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Resolutions: Our little stabs at self-control.

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Speaking for myself, I’m not into new year’s resolutions.Because I make resolutions the year round. When I see changes I need to make in my life, I get to work on ’em right away. I don’t procrastinate till 1 January. (Though I may procrastinate just the same.)Here’s the problem with stockpiling all our lifestyle changes till the new year: Come 1 January, we wind up with a vast pile of changes to make. It’s hard enough to make one change; now you have five. Or 50, depending on how much of a trainwreck you are. Multiplying your resolutions, multiplies your difficulty level.But hey, it’s an American custom. So at the year’s end a lot of folks, Christians included, begin to think about what we’d like to change about our lives.Not that we want to change. Some of us don’t! But it’s New Year’s resolution time, and everyone’s asking what our resolutions are, and some of us might grudgingly try to come up with something. What should we change? Too many carbohydrates? Not enough exercise? Too m…

Read the bible in a month. Yes, seriously. A month.

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January’s coming. With it, a lot of people make new-year resolutions. “This year’s gonna be different, ’cause this year I’m gonna do [bucket-list item].” Some of these goals are realistic. Some not.One of the more common goals Christians have is to read through the entire bible, Genesis to maps. (That’s an old Evangelical joke. ’Cause a lot of study bibles include maps in the back. Okay, it’s less amusing once I explain it.) We should read the whole bible. So Christians get on some kind of bible-reading plan to make sure we methodically go through every book, chapter, and verse. ’Cause when we don’t, we wind up reading only the familiar bits, over and over and over again—and miss a lot of the parts we should read. The reason so many Christians misinterpret the New Testament is because they know so very little of its Old Testament context. Every time I quote just a little bit of the Law to explain Jesus’s teachings, way too many people respond, “I’ve never heard that before.” Sadly, I …

St. Stephen, and true martyrdom.

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St. Stephen’s Day falls on 26 December, the second day of Christmas. Not that we know Stephen died on this day; it’s just where western tradition happened to put it. In eastern churches it’s tomorrow, 27 December. (And if they’re still using the old Julian calendar, it’s 9 January to us.) In some countries it’s an official holiday.You may remember Στέφανος/Stéfanos “Stephen” from Acts 6-7. Yep, he’s that St. Stephen.In the ancient Hebrew culture, tithes weren’t money, but food. Every year you took 10 percent of your firstfruits and celebrated with it; Dt 14.22-27 every third year you gave it to the needy. Dt 14.28-29 Apparently the first Christians took on the duty of distributing tithes to the needy. But they were accused of favoring Aramaic-speaking Christians over Greek-speaking ones. Ac 6.1 So the Twelve had the church elect seven Greek-speakers to take over the job. Ac 6.2-3 Stephen was first in this list, and Acts’ author Luke pointedly called him full of faith and the Holy Spir…

Twelve days of Christmas.

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Today’s the first day of Christmas. Happy Christmas!And there are 11 more days of it. Tomorrow, which is also Boxing Day and St. Stephen’s Day, tends to get called “the day after Christmas,” but it’s not. It’s the second day of Christmas.The Sunday after Christmas (and in many years, including 2020, two Sundays after Christmas) is still Christmas. So I go to church and wish people a happy Christmas. And they look at me funny, till I remind them, “Christmas is 12 days, y’know. Like the song.”Ah, the song. They sing it, but it never clicks what they’re singing about.On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to meA partridge in a pear tree.On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to meTwo turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree.On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to meThree french hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree.On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to meFour calling birds, three french hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge i…

Amen!

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AMENɑ.mɛn, eɪ.mɛnexclamation. Utterance of support or agreement.Amen probably comes from the Hebrew verb אָמַן/amán, “to support, assure, trust.” Sorta the Hebrews’ way of replying, “True.” For the most part, we Christians use amen as a way to end our prayers. Like when you say “goodbye” on a phone conversation, or “over and out” on a radio conversation. My childhood Sunday school teachers even described it as “hanging up.”Custom is, we gotta finish our prayers with amen. Or the popular incantation “In Jesus Name amen.” Or, if you want everyone else in the room to say amen along with you: “And all God’s people said…” (or “the church said,” or “we all said”) at which everyone was conditioned to reply, “Amen.” Sometimes the three-syllable “A-a-men.”As you know, some Christian customs are more than just traditions: We gotta do them. They’re virtually commands. If you don’t end a prayer with amen, it confuses people. Wanna really throw off your prayer group? Next time you lead prayer, don’…

One who brings justice to the gentiles.

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Isaiah 42.1-4, Matthew 12.14-20.After Jesus cured the man with the paralyzed hand, this happened.Matthew 12.14-20 KWL14 Going out, the Pharisees took a meeting about this—so they could have Jesus destroyed.15 Jesus, who knew this, left there, and a great crowd followed him; he had cured them all.16Jesus had rebuked them, lest they reveal what he might do17 so that he might fulfill the word from the prophet Isaiah, saying,18“Look at my servant whom I chose, my beloved. My soul approves of him.I put my Spirit in him, and he’ll bring justice to the gentiles.19He won’t struggle or cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.20He won’t split a broken reed, won’t extinguish smoking linen, till he can issue justice in victory.21Gentiles will put their hope in his name.”Is 42.1-4Since Matthew quotes Isaiah and says Jesus fulfilled it, Christians presume this particular part of Isaiah is a messianic prophecy; that it’s specifically about Jesus. I may as well translate it too, instea…

Before you go book shopping…

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This Christmas, some of you are getting gift cards or gift certificates. I regularly get Starbucks cards—which is great, ’cause that’s exactly what I want. I’ll definitely use ’em. Yes, I’m at Starbucks as I write this.Anyway, some of these gift cards will be for bookstores. Maybe Amazon, maybe not. And as Christians who wanna get religious about our relationships with Jesus, some of us are likely thinking of buying Christian books and resources, and stuff that’ll help us get better at Christianity. I know I do.And, when I was newly devout, I wasted a bunch of money on stuff that really didn’t do any of those things. Likely so will you. We all do. Our zealousness overtakes our wallets. But hold on there, little buckaroo: Don’t get all fired up to ride off an’ lasso some steer, ’cause you might just wind up with some bull.If you go to a brick ’n mortar Christian bookstore, first thing you’re gonna notice is they sell an awful lot of “Jesus junk.” And bibles; most of their money comes f…

The Holy Spirit and the supernatural.

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1 Corinthians 12.1-7.SUPERNATURALsu.pər'nætʃ(.ə).rəlnoun. Event caused by (or credited to) some force beyond scientific understanding, beyond natural laws.If you wanna get technical, whenever anyone interferes with the natural course of events, it’s more-than-natural; it’s super-natural.Fr’instance if I put plastic pink flamingos in the front yard. They aren’t the product of Mommy plastic flamingo and Daddy plastic flamingo loving one another very much, and giving one another a special kind of “hug.” Nor did they sprout up from the ground like mutant orchids. Somebody—really a whole bunch of somebodies—drilled for petroleum, extracted the plastic, colored it pink, molded it into a flamingo shape, lost all sense of what’s appropriate for lawn ornaments, bought them, and placed them there. Didn’t happen naturally. But we tend to call this behavior unnatural, not supernatural.Typically we save the term “supernatural” for stuff which apparently wasn’t done by humans. If a flying sauce…

The seven deadly sins.

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The “seven deadly sins” confuse a lot of people.Back in 2008, a rumor spread that the Vatican declared more deadly sins. It came from an interview with Gianfranco Girotti, the head bishop of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary. (I know; this sounds like the Vatican prison. It’s actually the theologians who handle questions about sin, repentance, and forgiveness.) Anyway, in Girotti’s interview with L’Osservatore Romano on 7 March 2008, he listed certain present-day practices which he believed have a harmful global impact: Pollution, drug trafficking, embryo-destroying research, other unethical human experiments, abortion, pedophilia, and economic injustice.Somehow the press converted this into “The Vatican announced there are new sins!” And since your average reporter (lapsed Catholics included) know bupkis about the seven deadly sins, they just assumed there are now 14 deadly sins. Now littering is gonna send you to hell.Like I said, they confuse people.Most people figure they’re a …

Fasting on the feast days.

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Christian holidays are also known as feast days. The term comes from the bible, ’cause that’s how the LORD described the holidays he instituted for the Hebrews: “Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto me in the year,” Ex 23.14 KJV namely Passover, Pentecost, and Tents. Christians turned Passover into Easter, added Christmas, usually downplay Pentecost, and usually skip Tents… but otherwise yeah, on Christian holidays we tend to do a bit of feasting. (And on St. Patrick’s Day, drinking.)Thing is, Evangelicals regularly forget Christmas is 12 days long. Our secular culture thinks it’s one day—beginning and ending on 25 December. If the decorations stay up till New Year’s Day, it’s only because you personally struggle to let go of things. Give it up; take ’em down. Hey, the stores are already getting ready for Valentine’s Day.In reality Christmas continues till Epiphany. But because Evangelicals follow the culture, and tend to dismiss ancient custom as “Catholic,” they figure Christmas…

Our suffering servant.

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Isaiah 53.Mixed in with all the Messianic prophecies about a king who’d restore Israel, conquer the world, and set aright everything gone wrong, there are also prophecies about a suffering servant who’d get crushed.We Christians likewise recognize these prophecies to be about Jesus. But people only realized it after the fact. Before Jesus went through his suffering, Pharisees believed these prophecies can’t be about Messiah. He’s gonna conquer the world! It’s gonna be an easy victory, achieved through the Almighty’s power. Suffering and death? Has to be some other guy.Y’might recall as soon as Jesus brought up the very idea this suffering servant was him, his best student Simon Peter recoiled. “This will never happen to you,” was his rebuke. Mt 16.22 Human nature being what it is, we pick and choose the bible passages we like, skip the rest… and consequently miss most of the story. ’Cause the parts we avoid are frequently the really important parts. Jesus’s death saves the world just …

Why do pagans celebrate a Christian holiday?

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Every year, on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, my city has a Christmas festival. The local newspaper started it and sponsors it.I like to joke it begins with the pagan stuff. Once the sun is mostly down (and this time of year it sets around 4:45 PM) the community gathers round the 60-foot tree, the local Air Force band plays a few songs, the mayor says a few things, the people are led in a few secular carols about jingle bells, silver bells, reindeer, and Santa Claus. Who makes an appearance, and the tree gets lit.That done, the city’s Christians take over. Downtown is full of tent-canopied booths, nearly all of ’em set up by local churches. We give out cookies, cocoa, cider, and other treats. Our choirs sing. Open-air Christmas pageants are performed. The churches handle cleanup too.“What’s with all the Christians?” a friend commented years ago. “It’s our holiday,” I reminded him.I find it a pretty drastic contrast. My family does too. Most years they skip the newspaper’s opening fes…

The Son who was given us.

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Isaiah 9.6-7.Isaiah ben Amoch (KJV “Amoz”) was a prophet all his life. His book contains prophecies spanning the 60-plus years of his ministry in the second half of the 700s BC. And it was during this time, in 722, that the Assyrian Empire conquered and scattered northern Israel.Isaiah lived in southern Israel, also called Judah or Judea. The Judeans worried greatly about the threat of Assyrian invasion. A number of Judeans were convinced the LORD would never let any dirty foreigners conquer their great land; after all, God’s temple was there, and he’d never let ’em destroy his temple. And a number recognized, same as Isaiah, their covenant with God dictated he’d totally let the land get taken if his people defied him. If you didn’t believe this, just look at what happened to northern Israel.But even when we think the End has come, that everything’s been destroyed and is over and done with, God knows better. He had Isaiah say this to all Israelis—both the defeated, discouraged norther…

When God became human.

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INCARNATE'ɪn.kɑrn.eɪtverb. Put an immaterial thing (i.e. an abstract concept or idea) into a concrete form.2. Put a deity or spirit into a human form, i.e. Hindu gods.3.ɪn'kɑr.nətadjective. Embodied in flesh, or concrete form.[Incarnation ɪn.kɑr'neɪ.ʃənnoun, reincarnation 're.ɪn.kɑr.neɪ.ʃənnoun.]Most of our Christian theology lingo tends to come from Greek and Latin. This one too. Why? Because they sound much more formal and sanctimonious than plain English. When you literally translate ’em from Greek and Latin, they make people flinch. Incarnate is one of those words: In-carnátio is Latin for “put into meat.”Yep, put into meat. Nope, it’s not a mistranslation. It’s an accurate description of what happened to Jesus. The word of God—meaning God—became flesh. Meat.John 1.14 KWLThe word was made flesh. He encamped with us. We got a good look at his significance—the significance of a father’s only son—filled with grace and truth.Not temporarily; not for just the few decade…

Hallelujah!

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Hallelujah is actually two Hebrew words. הַ֥לְלוּ/hallelú, the command “All of you, praise!” (KJV “praise ye”), and יָ֨הּ/Yah (KJV “Jah”), short for יְ֭הוָה/YHWH, “Jehovah, the LORD.” When we say hallelujah, or its Greek variant ἀλληλούϊα/allilúia (Latin and KJV “Alleluia”), we’re literally saying, “Praise the LORD,” which is why many bibles translate it that way.There are certain Jews who insist the -jah ending of the word absolutely does not refer to YHWH. That’s because they consider God’s name far too holy to say aloud. (Certainly too holy to abbreviate with some nickname like Yah!) But they wanna say hallelujah, and don’t wanna replace it with “hallelu-Adonai” or “hallelu-haShem” or one of their other euphemisms they use, like the Christian substitution “the LORD.” So they claim Jah means something else, like “yea!” Which is kinda ridiculous, considering all the Hebrew personal names which deliberately end in -iah or -jah, such as Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Nehemiah. These names…

Plucking Jesus’s beard. Or not.

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Isaiah 50.6.Jesus fulfills a lot of Old Testament scriptures, and this advent I wanna look at the ones he particularly fulfilled from Isaiah.Some of them explicitly refer to Jesus, ’cause a future Messiah, a savior, a suffering servant, a King of kings, is precisely who Isaiah was writing about. But some of ’em actually aren’t about Jesus. They’re either about humanity in general, Israelis in general, or even Isaiah himself. But because the same or similar events happened to Jesus, he fulfilled them. His experiences fleshes out these verses. That’s what fulfillment in the bible actually means: Not that Jesus did as predicted, but that Jesus reflects these ideas better, sometimes, than the original ideas.So today’s passage is one of those reflections. It’s not about Jesus; it’s explicitly about Isaiah himself. About how, as a prophet, he gets crapped on.Isaiah 50.4-9 KWL4 The LORD my Master gave me an educated tongue so I might know to say a timely word to the weary.He wakes me every m…

St. Nicholas’s Day. (Yep, it’s this early in the month.)

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Whenever kids ask me whether Santa Claus is real, I’ll point out he is based on an actual guy. That’d be Nikólaos of Myra, whose feast day is today, 6 December, in honor of his death on this date in the year 343.Here’s the problem: There are a whole lot of myths mixed up with Nicholas’s life. And I’m not just talking about the Santa Claus stories, whether they come from Clement Moore’s poem, L. Frank Baum’s children’s books, the Rankin-Bass animated specials, or the various movies which play with the Santa story. Christians have been making up stories about Nicholas forever.That’s why it gets a little frustrating when people ask about the facts behind St. Nicholas: We’re not sure we do have facts behind St. Nicholas. All we do know with any certainty is he was the bishop of Myra. The other stories: We honestly have no idea what parts of them are true, and what parts are exaggerations—or full-on fabrications. It could be all fiction.But I’ll share what we’ve got, and you can take it fr…