Showing posts from April, 2019

Formal prayer: How to get distant with God.

Let’s get right to it: The purpose of formality is distance. It’s to measure off a “proper,” unapproachable space between you and the person you’re being solemn with. Because decorum considers closeness and informality to be inappropriate.I know; a lot of people insist that’s not at all why they’re formal with God. They do it out of respect. Like the way you respect your boss, a judge, an important official, royalty, or even your parents: You show your respect by treating ’em formally.Well that’s rubbish. And parents are a perfect example of why it’s rubbish. I respect my mom—and I don’t treat her formally at all. If I did, she’d think I was angry with her for some reason. Because again: Formality is about distance. People who treat their parents formally are not close with them. And parents who raise their kids to treat them formally, who demand decorum from them because they feel it means respect, always wind up with emotionally distant kids. Sometimes they wonder why they aren’t cl…

Goodness, and lawless Christians.

If you know Jesus—really and truly know Jesus, not just know of him—you’re gonna want to follow him. You’re gonna want to do as he teaches, and actually try to obey his commands instead of shrugging them off with, “Well, they’re nice ideals, but they’re not gonna be practical.” You’re gonna want to be good.Goodness is a fruit of the Spirit. A rather obvious one: God is good, so shouldn’t those who have the Holy Spirit in us be likewise good? Shouldn’t he encourage us to be good, empower us to do good deeds, be gracious to us when we drop the ball and help us return to goodness? Shouldn’t he point us in the direction of sanctification, of living holy lives, unique from the rest of the world—where goodness is a huge factor in why we’re unique?Likewise if you don’t wanna be good, not only do you lack the Spirit’s fruit: You’re probably not even Christian. And yes, bluntly saying so has a tendency to really offend people: “Goodness doesn’t make you Christian! That’s legalism. How could yo…

Jesus takes out the Law’s curse.

Galatians 3.10-20.So the legalists among the Galatians (and legalists today) thought of the Law as how we get right with God: We obey his commands, and because we’ve racked up all that good karma, we’re righteous and God owes us heaven. Problem is, God works by grace, and if we were hoping to be justified by merit, the Law indicates we have no such merit. We’ve broken the Law repeatedly. We got nothing. We’re cursed.But we weren’t meant to be righteous by obeying the Law. Righteousness comes through faith in God. Through trusting Jesus’s self-sacrifice. Through the good news that God’s kingdom has come near.God promised Abraham he’d bless the world—both Abraham’s “seed,” his descendants; and the gentiles, all the non-Hebrews not descended from Abraham—through Abraham. Ge 12.3, 18.18, 22.18, Ga 3.8Pharisees presumed God’s 613 commandments was this blessing: If only the world would follow the Law, they could be blessed! But Paul recognized this makes no logical sense. Because Abraham wa…

God doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios.

Back in seminary my theology professor introduced us to the concept of the tragic moral choice. Ancient Greek playwrights invented it for their tragedies: One god ordered the hero to do one thing, and another god ordered him to do the opposite. Obeying one god meant sinning against the other god. And like us, the ancient Greeks recognized sin has dire consequences… and wanna bet their plays would show the consequences?Now, we Christians don’t have multiple gods with conflicting wills. We only have the One God. Yes he’s in three persons, but all three one the same thing, so God’s not the problem. We are. We sin, and we live in a sin-plagued world.So in the Christian version of the tragic moral choice, we’re thrust into a scenario where all the possible outcomes are gonna be bad. The only choices we make are gonna be sinful ones. We can’t win. That’s just the world we live in.Fr’instance. Say it’s World War 2 and you’re hiding Jews from the Nazis. Suddenly the Nazis come knocking. What …

Courtship: Dating… but no sex.

A favorite term of Christians who don’t wanna use the D-word.Years ago I worked at a Christian camp. For the summer program we’d hire college students to be counselors. Some of them grew up Christian; some of them had only been Christian a short time; some of them had only claimed to be Christian on their applications, but didn’t know Jesus from Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Actually they may have known a lot more about Obi-Wan than Jesus.)Once, while hanging out, one of the longtime Christians mentioned her brother was “courting” a certain girl. The Christian newbie in our group got a confused look on her face—she wasn’t familiar with the term.“Courting,” I explained, “is dating. But no sex.”The newbie nodded, understandingly. Some of the group grinned.The girl who introduced the term “courting” objected.SHE. “That’s not what it means.”HE. “Does he bring chaperones to the dates?”SHE. “No…”HE. “No kissing? No hand-holding? No touching of any kind?”SHE. “No.”HE. “They go off and do things together,…

Quit praying to Satan!

There’s an traditional African folk song called “What a Mighty God We Serve.” If you grew up Christian, maybe you heard it in Sunday school. Sometimes adults sing it too. Goes like so.What a mighty God we serveWhat a mighty God we serveAngels bow before himHeaven and earth adore himWhat a mighty God we serveYears later I found out it had some more lyrics—words my children’s and youth pastors never bothered to have us sing. Maybe you can guess why.I command you Satan in the name of the LordTo take up your weapons and fleeFor the Lord has given me authorityTo walk all over theeThere are variations. There’s “put down your weapons” in the second line (which makes way more sense); there’s “stomp all over thee” in the fourth, along with stomping movements.Anyway. Lots of churches tend to give these lines a miss, so lots of Christians aren’t aware of ’em. I particularly remember one summer youth camp: The pastor got all the kids to sing along with the first part, but when she broke into the …

Who gets to define what heresy is?

Not me. Nor you. It was defined long ago.HERESY'hɛr.ə.sinoun. Belief or opinion contrary to Christian orthodoxy.[Heretic 'hɛr.ə.tɪkadjective, heretical hə'rɛd.ə.kəladjective.]I’m involved in a discussion group or two. In one of them, the subject of Darbyism came up: One of the group members is Darbyist, and wanted a shout-out from all the other Darbyists in the group. Turns out a lot of us aren’t Darbyist at all, and some of us started to condemn Darbyism as faithless and unbiblical. (’Cause it is.) Not that this moved the Darbyist any; everyone in his church believes in that crap, so he’s entirely sure he’s in the right. But I’m pretty sure he was surprised, if not horrified, at the backlash.Especially once a newbie to the group decided to pitch in his two cents—and declare Darbyism is heresy.Now there, he went too far. And got a little backlash himself; some of it from the very same folks who take issue with Darbyism. ’Cause that belief system is wrong, but we don’t go t…


Or “Resurrection Sunday,” for those who are paranoid about what “Easter” might mean.On 5 April 33, before the sun rose at 5:23 a.m. in Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. Executed only two days before, he became the first human on earth to be resurrected.Jesus died the day before Passover. This was deliberate. This way his death would fulfill many of the Passover rituals. Because of this relationship to Passover, many Christians actually call this day some variation of the Hebrew פֶּסַח/Pesákh, “Passover.” In Greek and Latin (and Russian), it’s Pascha; in Danish Påske, Dutch Pasen, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Swedish Påsk.But in many Germanic-speaking countries, including English, we use the ancient pagan word for April, Eostur. In German this becomes Ostern; in English Easter.Because of the pagan origins of the word, certain Christians avoid it and just call the day “Resurrection Sunday.” (Which is fine, but confuses non-Christians.)Easter is our most …

Jesus is put in his sepulcher.

Descending, as it were, to the grave.Mark 15.42-47 • Matthew 27.57-61 • Luke 23.50-56 • John 19.38-42.On the afternoon of Good Friday, after a flogging and crucifixion, Jesus died. Roman custom was to just leave the corpse on the cross for the birds to pick at, but Jewish custom was to bury people immediately. On the very same day they died, if possible. And since the next day was Sabbath—and in the year 33, also Passover—they especially needed to get everybody off the crosses and buried posthaste.Now in previous generations, “buried” means buried: Dig a hole in the ground deep enough for animals to not get at the corpse, put the body in, fill the hole back in. In Jesus’s day, Jewish custom had changed. Now what they did was wrap the body in moist linen strips, and put it on a stone slab in a sepulcher. This way the body would rot quickly—and after a year or so, there’d be nothing left but bones, which were then collected and put into an ossuary. (They figured in the resurrection, all…

“My God, why have you forsaken me?”

The heretic idea the Father abandoned the Son.Mark 15.33-36 • Matthew 27.45-49.Before he died, Jesus shouted out something in a language his bystanders didn’t recognize. And a lot of present-day commentators don’t recognize it either. We know it was Psalm 22.1, but some of us say Jesus quoted it in Aramaic; some say Hebrew. Which was it?The reason for the confusion is that Mark and Matthew don’t match. Both of ’em recorded Jesus’s words as best they could—but they did so in the Greek alphabet, which doesn’t correspond neatly to Hebrew and Aramaic sounds. So here’s what we got. (And if your web browser reads Unicode, you might actually see the original-language characters.)VERSEORIGINALTRANSLITERATIONPs 22.1, Hebrewאֵלִ֣י אֵלִ֣י לָמָ֣העֲזַבְתָּ֑נִיElí Elí, lamá azavettáni?Ps 22.1, Aramaic (Syriac) ܐܠܗ ܐܠܗܝ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢ Elahí Elahí, lamaná šavaqtaní?Mk 15.34, Greekἐλωΐ ἐλωΐ, λεμᾶσαβαχθανί;Elo’í Elo’í, lemá savahthaní?
(or σαβακτανεί/savaktaneí in the Codex Sinaiticus.)Mt 27.46, Greekἠλί ἠλί…

When Jesus made John responsible for his mother.

And why not any of his siblings.John 19.25-27.Only John has this story. Which has caused no end of speculation about Jesus’s family situation.John 19.25-27 KWL25 Standing by Jesus’s cross were his mother, his mother’s sister Salomé,Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary the Magdalene.26 So Jesus, seeing his mother and the student he loved standing by,told his mother, “Ma’am, look: Your son.”27 Then Jesus told the student, “Look: Your mother.”From that hour on, Jesus’s student took her as his own.John’s list of the women who watched Jesus die is the same as the other gospels, with the addition of Jesus’s mom and himself. He never referred to Jesus’s mom as “Mary,” because he was trying to refer to as few Marys as possible, so as not to confuse everybody with how common the name “Mary” was. (Same as his own name; notice in his gospel the only “John” in it is John the baptist.)Anyway. All these people at the cross, save Mary the Magdalene, were family. Salomé was Mary the Nazarene’s sister; Mary …

The “unbelieving” thief.

When one of the guys crucified with him, threw in his lot with him.Mark 15.27, 32 • Matthew 27.38, 44 • Luke 23.32-33, 39.Okay. Did the believing thief, now the unbelieving thief.The gospels state two thieves were crucified with Jesus—Mark 15.27 KWLThey crucified two thieves with Jesus: One on the right, one at his left.Matthew 27.38 KWL38 Then two thieves were crucified with Jesus, one at right and one at left.Luke 23.32-33 KWL32 They brought two others with Jesus, evildoers to be done away with.33 When they came to the place called Skull, there they crucified Jesus and the evildoers,who were at right and at left.—but they never did identify them, so Christian tradition named ’em Dismas and Gesmas. Never did say which one was on the right, and which was on the left. All we know was at first, both were railing at Jesus—Mark 15.32 KWL“Messiah, king of Israel, has to come down from the cross now, so we can see and believe him.”And those crucified with Jesus insulted him.Matthew 27.44 KW…

Jesus comforts the believing thief.

When one of the guys crucified with him, threw in his lot with him.Mark 15.27, 32 • Matthew 27.38, 44 • Luke 23.32-33, 39-43.Jesus was crucified at about “the third hour [after sunrise],” Mk 15.25 and died at the ninth. Mk 15.34-37 Sunrise on 3 April 33, in that latitude (and before daylight-saving time was implemented), is at 5:24 AM. But “third hour” and “ninth hour” are hardly exact times; figure roughly from 8:30 AM to 2:30 PM he was on that cross. Six hours, slowly suffocating.His cross was in between that of two evildoers Lk 23.33 or thieves. Mk 15.27 Christians like to imagine these guys were worse, like insurrectionists, or highwaymen who murdered their victims. ’Cause karma: If you’re getting crucified, it’d better be for murder or something just as awful. One of these guys implied they were getting their just desserts, Lk 23.41 so shouldn’t that make ’em murderers? Death by crucifixion sounds like way too extreme a penalty for mere thieves.But we have to remember we’re deali…

Holy Week: When Jesus died.

Our yearly remembrance of Jesus’s death.Sunday is Palm Sunday, the start of what we Christians call Holy Week. It’s also called Great Week, Greater Week, Holy and Great Week, Passion Week, Easter Week (by those people who consider Easter the end of the week), and various other titles. It remembers the week Jesus died.It took place 9–17 Nisan 3793 in the Hebrew calendar; and in the Julian calendar that’d be 29 March to 4 April of the year 33.DAYDATEJESUS’S ACTIVITYPALM SUNDAY.9 Nisan 3793
29 March 33Jesus entered Jerusalem; the crowds said Hosanna. Mk 11.1-11, Mt 21.1-11, Lk 19.28-44, Jn 12.12-19HOLY MONDAY.10 Nisan 3793
30 March 33Cleansing the temple of the merchants; cursing the fig tree. Mk 11.12-18, Mt 21.12-19, Lk 19.45-46, Jn 2.13-17HOLY TUESDAY.11 Nisan 3793
31 March 33Jesus taught in temple. Lk 19.47-48, 21.37HOLY WEDNESDAY.12 Nisan 3793
1 April 33Still teaching in temple.MAUNDY THURSDAY.13 Nisan 3793
2 April 33The last supper; Jesus washes his students’ feet. Mk 14.12-26,…

The women who watched Jesus die.

His male students had run away, but his female students stood by him. Typical.Mark 15.40-41, Matthew 27.55-56, Luke 23.49, John 19.25.Various Christians like to point out, “There were actually two groups of people following Jesus: There were the disciples, and there were the women.” Though y’notice they seldom bring up the women till we get to one of the stories in the gospels about the women.With some due respect to these Christians, there were not two groups following Jesus; there was one. His students. The people who supported him, served him, and listened to his teachings. The Twelve were a special group of students whom Jesus singled out, and of course there were plenty of students who didn’t stick around after Jesus taught something too hardcore for them. But everyone who followed him, he considered a student. That includes the women.Yes, history describes Pharisee rabbis as only instructing young men—and I remind you in Jesus’s culture you were “a man” at age 13, which is why I…

Churches who wanna “restore” Christianity.

RESTORATIONISTrɛs.tə'reɪ.ʃən.ɪstadjective. Wants to return Christianity to what they consider the beliefs and practices of the earliest Christians.[Restorationism rɛs.tə'reɪ.ʃən.ɪz.əmnoun.]Humans really like to reboot things. Not just Spider-Man movies; there are lots of things we figure have broken, got too complicated, or run down; so maybe it’d be best if we take ’em back to the drawing board and start over. Maybe we can improve upon the original. Or maybe the original was best, so let’s go back to that.And Christians keep trying to do it with Christianity. We look at all the traditions our culture has layered upon the church and think, “Well that’s not what the ancient Christians taught… and maybe we should never have taught that to begin with.” We wanna get back to basics. Reset the religion to its factory settings, like a phone—where it worked just fine until we started adding all these “useful” apps which just gummed things up.So every so often, Christians will start a …

Nope, Jesus didn’t sweat blood.

It’s a misinterpretation of the verse… and Luke didn’t write the verse anyway.Luke 22.44.Before his arrest, Jesus went to Gethsemane and spent some time in intense prayer. ’Cause he didn’t wanna get beaten and tortured to death. Who would?Certain preachers love to point out that Jesus was so incredibly stressed out by his soon-coming passion, he was sweating blood:Luke 22.44 ESVAnd being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.Turns out this is an actual medical condition. It’s called hematidrosis (from the Greek for “bloody sweat”) or hematohidrosis (“bloody water”). It’s rare, but possible. Blood vessels under your skin break from the stress, and blood comes out your pores. It looks creepy. But not a lot of blood comes out of you this way, so it’s largely harmless. Might cause a little dehydration, so drink some Gatorade; you’ll be fine.Preachers find this fascinating. And they love to point out how Luke, the tradi…

Synoptic gospels: The three gospels which sync up.

In other words, all the gospels but John.SYNOPTICSsə'nɑp.tɪksplural noun. The synoptic gospels.SYNOPTIC GOSPELSsə'nɑp.tɪk 'ɡɑs.pəlsplural noun. The gospels which show a great deal of similarity in stories, wording, structure, order, viewpoint, and purpose. Namely Mark, Matthew, and Luke.You’ll notice in my articles on Jesus’s teachings I often line up the different gospels in columns. ’Cause they’re telling the same story, but in slightly different ways. But even so, they sync up rather well. The phenomenon is pretty well described by the Greek word σύνοψις/synopsis, “see with [one another],” so three of the gospels get called synoptic.John is an obvious exception. I can sync it up from time to time, but nowhere near as well. Its author was clearly telling his own stories.There’s a rather obvious explanation for why the synoptics line up: Mark was written first. The authors of Matthew and Luke simply quoted Mark as they put together their own gospels. Sometimes they quoted…

Jesus prays at Gethsemane.

Jesus’s passion begins with the place he prayed for this cup to pass.Mark 14.32-41 • Matthew 26.36-45 • Luke 22.39-46 • John 18.1.The first of St. Francis’s stations of the cross was when Jesus was given his cross. (Duh.) But Jesus’s suffering began earlier that day, so St. John Paul’s list also began earlier—with Gethsemane, the olive garden on Mt. Olivet, where Jesus prayed he might not go through the crucifixion.In fact he was so agitated at the idea, he sweat blood. Something The Passion of the Christ left out—but to be fair it isa textual variant, possibly added to Luke in the second century. But let’s get to how the gospels depicted it. First the synoptic gospels—Mark 14.32-41 KWL32 They went to a place named Gat Semaním/“oil press,”and Jesus told his students, “Sit here while I pray.”33Jesus took Simon Peter, James, and John with him—and began to panic and freak out. 34 Jesus told them, “My soul is deathly sad. Stay here. Stay awake.”35 He went a little ahead, fell to the groun…

Stations of the cross: Remembering Christ’s suffering.

One of the ways we remember, and appreciate, Jesus’s death.In Jerusalem, Israel, Christians remember Jesus’s death by actually going down the route he traveled the day he died. It’s called the Way of Jesus, the Way of Sorrows (Latin, Via Dolorosa), or the Way of the Cross (Via Cručis). When I visited Jerusalem, it’s part of the tour package: Loads of us Christians go this route every single day, observing all the places Jesus is said to have suffered. Really solemn, moving stuff.But most of us Christians don’t live in or near Jerusalem, and some of us can’t possibly go there. For this reason St. Francis of Assisi invented “the stations of the cross.” In his church building, he set up seven different dioramas. Each represented an event which happened as Jesus was led to his death. The people of his church would go to each diorama—each station—and meditate on what Jesus did for us all.Yeah, this is a Catholic thing, ’cause Francis was Roman Catholic. But it’s not exclusively Catholic: M…

The Fear.

Seems appropriate for the day before Halloween to talk about the Fear.The main reason why Christians don’t act in faith?Why we won’t share Jesus with our neighbors and coworkers? Why we don’t pray for people to be cured of illnesses, freed from addictions, rescued from troubles? Why we never even think to ask God for miracles? Why we don’t prophesy, even though we’re sure God is talking to us right this instant? Why we don’t start ministries, don’t offer help, don’t encourage, don’t anything?The Fear.You’ve likely met Christians who’re the most friendly, outgoing, outspoken, extroverted people you’ve ever seen. Got no trouble with public speaking. No trouble sharing their opinions—even when you’d rather they didn’t. No trouble talking about their favorite movies, teams, products, politics. Maybe a little initial stage fright, but they shake it off quickly. But when it comes to talking about Jesus or acting in faith, these very same Christians seize up and never snap out of it. It’s li…

Power through prayer.

Humans covet power. So I fully expect by titling this article “Power through prayer,” I’m gonna get a few readers who think, “I’d like some power, and this fella claims I can get it through prayer; let’s see whether there’s anything I can use.” (More accurately, “Let’s see whether he tells me something I care to do.” If it takes too much effort, or takes us too far out of our comfort zones, people prefer alternative routes. True of medicine, politics, Christianity, and of course our prayers.)Generally there are three types of Christians who wanna know about gaining power through prayer.“PRAYER WARRIORS.” These’d be the folks who think prayer is how we do spiritual warfare. Not resisting temptation, like the scriptures describe; they believe spiritual warfare consists of praying against all the evil in the world. They want everything they pray against to be vanquished.SIGN-SEEKERS. These Christians wanna see miracles. They wanna do miracles. They want the Holy Spirit to empower them to…

Spiritual warfare: Resist temptation!

SPIRITUAL WARFARE'spɪr.ɪtʃ.(əw.)əl 'wɔr.fɛ(.ə)rnoun. Actively opposing the activity of evil spirits by resisting temptation, exposing their hidden involvement, and exorcism.2. Popularly (but inaccurately), vigorous prayer, singing, or other acts of worship.[Spiritual warrior 'spɪr.ɪtʃ.(əw.)əl 'wɔr(.ri).ərnoun.]Spiritual warfare is fighting evil. Plain and simple.Every human, Jesus obviously included, gets tempted to do the self-serving, self-satisfying thing, regardless of whether it’s wise or right or good. And usually if someone else is urging us to do it, it’s for their own self-serving, self-satisfying reasons. In the case of evil spirits, it’s so they can spread evil, chaos, and corruption—and of course ruin us. So when we realize there are evil motives mixed up in our decision-making process, we gotta fight those temptations, expose the evil, and maybe even exorcise the evil spirits.It’s hardly a complicated idea. But you know humans. We complicate everything.Usu…