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Showing posts from 2016

Three typical forms of church services.

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Is church a struggle? Maybe you’re not at the church best suited to your personality.Not all churches are alike. Obviously. But when you ask Christians what they like best about their church, they’ll emphasize a few things which they particularly like. The preaching. The music. The solemnity—or the informality. The friendliness. The kids’ program. The decor. The way they do our rituals. The amiability of the preacher. The ministries and programs. The coffee—for once it’s not Folger’s! (’Cause Folger’s is rubbish. But it’s cheap, so it’s what people serve whenever the person in charge of the coffee, doesn’t personally drink coffee.)Practices vary from church to church. Even within the same denomination; you can have one church which focuses a whole lot on one area, and a sister church—even in the same town!—which focuses on another.But the main focus of your church’s Sunday morning service (or Sunday or Saturday evening service; what have you) sets the tone for the sort of church you a…

The Son of Man.

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Something Jesus calls himself… which reminds us he’s Messiah.One of Jesus’s favorite ways to refer to himself is as the Son of Man. It was a way of saying, yet not overtly saying, he’s Messiah.Y’see, people of Jesus’s day who knew their bible would immediately catch the meaning. And people who don’t know the bible—didn’t then, don’t now—would simply assume it’s an odd choice of words, and ignore it as irrelevant. Same as they do Jesus’s parables.The meaning comes from Daniel. In his book, Daniel described various apocalyptic visions of the then-distant future. (Most of it is most definitely in our past, ’cause the angels explicitly stated it had to do with the Persian and Greek empires—though you’ll still get a few End Times loons who insist it has to do with the future of Iran and the European Union. Anyway.) Daniel was informed about Messiah’s first coming, as well as his second.In one of his visions, where the Ancient of Days judged the world, Daniel saw what he identified as a Son…

The fear of phony peace.

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When “blessed are the peacemakers” gets ditched in favor of popular End Times theories.So as I said yesterday, we Christians aren’t necessarily known for being peaceful. ’Cause we lack peace. ’Cause we’ve adopted one of the typical incorrect notions as to how to attain it, and haven’t correctly chosen to follow God and pursue his kingdom. Mt 6.25-34And sometimes it’s ’cause we don’t trust peace. Especially societal and political forms of peace. When our secretary of state brokers a treaty between warring nations, or between the United States and some other nation we’re not really getting along with. Definitely when the United Nations tries to do likewise. We don’t believe any of that stuff is real peace—we suspect there’s something underhanded and devilish behind it.Why’s that? Well, in Revelation there’s this vision John had of a Beast who’s gonna take over the world. Rv 13 And according to one of the more popular End Times theories, the Beast is gonna gain its power by pretending to…

Peace be unto you.

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Too many Christians lack peace, ’cause they’re trusting anything but God to grant it.God’s into peace. It’s an aspect of his character we really don’t spend enough time on. But it’s a fruit of the Spirit, and something he wishes upon us, his creations, his children—as articulated by his angels when Jesus was born.Luke 2.13-14 KWL13 Suddenly there was a large number of the heavenly army with the angel, praising God,saying, 14 “Glory in the highest heaven to God!Peace upon the earth to the people he’s pleased with!”Problem is, we Christians aren’t known for being peaceful.This may be a fair assessment, and it may be unfair. After all, when Christians aren’t peaceful, it makes the news. When we are peaceful, it might become one of those happy-news stories at the end of the video, or in the back of the newspaper; it might go viral if it’s heartwarming enough. But it doesn’t always. It may very well be we Christians are doing a good job of demonstrating peace, and since the agitated minori…

Christ is born in Bethlehem.

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Where Micah foretold Messiah’s birthplace. Around 5 BC, a crowd of Zoroastrian astrologers came to Jerusalem looking for “the newborn king of Judea,” Mt 2.2 freaking out the province largely because its paranoid king, Herod bar Antipater. Mt 2.3They knew it was only a matter of time before Herod starting killing people over it. As he later did.Figuring he oughta learn where Messiah was expected to come from, Herod turned to Jerusalem’s head priests and scribes.Matthew 2.4-9 KWL4 Gathering all the head priests and scribes of the people,Herod was asking them, “Where’s Messiah born?”5 They told him, “In Bethlehem, Judea. This was written by the prophet:6 ‘You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are in no way the least of Judah’s rulers:A leader will come from you who will shepherd my people, Israel.’” Mc 5.27 Then Herod, secretly summoning the Zoroastrians, grilled them on the time the star appeared.8 Sending them to Bethlehem, he said, “Go search carefully for the child.Once you find him, send n…

Growing up with Santa Claus.

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My personal experiences of what happens when you take the Christmas myths way too seriously.Dad’s an atheist. This means for him, Christmas is Santa Claus. Not Jesus. Not any of our Christian junk. He doesn’t wanna hear it. He wants nothing to do with our church functions; not our live nativities, nor our church’s Christmas services. He’ll go to the city Christmas festival, but only because the churches hand out free treats. (Cookies and cider or cocoa, mainly; I keep trying to talk my own church into serving coffee. ’Cause nobody else serves coffee. We’d corner the market.) He won’t pass up a freebie, but it’s a hard pass on the free gift of eternal salvation.
Santa getting liquored up. Hammerstone Whiskey DisksHe loves Santa. Mainly the wonder on children’s faces once you get ’em to believe Santa, and Christmas magic, are real. This is the only supernatural he believes in: The fake stuff. Tricks.Hence when I was growing up Santa Claus was a big, big deal.Till 1978. One day I was poki…

Jesus, our Immanuel.

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Why “fulfillment” isn’t about when predictions come true.Isaiah 7.14Matthew 1.22-23 KWL22 All this happened so the Lord’s word through the prophet could be fulfilled,saying, 23 “Look, the maiden will have a child in the womb,and they will declare his name Immanúël, which is translated ‘God with us.’” Is 7.14This one’s probably the most famous “Messianic prophecy”… which, it turns out, isn’t. Seriously, isn’t.Back in 735BC, King Radyán of Damascus, Aram (KJV “Rezin the king of Syria”) joined forces with King Peqákh ben Remalyáhu of Samaria, Ephraim (KJV “Pekah the son of Remaliah”) to attack Jerusalem. 2Ki 16.5 Laid siege to it. Didn’t look good.The prophets Isaiah ben Amóch and his son Sheüryahsúv had come to King Akház ben Yotám (KJV “Ahaz son of Jotham”) with good news from the LORD: Aram and Ephraim’s plans would come to nothing.Isaiah 7.10-17 KWL10 The LORD’s word to Akház, saying, 11“Request a sign from your LORD God,made deep as a grave, or made high as outer space.”12 Akház sai…

The live nativity.

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Because nothing says Christmas like a sanitized reenactment of childbirth.Evangelicals celebrate Christmas in all sorts of ways. Some of us decorate like crazy; some don’t. Some of us preach nothing but advent or birth-of-Jesus sermons; some preach as they’d usually do, and only preach a Christmas sermon on Christmas. Some of us have a special Christmas production; some don’t, or would if we could staff it (or afford it).Two of the larger churches in my town do a “live nativity.” If you’re a newbie, or somehow never paid attention to Christendom all your life, this’d be a birth-of-Christ diorama with live humans instead of the typical lit plastic statues on the front lawn. (There’s an inflatable version now! But I digress.) Actors portray Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the magi, and in many children’s productions the animals. Although these two churches prefer actual animals. And use the same animals; in the proper spirit of Christian cooperation, their productions are on different week…

Messiah and Melchizedek.

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How some obscure Old Testament priest-king got so mixed up with Jesus.Psalm 110 is a Messianic psalm, a psalm about God’s mešíakh/“anointed [ruler],” one of the kings of ancient Israel. Since Jesus is the last Messiah, it applies to him too. I’ll discuss the whole psalm another time, but today I’m gonna zoom in on just this one verse:Psalm 110.4 KWLThe LORD swore, and isn’t turning back from it:“You’re a priest, eternally, in the manner of Melchizédek.”Melchizédek (Hebrew melkhí chédeq/“king [of] rightness”) is probably a title, not a name. He appeared once in the bible; he never appeared again, but he sure got everyone’s attention: David in this psalm, and the writer of Hebrews in her interpretation of the psalm.The Canaanite king Khedorlaómer of Elam, and his allies, conquered Sodom and dragged its people into slavery. Among them was Lot ben Haran, the nephew of Avrám ben Terah, whom the LORD later renamed Abraham. Ge 17.5 So Avrám took his private army (yeah, he had a private army;…

What’s a soul?

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Because Christians don’t realize there’s a difference between a soul and a spirit.Soul /soʊl/ n. Lifeforce.2. [in popular culture] The immaterial, spiritual essence of a human; considered immortal.Soulish /'soʊl.ɪʃ/ adj. Having to do with one’s lifeforce.2. [in popular Christian culture] Fleshly.One of the vexing problems of Christianity is we have certain words we use which nobody ever bothers to define. As a result, people guess—and guess wrong. Our word “soul” is probably the most obvious example.Years ago, a newbie Christian asked his pastor what a “soul” was, to which the pastor replied, “Oh, you shouldn’t even try to define it.” The pastor figured a soul is a mystery, a concept way beyond human understanding. Best to leave mysteries alone, and not waste our time—or make ourselves nuts—trying to understand ’em.I admit it’s kinda western of me, but I can’t agree: If you use a word and don’t know what it means, it’s foolish. If you don’t wanna know its meaning, you’re a fool. I…

The first prophecy of a savior.

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The first time a savior was foretold in the Old Testament.We have no idea whether Genesis was the first written book of the bible. Some Christians speculate Job was (and they’d be totally wrong; Job was written in a later version of biblical Hebrew, and took place in Edom). Others figure Moses wrote his psalm before he wrote the bible. In any event the first hint we have in the scriptures that humanity might need a savior, is found in Genesis 3—the story of humanity’s fall.As the story goes: Eve and Adam, the first humans, lived in paradise. God told ’em not to eat off a particular tree. A serpent tempted Eve to eat off it anyway, and Adam followed suit. The consequence: They couldn’t live in paradise any longer, ’cause the Tree of Life was there. They were driven out; Adam was cursed to fight nature in order to gain his sustenance, Eve was cursed with painful childbirth and male domination, and the serpent was cursed like so:Genesis 3.14-15 KWL14 The LORD God told the serpent, “Becau…

Easy to shop for.

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At least I think I am.Some years ago my mother told me, “You’re hard to shop for.” Which is baloney: I’m easy to shop for. Just get me coffee. Everybody who knows me, knows I love coffee.
“Forget Jesus; think about the economy!”Pierre BourgeaultThey don’t always know I also love tea. Nor that I drink about as much tea as coffee. They assume the big giant travel mugs I carry around always contain coffee—even when there’s an obvious teabag string dangling from the lid. Even when it rattles ’cause I’ve got ice and water in it; they just assume it’s iced coffee.The big giant mugs? Yeah. I’m an American. I like big mugs and I cannot lie. My largest holds 54 ounces—and yes, that’s about 1.5 liters of coffee. And I used to have a 96-ounce mug—yep, it held nearly three liters, a carafe and a half. But the most I ever filled it was halfway, if that. Not because I’d never drink 96 ounces of coffee, but because, despite the insulation, the coffee would be cold by the time I drank a quarter of it.…

Vengeful God, loving God.

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Sometimes we want God to kick some ass. When I translate the psalms, I make ’em rhyme because I can. Iambic octometer, anyone?Psalm 3 KWL0David’s psalm, while fleeing the presence of his son Absalom.1 My enemies—ten thousand, LORD!—have multiplied and charge at me!2 The myriads say of my life, “God’s rescue? Not for he.” Selah.3 But you, LORD, are my shield and honor, granting my authority.4 I call the LORD, who from his holy mountain answers me. Selah.5 I lay my head to sleep, and wake because the LORDhas strengthened me.6Do I fear opposition from ten thousand circling people? Nah.7 You rose and saved me, LORD my God. Face-punched my every enemy.Broke evildoers’ teeth. 8 You bless your own with rescue, LORD. Selah.Psalm 3 is Adonáime-rabu (Latin, Domine, quid multiplicati), “LORD, how are they increased,” written by King David ben Jesse in the 10th century BC, and as verse 0 points out, it was when his son Absalom attempted to overthrow him.It’s a vengeance psalm. One of many. David …

Apocalypses: Those freaky visions in the bible.

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Short answer: No.Apocalypse /ə'pɑk.ə.lɪps/ n. Vision meant to reveal heavenly secrets through representative or parabolic images.2. Any supernatural revelation.3. [uppercase] Destruction or damage on a tremendous scale, particularly the end of the world.[apocalyptic /ə.pɑk.ə'lɪp.tɪk/ adj.]When people talk about “the apocalypse,” they typically mean the end of the world. “It’s the apocalypse!” means “It’s the End”—and we’re f---ed.Not even close to the original meaning of the Greek apokalýpto/“to uncover.” It’s just our last book of the New Testament, Apokálypsis Yisú Hristú—or Apokálypsis for short, Apocalypse in Latin and many other languages, Revelation in English—is about the End. So people have come to mix up apocalypse and the End. Stands to reason.Our word Revelation defines it best. It has to do with revealing. Uncovering. Telling us what’s gonna happen in future. Except… well… not literally.See, an apocalypse is a type of prophetic vision. Y’know how Jesus tells parabl…

God can’t abide sin?

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If true, it means God has a boogeyman.“God can’t abide sin. It offends him so much, he simply can’t have it in his presence. He’s just that holy.”It’s an idea I’ve heard repeated by many a Christian. Evangelists in particular.It’s particularly popular among people who can’t abide sin. Certain sins offend us so much, we simply can’t have ’em in our presence. We’re just that pure.Well, self-righteous.You can see why Christians have found this concept so easy to adopt, and have been so quick to spread it around. It’s yet another instance of remaking God in our own image, then preaching our remake instead of the real God.Don’t get me wrong. ’Cause Christians do, regularly: I talk about grace, and they think I’m talking about compromise. Or justification. Or nullification. Or compromise. Whatever reason they can think of to ignore grace, skip forgiveness, disguise revenge as justice, and claim they only have those prejudices and offenses because God has ’em. You claim you practice grace? T…

Sacraments: Our Christian rituals. Gotta do ’em.

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Though there’s more than a little debate as to what they mean.Sacrament /'søk.rə.mənt/ n. Religious ritual which represents a spiritual reality, or represents an act of God’s grace.2. [“the sacrament”] Holy communion.[Sacramental /søk.rə'mɛn(t).əl/ adj., sacramentalist /søk.rə'mɛn(t).əl.ist/ n.]God does many things in our lives. Some we see. Some we don’t.When God cures me of an illness, it’s nice and obvious: Everybody, even skeptics, can see I’m well. They’ll totally disagree about how I got well. If they don’t believe in God (or don’t believe he still does miracles) they’ll doubt God was involved in the cure. Might even doubt I was truly ill to begin with. But they otherwise agree I’m well. That part’s visible enough.Now, when God forgives me of sin… what’s visible?I mean I know I’m forgiven; Jesus told us we’re given most everything. Mk 3.28 I put my faith in Jesus, so I trust when he says I’m forgiven, I am. But was there anything visible? Anything we could’ve experie…

Don’t just raise your kids Christian. Share Jesus with them.

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If you can’t talk politics yet still produce good fruit, they’re in Christ’s way. And need to go.Some years ago I was telling a friend about some church ministry I was involved with. He then told me, with a little bit of embarrassment, he wasn’t involved in such thing in his church. Didn’t feel he could possibly find the time.“Well that’s understandable,” I told him: “You have four kids under the age of 10. They’re your ministry. You’ve gotta make sure they know Jesus, and have a growing relationship with them. Get them solid; then worry about all the other stuff your church is doing. Then your kids will wanna do all those church things with you.”He was a little relieved to hear me say that, ’cause he’d been kicking himself a little for not doing enough church stuff. You know how some churches can get: If you’re not giving ’em 10 hours a week, they doubt your salvation. But when Paul instructed Timothy on what sort of people oughta serve the church (or deacons, as we tend to call ’em)…

Sucking up to God.

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Too many Christians claim before we make any prayer requests, we have to start with some serious toadying. Matthew 6.9-10 • Luke 11.2All my life I’ve heard Christian prayer leaders instruct me that before we start asking God for things, it’s only proper to begin with praise. Tell God how great he is. How mighty. How awesome. Supposedly that’s how Jesus demonstrated we’re to start in the Lord’s Prayer, with “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” Because we wanna make his name holy and embrace his will.This attitude reminds me way too much of the sycophantic prayer we find in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life:CHAPLAIN. “Let us praise God. Oh Lord…”CONGREGATION. [ritually repeating] “Oh Lord…”CHAPLAIN. “Oooh you are so big!CONGREGATION. “Oooh you are so big.”CHAPLAIN. “So absolutely huge!”CONGREGATION. “So absolutely huge.”CHAPLAIN. “Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you!”CONGREGATION. “Gosh, we're all really impressed down here, I can tell…

Questioning authority.

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Which I do. Which we all should do. Regardless of how much it irritates the authority.I’m a trained skeptic.Seriously. I have degrees in both journalism and theology. In both fields, we’re taught to ask the question, “Is that really true?” Don’t swallow whole what anyone tells you. Anyone. Fact-check it.In journalism, that’s done by finding a valid authority on the subject, and a second source to corroborate the first one. (I know; internet “journalists” seldom bother to find that second source, but they never went to journalism school, and it shows.) In theology, find a proof text, and make sure you quote it in context. One will do; more is better.Problem is, people are very, very used to having their every statement accepted without question. So when I ask “Is that really true?”—just doing my duty as both a journalist and theologian—they take offense. What, don’t I trust them? Why not? What’s my problem?Since I give most people the benefit of the doubt, no I actually don’t think the…

Why I went to an all-white church.

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Wasn’t intentional. On the contrary: Lack of thought did it. And perpetuates it.When I was 11 years old, my family moved to a city in California which was about 60 percent white, 40 percent Latino, 10 percent everything else. Same as much of California south of Sacramento.I’m the oldest of four, and Mom went looking for churches which’d be a good fit for young children. We tried a few, and ended at a Evangelical Free Church, which I have elsewhere called Maypole Church. The church had an excellent Christian education program. I don’t agree with good deal of their brand of Fundamentalism any longer, but they did make sure we kids got to know our bibles, which is the important thing.This particular church happened to be 100 percent white.Every so often they’d be 99 percent white. A black, Latino, or Asian family would visit. There’s an Air Force base nearby, and airmen would get invited to Maypole by their white friends. But within a few months they’d stop attending; they’d go elsewhere…

The mentalist… disguised as a prophet.

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When “prophets” depend a great deal on their own intuition, it’s not really the Holy Spirit. MENTALIST /'mɛn.(t)əl.əst/ adj. One who performs highly intuitive, mnemonic, telepathic, or hypnotic abilities. (Usually as a stage performance.)[Mentalism /'mɛn.(t)əl.ɪz.əm/ n.]“Is there anyone in this room who was born on April 6th?”It’s the sort of question you oughta hear when a psychic or magician is standing in front of an audience. Thing is, Christians who are into supernatural gifts tend to avoid psychics like the plague. (We have been taught to stay away from them, y’know. God forbade ’em to the Hebrews, Dt 18.8-14 and we figure that applies to us too.) Likewise we’re not as familiar with magicians who claim to be mind-readers. Or mentalists, as they’re properly called. (Maybe you remember the TV show where one of ’em solved crimes.)Requests for anyone who was born on a certain birthdate, or anyone who has a certain letter in their name, or anyone who recognizes a certain word…

When supernatural gifts will no longer be needed.

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Contrary to common myth, not gonna happen for a while yet.1 Corinthians 13.7-13I grew up among Christians who loved to use this passage of 1 Corinthians to justify their belief God turned off the miracles. He didn’t, but miracles weirded them out and messed with their End Times theories, so they decided it’d be easiest if he just did. So when Paul and Sosthenes wrote the following, they had their own spin on it. (Here it is, in what they figured was the authoritative King James Version.)1 Corinthians 13.8-10 KJV8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.“That which is perfect,” they insisted, meant the bible. The New Testament wasn’t complete in Paul’s day; John wouldn’t write Revelation for a few more decades. So while the ca…

Bummed your candidate lost? Bad sign.

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I wrote this piece in 2012, after Mitt Romney lost the presidential race to Barack Obama. I had to tweak it very, very little in order to apply it to this year, after Hillary Clinton lost the presidential race to Donald Trump.Four years ago my Republican friends were moping about the election results. This year it’s my Democratic friends. They’ve been putting on a brave face, saying the usual platitudes about how God’s still in control, even though their candidate won’t be. And how very bummed they are. And how they’re gonna put their trust in Jesus.Hopefully some of them recognize these are the things you say after you’ve been putting your faith in an idol… and God just smashed that idol.But probably not. It took me quite a few years before I got to that point myself.The first presidential election where I didn’t get my way, back when I was a Republican, was the 1992 election, when George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton. I’d voted for Bush. As had most of my fellow Republicans. A sign…

Kingdom economics: How’s your eye?

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Nope, not an opthamology question. Has to do with whether God’s grace flows through you.Matthew 6.22-23 • Luke 11.34-36Some of Jesus’s teachings tend to get skipped entirely.Let’s be honest: It’s because we don’t like them. Plenty of us hate the idea the Law still counts, and God judges us by it; we prefer dispensationalism. Plenty of us hate Jesus’s teachings on money, ’cause we still kinda worship it. So we borrow his parables about forgiveness, where money wasn’t even the point, and try to claim they’re about capitalism. Or socialism. Or they’re Jesus’s secret critique of socialism. Whichever suits us best.Today’s lesson from the Sermon on the Mount is in fact about money. Not opthamology.But because people nowadays are unfamiliar with the Hebrew idioms “good eye” and “evil eye”—and will even mix ’em up with the European idioms, and think they have to do with all-purpose blessings and curses—we’ll interpret this passage all kinds of wrong. Or claim, “Well it’s obscure,” and skip it…

Audio bibles!

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Don’t yet have an audio bible? Here’s the hookup. No doubt you know about audiobooks. Well, the audio bible is simply an audiobook of the bible. A really big audiobook, ’cause the bible’s not a little book.Just as many book publishers try to produce an audiobook version, many bible publishers do likewise with their bible translations. Sometimes it’s a straight reading. Sometimes they play soft music in the background. Sometimes they dramatize it: They hire actors to play different people in the bible, and add sound effects and music. Sometimes they overdramatize it, and hire really bad actors who put zero thought into the motivations or meaning of the folks in the bible. The first dramatized audio bible I ever heard, it was so over-the-top I gave up on dramatized bibles for a decade. They’ve improved since. Well, some have.Anyway, I’d recommend you get an audio bible. I’ve provided links to some inexpensive and free ones.They have their pros and cons. Obviously I think their positives…

Antichrists: When pagans wanna see Christianity gone.

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Sometimes they’re against all religion. Sometimes just us.Antichrist /'æn.tɪ.kraɪst/ adj. Against Christ: Those who object to him or his authority, refuse to recognize him, and counter others who do.2. Rejects the orthodox Christian view of Jesus of Nazareth: Insists Jesus isn’t Christ, isn’t divine, isn’t human, isn’t historical.3. Claims they, not Jesus of Nazareth, are Christ. (See #4; the beast is presumed to be such a person.)4. [uppercase] The beast Rv 13.7 or man of lawlessness; 2Ti 2.3 an End Times figure who attempts to deceive and rule the world, whom Christ Jesus defeats at his return.[Antichristian /æn.tɪ'krɪs.tʃən/, antichristlike /æn.tɪ'kraɪst.lɪk/ adj.]You noticed four definitions of antichrist up there. The most common usage in our culture—both popular culture and Christian culture—is the fourth, the uppercase-A Antichrist, the beast of Revelation 13.It might surprise you to know the beast is never called an antichrist in the scriptures. Seriously. Christia…