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Showing posts from April, 2019

Formal prayer: How to get distant with God.

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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

Goodness, and lawless Christians.

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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 lega

Jesus takes out the Law’s curse.

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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 3.8 Pharisees 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 sen

God doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios.

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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

Courtship: Dating… but no sex.

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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, by themselves? But not s

Quit praying to Satan!

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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 serve What a mighty God we serve Angels bow before him Heaven and earth adore him What a mighty God we serve Years 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 Lord To take up your weapons and flee For the Lord has given me authority To walk all over thee There 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 fir

Jesus is put in his sepulcher.

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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 God needed was the bones— s

“My God, why have you forsaken me?”

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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.) VERSE ORIGINAL TRANSLITERATION Ps 22.1, Hebrew אֵלִ֣י אֵלִ֣י לָמָ֣ה עֲזַבְתָּ֑נִי Elí Elí, lamá azavettáni? Ps 22.1, Aramaic (Syriac) ܐܠܗ ܐܠܗܝ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢ Elahí Elahí, lamaná šavaqtaní? Mk 15.34, Greek ἐλωΐ ἐλωΐ, λεμᾶ σαβαχθανί ; Elo’í Elo’í, lemá savahthaní? (or σαβακτανεί/ savaktaneí in the Codex Sinaiticus.) Mt 27.46, Greek ἠλί ἠλί,

When Jesus made John responsible for his mother.

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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 KWL 25 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 s

The “unbelieving” thief.

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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 KWL They crucified two thieves with Jesus : One on the right, one at his left.   Matthew 27.38 KWL 38 Then two thieves were crucified with Jesus , one at right and one at left.   Luke 23.32-33 KWL 32 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 KWL

Jesus comforts the believing thief.

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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 dealing with Romans here. For them, everything mer

The women who watched Jesus die.

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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 keep referring to his students as kids. That was their expecta

Churches who wanna “restore” Christianity.

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RESTORATIONIST rɛs.tə'reɪ.ʃən.ɪst adjective. Wants to return Christianity to what they consider the beliefs and practices of the earliest Christians. [Restorationism rɛs.tə'reɪ.ʃən.ɪz.əm noun. ] 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,

Nope, Jesus didn’t sweat blood.

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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 ESV And 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 traditional author of this gospel, was a doctor! Cl 4.14

Synoptic gospels: The three gospels which sync up.

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In other words, all the gospels but John . SYNOPTICS sə'nɑp.tɪks plural noun. The synoptic gospels. SYNOPTIC GOSPELS sə'nɑp.tɪk 'ɡɑs.pəls plural 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 th

Jesus prays at Gethsemane.

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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 is a 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 KWL 32 They went to a place named Gat Semaním /“oil press,” and Jesus told his students, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 Jesus 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 ground, and was praying this: “If it’s

The Fear.

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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

Power through prayer.

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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

Spiritual warfare: Resist temptation!

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SPIRITUAL WARFARE 'spɪr.ɪtʃ.(əw.)əl 'wɔr.fɛ(.ə)r noun. 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).ər noun. ] 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.