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30 November 2015

The birth of John the baptist.

John’s birth both fulfilled and inspired prophecy.

Luke 1.57-80

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

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

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

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

28 November 2015

Santa Claus and misplaced, misunderstood faith.

It’s not Christian to trick children.

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

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

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

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

“He’s not?” asked the girl.

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

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

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

26 November 2015

Blaspheming the Holy Spirit: The unforgiven sin.

Yep, it’s a big big deal.

Mark 3.28-30 • Matthew 12.31-32 • Luke 12.10

Fairly soon after we become Christians, we hear a rumor going round that there’s such a thing as an unpardonable sin: If we commit it, we’re doomed. God’s grace apparently has a limit, and this crosses it. Do it and you’re going to hell. Game over, man, game over.

Problem is, the rumor doesn’t always tell people what this unpardonable sin is. I’ve had newbies ask me whether it was murder. (Nope; Moses and David were murderers, y’know. Arguably so was Paul.) Others figure any of the seven deadly sins are unpardonable. (Nope; still not it.) When I was a kid, I thought cursing God would do it. (Still nope.) According to Jesus, it’s when we commit the sin of blasphemy—but not against the Father nor himself, but specifically against the Holy Spirit.

Turns up in the gospels, right after Jesus had to correct the Pharisee scribes for accusing him of using Satan to perform exorcisms.

Mark 3.28-30 KWL
28 “Amen! I promise you every sin will be forgiven humanity’s children,
and every blasphemy, however often people blaspheme.
29 But when anyone blasphemes the Holy Spirit they aren’t forgiven in the age to come:
In that age, they’ll be liable for a crime.”
30 For the scribes were saying, “Jesus has an unclean spirit.”
Matthew 12.31-32 KWL
31 “This is why I tell you every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people.
But blaspheming the Spirit won’t be forgiven.
32 Whenever one says a word against the Son of Man, it’ll be forgiven them.
But whenever it’s said against the Holy Spirit, it won’t be forgiven them.
Neither in this age, nor in the next.”
Lk 12.10 KWL
“And anyone who’ll say a word about the Son of Man will be forgiven.
But speaking in blasphemy about the Holy Spirit won’t be forgiven.”

So there y’go: Everyone can be forgiven anything and everything. But the single, massive exception is when people blaspheme the Holy Spirit. Do that, and you’re sitting out the age to come. No New Jerusalem for you. Just weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Scary, right? Hence people wanna make sure they never, ever commit this crime.

Problem is, instead of learning what blasphemy is and avoiding it, and particularly avoiding it when it comes the Spirit, many foolish Christians have invented some strange explanations and redefinitions of what blaspheming the Spirit means. Largely because what they and their friends are currently doing comes mighty close to it. If not actually goes there already. And they’re in deep denial about it.


25 November 2015

Thanksgiving. The prayer, not the day.

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

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

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

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

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

24 November 2015

Which translation of the bible is best?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 November 2015

Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.

In which both of them prophesy to one another.

Luke 1.39-56

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

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

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

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

21 November 2015

My irritating politics.

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

My politics annoy people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 November 2015

“Lay down your life” means what now?

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

John 15.13

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

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

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

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

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

19 November 2015

Humanity is messed up, yo.

Sin damaged us to the degree Jesus had to defeat it. Don’t think you can defeat it without him.

Deprave /di'preɪv/ v. To make immoral, wicked, or twisted.
[Depraved /di'preɪvəd/ adj.]
Total depravity /'toʊ.dəl di'prøv.ə.di/ n. The Christian belief that unregenerate human nature is thoroughly corrupt, sinful, and self-centered.
2. The Calvinist belief that all human nature, regenerate or not, is this way.
[Totally depraved /'toʊ.də.li di'preɪvəd/ adj.]

Present-day Christianity has been heavily influenced by popular culture and popular philosophy. And vice-versa. Sometimes for good; sometimes really not.

Humanism, fr’instance. It’s the belief humans have great potential to do good things. It emphasizes rejecting our instinctive, conditioned behavior, and solving our problems through rational, selfless ways. It emphasizes human rights and human worth. After all, God figures we have infinite worth: He loved us so much, he sent us his Son. Jn 3.16

Problem is, one of humanism’s core beliefs is that humans are inherently good. We were born good, humanists insist. Not evil. We become evil because we have evil influences, like evil parents, evil neighbors, evil authorities, evil media. Those folks may have taught us to be evil, but we can unlearn it, and choose to be good.

And many of us Christians have embraced the idea. Why yes, they argue, we are good. For when God created the world and humans, didn’t he declare his entire creation “very good”? Ge 1.31 Why, what could be more innocent and sinless than a newborn baby? Certainly we’re born good. But we got corrupted. Stupid parents. Stupid mass media. Stupid government. It’s all their fault. If they’d all just leave us alone, to do as we naturally will, we could be free and libertarian and sinless.

Well. Those who think nothing’s more sinless than a baby clearly haven’t raised one. Why do babies cry? ’Cause they want stuff. And as soon as they’re old enough to swipe it, or shove other kids out of the way in order to get it, they will. As soon as they figure out the word “no!” they use it. A lot.

Humans don’t have to learn to be selfish. We are selfish. Inherently: It’s part of our self-preservation instinct. We have this whole system of pain sensors in our body which warn us if we’re gonna seriously damage ourselves. (Or inform us we’re seriously damaged.) So if animals don’t look out for number one, they won’t survive.

Humans have simply taken that natural instinct, and dialed it way up. Everything we do is about defending ourselves, getting our way, making ourselves comfortable—physically and emotionally. We don’t always go about it the right way, but that’s our motive. And if you get in the way of our wants, we’ll shove you aside. What’s good isn’t the goal; what’s good for us, or what we consider good, is.

We aren’t naturally good. We have to be taught what that is. Problem is, who’s doing the teaching? Other selfish humans.

Yep, it’s corruption all the way down. All the way back. Started with the very first humans. When God first created ’em, they were good. They changed. Lots changed.

18 November 2015

Leading people in the sinner’s prayer.

When people come to Jesus, they gotta pray something. This is it.

Among the very first Christians, when people wanted to become Christian, they got baptized. Right away. Soonest they could find water, in they went. Splash, and you’re Christian.

By the end of the first century, Christians insisted new believers oughta fast a day or two before baptism. By the third century, there was a whole catechism thing: You had to learn everything Christianity teaches, and then if you still wanted in, you’d get baptized, and you were in. Lotta churches still work that way. But this process could take weeks, even months—and when we compare the whole catechism/baptism process to what we read in Acts, it’s like, “If people wanna follow Jesus, why are we making ’em wait so long and jump through so many hoops? The apostles didn’t.”

Weirdly, instead of dropping all the fasting and catechism and preparation, and just baptizing newbies straight away, a lot of churches kept all that and just added the sinner’s prayer—the first prayer we pray to Jesus, asking him to become our Lord, promising to follow him. And then, we figure, we’re in. We’ll do that catechism/baptism stuff later. But we start with the sinner’s prayer. ’Cause “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Ro 10.9 NLT So there ya go. Easy-peasy-follow-Jeezy.

Well, it’s a little tricky. Y’see, those very same churches who push the sinner’s prayer idea, also like to push the extemporaneous prayer idea. They believe rote prayers are sorta dead religion—you don’t pray them because you honestly mean them, but because they’re what’s expected of Christians, and it’s more important to pray from your heart than recite somebody else’s prayer. So even though it’d be extremely useful for there to be a standard sinner’s prayer, there’s not. If you wanna lead people to Jesus, and you want them to pray the sinner’s prayer, you’re gonna have to come up with one. On your own.

…Nah, you don’t really. I’m not gonna leave you hanging. I’ll teach you one.

17 November 2015

…Don’t we all have some fundamental beliefs?

Fundies are all about our core beliefs. Unfortunately some of ’em insist on too many core beliefs.

Fundamentalist /fən.də'mɛn.(t)əl.ɪst/ adj. Adheres to certain beliefs as necessary and foundational.
2. Theologically (and politically) conservative in their religion.
3. [capitalized] Has to do with the 20th-century movement which considers certain Christian beliefs mandatory.
[Fundamentalism /fən.də'mɛn.(t)əl.ɪz.əm/ n., Fundie /'fən.di/ adj.]

I grew up Fundamentalist, and refer to Fundies from time to time. But I need to explain what I mean by the term. Too many people use it, and use it wrong.

For most folks fundamentalist is just another word for conservative. If you’re a Fundie, you mean conservative like you are. If you’re not, you just mean more conservative than you: You may believe women can minister, but Fundies sure don’t. You may believe Jesus can save anyone and everyone, but Fundies sure don’t. Or conversely, you may not believe miracles still happen, but Fundies sure do. It’s not all that consistent a definition.

But properly, a fundamentalist is someone who believes Christianity has fundamentals—non-negotiable beliefs which we have to adhere to in order to still call ourselves Christian.

Wait, don’t we all do that?

You’d assume so. But capital-F Fundamentalists are pretty sure we don’t. They believe there are some churches who don’t recognize Jesus is Lord and God. Don’t believe God’s a trinity. Can’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin, raised from the dead, or is coming back. Don’t trust the bible. Don’t really trust Jesus to save them; they gotta earn salvation by being good. You know, the basics. Stuff which defines orthodox Christianity. But Fundamentalist worry these ground-floor ideas have been compromised, and want no part of any Christianity which won’t defend ’em. Real Christians embrace the fundamentals.

So it’s not wrong to say fundamentalism is conservative. The very definition of conservatism is to point backwards to the tried-and-true as our objective standards.

Here’s the catch; here’s why Christians and pagans alike are confused as to what a Fundamentalist is: Not every conservative is pointing back to the same past.

Me, I’m pointing back to the first-century apostolic church of Christ Jesus. Or to the creeds which the ancient Christians sorted out. Sometimes to the beginnings of my own denomination.

And another is pointing back to “the way we’ve always done things.” Which really means the way they remember they’ve always done things; some of those traditions only go back 20 or 40 years. Or two generations. Or a century, like my denomination. The Pharisees’ “tradition of the elders” only extended back about 50 years before Jesus began to critique it. Hardly that ancient.

Way too many of these traditions date back… to the upper-class customs of the American South during the Jim Crow segregationist era. In other words, not pointing to Christianity at all, but a particularly heinous form of Christianism, which they remember fondly only because it wasn’t persecuting them.

That is the form of fundamentalism I object to. Not the folks who wanna keep Christianity orthodox, who wanna make sure we follow Jesus, know our bibles, believe the right things, and do good deeds for the right reasons. I’m all for that. I’m not for the false religion of conforming to a social standard which only appears moral, and is really patriarchy, racism, earthly power, control, greed, and hypocrisy.

16 November 2015

How Mary became Jesus’s mother.

Some of the story behind Mary of Nazareth.

Luke 1.26-38

Last week John’s birth was foretold; this week Jesus’s. Goes like so.

Luke 1.26-38 KWL
26 In Elizabeth’s sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a Galilean town called Nazareth,
27 to a young woman affianced to a man of David’s house, named Joseph;
a young woman named Mary.
28 Entering, the angel said, “Hail, your honor! The Lord’s with you.
You’re blessed above all women.
29 She was alarmed by this message, and was speculating about what this greeting meant.
30 The angel told her, “Don’t fear, Mary: You’ve found grace with God.
31 Look, you’ll conceive in your womb. You’ll give birth to a son. You’ll name him Jesus.
32 He’ll be great. He’ll be called the Most High’s son.
The Lord will give him his ancestor David’s throne.
33 He’ll be king over Jacob’s house in the age to come. His kingdom will never end.”
34 Mary told the angel, “How will this happen?—since I’ve not been with a man.”
35 In reply the angel told her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.
The Most High’s power will envelop you
and the holy one produced will be called God’s son.
36 And look: Your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age.
This is actually her sixth month—and she was called sterile.
37 No word of God is impossible.”
38 Mary said, “Look: I’m the Lord’s slave.
I hope it happens according to your word.” The angel left her.

In Orthodox tradition, Mary was at the Nazareth well, so most Christian art depicts her there, with Gabriel either greeting her, or saying something profound as she looks downward in humility. Something pious, and posed—you know, like artist’s models will do.

Today, the well, and the cave it’s in, is underneath St. Gabriel’s Church in Nazareth. As our tour guide rightly pointed out, if it wasn’t the very place Gabriel appeared to Mary, it doesn’t entirely matter; Mary did go to this well to get water, since it’s Nazareth’s only natural water source. (As a city of 74,000 today, it has to tap a few additional water sources.)

When the art doesn’t depict Mary at a well, it’s often of her at home. Sounds reasonable, ’cause Luke says Gabriel entered, and we usually figure that’d be a building. The Roman Catholics built a chapel, the Basilica of the Annunciation, over the cave where they think Mary’s family lived. Yep, another cave. Caves are all over Israel, and I remind you Jesus was both born in, and buried in, caves. Once again, western art got it wrong: Mary’s family could hardly have afforded the Roman villas they often depict her in. Nazareth was just not that sort of town.

14 November 2015

How CCLI shakes down your church.

Thanks to CCLI, copyright-exempt churches across the United States are paying a lot of unnecessary royalties.

One of my responsibilities at my church is multimedia. Yep, I’m the guy who makes sure the words to the worship songs are on the screen, so you can sing along to them.

When I was a kid we still had hymnals. Then we upgraded to overhead projectors; then PowerPoint; then specialized multimedia presentation software which was pretty much PowerPoint with a huge database of songs. Currently I’m using this app called ProPresenter. It’s not bad.

Whether you’re using one app or another, it pretty much works the same way: Our worship leader tells me which songs she intends to inflict on us Sunday morning. If I don’t already have slides for that song, I hop onto the CCLI database and get the lyrics. Then make slides for the verses, the chorus, the bridge, the “extemporaneous riffs” which are really just imitations of what the original musicians did on their YouTube video, and there y’go. Ready for Sunday.

What’s CCLI? It’s Christian Copyright Licensing International, a royalty collection agency. They charge each church an annual fee (anywhere from $49 to $4,260, depending on size), which grants permission to collect sheet music from their site. Chord, lead, or vocal sheets, and their site can transpose it into other keys for you. (That feature’s actually quite handy.) Once you inform them which songs you’ve used, they’ll send royalties to the artists.

And, they claim, you need them. If you do all sorts of things in your church—display or photocopy lyrics, distribute chord sheets, sing popular songs—you need CCLI. What’s implied is you need them lest you violate copyright laws. Point of fact, what you only get from them are sheet music and lyrics.

That’s not nothing. Other lyric websites might misspell words, mix up lyrics, forget to capitalize God’s pronouns, and get the chords wrong. Although years ago I heard Phil Keaggy complain CCLI didn’t get his chords right either, which is why his fans were having such trouble duplicating one of his songs. (To be fair, CCLI probably got the bad info from Keaggy’s publisher, who transcribed the song without any input from Keaggy.)

But copyright protection? Actually, CCLI doesn’t give you that. ’Cause your church doesn’t need it.

You read me right. Your church doesn’t need copyright protection. American copyright laws specifically exempt churches. I’ll quote you the law ’n everything.

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106 [the copyright holder’s rights], the following are not infringements of copyright: […]

(3) performance of a nondramatic literary or musical work or of a dramatico-musical work of a religious nature, or display of a work, in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly[.] 17 USC §110

Meaning, in other words, singing a song in church, whether as worship, or as “special music.” Meaning when you play a song over the loudspeakers.

If you do this in church, you’re fine. You’re legal. The music publishing companies won’t send a jackbooted tach team to interrupt your services and haul the pastors off to music jail. No matter how much the more paranoid folks in your church would love to see that scenario, as proof the world is out to get ’em.

13 November 2015

Back to the Book Pile.

I know it doesn’t float everyone’s boat. Which is weird, because books do float, y’know.

I know; books aren’t everyone’s thing. That’s why, according to Christ Almighty’s stats, October’s Book Pile article was the least-read thing last month. The public has spoken, and it’s a resounding, “Good Lord, Leslie, you write 1,000-word essays and you expect me to throw books on that? What’re you trying to do, kill me?” Followed by a quick Netflix binge, just to get the foul taste out of their system. (Shudder.) Reading. Ugh.

But for the tiny minority who wants to know what literature I’m plowing through, ’cause they figure it’ll give them some insight into my odd little mind, here y’go. Glean what you can from it. This month:

Next month, more books. ’Cause I’m gonna keep reading… and gonna keep ranting about the stuff I read, whether it’s the obligatory book-review stuff, or the things I read for fun. Yeah, I read theology books for fun. It’s how I roll.

12 November 2015

Sealed—not yet baptized—with the Holy Spirit.

’Cause there’s a difference between the two, despite what non-charismatics claim.

Ephesians 1.13-14 KWL
13 In Christ you heard the truthful word—the good news of your salvation!
In Christ you believed; you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit!
14 He’s the down payment of our inheritance—
releasing our trust fund—praising God’s glory.

’Member when you got saved? Maybe not; maybe it was a gradual process. Doesn’t matter. At some point in that process God decided to take up residence in your life. We call it indwelling. You got “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,” as Paul put it. He’s in you. Right now. Whispering God’s will into you. Hope you’re listening.

Now, non-charismatics claim when the Spirit gets into us like that, yeah it’s called indwelling, but it’s also called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Lk 3.16, Ac 1.4-5 Those two events, they insist, are one and the same. ’Cause the Holy Spirit gets in you and on you, kinda like the water does in the baptismal when you don’t hold your nose.

Why do they claim this? ’Cause they’re non-charismatics. A charismatic believes God absolutely does miracles in the present day. A non-charismatic really doesn’t think so. Some of ’em will be full-on cessationist and claim the miracles stopped back in bible times. Others know better—why even pray, why even ask God for stuff, if he’s tied his own hands and won’t intervene? But they either insist miracles are rare, ’cause for some reason God doesn’t want to overplay his hand; or they insist God only works through natural means, not supernatural.

And if God doesn’t do supernatural stuff, the Holy Spirit’s baptism doesn’t look like it does in Acts 2. Instead it’s invisible. Unnoticeable. Can’t tell the difference between Spirit baptism and when your phone starts to vibrate in your pants pocket. Plus it happens when you got saved: When you were sealed to the Spirit, you were simultaneously baptized by him. Didn’t you feel great when you came to Jesus? Well that’s Spirit baptism. You’re welcome.

Charismatics, by comparison, believe Spirit baptism is gonna resemble its description in the bible. Maybe not with rushing wind and tongues of fire. Then again, maybe so. But if that doesn’t happen, there will at least be speaking in tongues—a topic I’ll discuss elsewhere.

But not today. Today I just wanna make clear: Getting sealed with the Spirit is not the same as getting baptized in the Spirit. One happens when you come to Jesus. The other happens when the Spirit decides you’re ready to use his power.

11 November 2015

Memorized any good prayers lately?

Memorize the right prayers, and they’ll help you grow in Christ.

Rote prayer /roʊt pr(eɪ)ər/ n. A prayer we’ve memorized.

How’d you learn your phone number?

Assuming you have; lots of us just trust our phones to remember ’em for us. When I first got my phone number, anytime someone asked for it, I had to look it up. Eventually I got what I thought was a good idea: Convert it to letters! If I couldn’t remember 268-3276, I could sure as heck remember ANT-FARM. (Which is not my actual number; I use it as an example.) Problem is, whenever you sign up for the Starbucks app and tell ’em your phone number is ANT-FARM, they object and demand digits, so now you gotta go through the mental process of “Okay, A is 1…” ’cause you forgot nothing is 1, ’cause in the early days of telephones they saved 1 for long distance numbers. But here I am digressing again.

A blessed few of us have really good memories, and don’t have to resort to silly mental tricks to get those phone numbers down. And most of us just go with blunt-force rote memorization: We recite the number over and over and over and OVER again, till it’s embedded in our memory like a shank in a prison snitch. (Awful simile, but you’ll remember it, won’tcha?)

Okay, so how’d you learn to pray?

Assuming you have; lots of us Christians resort to rote prayers. We learned ’em when we were kids, or we say them so often in church they just kinda stuck in our minds. We learned them by repeating them till they stuck. And when it comes time to pray, that’s what we pray. Like the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven…” and so forth. And it’s totally okay to pray such things, ’cause Jesus said so. “When you pray, say this.” Lk 11.2

Lots of us Christians do rote prayer… and lots of us Christians refuse to do rote prayer. ’Cause somehow we got it into our heads that rote prayer isn’t authentic prayer. “The only real prayer,” such people insist, “is extemporaneous prayer: Use your own words, speak from your heart, and say it to God. Don’t use somebody else’s words. Those aren’t your words. God wants to hear your words.”

Yes he does. But that’s not why we pray rote prayers.

10 November 2015

Taking God’s amazing grace for granted.

Legalism is the opposite of grace. But we’re quick to cry legalism if it gets us out of stuff.

CHEAP GRACE /tʃip greɪs/ n. Treatment of God’s forgiveness, generosity, and loving attitude, as if it’s nothing special; as if it cost him little.

Whenever I bring up the subject of cheap grace, some Christian invariably objects: “Grace is not cheap.” Even if I’ve explained in advance what I mean by cheap grace; even if I’ve written an entire essay defining the idea.

Every. Single. Time.

’Cause some Christians don’t read. The title’s about cheap grace, so they skip to the comments and object: “Grace isn’t cheap!” They see a link to an article about cheap grace, so they respond to the link or the Tweet or the post, “Grace isn’t cheap!” While speaking, I use the words “cheap grace” in a sentence, and they wait for the first chance to interrupt: “Grace isn’t cheap!”

YES. I KNOW. I’M TRYING TO MAKE THAT POINT. I WOULD IF YOUD LISTEN. So can you please keep your knee from jerking just this once, and give me a minute? Okay? (Betcha I’m still gonna get those comments regardless. You just watch. Ugh.)

Adam Clayton Powell Sr. gets credited with coining this term, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer with popularizing the heck out of it in his The Cost of Discipleship. It’s used to describe “grace”—whenever this grace is misdefined and malpracticed by irreligious Christians. As Bonhoeffer put it,

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. “All for sin could not atone.” The world goes on in the same old way, and we are still sinners “even in the best life” as Luther said. Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin. […] Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Bonhoeffer 44-45

That’s cheap grace: Taking expensive, valuable, amazing grace, and demeaning it by using it as a free pass to sin. Taking God’s safety net, and bouncing on it for fun like a trampoline.

Part of the reason people object to the term “cheap grace” is they don’t like to see God’s generosity taken so casually like that. Well, me neither.

Part of it’s ’cause they don’t think God’s grace actually can be cheapened.

09 November 2015

One heck of a birth announcement.

In the other gospels John just shows up. In Luke he’s miraculous.

Luke 1.5-25

Most Christians vastly underestimate the importance and significance of the prophet John bar Zechariah, whom we more commonly know as St. John the baptist.

Largely it’s because we see John as a minor figure, and kinda weird. He showed up, made a lot of noise, preached obedience and repentance… and once Jesus showed up, he faded away. (Or got arrested and beheaded. Same difference.) His only purpose was to point to, and baptize, Jesus, and that done, he died.

Others figure John’s a much bigger deal than that. But only because they believe—incorrectly—that John was the first prophet to appear in 400 years. Supposedly after Malachi finished the Old Testament, God went dark. For four centuries he said nothing and did nothing. Then John shows up, and wham: Prophecy’s back! Revelation is back! The miracles turned back on! God is up to something.

Yeah, that’s entirely wrong. ’Cause

  1. The apocrypha, the “extra books” in non-Protestant bibles, tell of historical events which God was obviously involved in.
  2. Josephus, the first-century Pharisee historian, also told of miracles in those 400 years.
  3. Two, count ’em two, prophets show up to proclaim baby Jesus: Simeon and Anna. Lk 2.25-38 Both of ’em are described as old (Anna was 84) and had likely been prophesying for decades before Jesus was born.

Not to mention the obvious prophetic abilities of Jesus’s parents Joseph and Mary, or John’s parents Zechariah and Elizabeth. In fact everybody with a speaking role in the nativity story (save Herod, of course) was a prophet! But, as usual, cessationist dogma trumps basic reading comprehension.

God has always been talking. There have always been prophets. John didn’t stand out because he was the first prophet of the New Testament era. He stood out because he was an extremely significant prophet: He was Messiah’s herald. And his story begins with an angel, who stands before God’s presence, actually heralding him. Even Messiah’s herald gets the royal treatment. But that’s just a hint as to how important John was, and is.

07 November 2015

Happy holidays!

’Cause there’s more than just your favorite one.

In the United States it’s the holiday season.

Don’t plug your ears and shout at the top of your lungs in angry denial like that. It is so the holiday season. As soon as Halloween is over, out come the Christmas sales, and people start putting mint in everything. You know what we’re ramping up towards.

Some elf overdid it on the sugar.

I get why the holidays bug people. It’s the commercialism. The merchandising. The obligatory traditions which hold no more meaning for you. The mandatory functions which aren’t any fun, like the Christmas pageants where you gotta watch kids and earnest church members, who have no business singing in public, charitably permitted to nonetheless sing in public. Or the naked, unadulterated greed which sucks the soul out of this time of year.

That’s why I advise Christians to redirect their attention to Advent, the 40 days before Jesus’s nativity, starting next Saturday, 14 November 2015. Catholics shorten it to the 25 days before, just like the candy calendars have it: Starts 1 December, ends on Christmas. Eastern churches start it even earlier, on 1 September, and make a fast of it, like Lent. But Advent’s purpose isn’t to deprive ourselves so that Christmas seems way better by comparison. Nor is it to ramp up the pressure to make ready for a Christmas Day super blowout. Properly, it’s the time to set our eyes on Jesus. He came once before; he’s coming back again.

06 November 2015

“If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

Our misbegotten biblical justification to only help out the deserving needy—as we define deserving.

2 Thessalonians 3.10

2 Thessalonians 3.10 KJV
For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.

Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this verse quoted by people who don’t want to give to the needy.

Till recently if you went to any of the grocery stores in my town, you’d find a beggar, holding a sign which generally said, “Help me,” sitting on the sidewalk at the edge of the parking lot, right where the customers drive in and out. I’m serious; any of the stores. They were everywhere. So the city council passed an ordinance moving the beggars 15 feet way. Last week I caught a cop ticketing a beggar who hadn’t been notified.

I don’t know how much money they got from sitting there, but their existence really irritated people. Not because those people are outraged by the plight of the poor in this country. It’s solely because they were begging. As far as the irritated folks are concerned, nobody should beg. Especially when they appear to be able-bodied. If it were them, they’d never beg. People should work for their money.

It’s in the bible, after all. “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” Because God declared “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” Ge 3.19 KJV Work is mandatory. It’s part of the curse upon Adam and all humanity for sin. These beggars clearly weren’t sweating for their bread. (Although to be fair, neither are those of us with white-collar jobs.) So how dare we interfere with God’s decree? We sweat for our bread; they should sweat for their bread. And if you’re one of those bleeding-hearts who give to beggars, you’re violating the scriptures. You think you’re being kind and generous, but you’re encouraging laziness and dependency. Bad Christian.

These are just two of the many passages of the bible misappropriated so we can justify our lack of compassion.

05 November 2015

Getting one’s theological ducks in a row.

’Cause orthodoxy is important. But don’t over-exalt it.

Orthodox /'ɔr.θə.dɑks/ adj. Correct; conforming to what’s commonly or traditionally believed true; generally accepted as right.
2. Usual, conventional, normal, customary.
3. [uppercase] Of the ancient churches originating in the eastern Roman Empire, which formally split from the Roman Catholics in 1054.
[Orthodoxy /'ɔr.θə.dɑks.i/ n.]

I know we Christians teach we’re saved by God’s grace. But way too many of us actually believe we’re saved by orthodoxy.

These Christians call it “saved by faith,” and claim the Protestant reformers actually taught it, and called it sola fide/“faith alone.” “You’re saved by faith alone. So if you don’t have faith—if you don’t believe who God is and what Jesus did—you’re not saved.” Gotta get those beliefs right. Otherwise you’re a heretic, and hell-bound.

It’s a really inaccurate redefinition. Sola fide doesn’t at all refer to salvation by faith alone. ’Cause we’re not saved by faith: We’re saved by grace, remember? Sola fide is about justification—being declared right in God’s sight—by our faith. We’re justified by faith alone. God’s okay with us being in his family and kingdom for one and only one reason: We trust Jesus, Ga 2.16 the one whom he sent us. Jn 6.29 We believe in the Son and get life, whereas those who don’t, won’t. Jn 3.36

Those who try to stretch justification into salvation, insist it’s not just believing in the Son, but believing in all the correct things about him: “Yeah, we believe in Jesus, and it’s just as important we believe in him rightly. We gotta sort out our doctrines so we’re the most proper, correct, infallible Christians ever. So get out that bible and those theology books, ’cause you got a lot of w… Whoops, almost got me to say the W-word. Nope, we’re not saved by works. Ep 2.9 You already knew that. We’re saved by faith. By right faith.”

You can see where it all falls apart. Much as they correctly point out we’re not saved by works, they somehow wanna slip into the mix, without anyone really noticing, the hard work of sorting out our beliefs and becoming orthodox Christians. And convince us if we don’t do it, we’re not really saved—because they don’t believe, can’t believe, God might extend his grace to heretics.

They’re not gracious, so they’re trying to remake God that way too.

04 November 2015

Get in the closet.

It’s about prayer. What’d you think I was writing about?

Matthew 6.7-8

The proper way to pray is aloud.

You’re talking to God, right? Which means you’re talking to God. Not praying silently—in other words thinking at God. You’re speaking to him out loud.

I know; a lot of Christians pray silently, and it’s the only way they pray, ’cause most of the time it’s not appropriate to pray aloud. If everybody in church simultaneously prayed aloud, it’d get loud. If you prayed aloud at work, people’d think you’re weird. If you prayed in public school, some idiot would complain about it. In general, we’re encouraged to pray silently, and that’s understandable in a lot of places. But Christians get the wrong idea and think we’re always to pray silently. No we’re not.

Lookit how Jesus demonstrates prayer in the scriptures. When he went off to pray, even by himself, privately between him and the Father, other people could overhear him. Like in Gethsemane. Mt 26.39, Lk 22.41-42 The reason we even have records in the bible of people’s prayers, is ’cause these folks weren’t silent. They spoke.

I should add: Praying in your mind is much harder than praying aloud. Because the mind wanders. (As it’s supposed to. That’s how the creative process works.) In the middle of our mental conversations with God, stray thoughts pop into our heads. In a verbal conversation, we can choose whether we’ll say such things aloud, but in a mental conversation, we can’t do that: There they are. We just thought ’em. They interrupted our prayers, like a rude friend who thinks he’s being funny, but isn’t. Ordinarily we ignore those thoughts. Now we can’t.

Even the most well-trained minds struggle with that. And a lot of Christians get frustrated with it, so they give up and pray seldom, if at all. Don’t do that. If you lose your train of thought all the time during prayer, stop praying silently. Pray aloud. It helps a lot.

“But what,” Christians object, “about privacy?” Discussions between us and God are often sensitive. We don’t want people listening in on our conversations, like they do when we answer our mobile phones at the coffeehouse. We want privacy. That’s why we go with mental prayers in the first place.

Well, that’s where the prayer closet comes in. Do you have one? If not, get one.

03 November 2015

Our error-free, perfect bible?

It’s not enough to trust the scriptures. Some of us gotta include impossible claims for them.

Inerrancy /ɪn'ɛr.ə n. Belief the bible contains no errors of any kind.
[Inerrantist /ɪn'ɛr.ən.tɪst/]

We Christians put a lot of trust in the scriptures. We’re trusting their authors to steer us right when it comes to God, to Christ Jesus, to salvation, to eternal life. We’re using them as confirmation that the stuff God tells us personally, the stuff he reveals to Christians as we follow him, is valid. We’re basing an awful lot of our beliefs on the bible. It had better be up to the task.

I believe it is. As far as God and Jesus and salvation is concerned, the bible’s infallible. It is an accurate, trustworthy, truthful description of the stuff we need to know to connect with God, and corrects us when we go astray. That’s why God inspired it, why Christians kept it, and why we read it. 2Ti 3.16

Inerrantists claim this isn’t good enough. They insist the bible has no errors. At all. Period.

’Cause in order for the bible to be authoritative, inerrantists figure it has to be perfect—as they define perfect. Errors would make it imperfect. Therefore it can’t have any. And anything which appears to be an error or discrepancy in the scriptures, simply isn’t. Can’t be. There’s gotta be a reasonable explanation for it, and with a little investigation they’ll find it. But it doesn’t matter how much it looks like an error: There are none.

Why do they believe this? Mostly because humans are creatures of extremes. “You believe the bible’s trustworthy? I believe the bible is absolutely error-free. Hah. In your face. You don’t have faith. I have faith.”

Meh. That’s not faith. That’s wishful thinking. ’Cause the bible contains many things which at first glance look like errors. And when you look at them in a little bit more depth… well it’s really hard to explain why they’re not errors.

02 November 2015

Jesus’s two genealogies.

Which happens to be a big fat bible discrepancy many Christians skim over.

Matthew 1.1-17 • Luke 3.23-38

Most Christians are aware Jesus has two genealogies.

These aren’t genealogies the way we do ’em. We do family trees: We include ancestors from all sides of the family, fathers and mothers both. Often we include aunts, uncles, and cousins; if we’re not particular about blood relations we’ll even include step-parents. Our family trees can get big and complicated.

Hebrew genealogies don’t. They turn into trees downward, when they’re listing one person’s descendants, as you can see from the first chapters of 1 Chronicles. But when they’re listing ancestors, they’re straight lines: You, your father, your father’s father, that grandfather’s father, that great-grandfather’s father, and so on back.

Thing is, Jesus has two of these lists. In Matthew 1, it’s a list of ancestors from Abraham to Joseph. And in Luke 4, it’s a list of male ancestors backwards, from Joseph to Adam to God. And they don’t match.

Parts do. But a whole lot of it doesn’t. I’ll let you read it. My translation. In Matthew I dropped the repetitive, superfluous instances of “begat”; in Luke all the “son of” (Aramaic bar) statements. You know their relationships.

Matthew 1.1-17
1 The book of the genesis of Messiah Jesus,
bar David, bar Abraham.
2 Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.
Jacob: Judah and his brothers.
3 Judah: Pérech and Zérakh by Tamar.
Pérech, Hechrón, 4 Ram,
Amminadáv, Nakhshón, Salmón.
5 Salmón: Boaz by Rahab.
Boaz: Obed by Ruth.
Obed, 6 Jesse, King David.
David: Solomon through Uriah’s woman.
7 Solomon, Rekhavám, Aviyáh,
8 Asáf, Yehošafát, Yorám,
9 Uzíyahu, Yotám, Akház,
10 Hezekiah, Manashéh, Amón, Josiah.
11 Josiah: Yekhonyáhu and his brothers during the Babylonian exile.
12 After the Babylonian exile: Yekhonyáhu.
Yekhonyáhu, Shaltiél, 13 Zerubbabel,
Avihúd, Elyakím, 14 Azúr,
Chadók, Yakhín, 15 Elikhúd,
Eleázar, Matdan, Jacob.
16 Jacob: Joseph, Mary’s man.
From her was born Jesus, who’s called Messiah.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David: 14 generations.
From David to the Babylonian exile: 14 generations.
From the Babylonian exile to Messiah: 14 generations.
Luke 3.23-38 KWL
23 Jesus himself was starting round his 30th year.
He was presumed the son of Joseph bar Ili—
24 bar Maddát, Leví, Malkhí, Yannaí, Joseph,
25 Mattityáhu, Amos, Nahum, Heslí, Naggaí,
26 Mákhat, Mattityáhu, Shimí, Yoshí, Yodáh,
27 Yochanán, Reishá, Zerubbabel, Shaltiél, Nerí,
28 Malkhí, Adí, Kosám, Elmadán, Er,
29 Yeshúa, Eleázar, Yorím, Mattát, Leví,
30 Shimón, Judah, Joseph, Jonám, Elyakím,
31 Maláh, Manáh, Mattatáh, Nathan, David,
32 Jesse, Obed, Boaz, Sheláh, Nakhshón,
33 Amminadáv, Admín, Arní, Hechrón, Pérech, Judah,
34 Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Térakh, Nakhór,
35 Serúg, Reú, Péleg, Éver, Sheláh,
36 Keïnán, Arfakhšád, Shem, Noah, Lémekh,
37 Metušelákh, Enoch, Yéred, Mahalalél, Keïnán,
38 Enósh, Šet, Adam, God.