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31 March 2016

Strong numbers. Or Strong’s numbers. Whichever.

Don’t know biblical languages but wanna look up an original-language word? Strong has you covered.

From time to time I refer to Strong numbers or Strong’s numbers. I suppose I need to explain ’em before people get the idea I’m introducing them to numerology.

A concordance is a list of every single word in a book. People make ’em for the bible so they can use it as kind of an index: You might remember there’s a verse in the bible about “the meek shall inherit the earth,” but not remember where it’s found. (And you might live in 1987, when you couldn’t just Google it.) So you bust out that concordance, flip to “meek,” and find out where it’s hiding. Seems it appears 17 times in the King James Version.

Nu 12.3 the man Moses was very m., above all the men H 6035
Ps 22.26 The m. shall eat and be satisfied H 6035
Ps 25.9 The m. shall he guide in judgment H 6035
Ps 25.9 and the m. shall he teach his way. H 6035
Ps 37.11 But the m. shall inherit the earth H 6035
Ps 76.9 to save all the m. of the earth. H 6035
Ps 147.6 The LORD lifteth up the m. H 6035
Ps 149.4 he will beautify the m. with salvation H 6035
Is 11.4 reprove with equity for the m. of the earth H 6035
Is 29.19 The m. also shall increase their joy H 6035
Is 61.1 to preach good tidings unto the m. H 6035
Am 2.7 and turn aside the way of the m. H 6035
Zp 2.3 Seek ye the LORD, all ye m. of the earth H 6035
Mt 5.5 Blessed are the m.: for they shall inherit G 4239
Mt 11.29 for I am m. and lowly in heart G 4235
Mt 21.5 Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, m. G 4239
1Pe 3.4 even the ornament of a m. and quiet spirit G 4239

So check it out: The meek inheriting the earth comes up twice, actually. In Psalm 37.11, and in Christ Jesus’s “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Mt 5.5

Some bibles have a mini-concordance in the back, to be used as just this sort of index. They don’t include every word. Really, not even an exhaustive concordance does: There are 64,040 instances of “the” in the KJV. (More instances of “the” than there are verses.) When people are trying to track down a verse, they don’t use “the.” Too common.

Anyway. Dr. James Strong wasn’t the first guy to produce an exhaustive concordance of the KJV, but his was powerfully useful for one reason: His numbers. When you looked up any word in his 1890 concordance, you’d find it provided a number. In the back of the book were his Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary of the Old Testament, and Greek Dictionary of the New Testament. Don’t even have to know the Hebrew or Greek alphabets: You look up the word by its number, and there you go: The original-language word behind the KJV’s translation.

Wanna know the original word for “ass” in 2 Peter 2.16? Strong’s concordance will point you to number 5268, and once you look up that number in the Greek dictionary, you find this:

5268. ὑποζύγιον hupozugion, hoop-od-zoog'-ee-on; neuter of a compound of 5259 and 2218; an animal under the yoke (draught-beast), i.e. (specially), a donkey: ass.

Nice, huh? Wanna know the original word for “buttocks” in Isaiah 20.4?

8357. ‏‏שֵׁתָה shethah, shay-thaw'; from 7896; the seat (of the person):—buttock.

Yes, I’m twelve.

30 March 2016

When the heavens are brass?

When it feels like God isn’t listening. But it’s just us.

Deuteronomy 28.23

When Christians start talking about how “the heavens are brass”—or bronze, depending on whether they grew up with the King James Version or the New International Version—they’re talking about unanswered prayer. The phrase comes from this verse:

Deuteronomy 28.23 KJV
And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron.

But the context of this verse isn’t actually about unanswered prayer at all. It’s about the sort of blight the Hebrews are gonna experience when they dismiss their relationship with God. Moses went into a bit of detail about it, too.

Deuteronomy 28.1-24 KWL
1 “If you happen to listen to your LORD God’s voice,
so as to observe and do every command I instructing you about today,
your LORD God will give you power over every country on earth:
2 All these blessings will come to you and overwhelm you,
for you listened to your LORD God’s voice.
3 You’ll be blessed in city, field, 4 the fruit of your belly, the fruit of the ground,
and the fruit of your animals—what your cattle drops, or your flocks produce.
5 You’ll be blessed in breadbasket, in yeast;
6 when you enter, when you leave.
7 The LORD will have your enemies which rise against you be struck down in front of you.
They’ll come at you from one direction, and run away from you in seven.
8 The LORD will teach you about blessing in your storehouses, in everything you undertake.
He’ll bless you in the land your LORD God gives you.
9 The LORD will raise you to himself: A holy people, as he swore you’d become.
So observe your LORD God’s commands. Walk in his ways.
10 All the earth’s peoples will see you call upon the LORD’s name, and fear you.
11 The LORD will give you a good surplus, fruit of your belly, beasts, and your ground,
in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors.
12 The LORD will open his good, heavenly treasury for you:
He’ll give rain to your land in its season. He’ll hand over every deed.
Many nations will owe you, and you’ll never borrow.
13 The LORD makes you the head, not the tail. You’ll go upward, not downward.
So listen to your LORD God’s commands.
Observe and do what I’m instructing you today.
Don’t dismiss any words I command you today.
Don’t go right or left, to follow or serve other gods.
15 “If it happens you don’t listen to your LORD God’s voice,
to observe and do all his commands and orders which I command you today,
these hardships will come upon you, and overtake you.
16 You’ll be screwed in city, field, 17 breadbasket, and yeast,
18 in the fruit of your belly, the fruit of the ground, what your cattle drops, or your flocks produce.
19 You’ll be screwed when you enter, when you leave.
20 The LORD will send you curses, frustration, and opposition in everything you undertake to do.
Till you’re wiped out, till you quickly die,
because of the evil actions you abandoned me to pursue.
21 The LORD will make plague stick to you till it wipes you from the land you’re entering to live in.
22 The LORD will smite you with illness, fever, hot flashes, high temperature, drought,
forest fires, mildew—all of which will chase you to death.
23 The skies over your head will be copper. The land beneath you, iron.
24 The LORD will rain dust and dirt from the sky. He’ll pour it on you till you’re exterminated.”

When Moses spoke of the heavens being brass, or nekhošét/“copper” (brass is made of copper, y’know) he was speaking of a sky which produces no rain. And the iron ground produces no crops.

So yeah: If you’re gonna talk about the skies being brass, and really mean unanswered prayer, don’t make the mistake of saying, “You know, like when the bible talks about when the skies are brass.” It’s not like when the bible talks about any such thing. It’s about when popular Christian culture talks about it. The bible does have passages about unanswered prayer. It’s just this ain’t one of them. Capice?

29 March 2016

“Why do you write all that Catholic stuff?”

Too many people confuse ancient Christianity with Catholicism—and need to get over their anti-Catholic prejudices.

In some of my posts about the stations of the cross, which I was writing about as Easter 2016 approached, I got trolled. Certain commenters (whom I’ve deleted and blacklisted, obviously) objected, profanely, to my writing about “Catholic stuff.”

I get this kind of pushback every so often. Because I write about Christianity, every so often I’m gonna write about medieval and ancient Christianity. The medieval stuff would be the Christianity which took place before Protestantism was invented in 1517. And the ancient stuff would be the Christianity which took place before Catholicism was invented—back when there was only one universal church, back before the Christians split into Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics by holding separate Fourth Councils of Constantinople in the 870s (and finalized in the Great Schism of 1054).

But your average person nowadays doesn’t know jack squat about history, much less Christian history. So as soon as I start writing about any Christian practices outside of their own particular denomination, some of ’em immediately assume I’m trying to push the denomination where those events took place. If it happened among Lutherans, they assume I’ve gone Lutheran; if it happened in the Church of England, they leap to the conclusion I’m a secret Episcopalian; and if among Catholics, I must be some kind of crypto-Catholic.

And they absolutely aren’t Catholic. On the contrary: They’re very, very anti-Catholic.

Usually they were raised to be. As was I. ’Member I mentioned I grew up Fundamentalist? I’d been baptized Catholic, but Mom left Catholicism for Protestantism when I was a preschooler. Well, we very quickly wound up in the sort of Fundie churches which were quick to warn us against the “dangers” and “evils” of the Roman church.

How their many customs were simply repurposed pagan rituals. How they did holy communion and baptism wrong. How they prayed rote prayers instead of real prayers. How they prayed to Mary and saints instead of Jesus and the Father. How they followed the pope instead of Jesus—and sometimes how the pope was destined to become the beast of Revelation 13. (Assuming the opposition party’s candidate for President didn’t turn out to be the beast instead.)

28 March 2016

The “Forgive me” prayer.

On repentance. And on feeling too guilty to turn to God in repentance.

Part of the Lord’s Prayer is the line, “Forgive us our sins/debts/trespasses” (it all depends on the translation) “as we forgive those who sin/trespass against us/our debtors.” It’s one line in the whole of the prayer.

But there’s a whole category of prayer which consists of asking God’s forgiveness for sins. Sometimes as part of the bargain with God; we wanna make sure we have a clean slate with God before we start negotiating with him for stuff. But most of the time it’s because we’ve sinned, we know it, we feel bad or guilty about it, and we wanna repent and get right with God.

Emotions vary. Some of us, when we’re praying, get mighty weepy. Lying on the floor, mascara running, blubbering, sobbing, and so forth. I’m not one of those; I’m the type that’s more annoyed with myself for repeating the same stupid behavior again. Far less weeping; far more angry self-recrimination. Still others are upset, frustrated, exasperated, resigned, furious, woebegone… There’s no one way people feel, and they won’t feel the same way every single time. But the one thing we have in common isn’t emotion, but unhappiness. We fell short of God’s glory. So we repent.

(Well… some of us don’t repent. We just feel bad about being on the wrong side of God. But we have no plans to change our behavior any. I’ll discuss that rotten attitude elsewhere.)

There are two ways Christians approach the “Forgive me” prayer. Some of us are just miserable about it. Others of us are blasé: “Hey, sin is part of life, and God knows I’m not perfect.” There are attitudes in between, but these are the main two extremes found in Christians: Those who don’t trust God’s grace enough, and those who take it for granted. There’s a happy medium in there somewhere. That’s what we need to seek. Sin should bother us. But God has us covered, 1Jn 2.1 and his grace should take away the bother.

27 March 2016


Or “Resurrection Sunday,” for those who are paranoid about what “Easter” might mean.

On 5 April 33, before the sun rose at 5:23 a.m. in Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. Executed only two days before, he became the first human on earth to be resurrected.

He died the day before Passover. This was deliberate. This way his death would fulfill many of the Passover rituals. Because of this relationship to Passover, many Christians actually call this day some variation of the Hebrew Pesákh/“Passover.” In Greek and Latin (and Russian), it’s Pascha; in Danish Påske, Dutch Pasen, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Swedish Påsk.

But in many Germanic-speaking countries, including English, we use the ancient pagan word for April, Eostur. In German this becomes Ostern; in English Easter.

Because of the pagan origins of the word, certain Christians avoid it and just call the day “Resurrection Sunday.” (Which is fine, but confuses non-Christians.)

Easter is our most important holiday. Christmas tends to get the world’s focus (and certainly that of the merchants), but it’s only because Christmas doesn’t stretch their beliefs too far. Everybody agrees Jesus was born. We only differ on details.

But Easter is about how Jesus was raised, and that’s a sticking point for a whole lot of pagans. They don’t buy it. They don’t even like it: When they die, they wanna go to heaven and stay there. Resurrection? Coming back? In a body? No no no.

We’ll even find Christians who agree with them: They’ll claim Jesus didn’t literally return from death, but exists in some super-spiritual ghostly form. Which returned to heaven, and that’s where we’ll go too. No resurrection; not necessary. Yes, it’s a heretic idea, but a popular one.

So to pagans, Easter’s a myth. It’s a nice story about how we Christians think Jesus came back from the dead, but it comes from ancient times, back when people believed anyone could come back from the dead if they knew the right magic spell. Really it’s just a metaphor for spring, new life, rebirth; just like eggs and baby chicks and bunnies. They’ll celebrate that. With chocolate, fancy hats, brunch, and maybe an egg hunt.

But to us Christians, Easter’s no myth. It’s history.

26 March 2016

Skipping the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Don’t go to Jerusalem and miss seeing where Jesus died and was laid to rest.

Another essay I’ve been asked to repost is my bit on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And no, I’m not gonna spell it Sepulchre, like the British and Canadians do. I’m an American. Our spelling makes more sense. Well, slightly more.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher: The massive church building which contains both Golgatha and Jesus’s tomb. [From Wikimedia Commons.]

What prompted my original post in 2010 was my brother and sister-in-law going to Israel. It was with some folks in their church, and was the basic pilgrim’s package: I had this piece (most of it, anyway) published in the September 2014 issue of Oremus Press. So to my Catholic sisters and brothers who followed the link here: Hi there! God bless. You get Jerusalem of course, and a few of the more popular sites from the bible. Provided there’s no open warfare in those areas; the last thing either Israelis or Palestinians want are shot-up tourists. Both sides profit from tourism.

When I went to Israel in 1998, I wanted to see Hebron, ’cause Abraham is buried there. But nothing doing: It was off-limits to tourists at the time. So I had to settle for Beersheba, one of the many places where Abraham camped. Or Tel Dan, where the ancient city of Laish, which Abraham once visited, was being excavated. Or the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham tried sacrificing one son or the other (the Torah says Isaac, the Qur’an says Ishmael, and the Book of Mormon probably says he did it in North America. Nah, kidding.) Probably these sites were more interesting than Hebron. I suppose I’ll never know.

So before going, the pilgrims at my brother’s church met regularly to discuss the sites they’d see. This way they could look them up in advance. Or, which is more likely, not. And once they finally got to Israel, they wouldn’t need to listen to any spiel from the tour guide. They could just stand there and bask in the awesomeness of where they were—assuming they knew where they were. I know the bible fairly well, but every once in a while, during my own trip to Israel, I’d go, “Where?” You see, some of the places today have unfamiliar Arabic names, and other locations are so minor (’cause most of the action takes place in Jerusalem, Samaria, Capernaum, and sometimes Bethlehem) so you can be excused for not knowing every little place where Jesus stopped for a bathroom break and a falafel. But now that you were there, you could stand there and think, “Wow, Jesus stood here.” Then take photos and video. And later that evening, upload it to Facebook.

Me, I’d rather pick the tour guide’s brain. The Israeli guides tend to know way more about the sites than many of the books out there. The Israeli Antiquities Authority educates them well. Yeah, some of it is telling the tourists just what they wanna hear: If they’re dealing with Catholic tourists, they’re instructed to never ever point out the Virgin Mary’s tomb. ’Cause everybody knows Mary ascended to heaven. Except non-Catholics, who don’t care whether she did or not; we figure she’ll be in heaven either way.

But when I saw one of their first itineraries, I noticed they were lacking a trip to the Naos tis Anastaseos—that’d be Greek for the Sanctum Sepulchrum, which is Latin for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It wasn’t there. They were going to the Garden Tomb, though.

“Well, what’s the big deal?” most Protestants are likely thinking. “They were going to the Garden Tomb. Why’d they need to go to that Catholic site anyway?”

Because “that Catholic site” is where Jesus was resurrected. He was never laid to rest in the Garden Tomb.

25 March 2016

Jesus dies. And takes our sin with him.

From Psalm 22, to not having his bones broken.

Mark 15.33-39 • Matthew 27.45-54 • Luke 23.44-48 • John 19.28-37

Around noon on 3 April 33, it got dark, and stayed that way till Jesus died. Obviously God was behind it, but we don’t know how. No solar eclipses in that part of the world, that time of year, so that’s out. Volcanoes have been known to darken the sky. So has weather. Regardless of how he pulled it off, God decided he wanted his Son’s death to happen in the dark.

As he was hanging on the cross, various folks were taunting him, and Matthew describes the head priests, scribes, and elders even taunting him with a bit of Psalm 22:

Matthew 27.43 KWL
He follows God? God has to rescue him now, if he wants him—for he said ‘I’m God’s son.’ ”
Psalm 22.8 LXX (KWL)
He hopes for the Lord, who has to release him,
who has to save him because he wants him.

Considering this psalm was so obviously getting fulfilled by Jesus’s death, taunting him with it just showed how far the Judean leaders’ unbelief went. They really didn’t think the psalm applied to Jesus any. It absolutely did.

That is why, round the ninth hour after sunrise (roughly 2:30 PM) Jesus shouted out the first line of that psalm: Elo’í Elo’í, lamá azavtáni/“My God my God, for what reason do you abandon me?” Ps 22.1 I know; it sounds different after the gospels’ authors converted it to Greek characters.

Problem is, by that point the scribes seem to have left, ’cause nobody understood a word he said. Jesus was quoting the original Hebrew, but only scribes knew Hebrew; the Judeans spoke Aramaic, and the Romans spoke Greek. And since Eloí sounded a little like Eliyáhu/“Elijah,” that’s the conclusion they leapt to: He was calling for Elijah. So they added that to their mocking. “Wait; let’s see whether Elijah rescues him.”

In our day Christians have leapt to a different conclusion—a heretic one. They might know Jesus was quoting scripture, but think he quoted it ’cause the Father literally, just then, did abandon him.

Seriously. Here’s the theory. When the lights went out, this was the point when Jesus became the world’s scapegoat: The sins of the entire world were laid on his head, Lv 16.20-22 so that when he died, our sin died too. Which is possible; the scapegoat idea is one of many theories about how atonement works. But the scriptures never indicate when such a transfer was made. The world going dark just feels like a good, dramatic time for such an event to happen.

Here’s when it goes wonky. After the sin-transfer was made to the scapegoat, someone was supposed to turn this goat loose in the wilderness to die. But since Jesus was literally nailed to the spot, he could hardly wander off… so the Father removed himself. Other Christians insist it’s because the Father finds sin so offensive, he couldn’t bear to watch. So he dimmed the lights (as if God can’t see in the dark) and turned his face away from his beloved, but defiled, Son.

Here’s why it’s heresy: God is One. You can’t separate the Son from the Father. They’re one being, not two. The trinity is indivisible.

24 March 2016

Jesus comforts the believing thief.

When one of the guys crucified with him, threw in his lot with him.

Mark 15.27, 32 • Matthew 27.38, 44 • Luke 23.32-33, 39-43

Jesus was crucified at about “the third hour [after sunrise],” Mk 15.25 and died at the ninth. Mk 15.34-37 Sunrise on 3 April 33, in that latitude (and before daylight-saving time was implemented), is at 5:24 AM. But “third hour” and “ninth hour” are hardly exact times; figure roughly from 8:30 AM to 2:30 PM he was on that cross. Six hours, slowly suffocating.

His cross was in between that of two evildoers Lk 23.33 or thieves. Mk 15.27 Christians like to imagine these guys were worse, like insurrectionists, or highwaymen who murdered their victims. ’Cause karma: If you’re getting crucified, it’d better be for murder or something just as awful. One of these guys implied they were getting their just desserts, Lk 23.41 so shouldn’t that make ’em murderers? Death by crucifixion sounds like way too extreme a penalty for mere thieves.

But we have to remember we’re dealing with Romans here. For them, everything merited death. They didn’t care the penalty didn’t fit the crime: They just wanted thievery to stop. So, one strike and you’re out. Thieves knew this was the risks of the job. But like all criminals, they figured they were smarter than the authorities, and they, unlike their dumber colleagues, would get away with it. These guys didn’t: The Romans caught ’em and crucified ’em. And that’s the way the game is played.

We don’t have their names. But you gotta call ’em something, so Christian tradition calls these guys Gestas and Dismas. Meh; whatever. Since Dismas was the guy who turned to Jesus and got into paradise, he’s now St. Dismas. (And 25 March is even St. Dismas’s Day. How ’bout that.) Whatever his actual name is, that idea isn’t wrong: He’s in the kingdom now.

Two of the gospels make it sound like they neither thief had any love for Jesus. They joined right in with all the non-crucified folks mocking Jesus.

Mark 15.27, 32 KWL
27 They crucified two thieves with Jesus: One on the right, one at his left.

32 “Messiah, the king of Israel, has to come down from the cross now,
so we can see and believe him.” And those crucified with Jesus insulted him.
Matthew 27.38, 44 KWL
38 Then two thieves were crucified with Jesus, one at right and one at left.
44 Likewise the thieves crucified with Jesus insulted him.

But at some point during those six hours, Dismas had a change of heart, and when Gesmas was sniping at Jesus, he decided to stand up for him.

Luke 23.32-33, 39-43 KWL
32 They brought two others with Jesus, evildoers to be done away with.
33 When they came to the place called Skull, there they crucified Jesus and the evildoers,
who were at right and at left.

39 One of the hanging evildoers was slandering Jesus, saying,
“Aren’t you Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 In rebuking reply, the other said, “Have you no respect for God? We’re under his judgment!
41 And we rightly so, for we got the consequence for what we practiced.
But this man did nothing wrong.”
42 He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus said, “Amen! I promise you’ll be with me in paradise today.”

23 March 2016

Jesus’s crucifixion.

The most obvious example of his suffering.

Mark 15.22-32 • Matthew 27.33-38 • Luke 23.32-38 • John 19.17-24

Ever bang your funny bone? That’s the ulnar nerve. The equivalent in the leg is the tibial nerve.

Crucifixion (Распятие), by Nikolai Ge, 1892. [From Gallerix.]

About 26 to 24 centuries ago, humans in the middle east figured out the most painful way to kill someone: Take four nails. Put one through each of these nerves, and hang a victim by these nails to whatever—a wall, a tree, a pole, a cross. If you stretch out their limbs, it’ll squeeze their lungs and they’ll find it really hard to breathe. Can’t inhale unless they push themselves up by their pierced ankles, pull themselves up on their pierced wrists—and each pull feels like they’ve crushed the nerve all over again. With a hammer.

There’s no way to stop the constant pain, and no way to keep from generating fresh pain without suffocating—which is eventually what’d kill you. After days. The pain is so intense, Latin-speakers invented the word excruciare/“excruciating” to describe it.

The Persians get credit for inventing it, since it shows up in their history first. (Haman, fr’instance, built a 50-cubit ech/“tree” to hang Mordecai on, Es 7.9 and while the KJV calls it a gallows, Haman meant to crucify him on it.) It probably predates the Persians. But Romans were definitely known for it. Not just ’cause of Jesus: Crucifixion was their thing. Get on Rome’s bad side, get crucified.

Crucifixion is so nasty, Romans forbade it to be used on their own citizens. But exactly like Americans’ attitudes about torture, foreigners were fair game. It’s how you terrorize ’em. Mess with the Roman Empire and you’ll suffer the worst form of death possible. (Yet we Americans like to imagine ourselves on Jesus’s side. That’s rich.)

As usual, the threat of death, even a nasty one, doesn’t deter insurrection, doesn’t deter crime. ’Cause insurgents and criminals always think they’ll get away with it. So all crucifixion did was horrify the law-abiding subjects of the Roman Empire—“What sort of monsters do such things to people?”—and make ’em hate the Romans all the more, and think them inhuman. Americans, pay attention.

Christian art depicts it differently. Our crucifixes depict Jesus with nails in the palms in his hands, and one nail spiking through the top of both feet, sometimes into a little platform. It’s because people take Luke too literally when the resurrected Jesus showed his hands and feet Lk 24.39-40 —they assume “hand” doesn’t include “wrist,” and “foot” doesn’t include “ankle.” In real life, putting the nails there wouldn’t have held up a body; the weight of the body would rip right through the hands and feet.

Moviemakers figure this out pretty quickly, which is why some movies also include ropes. Jesus gets both tied and nailed to the cross. (Sometimes the thieves crucified with him only get tied, so it looks like Jesus suffered way worse than they.) But ropes defeat the purpose of crucifixion: Now the victim’s weight rests on the ropes instead of the nails, and it’s no longer a struggle to breathe. But archeology doesn’t match the art.

(And y’know, the LORD’s curse on the serpent in Eden did say it’d bruise the human’s heel. Ge 3.15 So you’d think Christians would pay a little more attention to that.)

22 March 2016

Simon the Cyrenian, the man who carried Jesus’s cross.

In being forced to alleviate Jesus’s physical suffering, he added to Jesus’s mental suffering.

Mark 15.21 • Matthew 27.32 • Luke 23.26

Enroute to Golgotha, leading Jesus to the place they’d crucify him, the Romans decided he was inadequate to carry his crossbeam. Movies and art, following St. Francis’s lists of the stations of the cross, depict Jesus falling over a bunch of times. The gospels don’t, but who knows?—maybe he did. He had been up all night and flogged half to death. Between sleep deprivation and blood loss, carrying a hundred-pound crossbeam would’ve been too much for anyone. (No, not the 300-pound full cross we see in paintings, such as the El Greco painting in my “Stations of the Cross” banner. Even healthy convicts would’ve found that unmanageable.)

The Roman Senate had made it legal for soldiers to draft conquered peoples—basically anyone in the Roman Empire who lacked citizenship—into temporary service. Jesus referred to this law when he taught us to go the extra mile. Mt 5.41 So they grabbed an able-bodied passerby to carry the crossbeam for Jesus. And since he later became Christian and his sons became bishops, the writers of the gospels mentioned him by name: Simon the Cyrenian (or “of Cyrene”).

Mark 15.21 KWL
The Romans drafted a passerby coming from the fields, so he’d carry Jesus’s crossbeam:
A certain Simon the Cyrenian, father of Alexander and Rufus.
Matthew 27.32 KWL
Coming out, the Romans found a Cyrenian man named Simon,
and drafted him so he’d carry Jesus’s crossbeam.
Luke 23.26 KWL
As the Romans led Jesus away, they grabbed Simon, a certain Cyrenian coming from the fields,
and they put the crossbeam on him to carry behind Jesus.

21 March 2016

Jesus confuses Pontius Pilatus.

Governments exist to establish justice, but government didn’t do that in Jesus’s day.

Mark 15.1-5 • Matthew 27.1-2, 11-14 • Luke 23.1-4 • John 18.28-38

When Herod 1 died, Augustus Caesar took advantage of his heirs’ power struggle and took over Judea. The Caesars left local governance in the hands of the locals: The Judean senate ran all the local matters and enforced laws. (Namely the Law.) The one thing the Judeans weren’t permitted was the death penalty: The Romans reserved that power for themselves. Understandable; if the senate executed someone whom Rome wanted alive (say, if they executed Roman soldiers for idolatry), it could spark war.

So when the senate decided Jesus deserved death, they couldn’t execute him themselves. (I know; Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts suggests they could. Ac 8.57-60 That stoning was actually illegal, by Roman standards; somebody paid for it eventually, but Acts doesn’t tell that story.) Only the Romans could execute anyone, so the Judeans had to go convince the Romans to do it. Namely, convince them Rome, the emperor, or the Roman senate would want him dead—’cause Rome wasn’t just gonna execute anybody the Judean senate recommended. Especially over stuff the Romans didn’t consider capital crimes, like adultery or blasphemy.

What’d the Judeans have on Jesus? Well, he declared himself Messiah. And Messiah means king—which the Romans would consider treason, because only they got to make kings. Properly, the king of Judea was Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti, princeps/“first citizen” of Rome. Rome had a vested interest in putting down any antikings.

So that was the charge the senate brought to Caesar’s local representative, Judea’s igemón/“ruler,” Pontius Pilatus. For centuries scholars assumed Pilatus was merely a procurator/“treasury agent,” an administrator whose only job was to make sure Rome got Judea’s taxes. Archeologists have since discovered he was a præfectus/“prefect,” a military governor who should’ve been more decisive than Pilate comes across in the gospels. (Incidentally, his name isn’t pronounced like “pilot”—it’s the same as the founder of Pilates-style yoga.)

In all the gospels, Pilatus questioned Jesus… and came away unconvinced this man was any threat to Rome whatsoever. In Luke and John, he didn’t even believe Jesus was guilty of anything. But the Judean senate wanted him dead, and got plenty of the locals to say so too. In the end, Pilatus pragmatically gave ’em what they wanted.

Let’s begin with Jesus’s mini-trial before Pilatus. First the Judeans hauled him over to Antonia, the fortress next to the temple where Pilate and the Roman soldiers could watch the Judeans’ worship (just in case any riots broke out there), and presented them to their prefect.

20 March 2016

Holy Week: When Jesus died.

Our yearly remembrance of Jesus’s death.

Sunday is Palm Sunday, the start of what we Christians call Holy Week, or Great Week, Passion Week, and various other titles. It remembers the week Jesus died.

It took place 9–17 Nisan 3793 in the Hebrew calendar; and in the Julian calendar that’d be 29 March to 4 April in the year 33.

The Holy Week schedule.

And the week had started so well….

Of course Jesus rose on Sunday the 5th, the day Christians now designate as Easter.

18 March 2016

Simon Peter pretends he doesn’t know Jesus.

Yep, even Jesus’s best student tried to cover his butt and abandon his Lord.

Mark 14.66-72 • Matthew 26.69-75 • Luke 22.54-62 • John 18.15-18, 25-27

Earlier that night, during dinner, Jesus told his students they weren’t gonna follow him much longer; they’d scatter. At this point Jesus’s best student, Simon Peter, got up and foolhardily claimed this prediction didn’t apply to him. He wouldn’t scatter. He’d never lose heart. He’d stick with Jesus, fight his arrest, and die for him if he had to. Mk 14.26-31

And y’know, Peter wasn’t kidding. I’ve heard way too many sermons which mock Peter for this, who claim he was all talk. Thing is, he really wasn’t. When Jesus was arrested, Peter was packing a mákhaira/“machete” (KJV “sword”) and used it. Slashed the ear right off one of the slaves in the mob. You don’t start swinging a long knife at a mob unless you’re willing to risk life and limb. Peter really was ready to fight to the death for Jesus.

I already wrote about that bit, y’know. First Jesus healed the slave, then rebuked Peter: Having a weapon was only gonna get Peter killed. Jesus could stop his arrest at any time, but that wouldn’t fulfill the scriptures. Peter thought he was doing God’s will, but he was in fact stumbling—just like Jesus predicted. He was tripping over Jesus. Peter expected Jesus to do one thing; Jesus did just the opposite, and voluntarily went with the mob to die.

That sort of turn of events would knock the zeal right out of anyone. You know how Peter later kept saying he didn’t know Jesus? At the time, he really didn’t. Thought he did; totally got him wrong. We all do, sometimes. But Peter was having that crisis of faith Christians invariably go through, made a thousand times worse by knowing his master wasn’t gonna make it through his passion alive—and Peter may not have been 100 percent certain about any of the resurrection stuff Jesus had previously talked about. Mt 17.22-23, 20.17-19 Not anymore.

Even so, Peter didn’t scatter. He followed Jesus to the head priest’s house, where Jesus had his unofficial trial-before-the-trial before the head of the senate. Didn’t go in; only the eyewitness who informed the gospel of John did. (Maybe John himself; we don’t know.) Peter simply waited in the courtyard… and when the slaves began to recognize him, he panicked.

17 March 2016

Jesus’s arrest: His abuse begins.

He went peacefully. His followers and accusers, as usual, had other ideas.

Mark 14.45-52 • Matthew 26.50-56 • Luke 22.49-54 • John 18.4-12

The second station, in John Paul’s list of stations of the cross, is where Judas betrayed Jesus and Jesus was arrested. Same station for both. But different forms of suffering: Judas was about when your friends or confidants turn on you, and the rest was about the pain and dread people feel when their enemies have ’em right where they want ’em.

Let’s go to the gospels.

Mark 14.45-52 KWL
45 Immediately going to Jesus, he told him, “Rabbi!” and kissed him hello.
46 So they grabbed and arrested him.
47 One of the bystanders, pulling out a machete,
struck the head priest’s slave, and cut off his ear.
48 In reply, Jesus told them, “You come out with machetes and sticks
to snatch me away, like I’m an insurgent.
49 Daytime, I was with you in the temple, teaching. You didn’t arrest me then.
But this—it’ll fulfill the scriptures.”
50 Abandoning Jesus, everyone fled.
51 There was some teenager following him who was naked, wearing a toga.
They arrested him, 52 but he abandoned his toga and fled naked.
Matthew 26.50-56 KWL
50 Jesus told Judas, “Who’d you come for, lad?”
Then those who’d come, grabbed Jesus and arrested him.
51 Look, one of Jesus’s followers stretched out his hand, drew his machete,
struck the head priest’s slave, and cut off his ear.
52 Then Jesus told him, “Put your machete back where it goes:
Everybody who takes up arms will be destroyed by them.
53 You think I can’t call my Father, who’ll immediately give me more than 12 legions of angels?
54 But then how will the scriptures be fulfilled? So this has to happen.”
55 At that time, Jesus told the crowd, “You come out with machetes and sticks
to snatch me away, like I’m an insurgent.
Daytime, I was sitting in the temple, teaching. You didn’t arrest me then.
56 This is all happening so the prophets’ writings can be fulfilled.”
Then all the students abandoned him and ran.
Luke 22.49-54 KWL
49 Seeing what those round them intended to do,
the students said, “Master, should we strike with a machete?”
50 One hit a certain one of them—the head priest’s slave—and cut off his right ear.
51 In response Jesus said, “That’s enough!” and touching the ear, Jesus healed him.
52 Jesus told those who came for him—head priests, temple guards, and elders—
“You come out with machetes and sticks like I’m an insurgent.
53 Daytime, I was with you in the temple. You didn’t grab me then.
But this is your hour—the power of darkness.”
54 They arrested him, led him away, and brought him to the head priest’s house.
Simon Peter was following at a distance.
John 18.4-12 KWL
4 Jesus, who’d known everything that was coming to him,
came forward and told them, “Whom are you seeking?”
5 They replied, “Jesus the Nazarene.”
He told them, “I’m him.”
Judas, who was turning him in, stood with them.
6 When Jesus told them, “I’m him,” they went backward and fell to the ground.
7 So he asked them again, “Whom are you seeking?”
They said, “Jesus the Nazarene.”
8 Jesus replied, “I tell you, I’m him.
So if you’re seeking me, let these others go away.”
9 Thus fulfilling his word which said,
“Those you gave me: I lost none of them.” Jn 17.12
10 Simon Peter, having a machete, drew it and struck the head priest’s slave;
he sliced off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus.
11 So Jesus told Peter, “Sheath your machete.
This is the cup the Father gave me. Shouldn’t I drink it?”
12 So the 200 men, the general, and the Judean servants arrested Jesus and tied him up.

16 March 2016

Judas Iscariot sells Jesus out to the authorities.

The traitor’s motivations—and whether he really repented in the end.

Mark 14.41-46 • Matthew 26.45-50 • Luke 22.47-48 • John 18.1-3

In John Paul’s list of stations of the cross, the second station combined Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and Jesus of Nazareth’s arrest. ’Cause they happened simultaneously. (Well, perhaps broken up a bit by Simon Peter slashing one of the head priest’s slaves.) But I want to look at the two events separately, ’cause getting betrayed and getting arrested are two different kinds of suffering.

So first, right after Jesus Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, this happened.

Mark 14.41-46 KWL
41 When he came back a third time, he told them, Oh, sleep the rest of the time; stop it.
Stay back, for look: The Son of Man is arrested by sinful hands.
42 Get up, so we can go. Look, the one who sold me out has come.”
43 And just as Jesus was speaking, Judas Iscariot approached the Twelve.
With Judas was a crowd carrying machetes and sticks,
with the head priests, scribes, and elders.
44 The one who sold out Jesus had given them a signal,
saying, “He’s whomever I greet as a friend. Grab him and take him away. No mistakes.”
45 Immediately going to Jesus, he told him, “Rabbi!” and kissed him hello.
46 So they grabbed and arrested him.
Matthew 26.45-50 KWL
45 Then, coming back to the students, he told them, Oh, sleep the rest of the time; stop it.
Look, the hour comes near for the Son of Man to be given up to sinful hands!
46 Get up, so we can go. Look, the one who sold me out has come.”
47 And as Jesus was speaking, look, Judas Iscariot approached the Twelve.
With him was a great crowd carrying machetes and sticks,
sent by the head priests, elders, and people.
48 The one who sold out Jesus gave them a sign,
saying, “He’s whomever I greet as a friend. Grab him.”
49 Immediately going to Jesus, he said, “Hello, rabbi!” and kissed him hello.
50 Jesus told Judas, “Who’d you come for, lad?”
Then those who’d come, grabbed Jesus and arrested him.
Luke 22.47-48 KWL
47 As Jesus was speaking, look, a crowd
and the one called Judas Iscariot—one of the Twelve!—leading them.
He went to Jesus to kiss him hello,
48 and Jesus told him, “Judas, you sell out the Son of Man with a kiss?”
John 18.1-3 KWL
1 When he said this, Jesus with his students went over the Kidron ravine,
where there was a garden. He and his students entered it.
2 Judas Iscariot, who was selling him out, had known of the place,
because Jesus often gathered there with his students.
3 So Judas, bringing 200 men, plus servants of the head priests and Pharisees,
came there with torches, lamps… and arms.

15 March 2016

Jesus prays at Gethsemane.

Jesus’s passion begins with the place he prayed for this cup to pass.

Mark 14.32-41 • Matthew 26.36-45 • Luke 22.39-46 • John 18.1

The first of St. Francis’s stations of the cross was when Jesus was given his cross. (Duh.) But Jesus’s suffering began earlier that day, so St. John Paul’s list also began earlier—with Gethsemane, the olive garden on Mt. Olivet, where Jesus prayed he might not go through the crucifixion.

In fact he was so agitated at the idea, he sweat blood. Something The Passion of the Christ left out—but to be fair it is a textual variant, possibly added to Luke in the second century.

Let’s get to how the gospels depicted it.

Mark 14.32-41 KWL
32 They were going to a place named Gat Semaním/“oil press,”
and Jesus told his students, “Sit here while I pray.”
33 Jesus was taking Simon Peter, James, and John with him, and began to panic and freak out.
34 Jesus told them, “My soul is deathly sad. Stay here. Stay awake.”
35 He went a little ahead, fell to the ground, and was praying this:
“If it’s possible, have this hour pass by!”
36 He said, Abbá! Father, you can do anything: Take this cup from me.
But not what I want. What you want.”
37 He came back and found them asleep, and told Peter, “Simon? You’re sleeping?
You can’t stay awake one hour? 38 Stay awake. Pray, lest you come to temptation.
Though you’ve a willing spirit, your flesh is weak.”
39 He went away again, praying the same words.
40 Coming back again, he found them asleep. Their eyes were heavy.
They didn’t know how to answer him.
41 When he came back a third time, he told them, Oh, sleep the rest of the time; stop it.
Stay back, for look: The Son of Man is arrested by sinful hands.”

14 March 2016

Stations of the cross: Remembering Christ’s suffering.

One of the ways we remember, and appreciate, Jesus’s death.

In Jerusalem, Israel, Christians remember Jesus’s death by actually going down the route he traveled the day he died. It’s called the Way of Jesus, the Way of Sorrows (Latin, Via Dolorosa), or the Way of the Cross (Via Cručis). When I visited Jerusalem, it’s part of the tour package: Loads of us Christians go this route every single day, observing all the places Jesus is said to have suffered. Really solemn, moving stuff.

But most of us Christians don’t live in or near Jerusalem, and some of us can’t possibly go there. For this reason St. Francis of Assisi invented “the stations of the cross.” In his church building, he set up seven different dioramas. Each represented an event which happened as Jesus was led to his death. The people of his church would go to each diorama—each station—and remember what Jesus did for us all. And pray.

Yeah, this is a Catholic thing, ’cause Francis was Roman Catholic. But it’s not exclusively a Catholic thing: Many Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists use stations of the cross too. Be fair: If a Protestant invented it, you’d find Protestants doing it everywhere. ’Cause it’s not a bad idea.

So it’s why I bring it up here. The stations of the cross are a clever way to meditate upon Jesus’s death in a more visual, tangible way. And lots of Catholic churches (and a growing number of Protestant churches) keep the stations up year-round. Could be paintings, carvings, or stained-glass windows. Christians can “travel the Way of Jesus” any time we wanna contemplate his death, and what he did for us.

If you’ve ever seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, he made sure to include all the stations in his movie. As do Catholic passion plays, reenactments of Jesus’s death. Protestant passion plays too, though we tend to skip the events we don’t find in the gospels. ’Cause as you’ll notice, some of Francis’s stations came from the popular culture of early 1200s Italy. Not the scriptures.

13 March 2016

Does suicide send you straight to hell?

Short answer: No. But here’s why people claim otherwise.

Years ago I taught at a Christian junior high. We had the usual classes you’ll find at most schools, but we also had bible classes and a weekly chapel service. Principals led most chapel services, but in the last year of our junior high program, our principal handed the duties off to various guest preachers. Earnest guys, but let’s be blunt: Some of ’em didn’t know what they were talking about. Some churches have no educational standards, and’ll let anyone babysit pastor the youth.

One of our regular chapel speakers was a youth pastor, the husband of one of our daycare teachers. As far as theology is concerned, my eighth graders knew more. Not just ’cause I trained them; he was really that ignorant. One week this guy was talking about salvation, and he let slip that if you commit suicide, you go to hell. It wasn’t his main point, but one of our seventh-graders did question him on it: “You go to hell for suicide?”

“Yes you do,” he said, and went on.

Once the eighth-graders were back in my classroom, one of ’em asked, “You don’t really go to hell for suicide, right?”

Me. “What’re you saved by, God’s grace or good deeds?”
She. “Grace.”
Me. “Any of your evil deeds gonna send you to hell if you have God’s grace?”
She. “No.”
Me. “Suicide gonna send you to hell if you have God’s grace?”
She. “No.”
Me. “Okay then.”
She. “Well, why’d he say suicide will send you to hell?”
Me. “Because somebody told him that and he believed it. He didn’t bother to ask questions and get to the truth like you’re doing. He doesn’t know any better.”

Some of the kids were looking in surprise at one another—Pastors can be WRONG?—and if they didn’t know this yet, best they learn it now. We’re all wrong in one way or another. No exceptions. (And if you catch someone getting it wrong, ask questions. “Where in the bible does it say that?” usually does the job, although a lot of times they’re quoting it out of context. But I digress.)

But the youth pastor’s belief is surprisingly common among a whole lot of Christians. The rationale is simple, but graceless.

11 March 2016

Jesus provides six kegs for a drunken party.

Making wine of water.

John 2.1-11

Yeah, it’s a provocative title. But read verse 10: The planner pointed out you serve the lesser wine once people were drunk, and this was the point Jesus pulled the water-to-wine miracle. Everyone was too drunk to appreciate it.

Or, really, to notice this miracle. Which may have been why Jesus did it when he did. Like he told his mom, “My time isn’t come yet”—he was still trying to fly under the radar. But she knew what he could do, and—having the same character as his Father and the Holy Spirit—our Lord saw no good reason to deny the request. Why not?

Anyway, I like to bring this fact up whenever Christians start to object to people drinking at all. I don’t drink myself, and like them I’m not a fan of drunkenness (particularly public drunkenness). But Jesus did provide wine for a party, and no small amount either. Barrels of it.

John 2.1-11 KWL
1 For three days there was a wedding-feast in Cana, in the Galilee. Jesus’s mother was there.
2 Jesus was invited to the wedding-feast, as were his students.
3 Since the wine was late in coming, Jesus’s mother told him, “They have no wine.”
4 Jesus told her, “What’s that to me and you, ma’am? My time isn’t come.”
5 His mother told the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 There were six stone barrels placed there for Jewish ritual cleansing.
each containing about two or three buckets’ of liquid.
7 Jesus told them, “Fill the barrels with water,” and they filled them till full.
8 He told them, “Now ladle and bring some to the wedding-planner,” and they brought it to him.
9 As the wedding-planner tasted the water, it’d become wine.
He hadn’t known where it was. The servants, who ladled the water, had known.
The wedding-planner called the bridegroom 10 and told him, “Everyone first puts out the good wine.
Once people get drunk, the lesser wine. You kept the good wine till now?”
11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana in the Galilee.
He revealed his glory, and his students believed in him.

People also tend to miss the fact Jesus kinda told a joke: When his mom came to tell him about the wine shortage, his response was, “My time isn’t come.” Now, every other time this particular phrase comes up in the gospel of John, you’ll notice Jesus’s life was in danger:

John 7.30 KWL
So they were trying to arrest him.
But nobody laid a hand on him, for his time hadn’t yet come.
John 8.20 KWL
He spoke these messages in the treasury while teaching in temple.
Nobody arrested him: His time hadn’t yet come.

So what’s with the “time isn’t come” language? Jesus basically told his mom, “You want me to tell the guests there’s no wine? You realize what they’ll do to me? My time isn’t come!”

But most commentators interpret Jesus to mean he didn’t wanna do a miracle yet.

10 March 2016

“What’s God’s secret, evil plan for my life?”

Yep, some Christians are convinced God has a whole behind-the-scenes deal going.

In seminary I was introduced to the idea God has two wills. Sometimes it’s called a “twofold will.” (As if that doesn’t also make him sound a little schizophrenic.)

There’s the will he’s revealed to everybody in the scriptures: The Law, the Prophets, Jesus’s teachings, and the apostles’ instructions. That’s the stuff he wants us to do, so get out that bible, look it up, and obey.

Then there’s apparently a second will: God’s plan for the whole of creation. From the time he first made it, to the point he’s gonna restore it, to our infinite eternal future with him, God’s set a plan in place for everything. But unlike the first will, the one he revealed to everybody, God hasn’t revealed this one. He’s revealed he has a plan, but the details are none of our business. True, if he feels like it, he may choose to reveal parts of the plan to his prophets. But it’s private. For the most part he keeps it to himself.

The revealed will, which contains all God’s precepts in the bible, is referred to as God’s will of precept; the other, God’s grand purpose for the universe, would be his will of purpose. My theology professor described ’em like so. (Well sorta; I broke his big long sentences into shorter ones.)

God’s “two wills.” Assuming you believe he’s double-minded.

Sounds good? Sure; it’s why the belief is so popular. It explains why we can say God’s will can never be frustrated—even though people sin all the time. It also makes God’s plan feel like a done deal: Our sins can never stop God. His plan will happen. Guaranteed.

But if we start taking this will-of-purpose concept to its logical conclusion, we start to slam into some really weighty problems. Particularly with that fifth point, found in both of them: When we violate God’s commands, it still achieves his will? God’s purpose can still be achieved even through human misbehavior?

Sure, claim the folks who teach this:

  • God’s selected only some people to enter his kingdom. The rest are going to hell. Why? Well, God spelled out his commands—his will of precept—and they broke ’em. So their violation of God’s commands suits his purpose: He was gonna send ’em to hell anyway. Now he has a valid, justifiable, ex post facto reason.
  • God’s plan is to restore all things. But you can’t have restoration unless something gets broken first. So part of God’s plan—his will of purpose—requires stuff to get broken. Human and devilish evil. Depravity. Destruction. Death. It’s awful… but now God can fix it, and now everyone can see how awesome he is. Isn’t that great?

Yeah, you’ve probably noticed the big, glaring problem with these descriptions of God: They make him out to be secretly kinda… evil.

09 March 2016

When God turns off the warm fuzzy feelings.

Some of us are only following him for the euphoria. He wants us to follow him.

As I wrote in my article about confusing our emotions with the Holy Spirit, there are a number of Christians who aren’t pursuing God so much as they’re pursuing endorphins. They want the emotional high. That rush is their primary motivation for pursuing God.

Now, God’s got two typical responses for that sort of behavior:

  • He puts up with it. It’s not really harming us right now, and he can use it to redirect us towards proper, healthy ways of following him. So he’s gonna work with it.
  • He shuts it down. ’Cause it is harming us, or others; or it’s about to. ’Cause he’s trying to redirect us, but we’re either not listening, or we’re too easily distracted.

For endorphin junkies, when God makes ’em go cold turkey, it’s devastating. They feel nothing. In comparison with before, they feel like God went away; that he’s no longer there; that his presence is gone; that “the heavens are brass” (an out-of-context reference to Deuteronomy 28.23). Sometimes it’s called spiritual dryness, spiritual desolation, or as St. John of the Cross titled his book, a Dark Night of the Soul. Yep, if you’ve experienced it, you’re hardly the only one. At one time or another, every Christian will.

No, it doesn’t mean God left you. He didn’t. Unless you left him, he remains faithful: He won’t leave. He 13.5 But because we’ve confused our emotions with the Spirit, we feel like he’s left us. The warm fuzzy feelings we’ve incorrectly associated with him: Gone. Absent. Missed—’cause they’re pleasant, enjoyable feelings. But God determined they were getting in the way of true spiritual growth. So they had to go.

And y’know, since they’re the very same brain-chemicals we produce when we’re addicted to a narcotic, going without our spiritual high feels just as awful as when an addict quits their narcotics. Some of us plummet into depression. Some of us even quit Christianity: If God won’t give us a buzz anymore, maybe this was the wrong religion, and we oughta try one which does produce such feelings. (As if any clever con artist—or we ourselves—can’t psyche us into feeling whatever emotions we desire.)

08 March 2016

The cycle: The good old days, and the dark times.

Why history repeats itself.

Cycle. /'saɪ.kəl/ n. Series of events, regularly repeated in the same order.
2. [biblical] The repeating history of apostasy, oppression, revival, and salvation.
[Cyclical /'sɪ.klə.kəl/ adj.]

History repeats itself.

Most people figure it’s for the reason philosopher George Santayana famously stated: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” More accurately it’s that people didn’t learn from the past. They remember it just fine. But they think this time, they’ll get it right. The disasters of the past? People were naïve back then. We’re more intelligent, more evolved now. They failed, but we’ll succeed.

Then we don’t. ’Cause history repeats itself.

The usual form of this repetition is an up-and-down cycle. Historians call it all sorts of different things. An economic boom, followed by a period of downturn. An era of good feelings, followed by serious partisanship. A gilded age, followed by a panic. Good times, bad times, you know we’ve had our share.

We see the cycle in the bible as well. Different Christians call it different things. Often it’s the “cycle of sin” or “cycle of judgment” or “cycle of discipline”—something pessimistic. Since it’s an up-and-down cycle, some of us throw in the up side as well as the down: The “cycle of sin and repentance.” Regardless most Christians include the word cycle.

Looks like yea:

Round and round and round ya go.

Again, the steps and titles change depending on who’s making the chart. Sometimes all the phases cleverly start with the same letter, or spell out a word. (I don’t bother.) I have seven.

07 March 2016

The bargain with God.

The old standby, “God, if you’ll do this for me, I’ll….”

Probably the most common form of prayer is the bargain with God. It takes the form of, “God, if you do this for me, I’ll [something I may do; no guarantees though].”

We fill in the blank with all sorts of things. We promise we’ll reform our behavior: We’ll stop sinning; start some religious practice—or do one of ’em more regularly; be more charitable; perform some act of penance; or, pathetically, that we’ll believe in God. ’Cause we don’t, and the bargain with God is, to completely confound metaphors, our Hail Mary pass.

I’ve heard a lot of Christians dismiss, mock, or discourage the bargain with God. They believe it encourages the wrong attitude about prayer: Prayer’s about putting God’s will before ours. Not about working out an exchange of goods and services.

True. But the whole putting-God’s-will-first idea? That’s something devout believers know and practice. The bargain-with-God idea? We find it more among pagans, unbelievers, not-yet-believers, and newbies. (And the desperate, who revert back to this old behavior when their doubts overwhelm them.) When we’re talking mature Christians, of course I’m gonna discourage them from trying to cut deals with the Almighty, ’cause we’re supposed to be tighter with him than that.

But when we’re talking newbies, I don’t mind if they bargain with God. And y’know, God doesn’t mind if they bargain with him either. Sometimes he actually accepts their deals.

No, really. It’s in the bible.

Genesis 28.20-22 KWL
20 Jacob vowed a vow, saying, “God, if you’re with me on the way I’m going,
you’ll give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, 21 and I’ll return in peace to my father’s house.
LORD, be God to me.
22 This stone, which I set up as a marker, is God’s house.
Everything you give me, I tithe you a tenth of it.”

And God went along with that one. He watched over Jacob, despite the trickery of his uncle/father-in-law Laban, and despite some of Jacob’s own trickery. Jacob did eventually return to Canaan in peace.

1 Samuel 1.11 KWL
Hanna vowed a vow, saying, “LORD of War, if you see me,
see your maidservant’s affliction. Remember me. Don’t forget your maidservant.
Give your maidservant offspring, a man,
and I give him to the LORD all the days of his life.
A razor will never go upon his head.”

God went along with that one too. Hanna’s offspring was the prophet Samuel, and his mother dedicated him to God. Hence the whole no-razor thing; those under a Nazirite vow never cut their hair. Nu 6.5 Samuel was even sent to live at tabernacle, where he first heard God’s voice.

06 March 2016

Be kind. For once.

Christians know better than to pass off certain things as love… but we often overlook this thing.

We Christians don’t have a reputation for being kind. More like a reputation for being easily outraged, quick to judge, holier than thou, shunning, condemning, impatient, unforgiving buttholes. And if you were immediately offended by my using that word, you just proved my point: Our bad reputation is totally deserved.

What’s with all the Christian jerks? Largely it’s our lack of love. Love is kind, 1Co 13.4 but we Christians largely substitute the charitable, unconditional love of God, for the vastly inferior substitute: The sort of love which expects payback or reciprocity. We only love the worthy, not the undeserving; we only love good people, not sinners. Our so-called “love” has no real connection to grace.

And that’s a huge problem. Hristótis, the Greek word we translate “kindness,” Ga 5.22 actually means “graciousness.” True, kindness involves being friendly, generous, and considerate, like our culture defines kindness. But it’s much more: It’s the grace of God, in action. It’s one of God’s character traits, i.e. a fruit of the Spirit. When we’re kind, we’re practicing God’s grace.

When we’re unkind, we’re still fuming over my unexpectedly dropping the B-word, and plan to write an angry email… and then never, ever read this blog again. And feel totally justified in such behavior. Grace and kindness is for people who don’t deliberately use TV-safe profanities. Fr’instance people who accidentally use ’em… ’cause they don’t know any better, or they were stressed out or something. But they need to clean up their act, and stop doing it. Three strikes and they’re out. (Which is less than half of Simon Peter’s seven strikes, and way less than Jesus’s 490. Mt 18.21-22)

When we’re kind, we’re gonna be gracious, friendly, generous, humble, courteous—and nice. Yeah, I know plenty of Christians who are quick to point out kind and nice aren’t the same thing: Niceness is entirely about getting along with other people. And frequently people will lie, deceive, stifle their opinions, compromise their standards, or choose other evils, just to get along with others. They’ll be nice hypocrites.

I say we don’t have to deceive people to be nice to them: Why can’t we just be good for a change? Be better, more agreeable, more forgiving, more patient?

Besides, pagans are looking for niceness. They may not have any organized religious belief system, but most of ’em firmly do believe nice people are closer to God than mean people. So when they finally do start looking at religion, they try the nice ones first. The nice cults. The nice heretics. The nice con artists, who’ll lead them away, fleece the very clothes off ’em, and abandon them to hell.

Seems to me, if all it takes to win people over is to be nice to them, why are we objecting to niceness? Why is being a thorn in everyone’s side, so fundamental to our integrity?

04 March 2016

Jesus gains his first four students.

In which he meets Andrew and Simon, Philip and Nathanael. (James and John later.)

John 1.35-51

Honestly, the gospel of John doesn’t line up with the other gospels, which we call synoptics ’cause they share so many of the same stories. Wasn’t really meant to: The author likely knew one or more of those gospels, and was filling in all their blank spots. The synoptics make it sound like Jesus first met his students in the Galilee. John corrects that: Jesus met ’em in Judea.

John 1.35-39 KWL
35 Next day, John was again standing with two of his students.
36 Watching Jesus walk, he said, “Look: God’s ram.”
37 His two students heard what he was saying, and followed Jesus.
38 Jesus, turning round, watching them follow, told them, “Whom do you seek?”
They told him, “Rabbi,” (i.e. teacher) “where are you staying?” 39 He told them, “Come look.”
So they came, saw where he was staying, and stayed with him that day.
It was the tenth hour after sunrise.

Here we see two of John’s students. The word mathitís/“student” is often translated “disciple,” and people have the incorrect idea that a disciple is somehow different from a student. That it’s a deeper relationship, ’cause the disciple isn’t just trying to learn from the master, but be just like the master; like an apprentice. Or that it’s about lifestyle, not classroom instruction—so in some ways it’s less strenuous.

In fact there are all kinds of student/teacher relationships. Sometimes they’re all about learning data; sometimes they’re about lifestyle; sometimes the student is expected to become the teacher’s successor; however you do it. But saying “A disciple is different from a student” is rubbish. They’re synonyms.

In our culture, grade school students are different from college students, who are different from the people who attend a seminar, tutorial, music lesson, internship, training program, graduate school, or what have you. There are all kinds of students. Jesus’s students, considering he took ’em to synagogue so often, most likely matched the Pharisee system. The rabbis who instructed their young men were expected to train ’em to be Pharisees: To know the Law, love it, follow it, and also follow Pharisee customs and traditions. Jesus likely did the first three things. But he obviously, flagrantly violated the Pharisee customs and traditions, time and again. ’Cause he knew the intentions of the Law infinitely better than the Pharisees—and he had no use for Pharisee loopholes.

03 March 2016

Sovereignty: God’s our king. Not our puppet master.

Our God reigns. But perhaps we oughta think about how he does so.

Sovereign /'sɑv.ər.ən, 'sɑv.rən, 'sɑv.ərn/ n. A supreme ruler.
[Sovereignty /'sɑv.ər.ən.ti, 'sɑv.rən.ti, 'sɑv.ərn.ti/ n.]

Usually people talk about a nation’s sovereignty—their right to do as they please, with no one telling them otherwise. Like in the face of international treaties: If the United States signed an agreement to cut pollution, but our President doesn’t believe in climate change so he felt like breaking it, hey, we’re a sovereign nation; more carbon for everyone! Or in the face of state laws which contradict federal laws: If Colorado wants to legalize marijuana, yet the FBI wants to jail me for growing a field of weed, which government takes priority?

But the Christian discussion about sovereignty is a little different. There, we’re talking about God’s sovereignty: His right and authority to rule the universe. He has a kingdom, and he the king. (If you wanna get picky, Christ means “king.” so Jesus is the king—but Jesus is God, so there.)

God didn’t create the universe, then leave it to function on its own, without his input or interaction. Kinda obvious by the fact he issues commands, either to nature 2Ch 7.13 or to us humans. 2Ch 7.17 He’s almighty, so he can enforce his commands: Make us obey, or penalize us when we won’t. And he has every right to command us, for he made us to do certain things—namely good deeds. Ep 2.10 If we don’t do as designed, he has every right to correct us. Even unmake us.

Yeah, there are Christians who believe God has no such rights. They won’t say it in those particular words; they know how rebellious and heretic it sounds. So they fudge around it and claim it’s God’s idea to not reign over his universe: God gave us free will, and he loves our free will so much, he’d never interfere with humanity. At all. “The Holy Spirit is a gentleman,” they insist, “and will never interfere with your life unless you grant him permission.”

Okay yes, God gave us free will. (Duh.) God gave your kids free will too. Does that mean if they get the brilliant idea to paint the cat, you’re gonna let ’em? Not unless you really hate that cat. (Often not even then.) Free will means we can make choices, but God has free will too. Freer than ours; we’re limited and he’s not. God can almightily clamp down on our bad choices. Just ’cause he doesn’t always, doesn’t mean he doesn’t at all.

Tell “God would never interfere with your free will” to those people who are dying, don’t wanna, but God’s not intervening, for he’s decided their time’s up. Tell it to women who want to become mothers, but God says no. Or men who want to pursue one vocation, but God redirects ’em to one he prefers. Or people who wanna move in various directions, but God both shuts the door and closes the window. Ac 16.6-7

See, either God’s in charge, or we’re in denial: We’ve decided he’s not really, and make no attempt to submit to his will or approval. Jm 4.15-16 Not the smartest plan. But indicative of Christians who believe God’s kingdom hasn’t arrived yet, and won’t be here till Jesus returns. Till then, they intend to enjoy life and do as they will. They imagine once Jesus transforms us in his return, 1Co 15.51-52 he’ll vaporize our sinful nature—so there’s no point in currently fighting it. Go ahead and sin; we’ve got grace. Until the King comes, sin gets to be king. (Scriptures to the contrary. Ro 6.1-2, 14)

02 March 2016

How to study your bible.

’Cause every Christian should. And should know how.

When I was a kid, I went to a Fundamentalist church. Say what you will about those folks: They’re big on studying the bible. Not all of ’em know how to do it properly—and they definitely didn’t teach me how to do it. (Man alive was I over-dependent on my Scofield Reference Bible notes!) But I gotta give ’em credit for making a serious, earnest effort just the same. They really wanted to know what was in there, and rightly believed every Christian should.

But even while I was in that church, I discovered I knew way more about the bible than the average Christian. Not ’cause I’m a genius or anything, although I have a really good memory: I knew more because I read the bible, read the notes, read everything about the bible I could get access to: I studied. And most Christians honestly don’t.

Most humans don’t. When we get out of school—whether that’s high school, university, or grad school—we figure we never, ever have to study again. And don’t. We quit. We’re done. We might make exceptions for something important, like our contractor’s license; but we’re done. Study the bible? Nah. We’ll leave that for the experts. Pastors can study the bible. When we wanna get something profound out of the scriptures, we only expect to get ’em one of three ways.

  1. Somebody else has to say it. Like a favorite preacher or author, whom we trust to say reliable things. (Trust based on what? Well, that’s another discussion.)
  2. It’s gotta be a clear, obvious statement in the bible. Something anyone could find, like a penny on the sidewalk.
  3. It’s a God-inspired idea which unexpectedly pops into our heads, like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky, as we’re reading the bible. Illumination, some call it.

But study? Go digging out truths from the text? Never gonna happen.

There’s a common but false assumption that God’s kingdom, because it runs on grace, arrives by grace: We don’t have to make any effort. Just take the talent God gave us, bury it in a field, and it’ll grow like an acorn into a tree filled with shiny metal discs. Wisdom will just come to us naturally. After all, there’s no shortage of people posting pithy platitudes on Twitter.

Here’s the quandary: Which of those platitudes are true, and which of them are merely clever… but wrong?

’Cause I’ve heard loads of platitudes. So have you. I’ve been a Christian for four decades, and listened to sermons every Sunday morning, many Sunday and Saturday and Friday and Wednesday evenings, many mini-sermons by bible study leaders and prayer group leaders and college professors, many sermons in chapel at schools I’ve gone to or taught at, and of course sermons on the radio or podcasts. I have no idea how many Christian books I’ve read, both before and after seminary. Or how many posts on Christian blogs.

There’s a lot of advice out there. Most of it looks like good Christian advice. But it only looks good: Much is junk, is misinformed, is misleading, is foolhardy, is ignorant, is dark Christianity, is heresy, or is hypocrisy disguised under thick Christianese.

And some of it is pure Christianism: It’s pop psychology, godless politics, Mammon worship and social Darwinism, ulterior motives disguised as devout Christianity. It’s totally wrong—but sounds good. Sounds wise, familiar, benevolent… and totally appeals to our bratty inner child, so we repeat it.

How do we know the difference? Well, unless we have the supernatural gift of discernment (which in my experience, the Holy Spirit uses to point out false teachers, not bad theology), we gotta discern stuff the old-fashioned way: We gotta know our bibles. And not just superficially. We gotta study our bibles. We gotta buckle down and do our homework.

But we don’t wanna.

01 March 2016

God knows the plans he has for you.

When inspirational quotes are shown in historical context.

Jeremiah 29.11

Jeremiah 29.11 NIV
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Whenever English-speaking Christians quote this verse, I tend to hear the New International Version translation most often. Oddly, not the been-around-way-longer King James:

Jeremiah 29.11 KJV
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.

I suspect it’s ’cause the words “prosper” and “hope” and “future” are in the NIV, so it comes across as way more optimistic and inspiring. It’s why Christians quote it like crazy.

’Cause we do. Like the evangelists told us, “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” and this verse brilliantly affirms it: God thinks warm, wonderful things about us. He has a good, fine plan, with a good future.

Some of us figure that future is heaven, and some of us figure it’s all the worldly success the American Dream can offer. But Christianized. That way we’re comfortably wealthy, but our comfort and wealth somehow hasn’t turned us into out-of-touch, self-entitled jerks. Instead we’re “good stewards” of that wealth… but I gotta tell ya, in practice stewardship tends to look a little out-of-touch, and a tends to hoard on the basis of “God gave these riches to me, not the needy, so I must deserve it more than they.” But I digress.

Like many out-of-context scriptures, this isn’t a mistranslation. My own translation isn’t far different from the NIV and KJV.

Jeremiah 29.11 KWL
“Because I know the intentions I plan over you,” the LORD states.
“Intentions of peace, not evil. To give you a happy ending, and hope.”

The verse is about what God has in store for his people. He plans good, not evil. (Especially not secret, behind-the-scenes evil stuff, like natural disasters and wars; whereas in public he maintains moral superiority. I know certain Christians claim otherwise, but God’s no hypocrite.) God wants his people to have good lives. Not bad.

Thing is: The people God addressed in this prophecy are the Hebrews of southern Israel, the separate tribes which the writers of the Old Testament call “Judah.” (Really the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon; plus Levites and various members of other tribes in the cities. Collectively, “Jews.”) Jeremiah prophesied it between the years 586 and 581BCE, after King Jeconiah, his family and court, and Jerusalem’s officials had been taken captive to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s troops. Jr 29.2 In fact the prophecy was a message to these very captives. Not all the Jews in the sixth century before the Christian Era; certainly not 21st-century gentiles. Nor even all us Christians.

But we’d sure like it to be us, wouldn’t we?