Put some bible in your brain!

by K.W. Leslie, 31 July

There are certain bits of bible which need to be embedded in a Christian’s brain. Need to be.

No, this isn’t a requirement before God can save you. But it’s extremely useful to be able to quote various verses and passages which remind us of God’s love and grace and goodness, of Jesus’s teachings and commands, of the thinking behind God’s acts and our beliefs, and of promises, encouragements, and expectations. We need to put some verses into our memories.

So here’s how we get started.

Lots of Christians insist there are particular verses every one of us ought have memorized, like the Lord’s Prayer, or “the Lord’s my shepherd,” John 3.16, or Romans 6.23, or Romans 10.9. (People tend to refer to verses by their addresses. That’s sorta annoying for those of us who mix addresses up. I’m one of them, by the way.)

No, I’m not going to go through the entire list of Christians’ favorite memory verses right now. I’ll bring one or another up from time to time. If you’ve been praying the Lord’s Prayer, hopefully you’ve got it in your head by now anyway.

Me, I prefer this technique: It’s a little more natural.

1. Read your bible.

Because you are reading your bible, right? If not, don’t feel bad; just start.

So as you go through the bible, likely you’re gonna find a sentence or saying which really stands out to you. Something you think is especially profound. Something you’d want to quote later. Something you’d share with other people; you might even think right away of certain people to share it with. You might want to tweet it or otherwise put it on social media.

Well, there’s your memory verse. If it’s worth remembering, it’s worth memorizing.

And yeah, there’s a ton of bible worth memorizing. If you’re on the lookout for memory verses, you’ll find plenty. Dozens every day. Sometimes you’ll think, “Holy shnikes, I should memorize this entire chapter!

Okay, calm down little buckaroo. Don’t drive yourself crazy. If you’re on the lookout for memory verses, chances are you’re gonna overexaggerate the importance of every verse you find. Not that these verses aren’t important; they were important enough for the authors of the bible to write down, and for later believers to include in the bible. But maybe it’s better to not read the bible so you can specifically mine for memory verses. Just let ’em come to you naturally. If a statement strikes you as really significant, keep that one.

Don’t use a highlighter; that doesn’t help you memorize anything. (And somebody tell this to college students.) Write it down someplace. Write it a few times.

Yeah, you might only find one significant verse a day. Sometimes none. Sometimes ten, on a really good day. But you shouldn’t have to try very hard. So don’t try very hard.

Remember: If it’s something you’ll want to quote later, or share with others, that’s the one you keep.

Prayer… and morning people. (Groan.)

by K.W. Leslie, 30 July

Some of us are morning people: We bounce out of bed every morning ready to tackle the coming day. It’s the best time of the day!

Some of us are night owls: We don’t mind staying up late to have fun, to get work done, to do whatever. That’s the best time of the day.

I’m a night owl. And for one semester in seminary, I lived with a morning person. Thank God he wasn’t one of those annoying morning people—the sort who thinks everyone should love mornings just as much as they do, and all it’ll take to convert us is getting a good night’s sleep. I used to work for such a person. She was so chipper every morning, I wanted to stuff her into one. But I digress.

My morning-person roomie believed in starting every morning with God in prayer. Makes sense, right? But he had to take it one step further: Start every morning with sunrise prayer. He and some eager friends would wake at the crack of dawn, head to the chapel, and pray.

They chose to pray in the chapel’s prayer room. It was a little room in the basement of the building, open 24 hours a day for prayer. (Well supposedly for prayer. Various students found it was a great place to make out, unobserved. So I guess it kinda needed the prayer.) The prayer room had no windows… which meant they didn’t see the sunrise, which still makes no sense to me. Isn’t that the whole point of sunrise prayer?

More than once, he invited me to come along. I went once. That was enough. I had no problem going to Epsilon Delta Kappa’s all-night prayer vigils; I had no problem watching the sun rise that way. But rising at dawn? The only reasons I bother is when work requires it, when I go to bed really early, or insomnia. I’d make a lousy monk.

In contrast, King David was clearly a morning person. ’Cause he sang about early-morning prayer. Ps 5.3 And since his psalms are bible, many Christians are convinced everybody oughta practice early-morning prayer. My roommate was one of them. What kind of selfish Christian chooses his comfortable bed over our Lord?

“Look,” I tried to explain, “my prayers are gonna suck when I’m sleep-deprived.”

’Cause back in my Fundamentalist days I was involved in ministries where early-morning prayer wasn’t voluntary: Everybody was expected out of bed bright ’n early, and off we’d go to morning devotions. And my prayers really sucked. First 10 minutes consisted of my complaining to God about being up so God-damned early in the morning. Followed by many apologies for saying “God-damned” to God, of all people. And for my rotten attitude. And for not really being able to focus on anything, much less God.

Really, all this grousing and apologizing was time wasted. I could’ve just prayed when I was awake.

“Besides,” I joked to my roommate, “you don’t need to be awake to talk to God. Ever heard of prophetic dreams?”

Claiming to see, but won’t see Jesus.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 July

John 9.35-41.

Picking up right after Pharisees ejected a formerly-blind man from their synagogue for believing in Jesus, our Lord re-enters the story and delivers the punchline, so to speak.

John 9.34-41 KWL
35 Jesus, hearing the Pharisees threw the formerly-blind man out,
upon finding him, said, “You believe in the Son of Man?”
36 In reply, that man said, “Who is he, sir?—so I can put my trust in him.”
37 Jesus told him, “You’ve seen him: This man is talking with you.”
38 The formerly-blind man said, “I trust you, sir,” and fell down before Jesus.
39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for people’s judgment:
Those who don’t see, can see; and those who see can become blind.”
40 Some of the Pharisees were listening to these things, and told Jesus, “We aren’t blind too.”
41 Jesus told them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin.
You now say ‘We do so see’—and your sin remains.”

For some reason, a lot of preachers assume this guy shouldn’t have recognized Jesus when he encountered him: He was blind at the time y’know. But I’m pretty sure he’d have easily recognized Jesus’s voice. And after his trial, he knew plenty about Jesus… or at least what certain Pharisees claimed about him, though he himself was pretty sure Jesus is a prophet. Jn 9.17

Though it appears here, he didn’t know of Jesus’s common practice of calling himself “the Son of Man.” That was the prophet Daniel’s title for an End Times figure who’d conquer and rule the world—you know, like Jesus is gonna do someday. Pharisees expected the Son of Man to emerge directly from heaven, not get born like an ordinary human (well, more or less) and live among us for a few decades. If you didn’t connect Jesus with that Son of Man, you’d presume calling himself τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου/ton yión tu anthrópu all the time was just another way to say “human”—like the LORD meant whenever he called Ezekiel בֶּן־אָדָם/ben-Adám, “son of Adam” (KJV “son of man”) Ek 2.1 You’d be… well, blind.

Those who wait on the Lord.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 July

Isaiah 40.31.

Isaiah 40.31 NKJV
But those who wait on the LORD
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.

When I visit fellow Christians’ homes, a lot of ’em have a painting or mass-produced sculpture of an eagle somewhere. Some of the art’s of an American bald eagle, and are meant to express the owner’s patriotism. Others were purchased at the local Family Christian Stores, back when they were still around. Bald eagle or not, connection to God ’n country or not, they’re meant to express the owner’s trust in God. They’re universally captioned with this particular Isaiah verse, in various translations, always mounting up with wings as eagles.

The eagle appeals to a lot of Christians because of the idea Isaiah expressed: The LORD Almighty, our creator, has inexhaustible strength, Is 40.28 and empowers the weak. Is 40.29 Even the strongest of us may fail, Is 40.30 but God can renew our strength. Indefinitely. Is 40.31

It’s great encouragement for those of us who have energy-draining jobs or lives. When our own batteries are depleted or dead, God can recharge ’em. When our resources are taxed, God always has more. Many’s the time I’ve told my students, “I ran out of patience with you. Ran out long ago. I’m drawing on God’s patience now.” Tapping what people like to call “God’s dýnamis power”—showing off one of the Greek words they think they know, by which they mean his explosive power, but more accurately is his dynamo of endless cosmic supply. Either way, his power’s available to every Christian. Right?

Actually… right. It is available to every Christian.

But it’s not promised, which is how we Christians wind up taking this verse out of context. We look on it as a promise of God, a prophecy of something he’s guaranteed to give us. And while it is a prophecy, it’s not a promise. It’s situational. And it takes wisdom to recognize whether we’re in that situation… or whether we’re foolishly burning ourselves out for no good reason.

The first English-language bible: The Wycliffe Bible.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 July

English is the most widely spoken language in the world. Partly ’cause of the British Empire; partly because of American multimedia, including the internet. There are a lot of useful resources in English, and it’s otherwise generally useful, so most of the people in the world learn English as their second language.

English is my native language, so that’s mighty handy for me; though if it weren’t I’d obviously have learned it instead of Spanish and French. Although a lot of my fellow Americans take this circumstance for granted, cretinously don’t bother to learn any other language, and get annoyed when multilingual people can’t speak English as well as they’d personally prefer. But let’s not talk about them.

Obviously there was a time when English wasn’t everybody’s second language; it was French. And before that, Latin. And the reason it was Latin was ’cause the Vulgate. The Latin-language bible was “the bible,” as far as western Christians were concerned, so if you wanted to read the bible, or understand any of the bible quotes or prayers your preachers used, you oughta learn Latin. And people did. It wasn’t as widespread as English is today—for that matter, neither was education and literacy—but everybody knew some Latin, ’cause church.

Which is why few people bothered to translate the bible into local languages: What’s the point? Everybody who could read in those countries, already knew some Latin; they could read the Vulgate. Or they could go to church, where the priests knew Latin and could interpret the Vulgate for the locals. You don’t need local translations.

But every once in a while somebody didn’t wanna go to church. Or they felt Roman Catholicism was the wrong church, and people shouldn’t have to go to its priests to get the bible interpreted. So they’d take a stab at translating the bible themselves. Problem is, before the United States, no nation had freedom of religion: You were automatically a member of the nation’s official church, and you weren’t allowed to quit the church. If you did, you were an illegal. They’d prosecute. (Which meant you wound up with a nation full of hypocrites—which explains why they’d get downright savage in their prosecutions.)

And that’s exactly what happened with the first guys to translate the bible into English. That’d be John Wycliffe (1324–84) and Nicholas of Hereford (?–1420). Nicholas did the Old Testament; Wycliffe did the New; and both their translations are bundled together as the Wycliffe Bible, WB for short.

De profundis.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 July

The prayer known as de profundis deɪ proʊ'fun.dis, commonly deɪ prə'fən.dɪs is also known as Psalm 130 in Jewish and Protestant bibles, and 129 in Orthodox and Catholic bibles. The Latin name comes from verse 1 in the Vulgate: De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine, “From the deep I call to you, Lord.”

My translation doesn’t rhyme this time, but it’s still in iambic septemeter.

Psalm 130 KWL
0 Song for the climb.
 
1 I call you from the deep, oh LORD. 2 My Master, hear my voice!
Your ears must pay attention to my supplications’ voice!
3 If you kept track of moral faults, my Master, who could stand?
4 But with you there’s forgiveness. For this reason, you’re revered.
5 I wait—my life waits—for the LORD; my hope is in his word.
6 My life awaits my Master like a night guard waits for dawn.
Like night guards wait for dawn… 7 so Israel: Wait for the LORD!
For with the LORD is love, and much redemption comes with him.
8 He will redeem you, Israel, from all your moral faults.

Connected to the Hebrew idea of waiting is the idea of hope. You’re waiting for God ’cause you expect him to do something. Like answer your prayer in some way.

In Christian tradition, De profundis is a common rote prayer. A lot of Christians pray the psalms, but this one’s frequently found in the prayer books of many denominations. Mainly because it shows a certain amount of repentance, and its hope in God’s grace and dependable love.

The trial of the formerly-blind man.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 July

John 9.13-34.

One Sabbath, Jesus cured a blind guy with spit-mud. His neighbors caught him seeing, and decided to bring him to the Pharisees, figuring these’d be the guys who could identify if this miracle was a God-thing or not.

John 9.13-16 KWL
13 They brought the formerly-blind man to Pharisees:
14 The day Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes, was Sabbath.
15 So again, Pharisees were asking him how he received sight.
He told them, “He smeared mud on me, on the eyes, and I washed, and I see.”
16 Hence some of these Pharisees were saying, “This person isn’t from God: He doesn’t keep Sabbath.”
Others were saying, “How can a ‘sinful person’ make such miracles?” They were divided.

Yeah, they weren’t much good at it.

Lemme start by pointing out the obvious: By definition, miracles are God-things. They’re anything the Holy Spirit does in our physical universe. Might look natural, or resemble natural phenomena. But because the Spirit personally does ’em, they didn’t happen naturally; they don’t have a natural origin; they are always more-than-natural, or supernatural. The sick might naturally get better; or they might have the sort of disease which never gets better, but the Spirit intervened, so they get better anyway. And skeptics object, “Well, there was a chance…” because they don’t wanna acknowledge the Spirit. For two usual reasons:

  • They doubt miracles happen anymore, or ever happened.
  • They doubt the particular miracle-worker.

In these Pharisees’ case, they doubted Jesus the Nazarene. After all, he was notorious for interpreting “Remember the Sabbath day” his own way… and in so doing, violating their Sabbath customs. They didn’t wanna work in any way that inconvenienced them; he feels helping others is an entirely valid exception. Christians should agree with Jesus… and don’t always. (Heck, often we don’t help others the other six days of the week either.)

As usual, when John or the other authors of scripture refer to “the Pharisees” or “the Judeans,” they don’t necessarily mean all the Pharisees or Judeans. Some of these Pharisees correctly recognized a legitimate miracle happened, and therefore it was incorrect to presume Jesus wasn’t from God. Since their judgment didn’t hold sway in this case, it’s clear these believing Pharisees weren’t in charge. (It’s not clear whether they were a majority or not; ancient Israel wasn’t a democracy, so even if they were a majority, ’twouldn’t matter. Synagogue leadership could overrule the majority, same as a judge can overturn a jury’s verdict.)

The rest simply tried to get the formerly-blind man to distance himself from Jesus. That didn’t work, so they turned on the man himself.

John 9.17-34 KWL
17 So they told the formerly-blind man again, “Because Jesus opened your eyes, what do you say about him?
The man said this: “He’s a prophet.”
18 So these Judeans didn’t believe him—
nor even that he used to be blind and received sight.
Not till the point they called the parents of the one who received sight 19 and questioned them,
saying, “Is this your son, whom you say was born blind? So how can he now see?”
20 So in reply the man’s parents said, “We know this is our son, and he was born blind.
21 We don’t know how he now sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes.
Ask him! He’s an adult. He’ll tell you about himself.”
22 His parents said this because they feared the Judeans:
When anyone recognized Jesus as Messiah, the Judeans had previously agreed they’d be out of the synagogue.
23 This is why the man’s parents said this: “He’s an adult. Ask him.”
24 So the Pharisees called the formerly-blind man a second time,
and told him, “Swear to God you’re telling the truth. We know this person’s a sinner.”
25 So this man replied, “I don’t know if he’s a sinner. I know one thing: Having been blind, now I see.”
26 So they told him, “What did he do to you? How were your eyes opened?”
27 So the man told them, “I already told you, and you don’t listen.
Why do you want to hear it again? You don’t want to be his students. Do you?
28 They raged at him, and said, “You’re that man’s student. We’re Moses’s students.
29 We know God spoke to Moses; we don’t know where this man’s coming from.
30 In reply the formerly-blind person told them, “This statement you made is confusing:
You don’t know where he’s coming from—and he opened my eyes!
31 We know God doesn’t listen to sinners.
But when one’s a God-fearer and does his will, God listens to this person.
32 Someone opening the eyes of a person born blind is unheard of in this age.
33 If this man weren’t from God, he’d be unable to do anything!”
34 In reply the Judeans told the man, “You were entirely born in sin.
And you try to teach us?”—and they threw him out.

“God will not be mocked.”

by K.W. Leslie, 18 July

Galatians 6.7.

Here’s a verse I hear frequently misquoted. (So have you.)

Galatians 6.7 KJV
Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

Y’notice most of the time when Christians quote it, it’s not necessarily because somebody’s mocking God. Usually somebody’s mocking them, the Christians. Occasionally God’s getting mocked too, but he’s collateral damage. The mockers are mainly focused on the Christians: Once again, one of us did something dumb, so people are having a laugh at our expense.

Well when certain Christians get mocked—like when they’re new, and too immature to have the Spirit’s fruit; or when they’re longtime Christians, but never did develop patience, so they can’t take a joke; or they’re otherwise deficient in joy—they wanna rebuke their scoffers. Call down curses, ideally, but they’re happy just to have a clever comeback. “Have your fun now,” they menace their scoffers, “but your time will come. God will not be mocked.”

Sometimes the outraged Christian will continue with the rest of the verse they’re misquoting. Still out of context, of course. “You,” they’ll indicate, “will reap what you sow.” Not that karma will get ’em and they’ll get laughed at too; they’re thinking more about burning in hell, or some other disproportionate, but satisfying, punishment.

Anyway. Note how the King James Version of the verse is present tense, not future: It’s not “God will not be mocked” but “God is not mocked.” It’s present tense in Greek too: θεὸς οὐ μυκτηρίζεται/Theós u myktirídzete. It has to do with what was currently happening when Paul wrote it to the Galatians. Not with what’s currently happening when a pagan laughs at a Christian; not with nontheists getting their comeuppance on Judgment Day. Certainly not with our various unchristian revenge fantasies.

What were its circumstances when Paul originally wrote it to the Galatian church? Glad you asked.

“Discerning” the news: Seeking “signs of the times.”

by K.W. Leslie, 17 July

End Times prognosticator Hal Lindsey is fond of saying when we read the bible, particularly Revelation, we oughta do it with the scriptures in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Because the events of his End Times timeline are happening. Right this instant.

Even though every five years or so, he has to write another End Times book to update all the predictions of his previous End Times book. For some reason they keep not turning into the harbingers of the End he insists they are.

Y’see, what Lindsey does, and what many other End Times fixated Christians do, is what they call “discerning the news.” What they’re doing, they claim, is what Jesus tells us to: They’re looking at the signs of the day. Or as the KJV puts it, “the signs of the times.”

Matthew 16.1-4 KWL
1 Approaching Pharisees and Sadducees asked Jesus for a heavenly sign to show them.
2 In reply Jesus told them, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It’s red; clear sky.’
3 And in the morning, ‘Storms today, for the sky is red and gloomy.’
So you know to interpret the face of the sky—and can’t interpret the signs of the day?”

In context, Jesus said this phrase when Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus ’cause he wasn’t doing as they expected Messiah to do in their End Times timelines, so they asked him to perform one of those signs. Yeah, it’s ironic how these “signs of the times” seekers are doing the very same thing. Irony’s pretty common when people don’t know their bibles.

Jesus wasn’t telling these religious folks to study current events and so they could find fulfilled prophecy in them. He was pointing out how greatly they missed the obvious. They could interpret the weather, which is right there, above their heads; but when Jesus was likewise right in front of them, they wanted signs. Somehow they’d gone blind.

Likewise with End Times events. When they happen, they’re as obvious as a pimple on your nose. They don’t require you, or anyone, to go digging through news websites, looking for stories which sorta kinda resemble a comment in Isaiah or Psalms or Nahum. They don’t require any special powers of discernment, where you somehow are able to see the things no one else can. God wants them to be visible to everyone, Christian and pagan alike, with no question in our minds that these are God-events, so we’ll repent and turn to him and be saved. Not so Christians can be forewarned, and get our End Times bunkers ready, and buy guns.

These “prophecy scholars” who claim current events are pointing to how the future’s gonna turn out? In five years they’ll need to update their books and websites for the very same reason Lindsey does: Prophets they ain’t.

And yet. Because of these nuts, I know too many Christians who think “discerning the news” is an entirely legitimate practice. They scour the news for bible-like articles, then try to connect the dots between the article and the “prophecies.” Any match, no matter how iffy, no matter how far it stretches credibility, will do for them. They point to the article, point to the proof text, and declare, “This is fulfillment!” and share it with anyone who’ll listen. They call this discernment, but to quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride out of context,


Giphy

If you want a scripture it fulfills, okay: Here ya go.

Mark 13.5-8 KWL
5 Jesus began to tell them, “Watch out, lest someone trick you.
6 Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m him!’ They’ll trick many.
7 Don’t freak out when you overhear conflicts, and hearsay about conflicts.
These things happen, but it’s not the End yet.
8 People will rise against people; kingdoms against kingdoms.
Earthquakes will happen in other lands. Recessions will happen.
They’re early labor pains.”

The person who just bursts into prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 July

You might’ve been in this scenario: You’re talking with a fellow Christian about something. Could be any subject; doesn’t entirely matter. But at some point, something you mention gets ’em riled up. They wanna stop your conversation, and pray about that. Immediately. This instant. Before any more time elapses.

…Okay. Nothing wrong with prayer, so you do.

But it’s not a simple, “Lord Jesus, you know best; sort this out; amen.” Nor one of its 30-second, slightly longer relatives. It’s a full-on loud, vigorous prayer. Goes on for a while; almost as if the petitioner is trying to filibuster God.

Then they finally stop, and you can go back to your conversation. Except you’re sorta thinking, “What was that all about?”

I mean, if it were anybody but God we’re talking about—if they suddenly interrupted your conversation because they needed to talk to their spouse, then spent ten minutes shouting into their phone—you’d think something was wrong with their relationship, right? Something unhealthy’s going on.

Same deal here. We’re talking about a variant of the street-corner show-off: Somebody who wants to show off what a good prayer intercessor they are, and doing so by breaking out in intercession at the drop of a hat. Maybe they don’t think it’s showing off ’cause they’ve been doing it for years, and it’s just what they do now. But I guarantee you it began with showing off.

If a person has so little patience (a fruit of the Spirit, you recall) they simply can’t wait to pray, as if their prayers are the only thing keeping God from springing into action… yep, we’re dealing with ego. Immaturity. Showing off. Hypocrisy.

So what do we do when people interrupt a conversation with, “I wanna pray about this right now?”

Well first of all, read the situation. If you don’t know that this person wants to play “prayer warrior” on you—if they’re an immature Christian who’s not a show-off, and legitimately wants prayer because they’re really emotional right now—you don’t have to worry about discouraging bad behavior. You really oughta pray for them. So do.

Otherwise simply say, “We can pray about it later.”

Because you can. God’s not limited by time. If you pray for something after it happens, your prayers can actually still influence what happens. It’s never too late to pray for things. The only time you ever need to pray right this moment, is when the Holy Spirit orders you to pray right this moment. The rest of the time, relax.

Curing a blind man… on Sabbath.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 July

John 9.1-14.

Previously I wrote about some blind guy Jesus cured with spit. Today I figured I’d jump to the other story of Jesus curing a blind guy with spit. That one is only found in Mark; this one comes from John. And this story is probably better-known because it created a huge controversy… ’cause Jesus cured the guy on Sabbath, ’cause he’s the Sabbath’s master.

The story begins with a lesson, ’cause Jesus’s students see the blind guy and make the typical human assumption: He’s blind because of karma. Either he did something, or his parents did something, and now he’s suffering the wrath of God for it. It’s a poisonous attitude too, ’cause people use it to justify not doing anything for the needy: Hey, they’re needy because they deserve it, and who are we to undo God’s righteous judgment? (Or the judgment of the universe, or the marketplace; whatever god you’re into.)

John 9.1-3 KWL
1 Passing by, Jesus saw a person, blind from birth.
2 His students questioned him, saying, “Rabbi, between this man or his parents,
who sinned so he’d be born blind?
3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents.
He was born blind so God’s works could be revealed through him.”

Determinists make the mistake of presuming Jesus’s answer applies to every situation. This, they say, proves every disability, every birth defect, every type of human suffering, is so God’s works can be revealed, and God can gain glory. God makes people suffer so God can cure their suffering, and show off his power. God makes us needy so he can take care of our needs, and show off his power. And then we’ll worship him.

Um… if you set fire to a building so you can rescue people from the burning building, you’re not a hero; you’re an arsonist. Likewise if God creates evil so he can save us from this evil, he’s not good; he’s evil. Don’t go there.

I’m sure determinists mean well, but their beliefs really mangle their theodicy. God’s not creating problems just so he can solve them, and look good in so doing. God’s solving the problems we created with our sins. Jesus died for our transgressions, not for our falling into the booby traps he sovereignly set in our paths. He’s not the trickster god the nontheists imagine. He’s rescuing us from the natural consequences of our sins: Suffering and death.

And yeah, sometimes blindness is the result of those natural consequences. Sometimes a man is born blind because his parents did sin. Sometimes a woman later goes blind because of her own sins. Jesus’s kids knew this, so it wasn’t totally invalid for them to presume sin was the root cause of this man’s circumstances. But neither is it the only possibility. Sometimes accidents happen; some meaningless thing which has nothing to do with sin or judgment or God or any conscious decision. Life sucks that way.

In this specific person’s situation, he was blind because God was gonna do stuff through his blindness. Talk to certain blind people, and they’ll tell you their blindness was an unexpected blessing. Because they can’t see, they have to depend on their other senses. (Usually this is described as “all your other senses get sharper,” but they don’t just do this on their own; they get sharper because you pay more attention to them.) As a result they feel things others don’t notice, hear things we overlook, smell and taste what we take for granted, and are much better at discerning their environment than people who solely depend on their eyes. Disabled people tend to hear God better than able-bodied people. (That is, when they’re not bitter at him for not curing them on their timetable.)

And that’s what you’ll see later: This blind guy realized who Jesus is. Much better than the other folks in this chapter. His mind was sharper than theirs. Which of course it would be; without his eyes, he had to use his mind to observe his world. His blindness was preparation for God’s revelation.

The Graham rule.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 July

Here’s a big excerpt from one of evangelist Billy Graham’s autobiographies (yep, he wrote more than one), Just As I Am. It’s a good read.

From time to time Cliff [Barrows], Bev [George Beverly Shea], Grady [Wilson], and I talked among ourselves about the recurring problems many evangelists seemed to have, and about the poor image so-called mass evangelism had in the eyes of many people. Sinclair Lewis’s fictional character Elmer Gantry unquestionably had given traveling evangelists a bad name. To our sorrow, we knew that some evangelists were not much better than Lewis’s scornful caricature.

One afternoon during the Modesto meetings, I called the Team together to discuss the problem. Then I asked them to go to their rooms for an hour and list all the problems they could think of that evangelists and evangelism encountered.

When they returned, the lists were remarkably similar, and in a short amount of time, we made a series of resolutions or commitments among ourselves that would guide us in our future evangelistic work. In reality, it was more of an informal understanding among ourselves—a shared commitment to do all we could to uphold the Bible’s standard of absolute integrity and purity for evangelists.

The first point on our combined list was money. […]

The second item on the list was the danger of sexual immorality. We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: “Flee… youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 2:22, KJV).

Our third concern was the tendency of many evangelists to carry on their work apart from the local church, even to criticize local pastors and churches openly and scathingly. […]

The fourth and final issue was publicity. The tendency among some evangelists was to exaggerate their successes or claim higher attendance numbers than they really had. […]

So much for the Modesto Manifesto, as Cliff called it in later years. In reality it did not mark a radical departure for us; we had always held these principles. It did, however, settle in our hearts and minds, once and for all, the determination that integrity would be the hallmark of both our lives and our ministry. Graham 127–129

Graham’s music director Cliff Barrows called all of these resolutions, made in 1948, “the Modesto Manifesto.” It was their way of avoiding the scandalous reputation of con-artist evangelists, like we see in the documentary Marjoe, or the novel Elmer Gantry (another good read, by the way). The goal was to be far, far better than that—and get those concerns out of the way so they could focus on sharing the gospel.

But more recently certain politicians, including our current vice president, have made the national news because they observe one resolution of the four. The second one. The sexual-immorality one. Where they’re not gonna be alone in a room with any woman other than their wives, for fear of the appearance of evil. Not the actual evil themselves; they’re pretty sure they can keep their zipper up. (Not that Bill Gothard ever needed to undo clothing.)

They call it “the Billy Graham rule.” And to the world outside the Bible Belt, it strikes ’em as ridiculous. You can’t be alone in a room with a woman? How in the world are you gonna have private meetings with women constituents? With women staffers? Are you this paranoid about women? Or have you this little self-control?—that every time you’re alone with a woman you’re gonna assault her? You gotta always have a chaperone around? Is that feasable? Are taxpayer dollars gonna pay for this full-time chaperone?

Now inside the Bible Belt, and the conservative Christian subculture, the Graham rule makes perfect sense. And it’s everywhere. And it’s mandatory, in some churches. I’ve worked for ministries where they absolutely forbade one man and one woman to be alone in a room, or a car, together. Because like Graham and his team, we all knew people who slipped up in this area. Not about people who did this; personally knew people who did this. In my life thus far, I’ve had five pastors whose ministry-related sexual activity became public scandal. And that’s just the people who got caught.

So yeah, there’s a need for accountability guidelines like the Graham rule. Question is, should it specifically be the Graham rule? Because the pagans who think it weird and wrong, have a valid point: How can you provide equal access to your constituents if you need a chaperone for half of them? How does that not perpetuate a sexist power structure?

Stuff to think about. So I did.

Cults: When churches go very, very wrong.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 July
CULT kəlt noun. A religion centered on one particular individual or figurehead.
2. A group (usually small) whose religious beliefs and practices are outside the norm: Too controlling, too strange, too devilish.
3. A misplaced devotion to a particular person or thing.
4. A heretic Christian church.
[Cultic 'kəl.tɪk adjective, cultish 'kəl.tɪʃ adjective, cultism 'kəl.tiz.əm noun.]

I throw this word “cult” around a lot, so I’d better define it. First, what other folks mean by “cult,” all of which are included in the above definition:

  • Sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists whose job descriptions end in -ist, tend to use definition #1: A cult is any religion with a guru in charge. And technically Christianity falls under this definition, ’cause we got Jesus.
  • Popular culture leans towards definition #2: A cult is a creepy religion. If it weirds them out in any way, they call it a cult. Even if it’s Christianity. If we trust Jesus a little too much for their comfort, they’ll call us cultish.
  • And popular Christian culture leans towards definition #4: A cult is a heretic church.

The popular Christian definition originated when Charles S. Braden used it, in his 1949 book These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements to mean

any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture. Braden xii

And that’s the definition Walter R. Martin went with in his popular book The Kingdom of the Cults. It’s a book I oughta plug, since it’s mighty useful: It explains how certain churches deviate from orthodox Christianity.

But thanks to these guys, when an Evangelical Christian says “cult,” they mean “heretic.”

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses and Oneness Pentecostals don’t believe in the trinity: Cults.
  • Latter-Day Saints say Jesus (and for that matter the Father) is a created being: Cult.
  • Christian Scientists claim death is an illusion, and therefore Jesus didn’t literally die: Cult.
  • Muslims and Buddhists don’t believe Jesus is God: Cults.

Yep, doesn’t even matter if these groups don’t consider themselves Christian. Evangelicals will freely stick that label “cult” on any religion they consider heretic. Depending on how Fundamentalist they get—by which I mean how narrowly they define orthodoxy—everything can be a cult but their group. I grew up in such churches: If they strongly believe women shouldn’t wear makeup, yet your church lets ’em, they’ll call you a cult. Because their religion is so strict, makeup is orthodoxy, and you aren’t orthodox. Today it’s foundation, eyeshadow, blush, and lipstick; tomorrow you’re denouncing God and kissing Satan with tongue.

Of course if your church is that strict and controlling, the cult is sorta on the other foot. (If you don’t mind me mixing a few metaphors there.)

Jesus cures a man… in stages.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 July

Mark 8.22-26.

People are fascinated by healing stories where Jesus cures people with spit. ’Cause he didn’t just do it the one time. Twice he cured blind men with it; here, and in John 9. Previously in Mark he cured a deafmute, and spat in the course of doing it—and while I don‘t believe he spat on the guy, or touched the guy with his saliva, plenty of Christians believe otherwise.

What mainly gets us is the ick factor. Our culture doesn’t think of saliva as sanitary. Even though people spit-shine things all the time—glasses, phones, jewelry, shoes, their children—a number of people cringe at such behavior, because spit has germs in it. And yeah, human saliva has bacteria in it. But it also has a lot of digestive enzymes and white blood cells in it. Saliva protects us from a lot more than we realize.

Whenever Jesus cured people with spit, it was reflective of the ancients’ attitudes about spit. Like us, they cleaned with spit. And when Jesus cured people with spit, it represented cleaning. The Hebrews thought of sickness as a form of uncleanness. It made you ritually unclean for worship, obviously; and if you suffered leprosy you were expected to warn people away with the shout, “Unclean!” and stay away from people and the local well, lest you infect anyone. ’Cause the ancients figured uncleanliness, or unclean living (i.e. sin) caused your illness.

Blindness too. ’Cause let’s face it, sometimes people get stuff in their eyes, and it blinds them. Happens to me every allergy season. In the apocrypha we read where this happened to Tobit:

Tobit 2.9-10 KWL
9 That night I sat shiva, and slept by the courtyard wall because I was unclean. My face was uncovered.
10 I didn’t know there were sparrows on the wall.
My eyes were open, and the sparrows emptied their bowels into my eyes.
My eyes became white as tablets. I went to “physicians,” and they didn’t help me.

Tobit spent the next four years blind, till an angel instructed his son Tobias to cure him by anointing his eyes with fish-gall salve. And while this story isn’t in the Hebrew bible, it wasn’t unfamiliar to people of Jesus’s day: Blindness was related to uncleanness. People had stuff in their eyes. Tobit had bird poop, Paul had scales, Ac 9.18 and everyone Jesus cured had something which needed to be washed away. So, spit.

Yeah, I’ve heard theories the ancients thought spit had magical properties. Did not. People cleaned with it. So did Jesus. When he felt it necessary, he spat.

Nowadays when people ask for prayer ’cause they want God to heal them, sometimes they ask for certain things. They want us to put our hands on their head, or on the affected area. They might want to be daubed with oil. They might want a certain prayer. They don’t actually need any of these things, y’know. They only need Jesus. And sometimes they know they don’t… but it comforts them, and there’s nothing wrong with comforting people. Jesus didn’t need to cure anyone with spit, but he recognized his patients needed it, so he provided, because he’s kind. Let’s follow his example—although I’m pretty sure nobody’s gonna ever ask us to spit on ’em. But you never know.

Oh yeah, the story:

Mark 8.22-26 KWL
22 Jesus and his students went to Beit Chayda.
People brought him a blind man, and encouraged Jesus to touch him.
23 Grabbing the blind man’s hand, Jesus took him outside the village.
Spitting in the man’s eyes, placing his hands on the man, Jesus asked him, “Can you see anything?”
24 Recovering his vision, the man said, “I see people—like trees. I see them walking around.”
25 Then Jesus placed his hands on the man’s eyes again.
He saw clearly, his vision restored. He gazed at everything clearly.
26 Jesus sent him to his house, telling him, “You ought not enter the village, nor say anything in the village.”

Politics, Christians, and our democracy.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 July
POLITICS 'pɑl.ə.tɪks plural noun. Activities associated with the achievement of power, position, and status. Especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to gain it; often considered to be divisive or devious.
[Politic 'pɑl.ə.tɪk adjective, political pə'lɪd.ə.kəl adjective, politician pɑl.ə'tɪ.ʃən noun, politico pə'lɪd.ɪ.koʊ noun.]

God’s kingdom is entirely about surrendering our power, authority, will, even our identity, to God.

We kinda have to do this. Humans, y’see, are selfish to our core. Total depravity, theologians call it: Everything we do, even everything good we do, has a self-centered ulterior motive. Makes us feel good about ourselves. Makes us feel self-justified. Yeah, some good deeds might feel self-sacrificial and miserable, but somewhere in our psyche is some “greater principle” which feels really good to make great sacrifices for. We’re just that carnal. It’s why God needs to save us, ’cause we’ll never be good enough to save ourselves. And why the Holy Spirit needs to give our consciences a total overhaul.

In contrast politics is about wielding power. And for politically-minded folks, it’s also about gaining more. Sometimes for noble reasons: To do good deeds. More often, for not-so-noble reasons: To keep it out of the hands of others, lest they do something we dislike with it. Not that we’re necessarily doing anything with it, including anything good. Note the United States Congress: Too often it’s all about doing nothing, for many a politician figures nothing is better than anything.

So yeah, there are antithetical ideas at play whenever we talk about God’s kingdom and politics. One’s about surrender, because we can’t be trusted with power. The other’s not; it’s about gaining or taking or stealing power, because we imagine we’re the right-minded exceptions who can be trusted with power—and the others can’t. The opposition party surely can’t.

How do Christians juggle these ideas? Same way we’ve always justified our possession of power. Same as we’ve always justified not surrendering all our power to God. In brief: “I’m gonna do good things with it! The power’s not gonna corrupt me. My heart is pure.”

In other words, we lie to ourselves. And our fellow Christians. And God.

Dual citizenship… and picking a side.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 July

Many Christians are fond of saying, “This world isn’t my home. Heaven is.”

To a degree that’s true. We’re part of God’s kingdom, with Christ Jesus as king. We recognize his reign, or try to; and follow him, more or less. Or at least we expect—despite our unloving, unkind,> impatient, fruitless behavior, he’ll nonetheless graciously recognize us as his followers when he takes over the world. Maybe he will.

In the meanwhile we’re also citizens of our nations. I’m a citizen of the United States. As are many of TXAB’s readers, which is why I so often get U.S.-centric. Of course I realize the site gets readers from all over: You might be a citizen of Canada, China, France, Israel, Germany, the Philippines, Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom… and that’s the top 10, so if I didn’t mention your nation you’re just gonna have to enlist more of your friends to read, and bump up your stats. Anywho as Christians we’re all fellow citizens of God’s kingdom. Yet at the same time we have allegiances to our respective homelands.

In the U.S., if you’re both a citizen of this country and another one, we call you a “dual citizen.” We have lots of ’em. Officially the U.S. only recognizes one citizenship: Ours. (So pay your taxes. It’s why Americans who don’t even live in the States are still required to pay American taxes.) When people become Americans, our citizenship oath requires ’em to renounce their previous citizenship. But if their original homeland doesn’t care about that, and still counts them a citizen, they’re dual citizens. Most of the dual citizens I know are also Mexican citizens, and take full advantage of their Mexican citizenship whenever they’re in Mexico. One friend’s from the U.K.—and when he visits family in the U.K., he’ll even switch his accent from Californian to Londoner.

But here’s the catch with dual citizenship: The time might come when you gotta pick one nation over the other.

Say you were a citizen of both the U.S. and Russia. And say we went to war. (Hope we never, ever do, but let’s just say.) Well, you have to pick a side. Especially if you work for the government—of either nation. Neither country will let you stay neutral. You’ve gotta be wholly American, or wholly Russian. (Or you’ve gotta flee to Argentina.)

Well, that’s how Christians are when it comes to our national citizenships. I’m a dual citizen of God’s kingdom, and the United States. So what happens when the States does something hostile to the kingdom? Right you are: I gotta pick a side. And I’ll just bluntly tell you now I’m picking Jesus. Like any immigrant, I may have been born American, but I choose citizenship in his kingdom. So Jesus takes priority. Don’t even have to think about it.

Much as I love the United States, I’m fully aware when Jesus returns, he’s overthrowing it. When he raptures his followers to join his invasion, we’re gonna help him overthrow it. I’m gonna help him overthrow it. Willingly. Gladly.

If that sounds like treason against the United States, it totally is. And if it makes you as an American feel uncomfortable, it should. Because as a Christian you need to pick sides. This isn’t a hypothetical situation, y’know. Jesus is returning. Not “could return”: Is returning. Not in some “spiritual sense,” by which most folks think imaginary. He’s literally, physically coming to earth to take it over. Maybe not in our lifetimes… but maybe he will; we don’t know.

So where’s your allegiance? ’Cause when he returns, you’re gonna be on one side or the other. Better not be the wrong one.

Civic idolatry: The “Christian nation.”

by K.W. Leslie, 03 July
CIVIC IDOLATRY 'sɪv.ɪk aɪ'dɑl.ə.tri noun. Worship of one’s homeland, its constitution, its government, or its leaders.
[Civically idolatrous 'sɪv.ɪk.(ə.)li aɪ'dɑl.ə.trəs adjective, civic idolater 'sɪv.ɪk aɪ'dɑl.ə.tər noun.]

Tomorrow’s Independence Day in the United States.

In 1776, the British Parliament, insisting they had the right to tax their North American colonies, had violated their colonial charters. The king had sided with Parliament and declared them outside his protection. Congress, representing 13 of the colonies, interpreted this to mean they were independent states, and officially declared themselves so on 4 July. (Or 2 July, depending on which founder you talk to.)

So this week, Americans are gonna express a whole lot of patriotism. American Christians included. As we should.

However, many American Christians regularly cross a line between the love of one’s homeland, and descend into outright worship of the United States. It’s idolatry, and when it’s directed towards a nation we call it nationalism or civic idolatry. It’s when love for our country stops being reasonable and fair-minded; when we treat it, its symbols, its values, and its institutions as holy. And when we treat criticism or contempt for it as blasphemy.

Heck, for those people, my even talking about the subject is blasphemy. Although they’ll call it unpatriotic, subversive, traitorous: How dare I say love of country is a bad thing?

Again: Not saying that. But when love of “God and country” get blended together as if they’re the same thing, we got idolatry. When we attribute things to the United States that are only legitimately true of God, we got idolatry. When our nation takes precedence over the growth of God’s kingdom, we got idolatry. Sometimes in our dual citizenship with the kingdom and the world, we gotta pick a side… and when we pick the world, it’s idolatry.

Get in the closet.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 July

Matthew 6.5-6.

The proper way to pray is aloud.

You’re talking to God, right? Which means you’re talking to God. Not praying silently—in other words thinking at God. You’re speaking to him out loud.

I know; a lot of Christians pray silently, and it’s the only way they pray, ’cause most of the time it’s not appropriate to pray aloud. If everybody in church simultaneously prayed aloud, it’d get loud. If you prayed aloud at work, people’d think you’re weird. If you prayed in public school, some idiot would complain about it. In general, we’re encouraged to pray silently, and that’s understandable in a lot of places. But Christians get the wrong idea and think we’re always to pray silently. No we’re not.

Lookit how Jesus demonstrates prayer in the scriptures. When he went off to pray, even by himself, privately between him and the Father, other people could overhear him. Like in Gethsemane. Mt 26.39, Lk 22.41-42 The reason we even have records in the bible of people’s prayers, is ’cause these folks weren’t silent. They spoke.

I should add: Praying in your mind is much harder than praying aloud. Because the mind wanders. (As it’s supposed to. That’s how the creative process works.) In the middle of our mental conversations with God, stray thoughts pop into our heads. In a verbal conversation, we can choose whether we’ll say such things aloud, but in a mental conversation, we can’t do that: There they are. We just thought ’em. They interrupted our prayers, like a rude friend who thinks he’s being funny, but isn’t. Ordinarily we ignore those thoughts. Now we can’t.

Even the most well-trained minds struggle with that. And a lot of Christians get frustrated with it, so they give up and pray seldom, if at all. Don’t do that. If you lose your train of thought all the time during prayer, stop praying silently. Pray aloud. It helps a lot.

“But what,” Christians object, “about privacy?” Discussions between us and God are often sensitive. We don’t want people listening in on our conversations, like they do when we answer our mobile phones at the coffeehouse. We want privacy. That’s why we go with mental prayers in the first place.

Well, that’s where the prayer closet comes in. Do you have one? If not, get one.

The yeast of hypocrisy.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 July

Mark 8.14-21, Matthew 16.5-12, Luke 12.1.

After the most recent encounter Jesus had with Pharisees—namely where they wanted an End Times sign from him, not because they wanted proof Jesus is Messiah, but so they could shred his “sign” as bogus—Jesus decided to remind his students what sort of people they were dealing with. Not that all Pharisees were this way… hence his choice of metaphor.

Mark 8.14-15 KWL
14 The students forgot to take bread,
and they hadn’t one roll with them in the boat.
15 Jesus instructed them, saying “Listen. Watch out for the Pharisees’ yeast and Herod’s yeast.”
 
Matthew 16.5-6 KWL
5 Jesus’s students, coming to the far side of the lake,
forgot to bring bread.
6 Jesus told them, “Listen and pay attention to the Pharisees and Sadducees’ yeast.”
 
Luke 12.1 KWL
During a gathering of a crowd of ten thousands—
who were trampling one another—Jesus first began to tell his students,
“Watch out for yeast among yourselves—
which is Pharisee-style hypocrisy.”

Luke, which has this story take place after Jesus had just critiqued several Pharisee behaviors he identified as hypocrisy, straight-up interprets his own metaphor. He wants no confusion. Because in Mark and Matthew there was a lot of confusion: Jesus’s students were fixated on the fact they didn’t bring any bread with them.

As if Jesus was concerned in the slightest about a bread shortage. As he immediately pointed out.

Mark 8.16-21 KWL
16 They talked among themselves about not having bread.
17 Knowing this, Jesus told them, “Why are you talking about not having bread?
You don’t yet think nor understand; you have hardened hearts.
18 You have unseeing eyes and have unlistening ears, and don’t remember:
19 When I broke the five rolls for 5,000, how many full leftover-baskets did you gather?”
The students said, “Twelve.”
20 “And when I broke seven for 4,000, how many full leftover-baskets did you gather?”
The students said, “Seven.”
21 Jesus told them, “How do you not yet understand?”
 
Matthew 16.7-12 KWL
7 They talked among themselves, saying this: “We didn’t take bread.”
8 Knowing this, Jesus said, “Why are you little-faiths talking among yourselves about not having bread?
9 You don’t think nor remember the five rolls for 5,000 and how many baskets you gathered?
10 Nor the seven rolls for 4,000 and how many baskets you gathered?
11 How do you not think?—because I’m not talking to you about bread!
Pay attention to the Pharisees and Sadducees’ yeast.”
12 Then the students realized Jesus wasn’t saying to pay attention to bread yeast,
but the teaching of Pharisees and Sadducees.

It’s an all-too-common human problem: We get so fixated on immediate concerns, we miss the bigger, eternal point.

And that’s still true of Christians who read this passage, get some really funny ideas about yeast, and again miss Jesus’s entire point. And wind up misinterpreting other parts of the bible too.