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30 November 2016

God can’t abide sin?

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? Then grant me some so I can explain.

God is definitely anti-sin. He told us what he wants and expects of his people. Both through his Law, and through the teachings and example of Christ Jesus. (I was about to write “and he didn’t mince words,” but Jesus kinda did in some of his parables. Regardless, any honest, commonsense Christian—and plenty of pagans—can figure Jesus out.)

Yes, God’s offended by our willful disobedience. And he’s just as offended by the sins of people who don’t know any better: They do have consciences, after all. Ro 2.15 They were taught the difference between right and wrong. Even so, they chose what’s wrong.

But the issue isn’t whether sin bugs God. It’s whether sin bugs God so much, he can no longer practice grace. Whether he can’t abide sin—and therefore he can’t abide sinners.

If that’s the idea we’re spreading, we’re also spreading the idea we gotta clean ourselves up before we can ever approach God. Like when the Hebrews had to wash themselves for three days before the LORD could hand down his Ten Commandments. Ex 19.9-11 Like when the Hebrews sacrificed guilt offerings whenever they felt they weren’t right with God. Lv 5.15-19 Like when the ancients approached their kings with fear and trembling, knowing they could be struck down at any moment for daring to enter their presence uninvited. Es 4.11 The appearance of sin outrages God so much, it turns him into a bloodthirsty berzerker who can’t wait to fling people into fire and sulfur.

We’re also spreading the idea because God can’t abide sin, he won’t forgive it. Some of us went beyond the pale long ago, and can’t possibly approach him now. The magical substance of grace may exist, but it’s not for people who call out to God; it’s only for people whom God’s pre-selected long before, and everybody else is just plain screwed.

Basically, in order to defend our own lack of grace, we’re slandering God and making people hesitant to embrace him. Or even driving them away. Driving them to despair.

29 November 2016

Sacraments: Our Christian rituals. Gotta do ’em.

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).ə 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 experienced? Did I hear God’s audible voice: “Behold thou art made whole: Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee”? Jn 5.14 KJV Did I experience happy feelings which I’ve come to associate with forgiveness? Was God cursing me in some way, and now he’s not? Do (as the prosperity gospel folks insist is true) I suddenly find myself flush with cash?

In fact no: Most of the time we don’t see anything. Don’t see most of the things God does “behind the scenes,” as we put it—which is inaccurate, ’cause God’s not hiding a thing. He told us what he’s up to, He 1.1 and still tells us when we bother to ask. Am 3.7 It’s just we don’t bother to ask. Or we assume it’s part of some secret evil plan he’s up to.

But God understands how we humans tick: We want experiences. We wanna have something we’ve lived through, which we can point back to and say, “That’s when God did [something profound]. There’s the date and time.” Something to jog our memory, to remind us how and when God did something for us. Like a holiday which reminds us Jesus died for our sins at around 2:30 PM, 3 April 33. Or a handy, easy-to-repeat ritual.

And that’s why God ordained such rituals for us Christians to perform. Things we can do which represent what he did, what he’s doing, what he’ll do later. We call ’em sacraments, which literally means “sacred acts.” Or (if we think “sacrament” is too Catholic a word) ordinances—’cause God did ordain ’em.

The reason God ordained sacraments is to make his grace visible. ’Cause it’s not always. Miracles are visible, obvious forms of grace. Forgiveness… well, what’s obvious is the way we respond to God forgiving us. (If we respond to him; some of us are ingrates.) Some of us think we oughta feel something when that happens, so we psyche ourselves into imagining God’s presence, into feeling stuff, even into seeing stuff. You know, contorting our brains in all sorts of unhealthy ways. Things that’ll just get in the way once real visions happen.

In comparison God keeps it simple. Get dunked in water. Eat bread and drink wine. Set up a rock pile. Wash feet. Celebrate a holiday. Make promises. Say certain words. These rituals represent the reality. Do them and remember the reality. 1Co 11.24-25 Remember God’s grace.

28 November 2016

The TXAB Advent Calendar.

When the Christmas season well and truly begins.

The word advent comes from the Latin advenire/“come to [someplace].” Who’s coming to someplace? Jesus. Coming to earth. Either the first time around, around the year 7 BC, which is what we celebrate with Christmas; or the second time around, in the future, to take possession of his kingdom.

Four Sundays before Christmas is Advent Sunday, the start of the advent season, the Christmas season, and the Christian year. And if you’re counting down from today, the text below will update automatically through the power of Javascript. Here are the number of days till (or of) Christmas:

Javascript isn’t working this Christmas!

Many Evangelicals only know about advent from commercial advent calendars, which count down to Christmas from 1 December instead of the ever-changing date of Advent Sunday. Each “day” on these calendars usually contain a surprise; preferably chocolate. And manufacturers don’t want to keep changing the product every single year. So you’re kinda stuck with 25 chocolates, even though some years you oughta get as many as 28. But that’s what happens when Mammonists get to decide when the Christmas season begins.

Of course, commercializing the tradition is an irritating way to remember it, ’cause the point of advent is to be the antidote to rampant materialism. We’re to focus on Jesus. Not social custom. Not gift-giving. Not all the stuff we’re expected to do every single year. Jesus. We claim he’s the reason for the season; now it’s time to take that saying seriously, instead of using it as an excuse to browbeat clerks into telling us “Merry Christmas” like we prefer.

Part of getting ready for Jesus’s second advent is to stop being this sort of argumentative, frenzied, self-focused consumers, and start behaving like he’s coming back. ’Cause he is. Maybe not for the whole world just yet; he’s still trying to save everybody. But at some point you’re gonna die. (As will I. As will everyone.) So he’s coming for you personally. Are you ready?

Luke 12.35-48 KWL
35 “Be people whose toolbelts are on, whose lamps are burning.
36 You should be like people waiting for their own master when he returns from weddings:
He arrives, knocks, and they can quickly unlock the door for him.
37 These slaves are awesome. The returning master will find them alert.
Amen, I promise you the master will put on a towel and have them recline to eat,
and he’ll come in to serve them.
38 Even at the second hour after sunrise, even at the third, he can come and find them ready.
These slaves are awesome.
39 (You should know: If the homeowner knew what time the burglar came,
he’d never permit him to break into his house.)
40 You be ready: The Son of Man comes at the time you don’t expect.”
41 Simon Peter said, “Master, are you saying this parable for us or for everyone?”
42 Master Jesus said, It’s to whoever’s a faithful, wise butler.
The master puts the butler over his waiters, giving them their trays at the right times.
43 This slave is awesome when the master, coming to the butler, will find them doing this job.
44 I tell you the truth: The master will put the butler in charge of everything.
45 But when this slave says in their mind, ‘My master delays in coming,’
and might start beating the boys and girls, or eating, drinking, and getting drunk,
46 that slave’s master will come on a day they don’t expect, at a time they don’t know,
and will cut them down to size, and assign them a position with the unreliable slaves.
47 That slave who knew their master’s will, and didn’t prepare, nor do his will: They’ll get skinned.
48 The one who didn’t know, who did what deserved a smack: They’ll get skinned a little.
To everyone who’s given much, much is sought from them.
To those with much set before them, more will be asked back.”

Do you know what our master expects of you? ’Cause he’s coming when we won’t expect.

25 November 2016

Worshiping Mammon instead of Jesus.

How religion works in wealthy countries.

Matthew 6.24 • Luke 16.13

In the United States today is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and the second-biggest shopping day of the year. Used to be the biggest, but that’s now Monday. In order to get customers to shop on their day off, stores offer outrageous sale prices, and many shoppers are so greedy and impatient they’ll do horrible things to one another.

I’ve been reading a bit lately about how American merchants have exported the shopping day to other countries, in the hope of kick-starting their Christmas shopping as well. Strikes the United Kingdom’s pundits as odd; why are they suddenly participating in an American phenomenon? And if so, why don’t they get our Thanksgiving too? Although as American merchants have proven, they really don’t care so much about Thanksgiving: They’d have us interrupt our holiday and start shopping Thursday if they can. And they do try.

The myth is it’s called black because merchants do so well, their ledgers are now “in the black” instead of “in the red”—they’re finally turning profits in the fiscal year, instead of losses. This is a lie. The police, who have to break up fights, work crowd control, and deal with trampled or beaten victims, began calling it Black Friday, and the name stuck.

Black Friday is one of our culture’s more obvious examples of Mammonism, the worship of wealth, money, material possessions, and the joy of pursuing all that stuff. Our word Mammon comes from something Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, repeated in Luke.

Matthew 6.24 KWL
“Nobody’s able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”
Luke 16.13 KWL
“No slave is able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”

A few of the more recent translations drop the reference to Mammon and translate this verse, “You cannot serve both God and money” (GNB, NIV, NLT), or “You cannot serve God and wealth” (NASB, NRSV). Thing is, mamonás/“Mammon” isn’t the Greek word for wealth; that’d be hríma. It’s an Aramaic word with a Greek ending tacked on, as if it’s an Aramaic name. Hence people extrapolated the idea that Mammon is a person, and since Jesus says you can’t serve this person as well as God, it must therefore be another god.

A false god of course. But some god which competes with the LORD for our devotion. And since the Aramaic mamón is a cognate of the Hebrew matmón/“secret riches,” Mammon must therefore be a god of riches or wealth or money.

In Luke when this statement comes up, Jesus had just told the Undercharging Bookkeeper story: A shifty bookkeeper made friends by undercharging his master’s creditors. Lk 16.1-9 Jesus concludes, “Make friends for yourselves out of the embezzling Mammon.” Lk 16.9 And in the following Luke passage, the Pharisees rejected this teaching of Jesus because they were filiárgyri/“silver-lovers.” Lk 16.14

So is Mammon a money god? Or simply Jesus’s personification of money? Or a mistranslation?

24 November 2016

Thanksgiving Day.

If your country doesn’t have a national day of thanksgiving, that’s a bummer. But you can still give thanks any time.

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

Who are we giving thanks to? Well, the act which establishes Thanksgiving Day as one of our national holidays, provides no instructions whatsoever on how we’re to observe it. Or whom we’re to thank.

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the last Thursday in November in each year after the year 1941 be known as Thanksgiving Day, and is hereby made a legal public holiday to all intents and purposes and in the same manner as the 1st day of January, the 22d day of February, the 30th day of May, the 4th day of July, the first Monday of September, the 11th day of November, and Christmas Day are now made by law public holidays.

—77th Congress, 6 October 1941
House Joint Resolution 41

The Senate amended it to read “fourth Thursday in November,” and President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law. So it’s a holiday. But left undefined, ’cause our Constitution won’t permit Congress to pick a national religion, nor define religious practice. Article 6; Amendment 1 Not that Congress doesn’t bend that rule on occasion. Making “In God We Trust” our national motto, fr’instance.

Though our government is secular, the nation sure isn’t. Four out of five of us Americans call ourselves Christian. I know; we sure don’t act it. (Look at our crime rate. Look at the people we elect.) Regardless, a supermajority of us claim allegiance to Jesus, which is why we can bend the Constitution so often and get away with it. Our presidents do as well; our first president was the guy who first implemented a national Thanksgiving Day.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.

—President George Washington, 3 October 1789

Yeah, Americans point to other functions as our “first Thanksgiving.” Usually a harvest celebration by the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians in 1621. Although technically the first Christian thanksgiving day on the continent was held by the Spanish in Florida in 1565—followed by another in Texas in 1598, and another by the Virginia colonists as early as 1607.

Over time, colonial custom created a regular Thanksgiving Day, held in the fall. Sometimes governments declared a Thanksgiving Day, like the Continental Congress declaring one for 18 December 1777 after the Battle of Saratoga. But Washington’s declaration in 1789 didn’t fix the day nationally (and he didn’t declare another till 1795). States set their own days: In 1816, New Hampshire picked 14 November, and Massachusetts picked 28 November.

It wasn’t till 1863 when it did become regular:

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

—President Abraham Lincoln, 3 October 1863

Lincoln and his successors declared Thanksgiving every year thereafter.

23 November 2016

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

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), he pointed out, assuming they have children, the children oughta be well-behaved. 1Ti 3.12 If deacons become elders, same deal. If they can’t even raise their own kids, what good are they to raise a mature church?

So first things first. All that stuff you were hoping to do for your church?—lead music, teach Sunday school and bible classes, participate in the prayer group, contributing to charity, going on a missions trip? Do all that stuff, with your kids, first. Live out your Christianity with them, in front of them, as an example to them, long before you start doing that stuff for your church. ’Cause your first duty is to train your kids to follow your God. Dt 4.9-10 Not to just have ’em say the sinner’s prayer, then hope they pick up the rest on their own.

Sad to say, a lot of Christians prefer to do the sinners’ prayer, and little more. I know from experience. When I was in youth group, a lot of the kids knew nothing about Jesus outside of what our youth pastors told us. And that’s assuming they listened to the pastor’s lessons. They were woefully ignorant of God—but their parents figured they said the prayer, got baptized, went to church, and participated in all the same cultural Christian things they did. Doesn’t that count as raising ’em Christian?

As a result you’ve got a lot of Christians who aren’t really raising their kids Christian. At best, the kids come to Jesus in spite of their parents’ lack of attention. At worst, the kids decide their parents are hypocrites, Christianity is bogus, and turn antichrist.

And their parents, in horror and outrage, can’t imagine they’re in any way to blame for their kids’ seeming apostasy. So they look for other scapegoats: Their pagan friends. Secular schools. Youth pastors who didn’t adequately diagnose the coming problem. Evil rock music and TV programs. Satan. Anybody but themselves. Because they provided their kids a good Christian environment; how on earth could this have happened on their watch?

Easy. They didn’t watch. They assumed the environment would make their kids Christian. Environment does nothing. Discipleship does. Train your kids in the way they should go. Don’t just quote bible verses at ’em, but fail to lead by example.

22 November 2016

Sucking up to God.

Too many Christians claim before we make any prayer requests, we have to start with some serious toadying.

Matthew 6.9-10 • Luke 11.2

All 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 you.”
Chaplain. “Forgive us, O Lord, for this dreadful toadying.”
Congregation. “And bare-faced flattery.”
Chaplain. “But you are so strong and, well, just so super!”
Congregation. “Fantastic.”

The problem with it? It’s not what the Lord’s Prayer means… and to a large degree it’s hypocrisy. When we come to God with legitimate prayer requests, small or serious, and begin with the fawning adulation, how is this significantly different from a teenager telling her dad “I love you so much” before she asks him for money? I kiss God’s boots; I earn his favor. Now he owes me. Right?

Of course it’s wrong. Yet it’s what we see: Christians figuring the more they praise God, the better he thinks of them. Or as pagans would put it, the more karma they’re generating. The more apt he is to give us what we ask, even when we really shouldn’t ask for such things ’cause our ulterior motives are bad. Jm 4.3 But we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking this is how prayer should be done. It’s not honest praise; it’s a quid pro quo.

In reality prayer requests are about grace. They’re about God giving us what he wants to give us, only because he loves us, and not because we merit or earned it.

Likewise praise is about appreciating God, about reminding ourselves of his greatness. If you wanna do a lot of that, I direct you to Psalms. But the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t actually include praise—unless you’re using the Didache version which includes, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.”

And in that case it follows the examples shown in Psalms: The psalmists tended to pour out their heart to God first. Express their woes, state their problem, ask for help. Then—after God talked ’em down, or told them he’d take care of it—then they ended their prayers with praise and gratitude. Honest gratitude.

21 November 2016

Questioning authority.

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 they’re lying. (Usually.) But I know how human nature works. I know how gossip spreads. People spread stories because they’re interesting, not because they’re true. People believe stories when they confirm what they already believe, and reject ’em when they don’t. Good people can unintentionally be very, very wrong. Happens all the time. Happens to me.

Hey, humans aren’t all-knowing; they aren’t God. And some of us actually are evil. Like politicos who deliberately spread lies about their opponents. Like kids who bully their enemies. Some Christians have a political axe to grind, so their teachings are always skewed to suit their views. If I just met someone, I don’t automatically assume this is why they’re wrong: Give me time, and I’ll recognize the pattern of partisanship, overzealousness, anger, and other fleshly motives. But most folks are just honestly mistaken.

Still, that self-preservation instinct kicks in, and people are quick to attack my simple doubts as if they’re frontal assaults: “What, d’you think I’m lying to you?”

18 November 2016

Why I went to an all-white church.

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. I never knew why. Never thought to ask why. Never assumed it was about race… ’cause I wasn’t bigoted.

Didn’t give the racial issue any thought till I started to invite my high school friends to Maypole’s youth group. My high school was right next to the Air Force base, and was as integrated as the U.S. military is. I was raised in multiethnic neighborhoods, so I didn’t solely make friends with white kids. But most were fellow Christians, and if they didn’t have a youth group, I invited them to mine. They came. For a few weeks. Then stopped. Found excuses not to come along.

I’d ask ’em why they didn’t wanna come to my church anymore.

“That group ain’t right,” they’d tell me.

I wanted to know what was wrong with them.

They didn’t wanna get specific. “It just ain’t right.”

I assumed it had to do with doctrines: My church was more Fundamentalist than they were. My church wouldn’t compromise; theirs would. You know, Fundie thinking.

Then I finally invited a white high school friend to church. He wasn’t Christian; he was a pagan who was open to the idea. He didn’t stop after two weeks: He stuck around. Largely ’cause he wanted to hook up with one of the youth group girls. And though I never saw him make a decision for Jesus, he turned round and invited some of his friends to the group. First a white friend, who stuck around a month (till he realized Christian girls weren’t as loose as he’d like). Then a Latino friend, who only stayed three weeks, but left ’cause “That group ain’t right.”

Every Spring Break the youth group took a “mission trip” to Baja California and help out at a Mexican church’s Vacation Bible School. There, I saw for myself how many of the kids were super racist towards Mexicans. Our youth pastor cracked down on it as much as he could (given how certain parents would have his job if he kicked their kids out of the group). Still, this was finally when I realized what my nonwhite friends meant by “That group ain’t right.” No they weren’t.

And as we know, kids don’t become racist in a vacuum. They get it from their parents.

Nope, not accusing Maypole Church of racism. Not the pastors; probably not the deacons. But obviously there were just enough racists in my youth group to block any outreach I did—or anyone did—to nonwhites in my high school, in our city, anywhere. I assumed my church was a safe place, as all churches should be. They weren’t.

I stopped going to Maypole in 1991. Last I checked, they’re still 100 percent white.

17 November 2016

The mentalist… disguised as a prophet.

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, name, phrase, whatever: It’s called “fishing.” The person who does it, has no idea whether there’s any such person in the crowd. But statistically it’s likely. Chances are good there is a person with a J in their name, or whose father’s name was Stephen, or who recognizes the word “Bureau,” or who considers certain dates meaningful. The first person to stand and say, “That’s me!” is gonna get a brief demonstration of how mentalism works.

What they get next are often Barnum statements, “prophecies” which seem like they apply just to that individual, but it’s rare you’ll find someone whom they don’t apply to. They’re the sort of general, that-could-mean-anything stuff we read in horoscopes or fortune cookies.

  • “There’s a significant event which recently took place in your life, isn’t there?” Of course there is.
  • “You’ve been feeling uncertain lately. You have some doubts.” Who doesn’t?
  • “You’re having problems with a friend or relative.” Of course.
  • “Is the number 10 significant to you in some way?” It’s significant to everyone in some way. Me, I happen to have that many toes. Sometimes a $10 in my wallet.
  • “There’s somebody important in your life—I’m seeing a B, maybe a C…” Just about everyone knows someone with those letters as initials.

From there, the “prophet” will fish for more information. Meanwhile they’re looking these folks over, and trying to deduce other things about them. The goal is to keep rooting around till they find something really meaningful. Then cheer you up about it, give you hope, make you know everything’s okay. ’Cause prophecy’s all about encouragement, right? 1Co 14.3 Deduce your problem, small or large; then encourage you God already knows all about it, and has your back.

But let’s hit pause on this process and think a moment. These prophets claim to hear from God, right? Yet instead of calling out a name, they’ve gotta play guessing games? They can’t tell whether the issue’s with a friend or relative? They can’t tell whether God’s saying B or C? Those letters don’t look that similar. Nor sound similar.

If they can’t identify what God’s telling them on such basic things, how can we trust any of the prophecies which’re gonna come afterward?

Well, we can’t. Because the Holy Spirit isn’t talking to these traveling-circus-style “prophets.” With God there’s no guesswork about what he’s saying. Oh, there’s plenty of guesswork about what he means; Christians still debate over some of Jesus’s parables. But his messages are crystal clear. There’s no guesswork to it. God doesn’t do vague.

16 November 2016

When supernatural gifts will no longer be needed.

Contrary to common myth, not gonna happen for a while yet.

1 Corinthians 13.7-13

I 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 KJV
8 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 canon was still open, God had to grant his apostles prophecy and supernatural knowledge, ’cause they couldn’t write bible without it. But once the bible was done, God decided it was perfect, and the supernatural abilities vanished away. No more prophecy, no more supernatural knowledge, and definitely no more tongues.

Funny thing is… a lot of ’em did accept a limited degree of prophecy and supernatural knowledge. Every once in a while, somebody would get it in their head that “God” was leading or directing them to do something or other. And certainly End Times prophecies were getting fulfilled every day by world events, or so their favorite End Times “scholars” insisted. But tongues? Absolutely not. No tongues. No exceptions.

Well, that was their theory about what “that which is perfect” meant. Any other theories out there?

Sure. The predominant interpretation throughout Christendom—one even taught among cessationists!—is the apostles weren’t referring to the bible. They meant the End. ’Cause the single word translated “that which is perfect” is téleion/“finished” or “perfect.” (Or consistent, kinda like when Jesus taught us to treat everyone with grace and without discrimination.)

See, when Jesus is standing on the earth, able to speak to Christians face-to-face, are we gonna need supernatural forms of communication? Gonna need tongues and interpretation? Gonna need words of knowledge? Gonna need prophecy? Gonna need one Christian to confirm to another Christian they really did hear from God? Nah; no point. Just get Jesus on the phone.

But till Jesus returns and selects a wireless carrier, the usual way to hear from him is through tongues, supernatural knowledge, and prophecy. And bible; his supernatural messages aren’t gonna contradict his written word. (Well, unless it’s to get our attention. Ek 4.9-15, Ac 10.9-16 So know your bible!) You’ll notice just about every single Christian who cuts off God’s living messages, who insists we can only be guided by God through the bible: Not only are they getting this passage wrong, but they misinterpret just about every other passage they quote. They take everything out of context. Hey, who’s gonna stop them if God himself went dark?

Except he didn’t. And never will. He 13.5 The supernatural will remain until the End finally arrives—until the point it’ll be redundant and unnecessary. God’s limited revelation will be superseded by full revelation. Our immaturity will be set aside in favor of full maturity. The perfect will take the place of the partial.

14 November 2016

Bummed your candidate lost? Bad sign.

Which I do. Which we all should do. Regardless of how much it irritates the authority.

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 significant minority had instead voted for independent candidate H. Ross Perot. That meant nobody had the majority—but Clinton had the plurality, and secured the Electoral College.

So I was horrified. What the hell was wrong with Americans? Now this hippie was president.

(Amusing since a lot of people assume I’m a hippie. It’s ’cause of the long hair and beard. And the fact I don’t wear shoes very often. And the fact I’m now a Democrat. Real hippies realize I’m way too conservative for them. But I digress.)

See, I’d been drinking too deeply from the Christian Right Kool-Aid. In both parties there’s an element which tells you if the other candidate wins, the Apocalypse follows.

11 November 2016

Kingdom economics: How’s your eye?

Nope, not an opthamology question. Has to do with whether God’s grace flows through you.

Matthew 6.22-23 • Luke 11.34-36

Some 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. Usually skip it, and focus on the verses we can understand. Verses we figure we’re already following.

So in Matthew, right after saying we oughta keep our treasures in heaven, Jesus taught this:

Matthew 6.22-23 KWL
22 “The body’s light is the eye. So when your eye is healthy, your whole body will be bright.
23 When your eye is ill, your whole body is dark. So if the light in you is dark, how dark is it?”
Luke 11.34-36 KWL
34 “The body’s light is your eye. Whenever your eye is healthy, your whole body is bright too.
Once it’s ill, your body is dark too. 35 So watch out so the light in you isn’t dark.
36 So if your whole body is bright, without having any parts dark,
the whole will be bright—as if a lamp could shine lightning for you.”

In the King James Version, in both gospels, the words to describe the eye are thus:

  • Aplús/“healthy” is translated “single.”
  • Ponirós/“ill” is translated “evil.”

Why? Well… ’cause that’s what the words literally mean. That’s the problem with idioms. Literal translations, and likewise literal interpretations, give you the wrong idea. If I described you as “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” then had that phrase translated into Chinese, my poor Chinese friend would find it inaccurate if you actually have brown eyes… and be stunned to hear you have a tail at all, much less a bushy one.

By aplús and ponirós Jesus meant a healthy eye, and a sick one. If your eyes aren’t well, vision’s gonna be a problem, and you’re gonna be in the dark. But if your eyes are healthy, you’ll see just fine: Light could enter your body “as if a lamp could shine lightning for you,” Lk 11.36 which interestingly is just how 19th-century arc lamps worked.

Well, light could more or less get into us. Remember, Jesus is teaching religion, not anatomy. Only the truly dumbest of literalists are gonna insist since our eyes work, our doctors won’t need to use the lights on the laryngoscope. Or colonoscope.

10 November 2016

Audio bibles!

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 outweigh the negatives. If you’re struggling with the discipline to read through the whole bible, an audio bible will help. If you have a reading disability, they solve that problem. If you have a short attention span, they can help—you won’t get distracted by study bible notes and cross references. However you may still be distracted by birds chirping outside. Some folks can’t focus on any kind of book. But hey, it’s worth a shot.

The main drawback is an audio bible goes at its own pace. Not yours. Unless you’re quick at the stop and rewind buttons, it’s not like a written bible, where you can go back and reread a sentence: It just plows ahead. It sometimes makes it tricky to meditate on what you just listened to.

And of course if you get it on disc or tape, it’s not a small book. That’s a lot of discs to lug around… and scratch, and lose. Me, I switched to the MP3 format as soon as I could.

09 November 2016

Antichrists: When pagans wanna see Christianity gone.

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. Christians just got into the habit of referring to the beast as Antichrist in the middle ages. It stuck. But in the bible it’s just “the beast.” The apostles reserved the word antíhristos/“antichrist” for what I’m writing about today: Various pagans who happen to be anti-Christ.

You know the type. They’re not just your ordinary unbeliever. Two-thirds of the people on this planet don’t figure Jesus is Lord. Doesn’t automatically make ’em antichrists. To become an antichrist, you gotta actually be anti-Christ: They’re against him. They’re not passive nonbelievers; they wanna fight him. Sometimes the idea of him. Sometimes literally him. (Although they’ll never admit this, ’cause they insist they don’t believe in him. But if he were standing right in front of them, they’d totally wanna knock him out.)

In recent decades Christians—with a certain level of worry—have pointed to what they fear is an upsurge of “New Atheism”: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, Michael Newdow, and various vocal antichrists. Nontheists who bash religion in general, but really go after Christianity with hammer and tongs. These Christians fear the militant nontheists may convince more people to reject and fight Christianity, and maybe even try to get it banned in our homelands. First in the public square, then in private.

I have a longer memory. There have always been militant nontheists. Back during the Cold War, when the God-fearing United States was battling the godless Communists, nontheists were looked on with suspicion—they were considered radicals, possibly treasonous, ’cause they were undermining good ol’ fashioned American values and society. The more outspoken an nontheist got, the more backlash they got. But they were definitely around. Noam Chomsky, H.L. Mencken, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Linus Pauling, Ayn Rand, Gene Roddenberry, Gore Vidal, and others were outspoken against religion and Christianity. Ask any nontheist nowadays about their forebears, and they’ll kindly point ’em out to you.

Now that the Red Menace is no longer so menacing, militant nontheism has gone mainstream. These “New Atheists” feel free to be openly critical of Christianity—and they get away with it partly ’cause it’s easier to be an nontheist nowadays. Nobody doubts your patriotism anymore, even though nontheists still rarely get elected to public office. Plus God hasn’t struck any of these guys down with lightning. True, that’s mixing up the vast differences between the infinitely gracious Jehovah and the knee-jerk reactions of Zeus; but of course nontheists don’t care, ’cause all gods are the same to them.

I should point out nontheists tend to be the most obvious antichrists, but they’re far from the only ones. Don’t forget other religions. Judaism doesn’t recognize Jesus as Messiah, and sometimes its practitioners attack him lest anyone get the idea Jews can become Christians (which they totally can). Certain Hindus are outraged at the way Christianity tends to level their caste system, so they fight it vigorously. Certain Muslims are offended that Christians consider Jesus way more than a prophet, and likewise fight our beliefs and get downright antichristian. But there remains a big difference between religious and irreligious antichrists: The religious ones remember to behave with some degree of goodness. The irreligious ones don’t feel any such restriction whatsoever.

08 November 2016

The prayer mood.

Some of us feel we need to psyche ourselves into feeling like prayer. No we don’t.

As we know, prayer is talking with God. You have something to tell him? Start talking. You want him to talk to you? Ask him stuff. It’s not complicated; it is just that simple.

It’s just we overcomplicate things. We learned a bunch of prayer rituals, which we figure gotta happen every time we pray. Gotta get in the prayer closet. Gotta assume the right posture: Head to the ground, facing Jerusalem; or eyes closed and hands folded; or facing the sky, arms lifted high. Whatever your tradition dictates.

And just as we put our bodies in a posture, we put our mindset in a posture too. We figure the best way to get ready to receive God, the best way to submit to his will, is to assume a prayer mood, an emotional state which is best for prayer.

You might not even be aware you’re psyching yourself into that state. It’s just you always have. It’s what you’ve always seen other Christians do, and that’s how you picked it up. You feel you oughta be humble when you approach God, so you mentally lower, or even degrade yourself. You feel you oughta be open to stuff he wants to teach you, so you imagine your mind wide open, ready to accept anything. You feel if God’s gonna be present, it’s time to put on a display of loving him with all our mind, so you conjure up that feeling as best you can. And so on.

Yeah, we know it’s not mandatory. If we felt we had to attain this mood before prayer, the devil could easily keep us from praying by keeping us in a foul mood. So we don’t think of it as, “God’s gonna be displeased if I don’t feel this way when I pray.” But we wanna feel this way. It helps prayer feel good.

So, positive attitude. Clear mind. Loving, humble, focused thoughts. Emotions on the surface, yet more or less under control. Any stray thoughts, any unpleasant emotions—any pessimism, pride, or evil—is gonna be shoved aside. If we can’t, it does still count as prayer, but we won’t consider it a good prayer. It’ll feel ineffective.

Yeah, of course all of this is hogwash.

Prayer’s not about how we feel when we pray. As the psalms demonstrate, we can feel any which way. Sometimes the psalmists were focused; sometimes scattered, distracted by all their enemies. Sometimes they were loving, and sometimes they wanted God to curb-stomp their enemies. Sometimes their emotions were in check; sometimes they so weren’t.

It’d be nice if prayer felt good. But it isn’t necessary that it has to. And since we can’t trust our emotions, who says it always has to?

07 November 2016

Translating it myself. (And why that’s okay.)

’Cause sometimes it seriously bugs people that I dare to translate the bible.

During my church’s services, in between worship songs and sermon notes, sometimes I’ve put bible verses on our video screens. Not as part of the service; just as something to have on the screen in between the other stuff. Something other than a blank screen.

A few weeks ago I got asked,

She. “Which translation is ‘KWL’? What’s that stand for?”
Me. “Me. K.W. Leslie. I translated it.”
She. “Why’d you use your own translation instead of an official translation?”
Me. “What do you mean, official translations?”
She. “Well, like the Authorized Version. The NIV, the New King James…”
Me. “Those aren’t official translations. They were produced by publishers. The bible’s the most popular book in the world; there’s good money to be made by owning your own translation. So publishers hired scholars, and now they have their own translations. But none of them are official.”

(I should clarify: Some churches have made the KJV their official translation, and Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses have produced their own translations. But neither our church nor denomination has an official translation.)

She. “Well, they were done by churches.”
Me. “They were not. They were done by publishers. Who did hire actual scholars to do the translating, so they’re not bad translations. But they weren’t done by any one church; they wanna sell bibles to every church, y’know.”
She. “But why do you do your own translation?”
Me. “As part of my bible study. When I’m studying a verse, I wanna really understand it, so I read it in the original, and translate it. I’m not trying to produce ‘the KWL version of the bible’; I’m just trying to understand it better. Sometimes I’ll use different words than other translations. But I’m not too far different than any of the other translations. In fact if I were too far different, it’d mean I’m doing it wrong.”
She. “But why use your translation instead of one of the official translations?”
Me. [letting go the fact she still insists there are official translations] “Certain words I used, which I like better than the words other translations used.”
She. “Well I would be nervous about that. Aren’t you changing the words of the bible to suit yourself?”
Me. “I’m trying not to do that. I’m trying to stay true to the original language, the original authors’ intent.”
She. “But why do you think you’ve done a better job than the official translations?”
Me. “Because sometimes I did do a better job. Certain translations bend the meaning to fit how popular Christian culture interprets the bible. The new edition of the Amplified Bible does it all the time. The New Living Translation does it a few times. The New International Version tries to hide all the bible discrepancies. I tend to compare my translation with the King James Version because I’ve found that translation bends it least. But translators aren’t infallible. Everybody makes mistakes. Myself included.”
She. “So how can you put your translation up there like it’s authoritative?”
Me. “’Cause it’s just as ‘authoritative’ as those other translations. Which is to say, don’t take any one translation’s word for it. Compare it with other ones, just in case one of us made a mistake.”

Pretty sure I didn’t convince her, though. When you grow up thinking of certain bible translations as absolute authorities… it kinda bothers you to discover they’re not the work of extra-special anointed creatures, but ordinary women and men. Especially once you personally know any of those ordinary women and men.

02 November 2016

Politics, Christians, and our democracy.

The pursuit of power is contrary to everything about God’s kingdom. Pity so many of us won’t see this.

Politics /'pɑl.ə.tɪks/ pl.n. Activities associated with the achievement of power, position, and status. Especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to gain it; often considered to be divisive or devious.
[Politic /'pɑl.ə.tɪk/, political /pə'lɪd.ə.kəl/ adj.; politician /pɑl.ə'tɪ.ʃən/, politico /pə'lɪd.ɪ.koʊ/ n.]

God’s kingdom is entirely about surrendering our power, authority, will, even our identity, to God.

We kinda have to do this. Humans, y’see, are selfish to our core. Total depravity, theologians call it: Everything we do, even everything good we do, has a self-centered ulterior motive. Makes us feel good about ourselves. Makes us feel self-justified. Yeah, it’ll appear to make us feel absolutely rotten, but somewhere in our psyche is some “greater principle” we’re willing to make great sacrifices for—and it gives us just enough satisfaction to get us through any misery. We’re just that carnal. It’s why God needs to save us, ’cause we’ll never be good enough to save ourselves. And why the God Holy Spirit needs to give our consciences a total overhaul.

Politics, however, is about wielding power. And, for politically-minded folks, it’s also about gaining more. Sometimes for noble reasons: To do good deeds. More often, for not-so-noble reasons: To keep it out of the hands of others, lest they do something we dislike with it. Not that we’re gonna do anything with it. Or anything good.

So yeah, there are antithetical ideas at play when we talk about God’s kingdom and politics. One’s about surrender, because we can’t be trusted with power. The other’s not; it’s about gaining or taking or stealing power, because we’re the right-minded exceptions who can be trusted with power. It’s the others who can’t. The opposition party surely can’t.

How do Christians juggle these ideas? Same way we’ve always justified our possession of power. Same as we’ve even justified not surrendering all our power to God. In brief: “I’m gonna do good with it. The power’s not gonna corrupt me; my heart is pure.”

In other words, we lie to ourselves. And our fellow Christians. And God.

01 November 2016

Short, potent, authentic prayer.

If there’s any playacting in your prayer, get rid of it.

Matthew 6.7-8

In his Sermon on the Mount, right after Jesus taught his followers to keep their prayers private, he added,

Matthew 6.7-8 KWL
7 “Petitioners shouldn’t be repetitive like the pagans:
They think they’ll be worth hearing because of their wordiness.
8 You shouldn’t compare yourselves with them:
Your Father has known what you have need of, before you asked him.”

The Pharisee view, one we Christians share, is our God is the living God. Whereas other religions’ gods aren’t. They’re blocks of wood, stone, and metal; they’re abstract ideas without any intelligence behind them; they’re devils tricking people into worshiping them. When we speak to our God, he speaks back. When they speak to their gods, they don’t. They can’t.

Yet instead of realizing, “Y’know, since our god never, ever responds to us, I wonder whether she’s real to begin with?” pagans just shove that idea right out of their minds as if it’s doubt or blasphemy, double down on their beliefs, and come up with a bunch of justifications for why their gods can’t talk. Humans are too insignificant or sinful; the gods are too mighty or busy or distant; the universe doesn’t express its will like that; crap like that.

Regardless of the reasons, pagans get no feedback from their gods, so when they pray, they feel the need to repeat themselves. A lot. Their gods might not’ve heard them, so they just need to make sure.

Does our God require such behavior? Absolutely not. As Jesus said, he knew our requests before we ever made ’em.

Lots of Christians interpret this as a statement of God’s omniscience, his all-knowingness. Which is indeed one of God’s powers; he knows all. But it isn’t what Jesus means by this lesson. He’s making a statement of God’s attentiveness. God’s not a distant, dispassionate, disinterested deity. He’s our Father. He cares enough about us to keep tabs on our needs. He cares about his kids.