as if it’s his idea for them to lose control in fervent prayer. It’s really not.

Whenever I’ve said, “Let’s pray about it later,” I’ve actually been accused of not trusting God enough to pray about it now. To which I responded, “You really think God’s gonna ding us for being patient? He’s the one who tells us to be patient. Love is patient.” 1Co 13.4 It shut that person up, but don’t be surprised if a rational response doesn’t work on everyone. When people get emotional, they don’t wanna hear logic. They just wanna act, and don’t want anyone to tell them different. It’s fleshly thinking, but that’s just how immature Christians behave.

Praying immediately.

I will say that in nearly every other circumstance, it’s a good idea, and a good habit to get into, to immediately pray whenever we see a need. We might forget to pray about it later. Takes very little effort to say briefly to God, “Lord Jesus, you know best; sort this out; amen.” Or “Christ have mercy.” Whatever.

At the same time, it’s important to remember Jesus wants these prayers to remain private. Mt 6.6 For the usual reasons: We don’t wanna show off, we don’t want peer pressure to influence our prayers, we wanna stay entirely open and honest with God.

Immature Christians don’t get this. They’re correct in that we oughta pray about such things. They’re right to want to pray. But they take what oughta be a private conversation, and do it for an audience. Even if it’s an audience of one—you—it’s an audience. Because they know they’re being overheard, they’re gonna keep that audience in mind, and not be as honest and open with God as they should. They unintentionally slide into hypocrisy. And often it’s not unintentional.

If they utterly ignore your requests and pray anyway, leave. Don’t storm out; don’t return rudeness for rudeness. Be kind. But leave. Tell them, “I can tell your conversation with God is very emotional, so it needs to be private, so it’s not appropriate for me to be here.” Sometimes they actually stop, ’cause what good is showing off without an audience? Other times they brush you off and keep right on praying, ’cause they figure they’re in the right; it’s a pride thing, and more immature behavior. If they stop, stay. If not, leave.

And if they ask you to say the prayer… okay! “Lord Jesus, you know best; sort this out; amen.” Praying in public should be intentional and efficient, ’cause you wanna minimize the showing off, and simply tell God what needs to be said. Be a good example.

Prayer.

15 July 2019

Curing a blind man… on Sabbath.

John 9.1-14.

Previously I wrote about some blind guy Jesus cured with spit. Today I figured I’d jump to the other story of Jesus curing a blind guy with spit. That one is only found in Mark; this one comes from John. And this story is probably better-known because it created a huge controversy… ’cause Jesus cured the guy on Sabbath, ’cause he’s the Sabbath’s master.

The story begins with a lesson, ’cause Jesus’s students see the blind guy and make the typical human assumption: He’s blind because of karma. Either he did something, or his parents did something, and now he’s suffering the wrath of God for it. It’s a poisonous attitude too, ’cause people use it to justify not doing anything for the needy: Hey, they’re needy because they deserve it, and who are we to undo God’s righteous judgment? (Or the judgment of the universe, or the marketplace; whatever god you’re into.)

John 9.1-3 KWL
1 Passing by, Jesus saw a person, blind from birth.
2 His students questioned him, saying, “Rabbi, between this man or his parents,
who sinned so he’d be born blind?
3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents.
He was born blind so God’s works could be revealed through him.”

Determinists make the mistake of presuming Jesus’s answer applies to every situation. This, they say, proves every disability, every birth defect, every type of human suffering, is so God’s works can be revealed, and God can gain glory. God makes people suffer so God can cure their suffering, and show off his power. God makes us needy so he can take care of our needs, and show off his power. And then we’ll worship him.

Um… if you set fire to a building so you can rescue people from the burning building, you’re not a hero; you’re an arsonist. Likewise if God creates evil so he can save us from this evil, he’s not good; he’s evil. Don’t go there.

I’m sure determinists mean well, but their beliefs really mangle their theodicy. God’s not creating problems just so he can solve them, and look good in so doing. God’s solving the problems we created with our sins. Jesus died for our transgressions, not for our falling into the booby traps he sovereignly set in our paths. He’s not the trickster god the nontheists imagine. He’s rescuing us from the natural consequences of our sins: Suffering and death.

And yeah, sometimes blindness is the result of those natural consequences. Sometimes a man is born blind because his parents did sin. Sometimes a woman later goes blind because of her own sins. Jesus’s kids knew this, so it wasn’t totally invalid for them to presume sin was the root cause of this man’s circumstances. But neither is it the only possibility. Sometimes accidents happen; some meaningless thing which has nothing to do with sin or judgment or God or any conscious decision. Life sucks that way.

In this specific person’s situation, he was blind because God was gonna do stuff through his blindness. Talk to certain blind people, and they’ll tell you their blindness was an unexpected blessing. Because they can’t see, they have to depend on their other senses. (Usually this is described as “all your other senses get sharper,” but they don’t just do this on their own; they get sharper because you pay more attention to them.) As a result they feel things others don’t notice, hear things we overlook, smell and taste what we take for granted, and are much better at discerning their environment than people who solely depend on their eyes. Disabled people tend to hear God better than able-bodied people. (That is, when they’re not bitter at him for not curing them on their timetable.)

And that’s what you’ll see later: This blind guy realized who Jesus is. Much better than the other folks in this chapter. His mind was sharper than theirs. Which of course it would be; without his eyes, he had to use his mind to observe his world. His blindness was preparation for God’s revelation.

12 July 2019

The Graham rule.

Here’s a big excerpt from one of evangelist Billy Graham’s autobiographies (yep, he wrote more than one), Just As I Am. It’s a good read.

From time to time Cliff [Barrows], Bev [George Beverly Shea], Grady [Wilson], and I talked among ourselves about the recurring problems many evangelists seemed to have, and about the poor image so-called mass evangelism had in the eyes of many people. Sinclair Lewis’s fictional character Elmer Gantry unquestionably had given traveling evangelists a bad name. To our sorrow, we knew that some evangelists were not much better than Lewis’s scornful caricature.

One afternoon during the Modesto meetings, I called the Team together to discuss the problem. Then I asked them to go to their rooms for an hour and list all the problems they could think of that evangelists and evangelism encountered.

When they returned, the lists were remarkably similar, and in a short amount of time, we made a series of resolutions or commitments among ourselves that would guide us in our future evangelistic work. In reality, it was more of an informal understanding among ourselves—a shared commitment to do all we could to uphold the Bible’s standard of absolute integrity and purity for evangelists.

The first point on our combined list was money. […]

The second item on the list was the danger of sexual immorality. We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: “Flee… youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 2:22, KJV).

Our third concern was the tendency of many evangelists to carry on their work apart from the local church, even to criticize local pastors and churches openly and scathingly. […]

The fourth and final issue was publicity. The tendency among some evangelists was to exaggerate their successes or claim higher attendance numbers than they really had. […]

So much for the Modesto Manifesto, as Cliff called it in later years. In reality it did not mark a radical departure for us; we had always held these principles. It did, however, settle in our hearts and minds, once and for all, the determination that integrity would be the hallmark of both our lives and our ministry. Graham 127–129

Graham’s music director Cliff Barrows called all of these resolutions, made in 1948, “the Modesto Manifesto.” It was their way of avoiding the scandalous reputation of con-artist evangelists, like we see in the documentary Marjoe, or the novel Elmer Gantry (another good read, by the way). The goal was to be far, far better than that—and get those concerns out of the way so they could focus on sharing the gospel.

But more recently certain politicians, including our current vice president, have made the national news because they observe one resolution of the four. The second one. The sexual-immorality one. Where they’re not gonna be alone in a room with any woman other than their wives, for fear of the appearance of evil. Not the actual evil themselves; they’re pretty sure they can keep their zipper up. (Not that Bill Gothard ever needed to undo clothing.)

They call it “the Billy Graham rule.” And to the world outside the Bible Belt, it strikes ’em as ridiculous. You can’t be alone in a room with a woman? How in the world are you gonna have private meetings with women constituents? With women staffers? Are you this paranoid about women? Or have you this little self-control?—that every time you’re alone with a woman you’re gonna assault her? You gotta always have a chaperone around? Is that feasable? Are taxpayer dollars gonna pay for this full-time chaperone?

Now inside the Bible Belt, and the conservative Christian subculture, the Graham rule makes perfect sense. And it’s everywhere. And it’s mandatory, in some churches. I’ve worked for ministries where they absolutely forbade one man and one woman to be alone in a room, or a car, together. Because like Graham and his team, we all knew people who slipped up in this area. Not about people who did this; personally knew people who did this. In my life thus far, I’ve had five pastors whose ministry-related sexual activity became public scandal. And that’s just the people who got caught.

So yeah, there’s a need for accountability guidelines like the Graham rule. Question is, should it specifically be the Graham rule? Because the pagans who think it weird and wrong, have a valid point: How can you provide equal access to your constituents if you need a chaperone for half of them? How does that not perpetuate a sexist power structure?

Stuff to think about. So I did.

11 July 2019

The fruit of holiness: Let’s get weird.

Holiness means we’re to stand out from the rest of the world. And, to a degree, the rest of Christendom.

Paul’s list of the Spirit’s fruit in Galatians 5 isn’t comprehensive, and isn’t really meant to be.

I gotta point that out every time I talk about a fruit which isn’t on Paul’s list, ’cause there’s always some numbnut who says, “That’s not in Galatians 5.” Usually someone who doesn’t like the fruit I’m talking about, so here’s their loophole. Yeah, well, there are other apostles who wrote bible, and some of ’em talked about other fruit. Like Simon Peter:

1 Peter 1.13-16 KWL
13 So, “girding the loins” of your thinking, being sober,
hope till the end for the grace which Christ Jesus’s revelation brought you.
14 Do it like obedient children, not conforming to the same old patterns of your ignorant desires,
15 but like the holy one who called you.
Become holy yourselves, in your whole lifestyle.
16 For it’s written, “You’ll be holy, because I’m holy.” Lv 19.2

God expects us to be holy, which we misinterpret as “good” or “clean,” but really means separate: God wants us to stand out from the rest of the world. Be unique. Be weird. Be better. Don’t conform to a culture that doesn’t know what it’s doing or where it’s going. Be like God.

But if we’re to be holy, we need God’s power. We can’t achieve holiness on our own. (Much as some of us might like to imagine we can.) Trying to stand out without God’s fruit, especially his love and goodness, is gonna wind up arrogant and proud… and not so good. We need help!—and the Holy Spirit provides it. ’Cause our relationship with God should produce goodness, rightness, fairness, love, joy, and other such fruit.

So yeah: God calls us to be unique. What’s that look like?

Well, looking at the ancient Hebrews, there were certain oddball things God expected of ’em. A few commands in the Law which instructed the Hebrews to be, well, weird. They had to wear certain fabrics, or decorate themselves and their buildings a certain way. They had to eat certain animals, and not others. They had to celebrate certain festivals, or worship God in certain ways. God gives no explanation for many of these behaviors except to say,

Leviticus 20.23-24 KWL
23 “Don’t walk in the grooves of the nations I sent away from you.
For they did all those things—and I loathe them.
24 I told you, ‘You possess their ground. I give it to you to inherit—land flowing with milk and honey.’
I’m your LORD God, who separates you from the peoples.”

That’s the very context of the statement Peter quoted:

Leviticus 20.26 KWL
“Be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy.
I separated you from the peoples for myself.”

So does the Hebrews’ odd behavior mean Christians are meant to have likewise odd behaviors? Well, if you ask your average pagan, mission accomplished! Some of us are downright weird. We have our own subculture, our own popular culture within the subculture (i.e. favorite Christian musicians, authors, artists, movies, etc.), our own lingo, our own political movements (which are just as willing as the other political movements to compromise everything we hold dear), and all sorts of uniquely Christian or Christianist traits which make us stand out from everyone else.

Does God want his people to be weirdos? Obviously yes. We’re not to conform to the patterns of this world; Ro 12.2 we’re to follow Jesus. If the rest of the world goes one way, and Jesus another, we follow Jesus. Sometimes because the world is wrong… and sometimes simply because the behavior may not be evil in itself, but conformity is thoughtless, brain-dead behavior, and Jesus wants his followers to think. Holiness means we don’t simply go along with every benign fad there is, just to fit in.

Because “fitting in” is one of the faster ways to derail our relationship with Jesus.

10 July 2019

Cults: When churches go very, very wrong.

Sometimes churches are wrong. And sometimes they wander into cult territory.

CULT kəlt noun. A religion centered on one particular individual or figurehead.
2. A group (usually small) whose religious beliefs and practices are outside the norm: Too controlling, too strange, too devilish.
3. A misplaced devotion to a particular person or thing.
4. A heretic Christian church.
[Cultic 'kəl.tɪk adjective, cultish 'kəl.tɪʃ adjective, cultism 'kəl.tiz.əm noun.]

I throw this word “cult” around a lot, so I’d better define it. First, what other folks mean by “cult,” all of which are included in the above definition:

  • Sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists whose job descriptions end in -ist, tend to use definition #1: A cult is any religion with a guru in charge. And technically Christianity falls under this definition, ’cause we got Jesus.
  • Popular culture leans towards definition #2: A cult is a creepy religion. If it weirds them out in any way, they call it a cult. Even if it’s Christianity. If we trust Jesus a little too much for their comfort, they’ll call us cultish.
  • And popular Christian culture leans towards definition #4: A cult is a heretic church.

The popular Christian definition originated when Charles S. Braden used it, in his 1949 book These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements to mean

any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture. Braden xii

And that’s the definition Walter R. Martin went with in his popular book The Kingdom of the Cults. It’s a book I oughta plug, since it’s mighty useful: It explains how certain churches deviate from orthodox Christianity.

But thanks to these guys, when an Evangelical Christian says “cult,” they mean “heretic.”

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses and Oneness Pentecostals don’t believe in the trinity: Cults.
  • Latter-Day Saints say Jesus (and for that matter the Father) is a created being: Cult.
  • Christian Scientists claim death is an illusion, and therefore Jesus didn’t literally die: Cult.
  • Muslims and Buddhists don’t believe Jesus is God: Cults.

Yep, doesn’t even matter if these groups don’t consider themselves Christian. Evangelicals will freely stick that label “cult” on any religion they consider heretic. Depending on how Fundamentalist they get—by which I mean how narrowly they define orthodoxy—everything can be a cult but their group. I grew up in such churches: If they strongly believe women shouldn’t wear makeup, yet your church lets ’em, they’ll call you a cult. Because their religion is so strict, makeup is orthodoxy, and you aren’t orthodox. Today it’s foundation, eyeshadow, blush, and lipstick; tomorrow you’re denouncing God and kissing Satan with tongue.

Of course if your church is that strict and controlling, the cult is sorta on the other foot. (If you don’t mind me mixing a few metaphors there.)