Sheep-stealing: “Hey, those were our sheep!”

by K.W. Leslie, 31 May

Since all the sheep belong to Jesus, what’s the real problem?

Sheep-stealing /'ʃip stil.ɪŋ/ vt. Getting a Christian to leave their church and join yours.
[Sheep-stealer /'ʃip stil.ər/ n.]

My sister and I live in the same town. I’m a member of a small church. She’s a member of another, larger church.

When people hear this, sometimes they respond, “Aww. Why don’t you go to the same church? You should be worshiping together.”

Well, sometimes we do. Sometimes I visit her church. Once, she and her family visited mine. Our churches aren’t in competition, y’know. Mine may be in a denomination and hers isn’t, but both churches belong to Jesus: They’re both outposts of God’s kingdom.

Why don’t we go to the same church? Various reasons. Initially it was because I was giving the churches in my denomination a try before settling on one… and this one fit. (Once it wasn’t, so I hung with the Baptists a few years.) If I had to switch churches, I don’t think it’d be too big a stretch to switch to hers, but I fit better here.

And my church lets me minister. Whereas her church already has plenty of ministers. They don’t need me. Don’t need her either. She and her husband used to help in their area of expertise, music. They were eventually told their help wasn’t wanted.

If I were told that, I’d go find someplace I was wanted; but that’s me. I told ’em my church was looking for musicians. Of course my church, being small, would definitely try to rope ’em into ministering every week, and they’d prefer once a month. (That’s what they’re currently doing: They help out at a friend’s church.)

Now, some Christians would definitely take offense at my inviting them to help at my church. They’d see it as “sheep-stealing.” Because my sister and brother-in-law already have a church, already have a shepherd, and how dare I try to swipe them out from underneath their shepherd?

Um… ’cause we all have the one shepherd.

John 10.14-16 KWL
14 “I’m the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me,
15 just as my Father knows me, and I know the Father. I prioritize my life for the sheep.
16 I have other sheep who aren’t from this pen. I have to bring them here too.
They’ll hear my voice and become one flock, with one shepherd.”

Churches have shepherds, or pastors; lots of ’em. But all these pastors work for the head of every church, Christ Jesus. And when they’re jealous of one another, or compete with one another, or try to hoard resources which are meant for the whole kingdom and world, it’s wholly inappropriate. So this idea of “sheep-stealing”? Doesn’t come from the bible.

Still, some pastors get downright territorial.

Jesus still appears to people, y’know.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 May

No, he didn’t stop doing it in bible times.

Several years after Jesus ascended to heaven, Paul of Tarsus (also known by his Hebrew name Saul) met him enroute to Damascus. He later retold that story to his king:

Acts 26.13-20 KWL
13 “In midday on the road I saw, King, a light from heaven brighter than the sun
shining round me and those going with me. 14 We all fell down to the ground.
I heard a voice telling me in the Hebraic dialect, ‘Saul! Saul!
Why are you pursuing me? Isn’t it harsh of you to jab your spurs?’
15 I said, ‘Who are you, Master?’ and the Master said ‘I’m Jesus, whom you’re pursuing.
16 But get up and stand on your feet. You’re seeing me for this reason:
I’m taking charge of you, as my assistant and witness, who saw and will see me.
17 I separate you to myself from the people, from the gentiles to whom I’m sending you,
18 to open their eyes, turn them from darkness to light, from Satan’s power to God.
To take forgiveness from sin to them, a place among those made holy by trusting in me.‘
19 Therefore, King Agrippa, I wasn’t about to become disobedient to a heavenly vision,
20 but to the Damascenes first, then Jerusalemites, the whole province of Judea, and the gentiles,
I declared repentance and return to God,
and doing good works consistent with repentance.”

Paul was dead set on destroying Christianity, but flipped hard. Preached Jesus with such fervor, his former backers wanted him dead. Went to his own death for Jesus. That’s not the behavior of a man who merely changed his mind. Paul saw something—and for the rest of his life, claimed it was Christ Jesus.

Nearly all Christians accept Paul’s story without question. Not just ’cause Paul produced fruit of the Spirit from then on, and performed various miracles. Usually it’s because Paul wrote 13 books of the New Testament, particularly Romans, which spells out how the revelation and self-sacrifice of Jesus brought grace into the world. But as far as further Jesus-sightings are concerned, they’re pretty certain Paul’s experience was a special circumstance. Only Paul got to have a special Jesus-appearance, and nobody else. Nobody since.

There I’d have to disagree with them. And most of you already know about this second “special” Jesus-appearance:

Revelation 1.9-18 KWL
9 I’m John, your fellow Christian, experiencing the tribulation with you—
and the kingdom, and the patient endurance of Jesus.
I was put on the island called Patmos because of God’s word and my witness of Jesus.
10 In spirit, I saw the Day of the Lord.
I heard a great voice behind me, like a war trumpet, 11 saying,
“Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches—
to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.”
12 I turned round to see the voice speaking with me,
and in so doing I saw seven gold lampstands;
13 in the middle of the lampstands, one like the Son of Man,
clad in a full-length robe with a gold belt wrapped round his chest.
14 His head and hair: White, like white wool, like snow. His eyes like fiery flames.
15 His feet the same: White bronze, refined in a furnace. His voice: Like the sound of many waters.
16 He had seven stars in his right hand. From his mouth came a sharp, double-edged saber.
His face: Like the sun, shining in its power.
17 Once I saw the Son of Man, I fell to his feet like a dead man.
He placed his right hand on me, saying, “Don’t fear!
I’m the First and the Last 18 and the Living. I became a dead man and look: I’m living!
Forever and ever. I have the keys to death and the afterlife.”

“Okay,” naysayers will object, “but other than those two—”

Yeah, you already knew I got a third one.

Acts 7.55-56 KWL
55 Becoming full of the Holy Spirit, staring into the sky,
Stephen saw God’s glory, and Jesus standing at God’s right.
56 Stephen said, “Look! I see the skies opened, and the Son of Man standing at God’s right!”

“Okay, but other than those three—”

Is our faith living, or dead?

by K.W. Leslie, 29 May

James 2.14-17.

So now we’re at one of the more controversial passages in Christendom: The notorious “faith without works is dead” bit.

Properly faith is a synonym for trust, and when Christianity talks about faith we mean trusting in God. We figure there’s something of substance holding up our beliefs: God himself. He’s real and reliable, and will do as he said he’d do. It’s not just “faith in faith”—that we imagine what we want, believe really hard, and stuff will happen. That’s how magic is supposed to work, and we all know magic isn’t real. But you’d be surprised how often people think faith works that way. (Or that magic is real.)

Now if faith is based on something solid, it means we should be able to stand on that faith, right? Should be able to act on it. Should be able to do stuff based on our trust in God. If I trust in a stepladder I should have no trouble standing on it; seems kinda stupid if I never use it because I really don’t care to test it. What’s the point of owning a stepladder then?

Same argument James made here: What’s the point of “having faith” if it never comes to anything? If we never use it? Is that even faith?

James 2.14-17 KWL
14 What’s the point, my fellow Christians, when someone says they “have faith,”
yet doesn’t take action? Can “faith” save them?
15 When a Christian brother or sister starts to become needy and go without daily food,
16 and one of you tells them, “Go in peace: I declare you to be warm and full!”
yet doesn’t give them anything useful for their body, what’s the point?
17 This “faith,” when it’s all by itself and takes no action, is dead.

Obviously he answered that question: Nope. Not faith. If it’s fruitless, it’s nekrá kath’ eaftín/“dead by itself.” (I moved the “by itself” to earlier in the sentence.) It’s not just faith without works that’s dead. Faith without anything is dead.

Note this situation James described in his example, where “one of you” tells a needy Christian, “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled.” Jm 2.16 KJV It’s not a hypothetical situation. It still happens all the time. This is when Christians wish blessings upon one another. “Oh it’s so sad you don’t have a job, but y’know what? I’m gonna declare for you that you will get a job. That my God will supply all your needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus. Pp 4.19 KJV You just trust in God now; he will take care of you.” And then, just like every sucky intercessor, that well-wisher does nothing to help God take care of them.

So, this kind of so-called “faith”? Dead.

Yep. Every compassionate-sounding Christian who says, “Aww,” at all the sob stories, yet lifts not a finger to do anything, and all they have are best wishes and warm prayers: Hypocrites with dead faith. Pretending it’s faith—pretending they believe God’ll take care of people—but y’know, we Christians are meant to be how God takes care of his needy. Remember when the first Christians had needy people in Acts? No you don’t, ’cause they didn’t:

Acts 4.32-35 KWL
32 The number of believers were one in thinking and lifestyle.
Not one of their possessions was said to be their own.
Instead, everything of theirs was commonly used.
33 The apostles gave their witness of Master Jesus’s resurrection in great power.
Great grace was upon them all, 34 for they had no needy:
Whoever among them owned land or houses were selling whatever was sellable
35 and placed them at the apostles’ feet. This was passed along to everyone—whoever had need.

When’s the last time someone in your church sold a house and gave the proceeds to the church to help out the needy? When’s the last time you ever heard of a church doing that on a regular basis? Face it: We suck.

“Who’s in charge of these bloggers?”

by K.W. Leslie, 22 May

Funny; nobody was really talking about blogging and accountability till women started doing it….

Last year was probably the first time someone ever asked me, “Who told you you’re allowed to do that?” It was about me translating the bible, and it was based on a mistaken belief that people can’t do that unless they’ve been authorized by their denomination or something.

And yeah, that might be true in a country which had no freedom of religion. Where the laws require we get clergy permission before we preach, teach, or otherwise minister. And sometimes not even the permission of our clergy, but the state clergy. Doesn’t matter if you’re Shia in Saudi Arabia; the nation is officially Salafi, so don’t upset their clergy ’cause blasphemy still gets you capital punishment. England had the same problem for centuries: In 1660, Bedford Free Church preacher John Bunyan got tossed in jail for 12 years because it was against the law for any church to meet off Church of England grounds. On the upside, he had the time to write The Pilgrim’s Progress; on the downside, Christian schools keep making kids read that book before they’re literate enough to really appreciate it. But I digress.

Hence in the United States, Congress is forbidden from hindering religion. Anybody can proclaim any gospel they want. Unfortunately this means we have a lot of cults—and so long that they don’t break the law (for all we know) they can stay in business. But the good far outweighs the bad: The U.S. has a lot of Christians. Way more than you’d expect. If religion is voluntary, wouldn’t you expect people to ditch it? Yet it’s just the opposite. A third of us go to church weekly; another third not so much, but they do believe in Jesus. The rest are all over the place.

So I share Jesus with people. Because I get to. Not because I’m required or obligated to. Nor is it my job, nor do I get paid for it (although it used to be, and I did). Jesus is awesome; why wouldn’t I want to share him?

Sure, if I have to get permission from some church governing body before I can teach or evangelize, I jump through all the appropriate hoops. Can’t teach at my church unless the pastor’s cool with it. Couldn’t do youth evangelism unless I went through basic training and background checks—which makes perfect sense, and I have no problem with it. But as far as writing stuff for the internet is concerned, I don’t have to clear anything with anyone. Few do.

So… who am I then accountable to?

Well Jesus obviously. And yes, my church. I learned a long time ago that if I misbehave online, it gets back to them. I wrote a rant years ago, addressed to the local Christian college’s students, about why our church really didn’t consider them the blessings they imagined themselves to be. Word quickly got back to my pastor of what I’d written. I suspect he appreciated the fact I could say all the things he kinda wanted to, but couldn’t. Still, some statements went too far for him, so he asked me to tone it down, so I did.

Now, let’s say I started to write full-on heresy. That’d definitely get back to my church’s leadership. Too many people in my church and denomination stay abreast of what I’m up to on TXAB, and no doubt they’d alert my church if I go off the rails. And they should. ’Cause I’m in leadership too, and you don’t want to keep a leader who’s publicly gone wrong. I’d have to recant, or step down.

True, sometimes churches try to clamp down on people when their outside-the-church activities displease them. Not ’cause they’ve done anything wrong; it’s ’cause the church leaders are on some power trip. I don’t go to one of those churches. Really, most writers don’t. Some because they’re in healthy churches; some because they quit their church the second they got any pushback. Of course, some of that pushback was warranted, but the writers don’t wanna be accountable—and they’re in the wrong, as you can detect by how they’re getting more and more bonkers. As are their fans and commenters.

I’m also accountable to my readers. Whenever I write something which might be misinterpreted as wrong or heresy, I definitely hear about it. And I go back and correct or clarify it. I appreciate the feedback. I’ve no doubt that if I ever go seriously wrong, I’ll get a flurry of pushback.

God’s mercy trumps his judgment.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 May

James 2.8-13.

Primarily James wrote his letter to Jews. Jm 1.1 Secondarily to the rest of the church; now that gentiles have been adopted as God’s kids, it applies to all Christians. But regardless of whether Christians are Jewish or gentile, there’s a tendency to lapse into Pharisee thinking: To figure God chooses to save us because we act Christian: We stick to how popular Christian culture tells us we oughta live, or we follow Jesus’s teachings, or the Law. And in gratitude, or as a reward, or because we’ve racked up all that good karma, God grants us salvation. We’re saved because we worked for it.

Nope, not even close. The rest of the New Testament makes it mighty clear: Humans are saved by God’s grace. Ep 2.5 We don’t merit it. We can’t.

James brought up the Law in the previous passage, where he corrected his readers for sucking up to the wealthy. The Law instructs otherwise: Everybody’s equal under the Law.

James 2.8-9 KWL
8 But if you fulfill the kingdom’s Law, you do right.
(“You’ll love your neighbor as yourself,” Lv 19.18 according to scripture.)
9 If you show favoritism, your disgraceful, backslider-like behavior produces sin,
according to the Law.

Contrary to dispensationalist belief, the Law didn’t become void once Jesus paid for our sins. (If it did, there’d be no more sins! You could violate the Ten Commandments with impunity. As some Christians, y’notice, already do.)

But even though James reminded his readers to follow the Law, he also needed to remind ’em we’re not saved by the Law. Never were. We don’t work our way to salvation. It’s all by grace.

Christians need to be reminded of this because we’re creatures of extremes. Either we figure the Law is vital, needs to be central to Christian life, and we turn into full-on legalists; or we figure the Law doesn’t matter, cheap grace is the name of the game, and we turn into full-on libertines. James’s readers had the same problem: Either Christians who wanted to strain out gnats, or Christians who wanted to swallow camels. Mt 23.24

The Law’s proper place is after salvation. The LORD saved the Hebrews from Egypt; and once saved, he gave them his Law so they’d thereafter follow him properly. Likewise Jesus saves the world from sin; and once saved, he assigns us good works to do. Ep 2.10 Grace saves. Good works are our response to God’s grace. They’re the cart. Not the horse.

And the Law is good works, so we should follow the Law. Apart from the bits Jesus fulfilled so we don’t have to, it’s still the Law of God’s kingdom. Jm 2.8 (Although various translations like to blunt this idea by translating nómon basilikón/“kingdom’s Law” like the KJV’s “royal law.”) Now that Jesus emphasizes grace and mercy, we can see the Law as God always intended it: His ideal. Something we’re to attempt and strive for. The path to sanctification. Not the path to salvation, ’cause we got that before we were ever given rules and missions. And when we stumble—as we do, as we will—we have Jesus. 1Jn 2.1-2

Legalists rarely grasp this idea. To them, the rules are the whole point. When we stumble, they don’t point us towards forgiveness and mercy; they punish. They demand we earn back God’s good graces. (Really their good graces.) More legalism.

Hence they apply the Law without grace and mercy—exactly like Christians ought never do. So here, James corrects them.

The age of accountability?

by K.W. Leslie, 18 May

How old do we have to be for God to hold us responsible for our sins?

Wait, doesn’t he always hold us responsible? Well, not according to certain Christians.

See, from time to time a child dies. Which sucks, but this is life, and sometimes life sucks. It’s always sad, and grieving parents frequently look to their religious friends for some kind of comfort. ’Cause we know something about heaven, so they wanna confirm with us that heaven is precisely where their kid went. Mommy and Daddy’s little angel, happy and pain-free, will forevermore be looking down upon them.

Yeah, it’s never fun breaking the news to them that we don’t become angels when we die. ’Cause it’s such a deeply-held pagan belief. Some of us never have the guts to tell ’em otherwise. Hey, we figure, they’re grieving; let ’em believe their kid’s an angel. What’s it hurt? (Well, them. The belief will just become even more deeply-held, and then it’ll be a real pain trying to later explain how heaven really works.)

And it’s never fun breaking the news to them that, unless we trust Jesus to take care of our sins for us, we still own our sins. Therefore we don’t inherit the kingdom of heaven. And since they never raised their kids to trust Jesus any…

…Well you see where I’m going with this. Few Christians have the nerve to tell any grieving parents any such thing. We chicken out.

Lots of us instead embrace this idea of an age of accountability: There’s an age where God deals with us as a responsible human being. Before that cutoff point, we don’t know any better; we’re innocent; we’re spiritual minors; God couldn’t possibly hold our sins against us. For everybody before the cutoff, God practices universalism: Everybody goes to heaven. No exceptions.

Your pagan friends’ dead kid? Just squeezed in at the cutoff. Definitely in heaven. God would never send a five-year-old to hell. Six-year-olds definitely; hell’s chock full of ’em, screaming their bratty heads off. But never five-year-olds. Yes, little Tafadzwa is definitely in heaven. Yes, Tafadzwa now has baby wings like a little cherub.

Oh, it’s an utter copout. ’Cause the age of accountability isn’t in the bible anywhere. Seriously, not anywhere. It’s pure fabrication, invented to soothe grieving parents, and calm worried ones. When their pagan kid just died, parents wanna cling to hope, and Christians really don’t wanna be the ones to puncture it. (Well, most of us. There are certain a--holes who take a perverse glee in telling people, “Hey, it’s unlikely your kid was one of the elect, so they’re not in heaven.” I’ll get to them.)

Quite often it’s the Christians themselves clinging to hope: Their kids aren’t following Jesus, and they’re super worried the kids are gonna be pagan or apostate or even antichrist. So they wanna know there’s still a chance. The age of accountability is 30, right?

Now since this article is tagged #Grace, you can likely guess there actually is hope somewhere before the end of it. But you’ll have to bear with me as I dash several of the false hopes.

A few tongues to set the mood?

by K.W. Leslie, 17 May

Tongues aren’t mood enhancers. They’re prayer and prophecy.

1 Corinthians 14.5-12.

One of the practices I see too often in Pentecostal churches is the very same one Paul and Sosthenes saw in the church at Corinth. It’s the use of praying in tongues as atmosphere. “Okay everybody, call out to God in your prayer language,” will be the instruction. (Sometimes with the caveat, “If you have a prayer language,” and hopefully they do.) Then everybody’s expected to pray, or sing, or make various joyful noises, in tongues.

What’s this all about? Well, tongues are prayer. So we’re praying, and prayer is good. Right?

Except that’s not entirely why they’re doing it. They’re doing it to set the mood. “Change the atmosphere,” might be another way Christians put it. Create a vibe.

Ostensibly it’s to call upon the Holy Spirit, ’cause he’s the one who empowers tongues. 1Co 12.10 Makes it more obvious he’s in the room… ’cause he’s working the room, in order to get all these tongues unloosed. Secondarily, once people realize the Spirit’s in the room, that God’s really up to something, their attitudes might change.

Plus there’s this false idea found among too many Christians that when we pray, we gotta be in the right headspace. We gotta “incline our hearts towards prayer.” We gotta psyche ourselves into feeling holy, or receptive to anything God might say, or at least banish distracting (or naughty) thoughts from our minds.

For many Christians, when we find ourselves in a church building where a whole lot of Christians are audibly worshiping, it feels… well, different. Otherworldly. Holy. They love this feeling. It’s part of the reason one of my Orthodox friends loves going to church: He doesn’t speak a lick of Russian, but the incense and all these guys praying away in Russian… it just makes him feel transported to a mystic place. Pentecostals also don’t mind not understanding a word. And honestly, they wouldn’t mind (well, much) if it turns out a number of these “prayers” aren’t even prayer, but Christians making funny sounds to the best of their ability—with no Holy Spirit behind any of it. I’ve caught plenty of Christians praying in Spanish, figuring none of these monolingual Anglos sitting by them would know the difference anyway.

Like I said, it’s about setting the mood. Evoking a feeling of the Holy Spirit in the building, empowering people to pray. So… now that he’s empowered the tongues, what’s he gonna do next? ’Cause his presence is here! He’s making the place holy! The Holy Spirit’s gonna do something!

So what does he wind up doing? Well, it varies by church. In most of the churches I’ve been to: Not a lot.

I mean, the church service was nice. The music was good. People came away feeling positive and uplifted. But what’d we see in the way of miracles? Prophecies? People getting cured of illness? People having life-changing transformations, like coming to Jesus, dedicating themselves to follow him better, making major life decisions? Well… maybe there was four or five of those. But that happens at any church; even among cessationists, who are pretty sure the Holy Spirit’s only job is to magnify your bible. If that.

Oh, I won’t even touch what the cessationists think about this practice. They got their own issues anyway.

Coming to God with empty hands. Much as you don’t wanna.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 May

What do we really have to give him, anyway?

God is gracious.

Yeah, you knew this already. (Hope so, anyway.) Problem is, we Christians tend to compartmentalize grace. We imagine it applies to some parts of God; not so much others. It applies to some facets of our Christian life; it really hasn’t sunk in how grace applies to all of it. God’s kingdom runs on grace.

We remember God is gracious when it comes to salvation. He’s gonna save us whether we deserve saving or not. Isn’t this the good news we share with others? But when it comes to prayer, we totally drop the grace idea. We imagine we somehow have to deserve God’s favor before he’ll grant our prayer requests.

Why does this happen? Well, bad examples from fellow Christians. ’Cause for the most part, we’re not living lives of grace. We’re living the way the rest of the world does, and the world runs on reciprocity: If I want something from you, I gotta do something for you first. Quid pro quo, this for that.

So if we wanna get anything out of God, what’re we first gonna give him? And I kid you not: Various Christians actually teach us we need to give God a little something.

Like it goes in Christina Rosetti’s 1872 poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter” (which we sometimes sing at Christmas):

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

So sometimes we’re instructed to give our hearts. Although weren’t we required to do that way back when we said the sinner’s prayer? We gave that already. What else y’got?

Although many of us try to give our hearts all over again. Temporarily, at least. We psyche ourselves into feeling benevolent and holy for a little while; at least till we’re done praying. Then we get distracted by other things, and our hearts are once again our own. As gifts go, our nasty little self-centered hearts make a crummy gift.

But what’s the alternative? Material gifts? Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense with an immaterial God. How’re we expected to give God a car, or jewelry, or electronics?—as if he needs such things. Some Christians suggest we give cash to one of his churches. (Particularly those pastors whose budgets are a little tight.) But what if we’d rather not bother with a middleman?

A lot of us figure we’ll give services instead of goods: Do a lot of good deeds. Rack up a bunch of charitable works which God might appreciate. Point to them as our offering.

The Brownies, a Girl Scout group for younger girls, used to give points to kids who committed good deeds. That’s kinda how we imagine our good deeds work with God: We’re accumulating Brownie points. As if we weren’t already meant to do good deeds; Ep 2.10 as if our additional good deeds count as extra credit, and we can stash ’em in God’s karmic bank and maybe make withdrawals in the form of answered prayer requests.

If all this sounds ridiculous, it should. Yet this is what we Christians unconsciously do whenever we go through the motions to merit God’s favor.

I’ll say it again: God is gracious. Do we need to do any of these things? Or are we already in God’s favor because we’re his kids?

Yep, it’s that second thing.

Humor, sarcasm, irony, mockery, me.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 May

On using my sense of humor for good, and not evil.

Too many people are convinced a person can’t learn to be funny: Either we have the built-in ability to make people laugh, or we lack it and are never gonna get it.

Which means these folks obviously don’t understand how humor works. Anyone can learn to do anything. Maybe not well, but better than previously. Anyone can learn to be funny. They just gotta learn how humor works, and practice at it.

No, I’m not trying to sell you a class. I’ll even explain how humor works—for free.

Laughter is an automatic nervous reaction. People laugh when you expose them to the unexpected. Surprise ’em, shock ’em, play around with words a little, push things to a ridiculous extreme—or even frighten them, which is why some people laugh when they’re scared. The unexpected makes us laugh, and laughter floods the brain with feel-good endorphins. It’s actually a defense mechanism. But since it feels really good, people pursue laughter.

Unless of course their brain doesn’t produce enough of those chemicals; then they don’t bother. That’s why they’re humor-deprived: There’s no payoff. So they don’t see the point.

So how do we get people to laugh? Simple: Throw something unexpected at them. Like a monkey throwing poo. See what I did there? Unexpected. Shocking. Hence laughter.

But of course not everyone will laugh at it. Some of us won’t find it funny because they expect poo: Their dad was into poo jokes, their brothers were into poo jokes, their spouse is into poo jokes, their kids are into poo jokes, all their friends are into poo jokes, they’re up to their armpits in poo jokes. Poo wore off a long time ago. “That’s the lowest form of humor,” they’ll respond. It’s old, so it’s no longer unexpected. Nor funny.

And many are offended by scat or sex jokes. Or profanity. You notice how certain comedians swear a lot: Half their laughs come from the audience being so unused to all the dirty words, or the way they juggle those words for shock. They’re giggling about as much out of discomfort as surprise. But to the easily offended, these things aren’t funny whatsoever. Loads of people don’t find the Three Stooges funny at all: Three grown men beating the tar out of one another is horrifying, not hilarious. They have the same problem with Warner Brothers cartoons, Tom and Jerry, America’s Funniest Home Videos, or someone simply slipping on a banana peel or taking a pie to the face: They feel bad for the victims of these pratfalls. They’re not amused; they’re sympathetic.

But because laughing at the unexpected works so well, it’ll get people to watch terrible sitcoms and movies. Case in point: The Date Movie/Epic Movie/Disaster Movie/Scary Movie films. Critics can’t understand why on earth they sell so well. I do: Throw as much unexpected stuff at the screen as possible. “What’s she doing there?” makes a lot of people laugh. Even when it’s not actually funny.

Stop sucking up to the wealthy.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 May

James 2.1-9.

A lot of Americans aren’t Christians anywhere near as much as they’re Mammonists: They covet wealth. They don’t necessarily have it, but the American Dream tells ’em if they work hard enough, they will. So, anticipating the day they become wealthy, they wanna rig things so they get to keep as much of their wealth as possible… even if such a system totally works against them today, or even if it actually makes wealth creation impossible. Single-minded covetousness blinds people to a whole lot of things.

And to their minds, critiquing the wealthy kinda means you’re critiquing them. ’Cause they aspire to wealth. One day they expect to be wealthy. Since they already envision themselves in the role… well, those criticisms aren’t justified. They aren’t greedy. They aren’t exploiting anyone. They’re honest, hardworking Americans. The critics are just trying to shake them down and get something for nothing. Greedy opportunists.

They can’t—and really won’t—fathom the idea some wealthy folks are totally exploiting the needy. Have been for centuries. And aren’t anywhere near as good and kind and Christian as they imagine. But they sure do play Christian.

Jesus’s brother James saw right through all of that, and pointed it out to his readers who were blind to it:

James 2.1-4 KWL
1 My fellow Christians, don’t act prejudicially.
Not in the faith of our glorious master, Christ Jesus.
2 When a man with a gold ring and showy clothing enters your synagogue,
and a poor person in dirty clothes also enters,
3 and you covetously eye the wearer of showy clothing and say, “You sit here in the good spot,”
and tell the poor person, “You stand there,” or “Sit under my footstool”:
4 Isn’t this prejudice among you?
Have you become critics with evil schemes?

See, it’s human nature to want to suck up to the successful. Irritating, but true. Everybody loves a winner, and whenever somebody does well in an area we admire, we flock to ’em like flies to manure. Those who love money flock to the wealthy. Those who pursue fame gather round celebrities. Those who aspire to be smart kowtow to the intellectuals. Those who covet power follow the powerful. And this is true even in church.

Thing is, not everyone who’s achieved worldly success has done so in a righteous way. In fact, since it’s worldly success, it’s almost guaranteed they did a lot of worldly things to achieve it. They made compromises. They lied or stole or slandered others. They took advantage of people who couldn’t help their circumstances. This was true in the Roman Empire, and true today. Success and righteousness have nothing to do with one another. Remember, the devil promised Jesus the world if only our Lord would kneel down. Lk 4.5-7 Too many of us haven’t resisted that temptation.

Church-shopping. ’Cause sometimes you need a new church.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 May

Know what to look for when you’re considering a move.

Church-shop /'tʃərtʃ.ʃɑp/ v. Look for the best available church.
[Church-shopper, /'tʃərtʃ.ʃɑp.pər/ vt., church-shopping /'tʃərtʃ.ʃɑp.pɪŋ/ vt.]

If you haven’t been going to church, or never did go to church, it’s time to start.

And at certain times in a Christian’s life, we’re gonna have to go to another church. Sometimes for good reason; sometimes not. In my case it’s usually because I moved to a new city, although twice it’s been because the church went wrong.

In any event, Christians decide to begin a process we Americans call “church-shopping.” We visit a new church and try it on for size. If we like it, we stick around. If not, we move along and try another.

It’s not a complicated idea. It only gets complicated because certain Christians are extremely choosy about their churches. And there are other Christians who are convinced church-shopping is fundamentally wrong. Even devilish.

Devilish? Yeah; it’s because they read C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. Namely where senior devil Screwtape advises a junior devil to encourage what sounds an awful lot like church-shopping. If a person must go to church, “the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him,” which “makes the man a critic where [God] wants him to be a pupil.” Letter XVI We’re no experts on what makes one church better than another. We’ll wind up using silly, superficial criteria to judge. How dare we?

Well, here’s how dare we: You’ve got a brain, don’t you? You can learn how to gauge a church on meaningful, weighty criteria. Ain’t that difficult. Those who insist we leave all the thinking to experts, have a really bad habit of doing very little thinking, and as a result fall prey to a whole lot of false teachers and legalists. Ignore them; they have their own problems.

For most Christians, church-shopping isn’t at all complicated. There’s a church in town they’ve either visited, and wouldn’t mind visiting again; or a church they’ve never tried, but they’re curious about it, and would like to give it a shot. They go. They like it. They stay. Simple.

For other Christians, church-shopping is an incredible trial. They go to a church for a few months: They get involved, get to know the people, even try to minister or join or get into leadership. Then they discover the dealbreakers. And they’re just heartbroken, and leave. They’ve been church-shopping for years, and haven’t found a church home yet. Just about every church in town—heck, the county—has met these folks: “Yeah, they went here for five months. So they’re at your church now? Well, glad they’re somewhere. I always wondered.”

I gotta tell you, though: If you’ve gone through 25 different churches in the area and can’t stay in a single one, it’s not the churches which are the problem. It’s you.

Justification: How God considers us right with him.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 May

The part of our salvation that kinda falls on us.

JUSTIFY 'dʒəs.tə.faɪ verb. Show or prove to be correct.
2. Make morally right [with God].
[Justification dʒəs.tə.fə'keɪ.ʃən noun.]

In our culture we tend to use the word “justify” to mean we have a good excuse for what we did. Say I took someone behind the church building and beat the daylights out of them. Ordinarily, and rightly, that’d get me tossed into jail for battery. When I stand before the judge I’d better have a really solid reason for my actions.

“He started it; I just finished it” might work for most people, ’cause it sounds badass. But it’s not legally gonna work. Outside of movies, the law doesn’t give free passes to badasses. Juries might, but there are a whole lot of those guys in prison. Nope; justification means I need a legal reason for why I shouldn’t be jailed or institutionalized for my behavior. Like I reasonably feared for my life otherwise. Only then might my act be justified, and I’d be declared not guilty, and free to go. Society might still have a problem with me though.

Now when it comes to sin, I am so guilty. I have no good excuse. Neither do you. Neither does anyone. Yeah, we all have accidental, unintentional, or omissive sins in our past. But we have even more sins which we totally meant to do. We weren’t out of our right minds; we weren’t backed into tragic moral choices; we weren’t predetermined by God to sin in order to fulfill some secret evil plan of his. We’re totally guilty. We have no excuse. We have no justification for our behavior.

But in Christianity, we’re not doing the justifying. God is. Ro 8.30 We’re not the ones defending why God oughta have a relationship with us, regardless of our awful, sinful behavior. God is justifying why he bothers with us—again, despite our unworthiness.

And it’s a really simple explanation: God is gracious. He forgives sin. Jesus died to totally, absolutely wipe out the sins of the whole world. 1Jn 2.2 Anybody can have a relationship with God! Our sinfulness is no barrier whatsoever. We might imagine so, ’cause he’s holy and we suck. But Jesus took care of that. Sin is defeated. We don’t need to do anything more. We’re forgiven.

So if everyone’s forgiven, why are some people saved, and some people aren’t, even though God wants to save everyone? 1Ti 2.4 Why does God have relationships with some individuals, and not others, even though he loves the world? Jn 3.16 Why doesn’t God just drag everyone to heaven, no matter how they kick and scream?

Well it’s not, as Calvinists insist, because God doesn’t wanna save everyone, doesn’t really love everybody, and limits his forgiveness to a select few. It’s because only one thing justifies God having a relationship with us: Whether we’re gonna respond, in any way, to such a relationship. Whether we’re gonna love him back.

The apostles distilled this idea to one word: Faith. I mean, people respond to God in all sorts of ways. Pagans pick and choose what they wanna believe he’s like, and what they don’t, and as a result don’t really follow him. Unbelievers don’t even try. But if we do try—if we trust God to love us, forgive our screw-ups, make up for our deficiencies with Christ, 1Jn 2.1-3 work with us, guide us, and glorify us Ro 8.30 —and y’know, God’ll accept faith in the tiniest of servings Lk 17.6 —we’re good. It justifies God’s interactivity in our lives; it won’t be time wasted! It’ll lead to our salvation.

So God’s made faith a condition of our relationship with him. No faith, no relationship. No relationship, no kingdom. Mt 7.22-23 Kinda important.

Needlessly long and wild prayers.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 May

Don’t let people pressure you into hypocritical prayer practices.

As I’ve written previously, ain’t nothing wrong with praying short prayers.

You might remember the Lord’s Prayer is a really short prayer. I mention this to Christians and they respond, “Oh! Yeah, that’s true.” Somehow it hadn’t occurred to them. Obviously Jesus has no problem with us keeping it brief: His example showed is it’s fine with him.

Problem is, we’re not following that example. We’re following a different one—where Jesus went off places and prayed for hours. Seriously, hours. One evening he sent his students off ahead of him and climbed a hill to pray; Mt 14.22-23 by the time he caught up with them (walking across the water, but still), it was “the fourth watch of the night,” Mt 14.25 KJV meaning between 3 and 6 a.m. Even if we generously figure Jesus stopped praying and started walking two hours before the fourth watch began (so, about 1-ish), that meant he was praying from sundown till then. Easily six or seven hours.

There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be able to pray that long. But it needs to come naturally, like it does to Jesus. Can you talk six or seven hours with your best friend, or a beloved family member? Well some of us can. Others of us simply don’t talk that much, to anyone. And yet we all have this screwy idea we’ve gotta engage God in prayer marathons.

No, we’re not ready for six-hour prayers; we’re not Jesus-level prayer experts. But we figure we can at least do six minutes. Sounds reasonable, right?

Except we’re gonna attempt a six-minute prayer with two minutes’ worth of material. Two minutes of praise, thanksgiving, and requests. Followed by four minutes of repetitive, meaningless fluff. Two minutes of authenticity, four minutes of stretching things out. Two minutes of prayer, four minutes of hypocrisy.

Yes, hypocrisy. Who are we trying to impress? God? He didn’t ask us for long prayers. Others? Ourselves? Well, yeah.

When I became a theologian.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 May

Relax. “Why” is part of the story.

My pastor recently asked me what led me to go to a bible college and study theology.

It strikes a lot of people as odd that I majored in biblical and theological studies… and yet never had any plans to become a pastor nor college professor. ’Cause that’s usually why people major in that area. Or it’s not, but it’s what they naturally gravitate towards next. Whereas I went right back into journalism.

Well, journalism and theology are both searches for truth, y’know.

But generally how it happened was like this: I originally majored in journalism. Then I got sidetracked by newspaper jobs. And since the whole point of journalism school was to get newspaper jobs—and I already had newspaper jobs—I ditched school for work. Till I got downsized out of a job. Then I decided to knock out that bachelor’s degree once and for all.

By this point, I realized I didn’t need a journalism degree to get a journalism job. Half my fellow employees had no such degree: They majored in other stuff, and a lot of times they used that other stuff to help ’em be better reporters. A political science major is definitely gonna write better stories about politics, as will an economics major about business trends, or an education major about schools. You certainly don’t need a journalism degree to own or start a newspaper. Since I figured I’d taken all the relevant editing, ethics, media, and law courses, I didn’t feel like taking the others. I wanted to do journalism, not study it.

My mom asked me what I’d study if it could be anything I wished; I picked God.

For that, I figured my best bet would be a college in my denomination, the Assemblies of God. I looked into their nearest school, Bethany College (later Bethany University, which closed in 2011). The biblical studies major covered everything I wanted, so I knocked out the last general ed classes I needed to complete my A.A. in journalism, then transferred in. The journalism stuff didn’t transfer—which left me some units short, to my annoyance—so I minored in biblical languages. They come in handy.

And yeah, it confused my fellow students when they found out I had no plans to get a pastoral or teaching job. ’Cause that’s why they were studying it. What, was I there for fun?

Darn right I was there for fun. I had a blast. Really annoyed my roommates, ’cause all those years writing on deadline means papers come ridiculously easy to me. Plus I have this bad habit of remembering everything I read, so I spent way less time studying than they did, and aced tests anyway. I spent my free time turning the school newspaper from a monthly to a weekly, and writing a third of it myself. And yes, I still had a social life. And got my seven hours of sleep every night.

And after graduating, went back into journalism. Teaching came later.

Don’t be all talk.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 May

James 1.26-27.

Both the Religious Left and Religious Right suck at following the following verses:

James 1.26-27 KWL
26 If anyone who doesn’t rein in their tongue thinks they’re religious,
they’ve deluded their own mind instead. This “religion” is meaningless.
27 Genuine, untainted religion before our God and Father is this:
Supervise single mothers and their children when they’re suffering.
Keep yourself spotless in this world.

The Left focuses on caring for the needy. Rightly so. But when it comes to spotlessness, they regularly make the mistake of confusing grace with compromise, and make too many compromises. (The Right likewise confuses grace with compromise; their error is out of their fear of compromise, they practice too little grace.)

The Right focuses on spotlessness—as they define it. As they should. But when it comes to the needy, they only take care of the deserving needy, not the poor in general. Like I said, too little grace. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, Lk 4.18 but today’s poor don’t always see oncoming Christians as good news, and the lack of grace is precisely why.

Both wings need improvement. But instead of repenting and working on it, they talk. They rip apart their political opponents, ’cause they figure it’s appropriate: Those guys are doing it wrong, and need rebuking. Meanwhile, verse 27 goes half-followed. Or unfollowed.

Politics aside, this bit connects with the previous bit about behaving instead of merely believing. Of living out Jesus’s teachings, and not just listening to them, believing in them, but not changing our lives in the slightest.

Here, James described those of us who listen but never act, as all talk. Not just all talk: Too much talk. Serious diarrhea of the mouth. But in fact it’s a smokescreen for the fact we’re not really following Jesus. We’re Christianists, not Christians.

And yeah, I gotta include myself in there. I have a bad habit of ranting more than I act. I try to do it the other way round, and try to be constructive and proactive instead of griping. But I’m under no delusion—or as James put it, apatón kardían aftú/“deluded [the] heart of them,” or as I translated it, “deluded their own mind.” I’m not lying to myself about it. Jesus doesn’t want me to merely talk, but to do the good deeds the Father originally created me to do. Ep 2.10 Talking ain’t necessarily a good deed.

No it’s not. Don’t delude yourself either.

Don’t let foreknowledge weird you out about prayer!

by K.W. Leslie, 03 May

When people try to second-guess our God who knows the future, things get sticky.

FOREKNOW fɔr'noʊ verb. Be aware of an event before it happens.
[Foreknowledge fɔr'nɑl.ədʒ noun.]

God is omnipresent, meaning he exists everywhere in spacetime. There’s no place, nor time, where he’s not. Various Christians incorrectly describe God as outside time, looking down upon it all at once; they got the idea from St. Augustine, who probably got it from Plato of Athens describing his pagan gods. But that’d make God not omnipresent, because he’d be outside the universe, not everywhere within it. So that’d be wrong. Space and time are the same thing anyway: God’s inside time and fills time, same as he does space. He’s here, aware of what’s going on. And 20 years ago, still here, still aware. And 20 years from now, still here, still aware. Simultaneously.

That’s a mind-bending idea to us Christians. Even us Christians who love to watch science fiction TV and movies where they monkey with time travel for fun and adventure. ’Cause we’re time-based creatures: We only experience now, the moving present instant. And even when we’re consciously aware, paying attention to now… we actually aren’t. ’Cause in the split second of time it takes for our senses to take in the world around us, and for our brains to process it, and attach emotions and ideas and values to it… that instant is over. It’s become the past. We’re reacting to a memory. We move through time just that quick.

Whereas God didn’t move. He still sees that moment. Plus every moment we consider “now,” whenever we perceive it: The moment I write this, or the moment you read it. And all the moments before, and all the moments to come. Forever, in both directions.

God knows the future—a phenomenon St. Paul labeled προγινώσκω/proyinósko, “foreknowing,” Ro 8.29, 11.2 ’cause from our human viewpoint the future doesn’t yet exist. Because of God knowing it, a lot of us Christians take a lot of hope, and feel really confident, that everything God says about the future is guaranteed to happen. Jesus is returning. We are getting raised from the dead. All things are gonna be made new. None of this is hypothetical: God’s not making the universe’s greatest-educated guess, or talking about stuff he’s gonna almightily try to achieve. He’s speaking from experience (or to coin a word, foresperience). He foresees it, so he foreknows it. It’s real. Well, fore-real.

Thing is, on the other side of this coin is another phenomenon which I tend to call “predestination angst.” You might already experience it; you just don’t know what to call it.

Paul’s word προορίζω/prohorídzo, “foredecide” (KJV “predestinate”) is where Christians got the idea of predestination—that God hasn’t just foreseen stuff, but fore-decided stuff. Like whether you’re getting into his kingdom or not. God’s not waiting for the future to happen first, nor for you to decide something before he responds to it. Why should an unlimited God need to? He’s acting now. Or he might’ve acted already.

Fr’instance: You’re not sure you’re gonna make your car payment; you pray really hard; you get an unexpected check in the mail which means you can make your car payment. Hallelujah. But when did God start answering your prayer? When you prayed? Well he can’t have: That check had to get printed and mailed, so these events started in motion days ago. Which means God answered today’s prayer days ago. He foreknew your prayer, foredecided what to do about it, and foreacted upon it. Mind bent yet?

True, some Christians only talk about predestination when we’re talking about God choosing our eternal destinations. I’m not talking about that today. I foresee another time for that. (Well, not like God foresees: I’m predicting. He’s seeing.)

But the angst—that feeling of dread or anxiety we can’t put a finger on—comes from our worry that because God foresees, foreknows, and foreacts… exactly why do we need to pray? God already knows what we need before we ask it. Jesus even said so. Mt 6.8 So… do we even need to pray? Hasn’t God already made up his mind? What’s the point?

And so our budding little existentialists sit down and despair, and stop praying.

If that’s what you’re doing, cut it out. Pray.

Simony: Christians who wanna make a buck off you.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 May

Shades of Elmer Gantry.

Simony /'s(a)ɪ.mə.ni/ n. The buying or selling of religious things which are meant to be given freely, or given only to qualified individuals.
[Simoniac /saɪ.mə'naɪ.ək/ adj., n.]

One of my bigger pet peeves are churches who forget a significant part of our job as Christians is to preach good news to the poor. Mt 11.5, Lk 4.18, 7.22 They kinda forget they even have poor among ’em. Consequently the poor find church a surprisingly expensive place to go.

Certain churches don’t want you in their Sunday services unless you’re in your “Sunday best.” I’ve actually heard a preacher justify this idea by pointing to Jesus’s story where a king throws out a guest for not wearing his wedding clothes. Mt 22.11-14 He figures Jesus is the king, and you better show up for his church in your Sunday best. Can’t afford the clothes? Try the thrift stores. Keep looking till someone finally donates a suit or dress in your size. ’Cause the people of the church won’t offer you any help, and people never think to ask; they just assume they’re not welcome there. Which ain’t far wrong.

Once you can finally dress for church, you’ll find many churches have hundreds of activities—but nearly all of them have a fee. It’s $100 to go to the men’s retreat. It’s $50 to register for the women’s conference. It’s $40 per couple for the couples’ dinner. Childcare’s an extra $5. There’s a six-week class on spiritual gifts, and the book is $18.95. There’s an out-of-town speaker, and people from the church will carpool to hear him, but gasoline and parking will be about $10, and afterward they expect to have dinner at a nice restaurant, which’ll set you back another $15.

And I haven’t even touched on simony yet. Now I shall.

There’s a growing trend in revivalist churches: They wanna open a school. Nothing wrong with that; a lot of great Christian colleges began as revivalist schools. (I graduated from one.) Now, if we’re talking a regionally accredited school, with educated faculty, transferrable units, and recognized degrees, that’d be one thing. We’re not. We’re talking about Sunday morning bible studies, now taught five days a week, and now people have to pay $1,000 or more to attend. Same variable content and quality as those conference speakers I just mentioned. I once visited such a school and sat in on such a class: It’s basic information which every church should teach every Sunday. But at this church, they have no Sunday morning classes. All their classes are behind a paywall.

Bigger churches tend to have midweek services, like on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights, to supplement the Sunday morning services, or accommodate people who couldn’t make ’em. One large church in my area put them behind a paywall too. Now they hold regular conferences: One of their pastors, or some visiting speaker, picks a topic, speaks two evenings plus Sunday morning, and the church charges $50 or more for the evening meetings. For some speakers, this (plus pushing their books) is their bread and butter. Content varies. Some of it’s actually good. Others are clearly winging it, and quote scripture out of context more often than not.