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31 January 2017

Intercession: Praying for others… and answering for God.

It’s not just a prayer ministry. It’s prophetic too.

Intercession /ɪn.(t)ər'sɛs.ʃən/ n. The act of coming between one person and another, on the behalf of one (or both) of the parties.
2. The act of praying on behalf of another.
[Intercessor /'ɪn.(t)ər.sɛs.sər/ n., intercessory /ɪn.(t)ər'sɛs.(sə.)ri/ adj.]

Praying for rulers is one of the many forms of intercession, or the more redundant “intercessory prayer.” It’s when we try to help somebody out, by praying for or with ’em. Sometimes because they asked us to pray for them, but of course they don’t have to: We’re talking with God, they’re on our mind, we bring ’em up.

There are a number of Christians who’ve made intercession their particular ministry. They don’t go out and physically or financially help the needy: They pray for them. Sometimes for legitimate reasons: They can’t physically help, or haven’t the authority, or haven’t the finances. So prayer’s all they can do. True in a whole lot of cases.

Then there’s the illegitimate reason: They do have the means and ability, but they don’t wanna help in any of those other ways. And prayer costs them nothing. So it’s stinginess disguised as piety. Pretend faith, ’cause real faith is expressed by good deeds. Jm 2.14-17 I could go on, but that’d be its own article.

But it brings up another point: Intercession doesn’t begin and end with making other people’s requests known to God. It’s also a prophetic ministry. Y’see, God talks back.

Remember, the usual definition of intercession is when we come between one person and another. In prayer, we come between the person with the request, and the Almighty who can answer the request. You know, like any good priest does. But if we don’t listen for God’s answer—for his solution to the problem—that’s not intercession. What kind of intercessor only listens to one party?

So if you wanna be an intercessor, good for you! But if you think all an intercessor does is make prayer requests, you got another think coming. Intercession usually means you are part of the way God answers prayer.

30 January 2017

I’m a self-discoverer? Not really.

When religious quizzes try to pick out the cliché instead of the Christian.

You are a Self-Discoverer

You’re not religious, but you’ve created your own kind of spirituality. Introspective and thoughtful, you tend to look inward for the divine. You are distrusting of all forms of organized religion. You especially dislike religious gurus and leaders, who you feel are charlatans.
 What’s Your Religious Philosophy? at Blogthings 

When I first got into this blogging fad way back in 2004, I used to have a regular feature I called “Stupid Internet Surveys.” People on the internet create quizzes, y’know. It’s not just BuzzFeed; they didn’t start the trend either. But because the other early bloggers didn’t always know what to write about—much like the other folks on Facebook who have no idea what to post about themselves on a daily basis—they were sorta desperate for any junk to fill the blank spots in their blogs. Quizzes made up some of that junk. Still do.

So, take one of their quizzes and find out which Disney princess you are. Or what’s the exact age you’ll get married. Whether you can tell the superhero movie by these emojis. Which yoga pose matches your personality. How many NHL logos you can identify. Which Harry Potter character you’d be bestest friends with. Whether they can guess your age with a food quiz. Whether your parents are cool. What’s your Myers-Briggs personality type.

Like I said, stupid.

Blogthings is still around, and someone sent me their “What’s Your Religious Philosophy?” quiz… the results of which indicate I must be an eclectic pagan.

Pretty sure where I went wrong was in putting way more thought into these answers than the author of the quiz intended. Well, I do that.

Okay, I am religious. But I haven’t created my own kind of spirituality: In the course of following Jesus, I’ve fallen into the category of Pentecostalism. I try for introspective and thoughtful, but I hardly look inward for the divine: I already know he’s not me. I don’t distrust organized religion: I not only attend church regularly, but I’m actively involved in church leadership. Yeah, I believe in healthy skepticism, but disorganized religion is hardly an alternative. Nor do I dislike gurus and leaders and think ’em frauds: There are plenty of frauds out there, but most of the leaders I’ve known, have been earnest and truthful and pointed to the one leader we should follow, Christ Jesus.

So why’d the quiz get me so wrong? Well, let’s look at the questions… and my hyper-analytical answers.

27 January 2017

Deaf ears aren’t opportunities.

Despite the kingdom’s unlimited resources, let’s not be stupid with them.

Matthew 7.6

In his the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the chip and the beam story, Mt 7.3-5, Lk 6.41-42 then immediately brought up pearls and pigs. Or pearls and swine, as the KJV more famously has it. The saying’s only found in Matthew. Figured I’d show it to you in context, since it makes my interpretation more obvious.

Matthew 7.3-6 KWL
3 “Why do you see the wood chip in your brother’s eye,
yet not notice the support beam in your eye?
4 How will you tell your brother, ‘Let me get the chip out of your eye’?
Look, there’s a beam in your eye!
5 You hypocrite, first get the beam out of your eye!
And you’ll see straight enough to get out the chip from your brother’s eye.
6 But don’t give holy things to the dogs, nor throw your pearls before the pigs.
Otherwise they’ll trample them under their feet, and they might turn and attack you.”

See, the problem with the pearls-to-pigs saying, is we regularly forget it comes right after the chip and beam story. Or forget it altogether. Or think it doesn’t apply—when it so often does.

Give you an example. Back in seminary I was at my home-away-from-dorm, a popular coffeehouse. I got to talking with some university students, ’cause they figured out I was a fellow student, wanted to know which college I was in, didn’t know the school… and once they figured I was a God “expert,” wanted to talk God.

A lot of pagans go through a phase in university where they flirt with nontheism. I now realize that’s what was going on: These guys wanted to try out their newly-learned anti-God arguments on the seminarian. Kinda like a kid who just learned a new judo hold, and wants to fight everybody with it… and foolishly picks a fight with the taekwondo black belt. Not that I was a black belt; more like red. I did have a decade of Christian apologetics on these guys. So it wasn’t at all hard to slap their arguments down.

But the arguments get tiresome after a while. Especially since the debate was never gonna go anywhere: They weren’t curious about God. They had no real intent to listen, repent, and become Christians. This was jus an intellectual exercise; they were killing time at the coffeehouse.

Pearls to pigs, I realized. So I called truce. “Wanna talk about something different?” I said. “I mean, to you this is just light conversation, but to me, this is something I take very seriously and personally. I’m having trouble not taking all your God-bashing personally. Wouldn’t you rather talk politics?”

“Yeah, okay.” So we talked politics.

I hadn’t come to the coffeehouse alone. I had two fellow seminarians with me. One was a missionary who was finishing his degree before going back into the field. The other was a fairly new Christian—and hadn’t yet learned the difference between sharing Jesus and proselytism. So he was outraged. To him, this was an opportunity—you keep talking to these guys, wear ’em down, and seal the deal. To him, I just threw away these guys eternal souls.

This was no opportunity, as I pointed out to him then, and as I point out to you now. I was trying to take the chip from their eyes, and they wouldn’t have it. So I was done.

26 January 2017

Who runs the church?

How’s the leadership of your church structured? ’Cause it matters.

Short answer: Jesus.

Way longer answer: When Christians are asked who runs our individual churches, sometimes we describe the leadership structure of their church or denomination. But everybody can potentially give the answer “Jesus.” It is his church after all. He is the king over God’s kingdom.

But since his kingdom isn’t yet of this world, Jn 18.36 the day-to-day duties of running Jesus’s churches on earth fall to vicars. Vicar is the Christianese word for “deputy,” and means the very same thing: Lieutenants who answer to the guy who’s really in charge, and that’d be Jesus. Hopefully we truly are working on his behalf, and not for ourselves… though I leave it to you as to how well we’re doing.

Now, if you were to ask your average pagan who’s in charge, most of ’em assume the pastor is. (Or the minister, priest, father, sister, bishop, apostle, prophet—whatever you call the top dog.) Pastor says “Jump” and everyone responds, “How high?” Depending on how cynical this pagan is about organized religion, pastors range from benevolent dictators, to selfish cult leaders. To their minds, every church is some form of top-down tyranny.

And to be fair, a lot of churches do practice a top-down model. It’s the most common church leadership structure there is. Arguably it’s the first structure: Jesus in charge, and his students not. And once Jesus ascended to his Father, it was followed by the apostles in charge, and everyone else below them.

Of course I say “arguably” because some Christians argue this top-down structure isn’t Jesus’s intent. They’ll advocate for their own favorite structure—namely the structure we find in their churches. Yes, they have proof texts. If you think church oughta be a democracy, you’ve likely got verses which prove God thinks so too. Top-down, bottom-up, middle-out, nobody-in-charge-but-the-Holy-Spirit, or even benevolent anarchy, people will point to verses which they’re pretty sure back their view. Regardless of those views, I’m gonna point out the top-down model is all over Christendom because it’s consistently found all over the scriptures, all over antiquity, and all over church history. Valid or not, it’s everywhere because top-down is humanity’s default setting: Left to their own devices, humans create kingdoms, not democracies. Even in democracies we fight to be on top.

Regardless, everybody pays lip service to the idea Jesus runs our churches. Hopefully he does.

25 January 2017

Prophetic interpretation: “God told me it means this!”

Sometimes the Spirit explains his scriptures. Other times prophets just don’t wanna do their homework.

I’m writing this article under the Prophecy category, but I should warn you: It’s not just prophets, wannabe prophets, and fake prophets who try to pull this stunt. Y’know where I first encountered it? Among cessationists, of all people.

Yep. All of ’em figure they have the very same Holy Spirit as the authors of scripture. Which they should, if they’re Christians. Since the Spirit inspired the scriptures, the Spirit should also be able to clue us in on what the scriptures mean.

Cessationists claim God doesn’t prophetically talk to people anymore. So what’s the point of ’em having the Holy Spirit? Well, they think he’s here for only two reasons:

  1. Confirm we’re going to heaven. Ep 1.13-14
  2. Illuminate the scriptures.

Illuminate means “light up,” and depending on how much the cessationist will permit the Holy Spirit to do, they figure either he lights them up so they can understand the scriptures, or lights the scriptures up so they can be understood. In essence they figure the only reason God the Holy Spirit is in their lives, is so he can make their bibles work. But they absolutely won’t refer to this process as prophecy… even though it totally is. Hey, if God’s speaking to us, and giving us stuff to tell others, that’s prophecy.

Anyway, they’re not wrong. One of the many things the Spirit does is inform us what he meant when he inspired the prophets and apostles who wrote the bible. That’s cool. You won’t find too many Christians who have a problem with the concept. That’s because I haven’t yet got to the actual problem.

And here it is: They take this idea of theirs about what the bible means, don’t bother to confirm it really did come from the Spirit, nor confirm it to be true, get up in front of other Christians, and proclaim, “This is what it means. And I know, ’cause I got it from God.”

Yes, it skipped a step. We’re supposed to confirm prophecies, folks. That means when we get an idea about how scripture oughta be interpreted, we bounce it off other Christians. Ever heard of a bible commentary? Totally counts as confirming it with other Christians. So do bible handbooks, bible dictionaries, and sending emails or making phone calls to real live bible scholars. If you got it in your head “This means that,” go find out whether this means that. Otherwise the devil’s gonna realize, “Hey, this dude never double-checks,” and is gonna have a lot of fun steering you wrong. How else d’you think cults start?

The problem is when a presumptive preacher or prophet figures they never need to double-check. They’ve been following God long enough to know what he sounds like. (A month’s all you need, right?) They have the Holy Spirit, so they need not that any man teach them. The Spirit teaches everything, Jn 14.26 and fallible fellow Christians will just mix ’em up anyway. Thus they get up in front of everyone and proclaim, “Thus saith the LORD”… and the LORD said no such thing.

Sometimes they even teach this as a legitimate way to interpret scripture. They call it “divine interpretation”—or instead of “divine,” they’ll go with “prophetic,” “spiritual,” “supernatural,” “revelatory,” or some other supernatural-sounding name. Shorthand for “Pretty sure I heard God, but I didn’t confirm jack.”

24 January 2017

Praying for rulers.

’Cause we should. Why? Well, let’s look at the bible.

After we elect a new president, governor, mayor, or whomever, we Christians tend to remind ourselves to pray for our rulers.

Sometimes enthusiastically, ’cause our candidate got elected. And if we’re the really partisan sort, we’ll even rub this fact in other people’s faces. “The patriotic thing to do is to close ranks and back our new leader for the good of the country. So bury that disappointment and pray for your new leader—that’s right, your new leader.” Every so often, the Christian preaching this attempts a sympathetic tone—“Hey, I know it’s rough; I’ve had to do this when your guy won”—but most of the time they’re too happy to care. Or about 12 seconds of the message is sympathy, and the rest is a victory lap. Hey, I’ve been on both sides of it.

And there’s mournfully, ’cause our candidate lost. The candidates have been demonizing one another throughout the election, so when partisans lose they’re convinced the End Times have arrived. Hence the prayers for our rulers aren’t for God to bless them. Not really. They’re for God to mitigate their evil. Keep ’em from ruining our land. Stop ’em from destroying lives. Maybe Jesus could make a Damascus-Road-style appearance and radically transform them into someone who’d vote our way. Wouldn’t that be great?

Sometimes sarcastically; they immediately dive for Psalm 109.

Psalm 109.6-13 KWL
6 Place a wicked person over him, with Satan standing at his right.
7 May those judging him return an evil verdict, and his prayers be offensive.
8 May his days be few, and another ruler supervise him.
9 May his children become fatherless, and his woman a widow.
10 May his children wander, wander, begging, digging through people’s trash.
11 May debt seize everything he owns, and strangers steal his labor.
12 May he never find love; his fatherless children never be given grace.
13 May his generation be the last one, and his family name be wiped out.

Yeah, King David wished some hateful stuff on his enemies. And when people start praying these curses over their rulers, most of the time they’ll stop mid-psalm and say, “Nah; I’m just kidding.” But nah, in their heart of hearts, they aren’t really. Y’ain’t fooling God.

Okay, so where do the scriptures instruct us to pray for our rulers? Well, most of the time we point to Paul’s instructions to Timothy: Paul wanted Timothy and his church to pray for everybody—plus kings and rulers.

1 Timothy 2.1-4 KWL
1 So I encourage everyone to first make thankful, intercessory prayer requests for all the people.
2 Like for kings, and everyone who holds authority.
This way we can go through life in peace and quiet,
applying religion and dignity to all.
3 This is good and pleasing to God our savior,
4 who wants all people to be saved, and come to a knowledge of truth.

Note why: So we Christians can follow Jesus in peace and quiet. And not persecution.

23 January 2017

Footprints. (My version.)

How I deal with cheesy stuff is to write some of my own.

You might’ve heard of the “Footprints” or “Footprints in the Sand” story, which Christians tend to be overly fond of. Don’t know who wrote it; it arose at some point in the 20th century. Usually it’s printed on a photo of a beach, and sold, framed and unframed, in Christian bookstores.

The general idea is this: The poet dreams he and Jesus have been walking through life, and during life’s rough patches Jesus carried the poet through it. Yet for some reason the poet was totally unaware of this, and accused Jesus of abandoning him, ’cause the poet’s an ungrateful, inattentive dick, and a bad Christian.

…Well okay, people never notice that aspect of the story. But anyway.

“Footprints” is popular, and so many Christians find it inspiring, you wind up seeing it way too often. I do, anyway. For a while there in the 1980s, I think it was mandatory to hang a copy of it in every church’s youth room. As soon as the internet became widely available, people were forwarding it to one another as if it were part of a chain letter which they dared not break. It’s everywhere.

My way of dealing with such things? Make fun of ’em. Write my own version of it.

Mine rhymes.

20 January 2017

Don’t judge… by double standards.

Life is decision-making. Judgment. But don’t do it unrighteously. Be generous.

Mark 4.24 • Matthew 7.1-5 • Luke 6.37-38, 41-42

I already wrote an article about taking Matthew 7.1, “Judge not,” out of context: Generally people just take those two words and use ’em to forbid anyone from critiquing or condemning anyone. Particularly them. It’s not at all what Jesus meant, and today I get to what Jesus meant.

This bit of the Sermon on the Mount comes right after Jesus instructed his followers against worry. It’s appropriate: Don’t prejudge circumstances indiscriminately, and don’t prejudge people unfairly.

Matthew 7.1-2 KWL
1 “Don’t criticize. Thus you won’t be criticized.
2 For you’ll be critiqued by the very criticism you criticize with.
The measurement you measure with, will measure you.”
Luke 6.37 KWL
“Don’t criticize, and you won’t be criticized.
Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged.
Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven.”

Obviously I translate kríno/“criticize” differently than the KJV’s “judge.” ’Cause our English word judge includes a few senses the Greek doesn’t: This is about decision-making, not condemnation. There’s another word for condemnation, which Luke uses: Katadikádzo/“pass sentence,” and that’s what we nowadays mean by judging. Kríno is really just about holding things up to our personal standards, and finding ’em acceptable… or not.

Which we all do. As we should. Everyone critiques stuff, daily, as part of the decision-making process. We decide which shoes to wear, which breakfast cereals to eat, which coffee blend to drink, which movies to watch, whether to read TXAB on a daily basis… Life is choices. Every choice involves weighing our options, and critiquing them.

Jesus expects this, which is why he follows up “Don’t critique” with “You’ll be critiqued by the very criticism you criticize with.” It’s a warning that if we apply this criticism to other people, to serious issues… we’re gonna get held up to that very same standard.

When we critique others—when we decide whether their behaviors meet with our approval, or whether their practices make them fit company for us to hang around with—we gotta realize we’re not beyond similar criticism ourselves. Are we fit company? Do we come across as annoying, difficult, narrow-minded, or boring? We have no business setting ourselves as above criticism, as on a higher level than anyone else. We aren’t exempt. Especially when we fall short of our own judgment.

Whereas Jesus said it in Luke: “Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven.” If people are gonna judge us by our own behavior, and our behavior is more fruit of the Spirit than self-righteous a--hole, we’re gonna go a whole lot further.

19 January 2017

Shekhinah: Everybody’s favorite non-biblical Hebrew word.

It’s about how Christians wanna experience God’s glory.

Shekhinah /sɛ.xi'nɑ, usually ʃɛ'kaɪ.nə/ n. The glory of God’s presence.
2. God’s presence.
3. God’s dwelling place.
[Shekhinic /ʃɛ'kaɪ.nɪk/ adj.]

The Hebrew word šekhiná, which English-speakers tend to spell “shekhinah” or “shekinah,” isn’t found in the bible.

No, really. It comes from the Mishna. Sanhedrin 6.5, Avot 3.2, 6 It refers to God’s presence. More specifically the glory of God’s presence—provided we can feel or sense or see any kind of presence. God’s invisible, y’know. But sometimes he makes his presence more visible than usual. Like when he allowed Moses to see his glory Ex 33.18 —from the back, anyway. Or when the Hebrews saw God’s glory in his temple, 2Ch 7.3 or when Stephen had a vision of it. Ac 7.55

None of these folks were talking about seeing God himself. The apostle John is entirely sure they didn’t see God himself. Jn 1.18 But they saw something, and what they saw was what God šakhán/“dwells” in. That’s a verb which we do find in the bible, and there are noun-forms which go right along with it: Šekhén/“dwelling place,” and šakhén/“dweller.”

Wait, so where’d šekhiná come from? Well, the rabbis wanted a unique word which refers to God’s particular glorious habitation, so they coined one. Hebrew words have masculine and feminine genders, like Spanish and French, so basically they took the masculine word šekhén and turned it into the feminine word šekhiná. Still means “dwelling,” but now it specifically means God’s dwelling.

Thing is, because šekhiná is a feminine noun, a lot of rabbis use it as a jumping-off point to talk about God’s feminine aspects and qualities. When you talk about God’s šekhiná with Jews, don’t be surprised when they start talking about “the female divine presence.” Often all they wanna talk about is God’s motherly side (which is fine; he has one), but every once in a while they get weird. And no, I’m not saying this ’cause of any chauvinist hangups. Some really do get super weird.

Of course that’s not at all what we Christians mean by shekhinah. We mean revelation, the brightest light, clouds of glory, and the tremendous power of the Almighty. We mean awesome God-experiences so overwhelming, we lose control of our bodily functions and now they’ll have to steam-clean the church building. We mean seeing God’s glory. Ideally seeing God.

Well again, not really seeing God, ’cause “nobody’s ever seen God,” Jn 1.18 and “no one can see me and live.” Ex 33.20 But close enough.

18 January 2017

Apostles: Those whom Jesus sends out to do his work.

You might get the idea I believe Jesus still commissions apostles. ’Cause he does.

APOSTLE /ə'pɑs.əl/ n. Person commissioned by Christ Jesus to perform a leadership role.
[Apostolic /æ.pə'stɑl.ɪk/ adj., apostleship /ə'pɑs.əl.ʃɪp/ n.]

Jesus didn’t just have the 12 students. The actual number fluctuated, as some joined the group, Mk 10.52 and others quit in frustration. Jn 6.66 Jesus had loads of student-followers, but designated the Twelve in particular as apóstoloi/“sent ones.” Lk 6.13 Eleven of ’em, plus another student named Matthias whom they promoted apostle, Ac 1.26 became the core leaders of his newly-created church. Apostle still refers to anyone whom Jesus—or the Holy Spirit on Jesus’s behalf—sends forth to do his work.

Well, in some traditions.

Y’see, various Christians insist the only apostles in human history are Jesus’s original 12 guys, minus Judas Iscariot ’cause he turned traitor, Ac 1.16-20 and plus the apostle Paul of Tarsus. (They’re not always so sure about Matthias.)

And maybe a few more guys in the first century, ’cause scripture does identify Barnabas as an apostle, Ac 14.14 and Jesus’s brother James, Ga 1.19 and Paul’s relatives Andronicus and Junia. Ro 16.7 And probably Jesus’s brother Jude, ’cause he did write a book of the bible. But otherwise that’s all.

Two reasons these Christians insist Jesus stopped commissioning apostles after the first century:

  1. CESSATIONISM: Not only don’t they believe Jesus stopped making apostles, they believe the Spirit stopped making prophets. (Although evangelists, pastors, and teachers are still around.) The only reason Jesus designated apostles in the first place was to get his church started and the bible written. That done, the apostles died out, and are no more.
  2. APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION: They believe the apostles were given specific jobs—like specific churches and ministries to supervise—and these jobs were to be passed down from person to person. It’s not so much that the person’s an apostle; it’s that the mission continues till Jesus finally brings it to an end when he returns. So the only apostles are the people with these particular duties. Jesus doesn’t need, and therefore doesn’t create, any more apostles than that.

Either way, these folks teach the apostolic age is over.

17 January 2017

Using your imagination to meditate.

Hey, if your mind’s gonna wander, harness it.

When I was a kid there was a Japanese TV cartoon called Aníme Óyako Gekíjo/“Anime Parent-Child Theater,” which Americans know better as Superbook. Christian TV stations used to air it every weekday.
The kids, and their robot in the red galero, have a not-at-all-awkward conversation with a buck-naked pre-genitalia Adam and Eve. Aníme Óyako Gekíjo episode 1, “Adamu to Eba Monogatari”
Your own kids are more likely to have seen the 2009 American remake, but in the 1981 Japanese original, two kids named Sho and Azusa discovered a magic bible which transported them, and their toy robot Zenmaijikake, back to Old Testament times. (Yeah, they all had different names in the English redub: Chris, Joy, and Gizmo.) The kids would interact with the people, who somehow spoke Japanese instead of Hebrew, and were surprisingly white for ancient middle easterners.

Well in the first series they did. In the second series, Pasókon Toráberu Tántei-dan/“Computer Travel Detective Team”—also called Superbook in the States—the kids totally ignored the bible characters ’cause they were trying to rescue a missing dog. Which is best, I suppose: Less chance they’d accidentally change history, and whoops!—now we’re all worshiping Zeus, and Biff Tannen is emperor.

Obviously we haven’t invented time travel, and it’s not possible to have any Superbook-style adventures. But a whole lot of us would love to see the events of bible times, or interact with some of that stuff. It’s why Christians go to bible-times theme parks, like the Ark Encounter or the Holy Land Experience. Or, for about the same price, real-life Israel.

But when time travel or pilgrimage are out of the question (at least for today), it is possible to meditate on a story from the scriptures, by imagining ourselves there as it happened, watching it as it took place.

Some Christians call this practice Ignatian meditation, after St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. In his 1524 book Exercitia Spiritualia/“Spiritual Exercises,” he taught his followers to not just contemplate certain passages in the bible, like Jesus preaching in synagogue or temple, or teaching students, performing miracles, getting born, getting crucified, paradise, hell…. Instead, really mentally put themselves there. Imagine breathing the air. Feeling the weather. Hearing the sounds, smelling the smells. Being in these places.

The idea is to stop thinking of these events as merely stories, but as real-life history. Stuff that truly happened. Stuff the prophets and apostles truly experienced. Stuff where God came near and interacted with humanity—same as he does now. Stop looking at them from the outside, and visualize yourself in the inside, in the bible, fully immersed in the story, just as you’re fully a part of God’s salvation history.

16 January 2017

Happy Martin Luther King Jr.® day!

When a saint gets commercialized by his family.

One of the few photos of Dr. King® in the public domain. Wikimedia

In the United States, the third Monday of January is Martin Luther King Jr.® Day. Due to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, it doesn’t fall on his birthday (he was born 15 January 1929) but it’s close enough. It’s a day to honor the life and acts of civil rights leader and Christian martyr, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.® He was one of the principal leaders in the 1950s civil rights movement, and a pastor in the Progressive National Baptist Convention. (One of that denomination’s founders… after the National Baptist Convention, USA, ousted King® and other activists for being too activist.)

So… what’s with all the little registered-trademark symbols (®) next to his name throughout this article? It’s because Martin Luther King Jr.,® his likeness, words, speeches, books, writings, and so forth, are owned by the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., which is wholly owned by King’s® children Martin III, Dexter, and Bernice. (Eldest daughter Yolanda died in 2007.) Use any of these things without the Estate’s permission, and when the Estate finds out they’ll sue you for infringement. I’m not kidding.

The Estate got serious about defending their copyrights in the 1990s. On 28 August 1993, USA Today honored the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, by publishing King’s® 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety. Sounds nice… but the Estate quickly sued the newspaper, which settled in 1994 for $10,000 in attorney’s fees and court costs, plus the standard $1,700 licensing fee. Yep, that’s how much it cost to publish the speech in the ’90s.

The Estate also sued CBS for including video of “I Have a Dream” in their 1994 documentary series 20th Century with Mike Wallace. They also sued producer Henry Hampton for including it in his 1987 PBS civil rights series Eyes on the Prize. Hampton paid $100,000, and PBS didn’t broadcast the series again till 2006; it first had to purchase the rights to include the King® footage. Whereas CBS fought the Estate in court till 1999, arguing this was a newsworthy public speech. A lower court agreed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned it: Giving the speech in public doesn’t count as giving it away to the public.

King’s® children routinely claim they’re not trying to profit off their father’s legacy: They’re only trying to keep opportunists from sullying his image. Which is a valid concern.

Problem is, everyone knows this argument is utter rubbish.

13 January 2017

Worrying has no place in God’s kingdom.

Especially over meaningless things.

Matthew 6.25-34 • Luke 12.22-32

Right after Jesus taught we can’t make masters of both God and Mammon, he got to the core reason why we tend to slide away from God and put our trust in money: We trust our money to provide basic daily needs.

This is a harder lesson for rich countries than poor ones. In rich countries, we have crazy standards for what denotes “basic daily needs.” It’s not just food, drink, and clothing, as Jesus addresses in the following teaching. It’s having a roof over your head. A bed. Electricity and gas, for the central heat and air conditioning. Oh, and since you have electricity: A refrigerator to keep the food in. Internet and wifi. A phone. An email address. A television—’cause you can’t expect us to watch all our TV on our phones. And probably a car, ’cause you can’t expect us to walk everywhere.

Food and drink is no longer just grains, vegetables, and water: We’ve gotta have meat and dairy. We’ve gotta have coffee and beer. We expect a variety of good foods. And sometimes enough money to go out to eat sometimes.

Clothing is no longer a single loincloth, tunic, robe, and sandals, with maybe an extra just in case: We gotta have at least two weeks’ worth of outfits. Including underwear and shoes. And an extra-nice outfit for important occasions, like church or parties.

If you only have these basics, and no more, in a rich country you’d be considered not comfortable, but poor. And in a poor country, of course, wealthy.

Jesus lived in a poor country. Something to keep in mind whenever he talks about not having enough. The folks he was preaching to? They had way less than we who live in rich countries. They’d be what we consider destitute. Near-homeless. Barely getting by. They didn’t imagine themselves so, but hey: Different countries, different millennia, different standards.

And yet in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told ’em to stop worrying. Because worry wasn’t getting them anywhere.

Matthew 6.25 KWL
“This is why I tell you: Stop worrying!
Stop worrying about what your soul would eat or drink, or what your body would wear.
Isn’t your soul more than food? your body more than clothes?”
Luke 12.22-23 KWL
22 Jesus told his students, “This is why I tell you: Stop worrying!
Stop worrying about what your soul would eat, or what your body would wear.
23 The soul is more than food. The body more than clothes.”

Try to wrap your brain around this idea: One set of clothing. Maybe five day’s worth of food in the pantry. Water comes from the creek. No electricity nor gasoline. No money; you’ve got to barter for everything. This isn’t because there’s a dire recession; this is life as you know it. Every day’s a struggle. And here Jesus is, telling you to stop worrying about food or clothing, because God has your back.

The typical American response to this? “Are you nuts, Jesus? I’m poor!

Yeah, you are. Poor in faith. That’s why it’s easier to shove camels through needles than get rich Christians into the kingdom. Mk 10.25 We just aren’t always aware Jesus was making that statement about us.

12 January 2017

Love—as described in the Old Testament.

It’s not just agápi.

When Christians talk about love, most of the time we’re referring to agápi/“love,” which Paul and Sosthenes defined in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s the love which God is. 1Jn 4.16

Now agápi is a Greek word, ’cause the New Testament was written in Greek; duh. But way more of the bible consists of Old Testament, which was largely written in Hebrew. Hence when we Christians preach on love, we’re taking our ideas and teachings from the NT… and for the most part skipping the OT.

Which is problematic. See, there’s this persistent myth that God is love in the NT, but wasn’t love in the OT; he was more wrath and anger and vengeance and flaring nostrils. 2Sa 22.9 Apparently Jesus calmed him down a bunch, and through his self-sacrifice, got the Father to love us instead of want to crush us like cockroaches.

Of course some preachers will attempt to preach love from the OT. Not always well. They’ll crack open their Nave’s Topical Bible and look up every verse which contains the word “love.” They’ll attempt to read the 1 Corinthians definition into it. Won’t always work though. Y’see, rapists felt “love”: Shechem claimed he loved Dinah, Ge 34.3 and Amnon used to love Tamar till he had his way with her. 2Sa 13.15 Sorta impossible to claim this is the patient, kind, not-demanding-its-own-way sort of agápi/“love” the apostles had in mind.

See, not every word for “love” in the bible means agápi. Often it means one of the other eight meanings our culture has attached to the word “love.”

But it brings up an interesting question: Where’d the apostles’ definition of love come from?

Yes, of course, it came from the Holy Spirit. But how’d it come from the Spirit? Did the proper definition just pop into the apostles’ heads as they were trying to correct the Greeks about their culture’s misconceptions about love? Or is it that the Hebrew culture did have this concept of love already in there, which is why Jesus, John, and Paul could independently talk about agápi and all mean the very same thing by it—and not mean what the Greeks meant by agápi?

Lemme make that question much shorter: Is the NT concept of love anywhere in the OT?

I say yes.

Because God is love. Always has been. Even in the OT, God acts patiently, kindly, not enviously, nor boastful, proud, rude, self-seeking, irritable, grudge-holding, faithless, hopeless, and unjust. (No matter how certain Calvinists might describe him.) That’s how God was actually described all over the Hebrew scriptures. That’s the God the apostles knew, the God whom Jesus reveals to us.

Now, how ’bout the OT words we’ve translated “love”? How close are the to agápi?

11 January 2017

Generational curses and fearful Christians.

Christians are curse-proof. But some of us are convinced family curses still affect us.

In the middle of the Ten Commandments, as he warned the Hebrews away from idolatry, the LORD mentioned a little something about how children suffer consequences for their parents.

Exodus 20.5-6 KWL
5 “Don’t bow down to them. Don’t serve them.
For I’m YHWH your God: I’m El-Qanná/‘Possessive God.’
I have children suffer consequences for their parents’ evil
—and the grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—when they hate me.
6 But I show love to a thousand generations
when they love me and observe my commands.”

Elsewhere in Exodus, when the LORD revealed his glory to Moses, he repeated this idea of forgiving a thousand generations, yet afflicting three or four generations.

Exodus 34.6-7 KWL
6 The LORD passed over Moses’s face and said, “YHWH. YHWH. God.
Compassionate. Gracious. Slow to anger. Great in love and truth.
7 Lovingly guarding thousands, putting up with evil, rebellion, and sin.
Not cleansing, cleansing those counted as evil—
from parents to children to grandchildren,
to the third generation, to the fourth generation.”

And in Deuteronomy Moses also forbade certain people from joining the qehal YHWH/“the LORD’s assembly.” That’d include

  • a mamzér/“mongrel,” the child of a Hebrew and a gentile, “till the 10th generation.” Dt 23.2
  • Ammonites and Moabites; 10th generation. Dt 23.3
  • Edomites; third generation. Dt 23.7

And of course there’s total depravity, the idea that humanity is innately messed up because Adam and Eve’s original sin was passed down to the rest of us, spoiling us from the moment of our birth.

In general, these ideas are the basis of the popular Christian idea there are generational curses, a problem that’s passed down from parent to child in a family for centuries. Like alcoholism, or the tendency to have heart attacks in one’s forties. Like bad genes. Only this time it’s a particular form of sin problem.

Fr’instance say your grandfather was involved in conjuring up the spirits of the dead. And whattaya know; mine was. According to generational-curse theory, that’s gonna affect me. Even though I’m Christian; even though I was Christian before Grandpa got involved in necromancy; even though Grandpa later repented and became Christian. Simply by virtue of his being my grandfather, evil spirits have been called upon to plague my grandmother’s life, my parents’ lives, my aunts’ and uncles’ lives, my siblings and their kids, my cousins and their kids. And of course me.

Gee, thanks Grandpa.

10 January 2017

When two or three gather in Jesus’s name.

Christians assume all sorts of magic happens when we group up. Nope.

Matthew 18.20

Matthew 18.20 KJV
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

We Christians quote that verse for all sorts of reasons.

  • To point out the importance of group prayer: When two or three of us pray together, Jesus is there, so he must therefore hear our prayers. (Though getting him to answer “Yes” is another thing.)
  • To point out the importance of small groups. Same reason: Two or three of us are together, so Jesus is there, and supposedly his presence blesses our meeting.
  • To avoid church. “You don’t have to go to Sunday morning worship; you just have to gather with two or three fellow Christians and talk Jesus for a few minutes. That counts.” It doesn’t, but I’ll get to that.

But in context it refers to church discipline.

Matthew 18.15-20 KWL
15 “When your fellow Christian sins against you,
take them aside and reprove them—just you and them alone.
When they hear you, you’ve helped your fellow Christian.
16 When they don’t hear you: Take one or two others with you.
Thus ‘by the mouth of two witnesses or three, every word can stand.’ Dt 19.15
17 When they refuse to hear you, tell the church.
When they also refuse to hear the church: To you, they’re like a pagan and taxman.
18 Amen, I promise you whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven.
Whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.
19 Amen again, I tell you when two of you agree amongst yourselves on earth about any activity,
when you ask your heavenly Father about it, it’ll happen to it.
20 For I’m there in the middle of it wherever two or three come together in my name.”

It’s not about when we come together for any old reason, like prayer or worship. It’s when we’re trying to deal with a serious matter, where relationships may have to be suspended or end. It’s about the direction of the church; not about whether our little prayer breakfasts counts the same as Sunday morning worship.

09 January 2017

Tattoos require commitment.

If you’re gonna have something permanently etched into your skin, maybe think about it a bit, okay?

Got into a discussion with Mathilda (name changed to protect the feelin’-guilty) and I found it interesting enough to rant about. Even though my views may get me into trouble with both legalists and libertines.

Mathilda has a tattoo. I do not. Never got one. Not that I disapprove of them per se. I simply haven’t found anything I’d like to permanently decorate myself with.

I know; the older folks are gonna quote bible at me about how you’re never, ever supposed to tattoo yourself.

Leviticus 19.28 NIV
“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.”

The word the NIV renders “tattoo” is qaháqa. In modern Hebrew it means “tattoo,” and it only appears this one time in the bible. Unless you count the apocryphal book of Jesus ben Sirach, which I don’t. (Long story as short as I can make it: Sirach was written in Hebrew, translated into Greek; the Hebrew got lost; the 11th-century rabbis translated it back into Hebrew and translated exétilen/“plucked” Si 10.15 as qaháqa; when a Hebrew copy was rediscovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls, verse 15 was missing. So all this means is the medieval rabbis didn’t think it meant “tattooed.”)

Qaháqa comes from the root quts/“cut [with a sickle],” like in harvesting. It refers to scarification: Decorating yourself with scars. Usually for religious reasons, like the pagan practice of marking yourself so the spirits of the dead might identify and protect you—which, you’ll notice, is the very context referred to in the verse.

As usual, I point this out to Christians who are anti-tattoo, and they immediately object, ’cause bias. Everyone they know, every bible translation they use, interprets qaháqa as “tattoo,” and they assume I’m just looking for a lexical loophole in Leviticus. Even though they don’t pay their employees daily, Lv 19.13 nor treat foreigners, illegal or not, the same as natives. Lv 19.34 Seems it’s more about cherry-picking beloved causes than really following the scriptures.

But if you honestly are trying to follow this command—and to be on the safe side, you’ve decided to ban any kinds of marking on yourselves, including piercings, tattoos, makeup, henna, drawing on yourself with markers, or writing quick notes on your hands; for any sort of reason, and not merely as magic symbols to attract the dead—that’s between you and God. Not between me and God. I haven’t been similarly convicted. If you wanna judge me for that, you might wanna read Romans 14 again.

06 January 2017

Epiphany: When Jesus was revealed to the world.

The holiday which grew into Christmas.

Epiphany (in some churches it’s called Theophany) falls on 6 January. Well, unless your church still follows the Julian calendar, in which case it’s gonna wind up on 19 January. It comes right after the last day of Christmas. In fact Christmas is celebrated on 25 December because of Epiphany.

See, Epiphany celebrates how Jesus was revealed to the world. True, the Christmas stories figure that was with the angels and sheep-herders, and maybe with the magi. But technically he was revealed at the beginning of his ministry, at his baptism, where John the baptist identified him as God’s son.

John 1.29-34 KWL
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming to him.
He said, “Look: God’s ram, taking up the world’s sin! 30 This is the one I spoke of!
‘The one coming after me has got in front of me’—because he’s first over me. Jn 1.15
31 And I hadn’t seen him! But I came baptizing in water so he’d be revealed to Israel.”
32 John testified, saying this: “I’ve seen the Spirit,
descending like a pigeon from the sky, and staying on him.
33 And I hadn’t seen him, but he who sent me to baptize in water
yes, him—told me, “On whomever you see the Spirit come down and stay on,
that’s who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
34 And I’ve seen. I testify: This is God’s son.”

The third-century Christians began to celebrate Jesus’s baptism in January. Why January? Historians’ best guess is the early churches divided up the gospels into a year’s worth of readings, and if you start with Mark, you get to the baptism story in the second week of the year. So it wasn’t ’cause anybody knew the date of the baptism; it’s just the date they read the baptism story.

Since Jesus was also sorta revealed as God incarnate at his annunciation, Epiphany celebrations began to include his birth stories. Till the early Christians realized the birth needed its own celebration. Thus the 12 days before Epiphany became the separate celebration of Christmas. Yep, that’s how it happened; Christians didn’t take over any pagan winter solstice festivals, and claim Jesus was born around the time the days began to grow longer. We still don’t know when he was born. Doesn’t matter, though. All we needed was a day—or 12—to celebrate. And for the longest time, Epiphany also lasted several days: Usually eight.

And Epiphany marks the end of Christmastime. Bummer.

05 January 2017

Carrot-and-stick evangelism. (Mostly stick.)

Why hellfire and brimstone is the worst way to proclaim God’s kingdom.

Recently I got to talking with a member of my church about evangelism. She wanted to know how I shared Jesus. Not to pick up any pointers or anything; she just wanted to make sure I wasn’t spreading heresy. (She’s one of those folks who’s not sure anyone’s doing Christianity right but her.)

So I talked about how I usually lead pagans to Jesus: First I try to plug ’em into a church. Doesn’t need to be mine, but it should be a fruitful church. They’re more likely to encounter Jesus for themselves if the people in the church know him personally, y’know.

She. “And what do you tell them about hell?”
Me. “Not much. They don’t usually ask.”
She. “You don’t warn them about hell?
Me. “I don’t need to. I’ve already got ’em interested in going to church.”
She. “But you’ve gotta warn ’em about hell!”
Me. “Why?”
She. [gonna burst a blood vessel over my perceived stupidity] “Because that’s where they’re headed!”
Me. “Oh, they know that. That’s the one thing they definitely know about us Christians: We think they’re all going to hell. I don’t need to repeat that. Not that they believe in hell anyway.”
She. “They have to believe in hell. The bible says…”
Me. “Half the time they don’t believe what the bible says either. You know how people think nowadays: Books are just the writings of old dead white guys. Seeing is believing. That’s why I’m trying to get ’em to go to church: I want ’em to see stuff. Not that they will, but I don’t just want ’em to take my word for it. Even if I quote loads of bible at ’em.”
She. “If they don’t believe the bible, they can’t be saved.”
Me. “Well, lucky for them neither I nor God believe that.”

Pretty sure I didn’t convince her I’m not doing it totally wrong.

But the reason I share Jesus this way is ’cause I used to do it her way. And didn’t get anywhere. It’s what I call carrot-and-stick evangelism: Heaven’s the carrot; hell’s the stick. And be sure you preach about 75 percent stick, lest they think there are no dire consequences for rejecting heaven.

It’s a common dark Christian practice, and it has the bad habit of creating more dark Christians.

04 January 2017

It’s 4 January. It’s still Christmas. And this fact annoys you.

The idea of 12 days of Christmas annoys some people just as much as the song.

All the way back in 2016, my church decided it was time to begin our 21-day Daniel fast on the first Sunday of the month. Specifically this was Sunday, 3 January 2016. Welcome back from the holidays, folks; no doughnut for you.

“Really not appropriate to schedule a fast for a feast day,” I pointed out to one of my fellow church attendees.

She. “Feast day? This is a feast day?”
Me. “It’s still Christmas.”
She. “Christmas was two Fridays ago.”
Me. “Christmas began two Fridays ago. And ends tomorrow. It lasts 12 days, remember?
She.What lasts 12 days?”
Me. “Christmas. Remember the song? ‘On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…’ and each day the singer just kept getting more and more birds? ’Cause Christmas has 12 days.”
She. “Who celebrates it for 12 days?”
Me.I celebrate it for 12 days. I’m still eating cookies.”
She. “Well, you can do that if you like. I took the tree down the day after Christmas.”
Me. “You mean the second day of Christmas.”
She. [irritated scoff]

Tell many a Christian that today’s the 11th day of Christmas, and that’s the response you’ll get from them. The irritated scoff. Christmas ended last month. And good riddance. They were so done with the holiday once Christmas dinner was over. And if they weren’t, the hassle of returning Christmas gifts did it for ’em.

Like I said back in my advent article, a lot of people have adopted the mindset our popular culture foists upon ’em. To them, the Christmas season begins on Black Friday, ends 25 December, and the rest is just aftermath and cleanup. Put the decorations away as soon as possible, ’cause it’s time to concentrate on the new year. And the stores are already selling Valentine’s Day items. (“Already? Are you kidding me?”)

But if you’ve burnt out on Christmas, it’s because you’ve not really been celebrating Christmas. You’ve been celebrating the awful Mammonist substitute the stories peddle. Our churches unwittingly help ’em do it too. We perpetuate the idea of a one-day holiday, a frenzy of gifts and toys and events, and a slapped-on veneer of “Remember the reason for the season!”

In fact Christmas is primarily about how Christ the savior is born. If you’re doing Christmas correctly, and someone brings up the word “Christmas” after the 25th, that’s the mental image which should’ve immediately popped into your mind. Not decorations, toys, and obligations. Jesus has come. ’Cause if your first response is to scoff… you did it wrong.

03 January 2017

The Daniel fast.

Why, every January, the people in your church are going on a diet for three weeks.

Every January, the people in my church go on a diet. Most years for three weeks; this year we’re formally doing it for one, but some folks may choose to go longer. We cut back on the carbohydrates, sugar, meat, and oils; lots of fruits and vegetables. Considering all the binging we did between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it makes sense to practice a little more moderation, doesn’t it?

What on earth does this practice have to do with prayer? Well y’see, the people don’t call it a diet. They call it a “Daniel fast.”

It’s an Evangelical practice which has taken off in the past 20 years. It’s loosely based on a few lines from Daniel 10. At the beginning of the year, Daniel went three weeks—that’d be 21 days—depriving himself.

Daniel 10.2-3 KWL
2 In those days I, Daniel, went into mourning three weeks. 3 I ate none of the bread I coveted.
Meat and wine didn’t enter my mouth. I didn’t oil my hair for all of three weeks.

So that’s how the Daniel fast works. At the beginning of the year, we likewise go three weeks depriving ourselves. He went without bread, meat, wine, and oil; so do we. True, by sokh lo-sakhti/“I oiled no oil” Daniel was referring to how the ancients cleaned their hair. (Perfumed oil conditions it, and keeps bugs away.) But look at your average Daniel fast diet, and you’ll notice Evangelicals are taking no chances. Nothing fried, no oils, no butter, nothing tasty.

Though the lists aren’t consistent across Christendom. The list below permits quality oils. Including grapeseed… even though Daniel went without wine during his three weeks. Not entirely sure how they came up with their list.

This list permits oils… but no solid fats. ’Cause Daniel denied himself Crisco, y’know. The Daniel Fast

In fact you look at these menus, and you’ve gotta wonder whether any of it was extrapolated from Daniel’s experience. I mean, it generally sounds like Daniel was denying himself nice food. And yet there are such things as cookbooks for how to make “Daniel fast” desserts. I’m not kidding. Cookbooks which say, right on the cover, they’re full of delicious recipes—so even though Daniel kept away from enjoyable food, who says you have to do without?

This is a fast, right?

02 January 2017

Good and bad bible translations.

Stuff I’ve discovered by reading different translations every year.

I realize people are gonna find the title of this article through Google or one of the other search engines, and are gonna be vastly disappointed I haven’t provided an easy-to-use chart establishing, “These translations are good and holy and inspired of God… and these translations are the product of an international conspiracy of devil-worshipers,” or some other such extreme. You want fear-ridden nutjobs, you’ve come to the wrong blog.

Nope; today’s rant is about the bible translations I wind up reading through—and getting irritated by—when I do my bible in a month thingy every January. That’s right; I don’t merely suggest you do it, and leave you with a big pile of reading material. I do it too. I pop over to Bible Gateway, pick a translation I’m not all that familiar with, and get to readin’. Sometimes I start in December, while it’s still Christmas. Sometimes later in January. Still tend to get it read within 3 to 4 weeks.

Most of the time it works out okay. I pick an unfamiliar translation, read it in its entirety, and now I can experientially tell you what it consists of… unlike some nimrod who reads a few passages and jumps to a conclusion; usually an angry one. Fr’instance a decade ago I read the Message back to front. So now, when people ask me what I think of it, I can say, “I read it,” and not just mean a book or two, or assorted chapters; I read it. And…? And I like it. It’s good. I don’t agree with all the translation choices, but I’m never gonna agree with all the translation choices. But it’s good. Feel free to use it for casual reading, devotional reading, or even in church. It’s not gonna bite.

It’s not infallible. No translation is. When you do serious bible study, do not use only one translation, the Message included, without double-checking it against many other translations. (Even when you know biblical languages: Make sure your interpretation isn’t too far afield from all the others!) But again: Casual, devotional, church, Twitter: Use it. Have fun.

Then there are the translations I don’t care for. And yeah, even if you found this article for other reasons, you’re probably gonna be curious about my take on them. You’re looking (in vain) for a perfect translation, and you wanna eliminate a few contenders. Or you’ve already convinced yourself it’s the King James Version, but you spitefully wanna know why other translations suck, just so you can bash ’em a little more. I don’t wanna enable you, but at the same time I don’t wanna encourage publishers to crank out bad bible translations. So I’ve got mixed feelings… but I’m plowing ahead anyway.