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Showing posts from August, 2019

Tithing: Enjoying one’s firstfruits with God.

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TITHEtaɪðnoun One-tenth.2.verb. Set aside a tenth of something, either as savings or as a charitable donation.3.verb. Give [either a tenth, or any variable amount] to our church.Most Christians define tithe as a donation to one’s church. But what we donate is pretty variable. Might be $20 a week, or $100 a month, or two hours of volunteer work (i.e. cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming the carpets, sterilizing the toys in the nursery… you do sterilize the toys regularly, right? Babies put ’em in their mouths). It’s whatever we regularly donate, although some of us aren’t all that regular about it.But for small churches, what we collectively donate isn’t always enough to cover our church’s expenses. Nor does it allow us to give pastors a stipend, or do much charity work… or pay the utilities or rent. Which is why Christian preachers so often feel they should remind us the word “tithe” comes from the Saxon teóða, “tenth”: It means a tenth of something. And that something would be your inco…

Start listening to God.

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When we pray, we’re not just meant to talk at God. We’re supposed to listen to him as well.Which some of us are pretty good at. Others, not so much. We’ll do all the talking, then patiently listen for God to say something… and detect nothing. He mighta said something, but we’re not sure. Can’t tell. Why not? Simple: We got used to not listening to him.Y’see, when we heard him in the past, it was usually because he was poking us in the conscience. We were sinning. Or about to sin. Or otherwise not resisting temptation. We figured sin would be way more fun, more satisfactory, more appropriate—everybody else is doing it—so we stifled our consciences. In so doing, we stifled the Holy Spirit who speaks to us through our consciences, and tells us, “Hey, quit it!” We blocked him out.We’re so used to blocking him out, it’s hard to go back to not blocking him out. In fact the behavior you’ll see among many a Christian is to try to hear God when it’s convenient, and try to not hear him when it’…

Can’t follow Jesus where he’s going.

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John 7.25-36.Back a few verses, Jesus told his opponents,John 7.19-20 KWL19“Moses didn’t give you the Law, and none of you does the Law: Why do you seek to kill me?”20 The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who seeks to kill you?”Then he objected to how they violated Sabbath to practice ritual circumcision, yet when he cured people who couldn’t walk, this was somehow worse? Jn 7.21-24 But y’know, even though Jesus had a point, and made it very logically, humans aren’t logical. They did want him dead, Jn 5.17-18 and would eventually kill him.Meanwhile some of Jesus’s listeners—who apparently weren’t aware the Judean leadership wanted him dead—debated whether that was truly so. Remember, in the first-century Roman Empire there was no such thing as freedom of speech and religion: You could be beaten or killed for heresy. Yet nobody censured Jesus from teaching in temple, so the question came up: Maybe Jesus was somebody important. Like Messiah.John 7.25-26 KWL25 Some of the Jerusalemites…

Targums: Pharisee translations of the bible.

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The original New Testament was written in Greek. That’s because in the eastern Mediterranean, where Christianity originated, Greek was what Latin became in medieval Europe, and what English now is worldwide: Everybody’s second language, used because it’s everybody else’s second language. (Unless it’s your first. Greek’s my third.) When Alexander of Macedon took a shot at conquering the world in the 300s BC, he Grecianized everything he could find, left Greek colonies everywhere, and Greek became the language you needed to know for commerce and diplomacy.But before that, it was Aramaic, the language of the Assyrian Empire and the neo-Babylonian Empire, both of which conquered northern and southern Israel in the 700s and 500s BC. The Hebrew-speaking Israelis were scattered throughout these empires, and when their descendants returned to Palestine, they spoke Aramaic. (And, after Alexander came through Palestine, Greek too.) Only scribes knew Hebrew.Okay, but their bible (our Old Testame…

When people believe Christianity is a myth.

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Christianity is an historical religion. It’s based on a man named Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and breathed and died in the first century of our era. He proclaimed God’s kingdom and described what it’s like, informed us no one could get round him to the Father, Jn 14.6 and despite being crucified by the Romans, physically came back from the dead and sent his followers to proclaim this kingdom on his behalf.If none of this stuff literally happened—if it’s pure mythology, a fiction based on cultural archetypes instead of true events, which reflects humanity’s fondest wishes, meant to teach greater truths and bigger ideas instead of being taken as fact—then we Christians have a huge problem. See, when we join God’s kingdom we’re kinda expected to change our entire lives based on its principles. We’re also promised Jesus is gonna come back to personally rule this kingdom. But if Christianity’s mythological, then Jesus won’t do any such thing, ’cause he’s dead.Oh, and if he’s dead, we Chri…

We need more people of prayer.

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I read an old essay, written in the late 1800s, probably adapted from a then-recent sermon, entitled “Men of Prayer Needed.” Which is true; men of prayer are needed. Women of prayer too. Hence my title isn’t gender-specific. We need Christians to pray, period.The point of the essay is God uses people who pray. He doesn’t so much need our skillsets, because God can either develop our skillsets for his purposes, or perform mighty acts of power despite our skillsets. (Never underestimate God’s skillset!) He doesn’t so much need our deep and through bible study, our intellect, our education, our knowledge, our wisdom; not that we shouldn’t pursue wisdom and get knowledge, but God’s knowledge and wisdom is far greater, and he can achieve way more through what he alone knows. He doesn’t need our ability to preach: We could present an extremely simple, even pathetic sort of sermon, and because the Holy Spirit’s already been working on our audience, thousands can come forward to embrace Chris…

Fair judgment.

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John 7.19-24.The people of Jerusalem found Jesus teaching in temple, and wondered where he got his education; Jesus pointed out if we really pursued God instead of our own bright ideas, we’d know where he got his education.Then he took a bit of left turn:John 7.19-20 KWL19“Moses didn’t give you the Law, and none of you does the Law: Why do you seek to kill me?”20 The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who seeks to kill you?”Where’d that come from? Well, largely the fact, two chapters ago, they totally sought to kill him.John 5.17-18 KWL17Jesus answered them, “My Father works today, just like I work.”18 So the Judeans all the more wanted him dead for this reason:Not only was he dismissing Sabbath custom,but he said God was his own Father, making himself equal to God.And they still wanted him dead. Oh, they might’ve pretended otherwise, but Jesus knew better. So he bluntly called them on it: “Why do you seek to kill me?” And they flagrantly pretended otherwise: “You have a demon”—that c…

Wrongly defining God by his almightiness.

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Recently a friend was trying to emphasize to me how mysterious God is:SHE. “God is almighty, right? So can he create a rock so heavy, he can’t lift it?”ME. “Yes of course he could create such a rock.”SHE. [figuring she got me] “But if he can’t lift it, then is he really almighty? Is he really God?”ME. “Well first of all, God isn’t defined by his almightiness. But second of all, it’s a poor sort of almightiness that can’t create paradoxes.”Yeah, she didn’t realize this wasn’t my first go-around with this particular question. I grew up inflicting it on my Sunday school teachers, just to see whether I liked any of their answers. (Seldom did I.) Theology professors still use it to mess with the minds of their students. I came up with my own answer back in seminary, just to mess with the minds of my theology professors.But like my professors, she wanted to go back to my first comment, and object to it a little: The idea God isn’t defined by his almightiness.Yep, the belief he is defined by…

The self-anointed prophet.

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When God makes one of his kids a prophet, he doesn’t anoint us.Anointing, i.e. pouring oil over someone’s head to indicate leadership, is done in the bible to leaders. Not prophets. True, the LORD instructed his prophet Elijah to anoint Elisha ben Šafát, 1Ki 19.16 but that’s as his successor as leader of the בְנֵֽי־הַנְּבִיאִ֥ים/vnéi haneviím, “the sons of the prophets,” 2Ki 2.15 a prophecy guild. Elisha was already a prophet.’Cause how God makes prophets is to simply start talking to us. Like he did with Samuel ben Elqaná when he was a kid.1 Samuel 3.3-10 KWL3 Samuel laid down in the LORD’s sanctuary, where God’s ark was, before God’s lamp was put out.4 The LORD called Samuel, saying, “Look at me.”5Samuel ran to Eli, saying, “Look at me; you called me.”Eli said, “I didn’t call. Go back. Lie down.” Samuel walked back and laid down.6 The LORD called yet again: “Samuel.”Samuel stood and walked to Eli, saying, “Look at me; you called me.”Eli said, “I didn’t call, my son. Go back. Lie down…

“Church is SO BORING.”

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So it’s summer vacation, your kid wanders into the room, and complains, “I’m bored.”And if you’re anything like my parents, you’d throw up your hands in frustration: “Whatd’you mean, you’re bored? You got a room full of toys! A computer full of video games! A shelf full of books! How can you be bored?… You’re so spoiled rotten.”Okay, maybe you’re not middle class and can’t afford to give your kids any that stuff. Or maybe you’re like my dad and responds, “Bored, eh? Well I have some projects you could work on…” by which he meant chores, none of which were fun. But both kids and adults in our culture, on every economic level, have no shortage of options. “Spoiled rotten” is right. Boredom just means we don’t care about any of these options; at the moment we don’t care about, or can’t relate to, any of ’em. A “bored” kid with a roomful of toys simply isn’t interested in any of them right now. (Quick ’n dirty way to change that: Offer to get rid of any of them.)And sometimes we Christian…

What about those Christians who pray to saints?

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When we talk about prayer, we usually mean speaking with God. But technically pray means “to ask.” Still meant that, back in the olden days. In one of Jesus’s stories, one man tells another, “I pray thee have me excused,” Lk 14.19 KJV ’cause people can make requests of one another. We can ask God for things, God can ask things of us, and Christians can ask things of one another.Now, here’s where it slides away from your average Evangelical’s comfort zone: When Christians ask things of fellow Christians… who are dead.“Praying to saints,” we call it. It’s found in older churches: Orthodox, Roman Catholics, or Anglicans and Episcopalians. And it’s commonly practiced by Christians whose loved ones have died: To comfort ourselves, figuring our loved ones are in heaven and in God’s presence, sometimes we talk to those loved ones. Some of us hope they heard us… and others are downright certain they heard us, ’cause they can’t see why God can’t empower that kind of thing. Why can’t he pass a …

Pursuing God’s ideas. Not our own.

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John 7.14-18.After Jesus decided he was in fact going to Jerusalem for Shavuot, he went privately, (KJV “as it were in secret”) Jn 7.9 and at first people weren’t sure he was there. Till he started teaching in temple.I need to remind you synagogues, at this point in history, weren’t Jewish churches: They were Pharisee schools. They were created and run by Pharisees, to ensure future generations knew the Law and followed it. Specifically, followed it the way Pharisees interpreted; Jesus has his own interpretations. Hence they butted heads.There were also prejudices among Judean Pharisees about the quality of education you’d find among Galilean Pharisees. So when the Judeans listened to Jesus, they immediately realized here was a guy who knew as much as any of their scribes. (Knows way more, actually. But they wouldn’t always admit this.) Thing is, Jesus grew up in the Galilee. Went to Galilean synagogues, not Judean synagogues. Never attended their schools. Therefore he must surely be …

Timekeeping in ancient Israel.

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The calendar most of the planet uses, called either the western calendar or the Gregorian calendar, originated in 1582 when Pope Gregory 13 introduced it as an update of the Roman calendar adopted by Julius Caesar in 45BC. Since Gregory introduced it right after the Protestant split, it took a while before all Protestant countries adopted it. Various Orthodox churches still haven’t adopted it, preferring to stick with Caesar’s calendar, ’cause it’s not Catholic. Meanwhile nations which aren’t even predominantly Christian—’cause of western influences or trade—do use it. As well as their own local calendars. Japan, fr’instance.Israel likewise uses the western calendar. And its local calendar, the one which predates the western calendar by centuries: The Hebrew calendar.That’s the calendar we find in the bible. It even predates the Hebrews: It was used all over the ancient middle east, including by the Assyrians and Babylonians who conquered Israel. The Hebrew calendar’s months all have …

Holiness… versus goodness.

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SANCTIFY'sæŋ(k).tə.faɪverb. Set apart as holy.2. Have blessed, made legitimate through a religious sanction, or made to seem legitimate through custom and tradition.3. Purify from sin.[Sanctification sæŋ(k).tə.fə'keɪ.ʃənnoun, sanctifier 'sæŋ(k).tə.faɪ(.ə)rnoun.]I bring up the popular definition of sanctify because I wanna point out what we English-speakers mean by sanctification, is not what the scriptures mean.I’ve read loads of Christian books about sanctification. Been reading one in particular lately. The author goes on and on and on about sin, and how it taints humanity, and how Christians ought not do it. (And, well, duh.) But the more he writes on the subject, the more obvious it becomes he’s addressing his own particular hangups. Certain sins he finds really nasty, so he spends a lot of time really pounding away at those sins like a carpenter trying to put thin nails into thick wood: Stop doing those things! You’re making baby Jesus cry.Thing is, he’s not actually…

Pagans and prayer.

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Back in my teenage years I attended a government meeting. Which, as is customary in the United States, they opened with prayer. Bible Belt residents presume people only do this in their states, but I live in California; we do it here too.Thing is, the Constitution’s first amendment forbids our Congress from recognizing an official religion, and the 14th amendment extends this to state and local governments. So any prayers can’t exclusively be Christian prayers, made in Jesus's name. Something I regularly gotta remind my conservative friends about, ’cause they talk about bringing prayer back into public schools, but have never thought about what sort of praying is gonna happen when just anybody gets to lead prayer. I guarantee you they really don’t want pagan schoolteachers demonstrating prayer for their kids! But there’s no way to legally limit school prayers to the sort of Christians they approve of… which sadly means things are best left the way they are.This prayer I heard befo…

When Jesus said he wouldn’t go… and did.

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John 7.1-13.If you read the synoptic gospels (meaning Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the three which sync up a lot), you might get the idea Jesus only went to Jerusalem once—to get arrested and crucified. That’d be historically inaccurate. Jesus obeyed the Law, and the Law decreed every adult male should go to temple three times a year for the festivals. Dt 16.16 Meaning Jesus went to Jerusalem a lot, and John—which largely takes place there—fills in the blanks of what happened during those many Jerusalem trips.Including when Jesus cured that one blind guy. The context of that story was when he went to Jerusalem one year for Sukkót. That trip began a few chapters back; since I skipped that part I figure I’d better backtrack. Here y’go.John 7.1-13 KWL1 After these things, Jesus traveled the Galilee.He didn’t want to travel in Judea, because the Judeans sought to kill him.2Sukkót/Tents, a Judean festival, was near, 3 so Jesus’s brothers told him,“Leave here and go to Judea, so your students w…

We’re not the only ones who do grace, y’know.

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Scott Hoezee told this story in his 1996 book The Riddle of Grace.The story is told that, many years ago, a conference was convened to discuss the study of comparative religions. Theologians and experts from various fields of religious studies gathered from all over the world to tackle certain knotty questions relating to Christianity and its similarities or dissimilarities to other faiths. One particularly interesting seminary was held to determine whether there was anything unique about the Christian faith. A number of Christianity’s features were put on the table for discussion. Was it the incarnation? No; other religions also had various versions of the gods coming down in human form. Might it be the resurrection? No, various versions of the dead rising again were found in other faiths as well.On and on the discussion went without any resolution in sight. At some point, after the debate had been underway for a time, C.S. Lewis wandered in late. Taking his seat, he asked a colleagu…

The books in your bible.

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The bible’s an anthology, a collection of books and letters about God. (We tend to call ’em “books” either way.) There are two major divisions: The Old Testament, and the New Testament.The Old Testament is the book collection assembled by the ancient Hebrews. For the most part they were written in two variants of ancient Hebrew: Early Biblical Hebrew, which is what the “books of Moses” and the Deuteronomistic history and the Prophets was written in; and Late Biblical Hebrew, which much of the rest was written in. Late Biblical Hebrew has some heavy influences from Aramaic, the language which had replaced Hebrew by 500BC, which was around the time the last of the OT was written.The apocrypha isn’t actually one of those major divisions. They’re the books which were added to the OT when it was translated into Greek in the 400s BC. These Greek bibles, which get called the Septuagint, were considered the bible by the early Christians, so the additional books were part of their Old Testamen…