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Showing posts from 2020

Getting hungry for God. Literally.

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FAST fast verb. Go without food [for God]. 2. noun. A period of going without food [for God]. Whenever I talk to people about fasting, their knee-jerk reaction is “No food? No food? No FOOD? You’re outa your [profane adjective] mind.” After all, this is the United States, where a 20-ounce soda is called a “small.” In this nation, the stomach rules. This is why so many Christians are quick to redefine the word “fast.” My church, fr’instance, does this 21-day “Daniel fast.” I’ll explain what that is elsewhere; for now I’ll just point out it’s not an actual fast. Nobody’s going without food. They’re going without certain kinds of food. No meat, no sweets. But no hunger pains either. Fasting, actual fasting, is a hardcore Christian practice. The only things which go into our mouths are air and water. In an “absolute fast” you even skip the water. Now, we need food and water. If we don’t eat, we die. And that’s the point: Push this practice too far and we die . But God

“Silent years”: Did God once turn off his miracles?

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It’s usually round Christmas when preachers start talking about “the silent years,” or “the 400 silent years,” and how the annunciations of John the Baptist and Christ Jesus mark the end of that era. As it’s taught, for roughly four centuries between the writing of Malachi , “the closing of the Old Testament canon,” and Gabriel’s appearance to John’s dad, the Holy Spirit was silent. He stopped talking to prophets, and had none. ’Cause if he did, these prophets would’ve written a book, right? But no prophets wrote a book, ergo no prophets. And during these “silent years,” it’s claimed the Spirit likewise stopped doing miracles. ’Cause if he had, again, someone would’ve written a book about it. But nobody wrote one, so nothing miraculous musta happened. If those 400 years weren’t silent, we’d have more books of the bible. (Um… what about the books of prophets, and of the Spirit’s activity, in the apocrypha? You realize they were written during that 400-year period. But the

Resolutions: Our little stabs at self-control.

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

TXAB’s bible-reading plan.

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Whenever the new year approaches, Christians resolve to read the bible. The entire bible, not just the parts we like best: Genesis to maps, as the old joke goes. (See, when you buy a bible in print, most of them have maps of Israel and the Roman Empire in the back. Yes, explaining the joke makes it less funny. Yes, deliberately making the joke less funny is ironically funny. Yes, this is metahumor. I’ll stop now.) Christians tend to pick up a bible-reading plan of some sort, and most of the time it goes through the scriptures in a year. Which, I insist, is far too long. I prefer you do it in a month. Yes it’s totally possible; the bible’s a big fat inspired book anthology, but it doesn’t take an entire year to read. What book do you take an entire year to read?—unless you chop it into bite-size bits so small you’re spiritually starving. No wonder so many Christians lose track and lose interest. Now if a month seems too extreme for you (especially if you don’t read), y’

The books of a Christian’s library.

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Birthdays and Christmas frequently mean gift cards, and if you got one you might be thinking, “Hmm, what books ought I buy?” But probably not. People don’t read. Okay you clearly do, if you read TXAB . But most don’t. Christians might read the bible, though many of us consider it a massive struggle; a New Year’s resolution we never get round to completing, and peter out in March along with our gym memberships. We’ll read little else. We don’t want any more books, and figure most Christian books are either poorly-written fiction, repackaged sermons, or light devotional stuff which are no deeper than the stuff we hear Sunday morning. (Which largely ain’t wrong.) So I rarely get asked, “What books should I own?” Most Christians figure if their Christian library contains a bible alone, they’re good. Sometimes more than one bible. Maybe a study bible; maybe a concordance, exhaustive or not; maybe an inexpensive one-volume bible commentary, like Matthew Henry’s. Maybe a prayer

The 12 days of Christmas.

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

When God became human.

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

Why do pagans celebrate a Christian holiday?

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Every year, on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, my city has a Christmas festival. (Well, not in 2020, ’cause pandemic. ) The local newspaper started it and sponsors it. I like to joke the festival begins with the pagan stuff. Once the sun is mostly down (and this time of year, this latitude, it sets around 4:45 PM ) about 2,000 people gather round the 60-foot tree. The local Air Force band plays a few songs, the mayor says a few things, the people are led in a few secular carols about silver jingle bells, snowmen (even though we’re well below the snowline), reindeer (even though we’re on the wrong continent), and Santa Claus. Who makes an appearance, and the tree gets lit. That done, the city’s Christians take over. Downtown fills with tent-canopied booths, nearly all of ’em set up by local churches. We give out cookies, cocoa, cider, and other treats. Our choirs sing. Open-air Christmas pageants are performed. One megachurch in particular handles crowd control and cleanup.

Supernatural discernment: Knowing what you can’t know.

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Yesterday a coworker was trying to explain some scripture to me. It’s an interpretation I was entirely unfamiliar with, so I found it interesting. Had my doubts, but kept an open mind. It sounds a little bit plausible, so I spent some of this morning investigating it. Turns out it’s something the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach, and nobody else. So, nah. But yesterday, while he was still talking to me, before I ever looked it up and knew it was something JWs teach, I had deduced, “Y’know, I think this guy’s Jehovah’s Witness.” No, the Holy Spirit didn’t supernaturally reveal this to me. I deduced it. From the clues: It’s the Christmas season, and I had heard him mock Christmas a number of times. Admittedly I do this too with the materialism around the holiday, but JWs are particularly notorious for not observing Christmas. Big obvious red flag there. He dismissed any comments I had to make, or any corrections I offered to his proof texts. He was entirely sure he knew what he

Happy holidays!

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In the United States it’s the holiday season. As soon as Halloween is over, out come the Christmas sales, and people start putting mint in everything. You know what we’re ramping up towards. Javascript isn’t working this Christmas! Some elf overdid it on the sugar. I get why the holidays bug people. It’s the commercialism. The merchandising. The obligatory traditions which hold no more meaning for you. The mandatory functions which aren’t any fun, like the Christmas pageants where you gotta watch kids and earnest church members, who have no business singing in public, charitably permitted to nonetheless sing in public. Or the naked, unadulterated greed which sucks the soul out of this time of year. It’s why I advise Christians to redirect our attention to Advent , the four weeks before Jesus’s nativity. Eastern churches start it even earlier, 40 days before Christmas, and make a fast of it, like Lent. Which you could do, if you’re into fasting; I’m not. But Adve

The Wheat and Darnel Story.

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Matthew 13.24-30, 13.36-43 Elsewhere in Matthew Jesus tells a story often called the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, from the word tares used in the King James Version to translate ζιζάνια / zidzánia , “darnel.” It’s a specific weed, Lolium temulentum , frequently called “false wheat.” In ancient times darnel was constantly found in wheat fields. Some darnel always got mixed up with the wheat during the harvest, and it wasn’t until we invented separating machines that people finally got the darnel problem under control. Darnel looks just like wheat when it’s growing… but once the ears appear, any farmer will realize it’s not wheat at all. When they ripen, wheat turns brown and darnel turns black. If it’s harmless, why did the ancients make a big deal about darnel? Because darnel is very susceptible to Neotyphodium funguses, and if you ate any infected darnel, the symptoms were nausea and a little drunkenness. (The temulentum in darnel’s scientific name means “drunk.”)

Sock-puppet false prophecy.

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Last year I wrote about sock-puppet theology. It’s when people develop their beliefs about God all wrong because of how they came about those beliefs. Instead of doing as we’re meant to— read the scriptures, study their textual and historical context, compare them with Jesus’s character, compare them with the conclusions of other Spirit-led Christians, and of course use our commonsense —these people take much easier, non -study-based tack. They meditate on certain scriptures, use their imagination to “make the scriptures come alive,” then draw conclusions from these self-induced visions. Sometimes they’ll even talk to the people in their meditations: They’ll have a full-on conversation with, say, David ben Jesse. They’ll ask him what it was like to trust the L ORD while he was hiding out from King Saul ben Kish, whether in caves or Philistine territory. David will have a whole bunch of interesting insights. They’ll actually base their relationship with God on “David

…Don’t we all have some fundamental beliefs?

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FUNDAMENTALIST fən.də'mɛn.(t)əl.ɪst adjective. Adheres to certain beliefs as necessary and foundational. 2. Theologically (and politically) conservative in their religion. 3. [ capitalized ] Has to do with the 20th-century movement which considers certain Christian beliefs mandatory. [Fundamentalism fən.də'mɛn.(t)əl.ɪz.əm noun , Fundie 'fən.di adjective .] I grew up Fundamentalist, and refer to Fundies from time to time. But I need to explain what I mean by the term. Too many people use it, and use it wrong. For most folks fundamentalist is just another word for conservative . Not just sorta conservative; super conservative. If you’re a fundamentalist Christian—or fundamentalist Muslim, fundamentalist Jew, fundamentalist Mormon, fundamentalist Republican—they assume you’re extremely conservative, or at least more conservative than they are. “I may be conservative, but you’re fundamentalist.” It picked up this definition for good reason: Fundies freq

Strong numbers. Or Strong’s numbers. Whichever.

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From time to time I refer to Strong numbers or Strong’s numbers. I suppose I need to explain ’em before people get the idea I’m introducing them to numerology. A concordance is a list of every single word in a book. People make ’em for the bible so they can use it as kind of an index: You might remember there’s a verse in the bible about “the meek shall inherit the earth,” but not remember where it’s found. (And you might live in 1987, when you couldn’t just Google it. ) So you bust out that concordance, flip to “meek,” and find out where it’s hiding. Seems it appears 17 times in the King James Version. Nu 12.3 the man Moses was very m. , above all the men H 6035 Ps 22.26 The m. shall eat and be satisfied H 6035 Ps 25.9 The m. shall he guide in judgment H 6035 Ps 25.9 and the m. shall he teach his way. H 6035 Ps 37.11 But the m. shall inherit the earth H 6035 Ps 76.9 to save all the m. of the earth. H 6035 Ps 147.6 The L ORD lifteth up the m. H 6035

The odds of Jesus fulfilling prophecy.

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Round Christmastime you’ll hear all sorts of sermons about Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. I certainly have. Hear ’em every Christmas. Frequently way more than one sermon: I regularly go to the live nativities my city’s churches put together, and the Christians there are gonna preach about Jesus’s birth yet again, just in case anyone doesn’t already know the story. (Nevermind the fact live nativities keep getting elements of the story wrong, like magi at the stable. ) The sermons are frequently from the Luke point of view, which has his actual birth in it. But occasionally preachers will bring up Matthew’s bit about the magi, because it specifically refers to the prophecy Messiah’s to be born in Bethlehem: Micah 5.2 NASB “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will come forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His times of coming forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.” A previous Messiah, David ben Jesse,

The Lambs and Kids Story.

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Matthew 25.31-46. The next story in Jesus’s Olivet Discourse, where he taught his students about the End Times, is usually called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It all comes from verses 32-33, in which Jesus compares the division of humanity into camps of righteous and reprobate, like a shepherd segregating his flock by species: Lambs on one side, kids on the other. One group to get shorn, one to get milked. Or in this case, one group to go one way, the other to go another. This story terrifies legalists. Because outside the proper context of God’s grace, it looks like you get into God’s kingdom entirely on merit . You do for Jesus—or, as Jesus puts it, you do for the very lowest of the people he identifies with, which is all the same to him—and you inherit his kingdom. Or you don’t, so you go to hell. So get cracking! Start feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, reforming the prison and healthcare system, and otherwise fixing society! Wait, is that what legali

Hanukkah.

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The Hebrew calendar doesn’t sync with the western calendar. That’s why its holidays tend to “move around”: They don’t really. Not like Easter, which is determined by the full moon, and therefore doesn’t sync with Passover like it oughta. In any event Hanukkah does fall on the same days every year: 25 Kislev to 2 Tevet. (And in 2020, this’d be sundown 10 December to sundown 18 December.) Christians sometimes ask me where Hanukkah is in the bible, so I point ’em to this verse: John 10.22 KJV And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. The “feast of the dedication” is Hanukkah. The word חֲנֻכָּה / khanukká (which gets transliterated all sorts of ways, and not just because of its extra-hard kh sound) means “dedication.” Other bible translations make it more obvious— John 10.22 NLT It was now winter, and Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication. —because their translators didn’t want you to miss it, wher

Killing false prophets: Wanna bring it back?

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Moses ben Amram was gonna die before the Hebrews entered Canaan, so Deuteronomy tells of his last address to them before they entered that land. He reminded them of the L ORD ’s commands, had ’em reaffirm their covenant with him, then died. Up to this point, Moses had been the Hebrews’ primary prophet. If you wanted to know God’s will, and God didn’t tell you directly, you went to Moses. (Or even if God did tell you directly, you double-checked with Moses.) Moses’s death meant people were understandably anxious about losing God’s main spokesperson, but Moses reminded them he was far from God’s only spokesperson. Deuteronomy 18.15-22 NRSV 15 The L ORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16 This is what you requested of the L ORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the L ORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” 17 Then t

How do you know you heard from God?

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Let’s say I’m talking with a Christian friend about the time she had to make a great big decision. Like where to go to college, whether to move to Chicago, whether to buy her house, whether to marry her husband, whether to quit her job. You know, the usual life-changing, life-rearranging decisions which people would rather God just tell us what to do , and grant us the best possible timeline. So as my friend is describing how she came to her conclusion, she drops the inevitable, “Then God told me….” ME. “Okay but how’d you know it was God?” SHE. “Well I just knew.” ME. “Just knew? How could you ‘just know’? Because it felt like God?” SHE. “Exactly.” ME. “Well fine; I can work with that. So what’s God feel like?” SHE. “Oh, he’s indescribable.” ME. “Yeah yeah; we all know the Chris Tomlin song. Now try to describe him.” SHE. “I just felt an incredible peace about my decision. That’s how I knew it was God.” ME. “I know what you mean. I feel an incredib

The Talents Story.

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Matthew 25.13-30. Nowadays when we say talent we mean a special ability; something one can do which most others can’t. The word evolved to mean that, but in ancient Greek a τάλαντον / tálanton meant either a moneychanger’s scale, or the maximum weight you put on that scale. Usually of silver. Sometimes gold… but if the text doesn’t say which metal they’re weighing, just assume it’s silver. Talents varied from nation to nation, province to province. When Jesus spoke of talents, he meant the Babylonian talent (Hebrew כִּכָּר / khikhár , which literally means “loaf,” i.e. a big slab of silver). That’d be 30.2 kilograms, or 66.56 pounds. Jews actually had two talents: A “light talent,” the usual talent; and a “heavy talent” or “royal talent” which weighed twice as much. But again: Unless the text says it’s the heavy talent, assume it’s the light one. And of course the Greeks and Romans had their own talents: The Roman was 32.3 kilos and the Greek was 26. Using 2020 silver rate

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

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

The Five Stupid Girls Story.

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Matthew 25.1-13. When Jesus talked about his second coming, sometimes he’d share parables. Dude loves his parables. Dense Christians won’t get them, and commonly get suckered into dark Christian interpretations where they’re all about doom and death and hellfire. But Christians who seek wisdom, who know Jesus is returning to save the world instead of destroy it, know these parables are about hope : Jesus is returning! For everybody . Be ready to join his entourage. Otherwise you’ll be left out of the fun parts. The “parable of the 10 virgins,” or as I prefer to call it, “The Five Stupid Girls Story,” is one of those warning parables. Dark Christians like to compare it to missing the rapture, and therefore going to hell. But the stakes are nowhere near that high in the story. Let’s start with the story. Matthew 25.1-13 KWL 1 Then heaven’s kingdom will be like 10 teenage girls, who took their own oil lamps to go out to meet the groom. 2 Five of the girls were stup

Hypocrisy versus inconsistency.

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HYPOCRISY hə'pɑk.rə.si noun Pretense: Practice of claiming beliefs or moral standards which one doesn’t truly have. 2. Inconsistency: Practice of claiming beliefs or moral standards, but one’s own behavior demonstrates otherwise. [Hypocrite 'hɪp.ə.krɪt noun , hypocritical hɪp.ə'krɪd.ə.kəl adjective .] I reposted the definition from my original article on hypocrisy because I need to remind you there are two popular definitions of the word: Pretense and inconsistency . When Christians talk about hypocrisy, we usually mean pretense: Someone’s pretending to be what they’re not. When everybody else talks about it (and many Christians are included in this group), they mean inconsistency: A person says one thing, but does another. And yeah, some of this idea is found in the gospels. Right before Jesus went on a rant about Pharisee misbehavior, he pointed out how inconsistent they were. Matthew 23.1-4 NLT 1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his discipl

Scriptures for advent.

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Each advent season I focus on scriptures which are related to advent topics. Namely Jesus’s first coming, and his second. So expect to see some such articles… but if you can’t wait that long, here’s some stuff I’ve written already. Nativity stories. Word! Jn 1.1-5 Why identifying Jesus as “the word” was so profound to the first Christians. Recognizing and embracing the light of the world. Jn 1.1-13 The true light came into the world—and we get to see him. The word became human, and explains God. Jn 1.14-18 Getting a really good look at God through Jesus. One heck of a birth announcement. Lk 1.5-25 Gabriel’s announcement to the father of John the baptist. How Mary became Jesus’s mother. Lk 1.26-38 What sort of person God selected as his mother. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Lk 1.39-56 When Jesus’s mother and John’s mother both prophesied about his coming. The birth of John the baptist. Lk 1.57-80 And his father’s prophecy about just what sort of