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Showing posts from 2020

Advent Sunday.

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Four Sundays before Christmas, the advent season begins with Advent Sunday. That’d be today, 29 November 2020. (Next year it’ll be 28 November. It moves.) The word advent comes from the Latin advenire /“come to [someplace].” Who’s coming to where? That’d be Jesus, formally coming to earth; we’re not talking about his frequent appearances here and there. Either we mean the first time around, when he was born in the year 7 BC , which is what we celebrate with Christmas; or the second time around, in the future, to take possession of his kingdom. Historically this has been the time for Christians to get ready for his coming. Which we do by getting ready for Christmas. But Christians, Evangelicals in particular, forget it’s also about getting ready for his second coming. We might tell ourselves we oughta always be ready for that event—and we oughta!—but advent’s when we particularly pay attention to the idea. He’s coming back, y’know. Could happen at any time. Since Evang

Thanksgiving Day.

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In the United States, we have a national day of thanksgiving on November’s fourth Thursday. Whom are we giving thanks to? Well, the act which establishes Thanksgiving Day as one of our national holidays, provides no instructions whatsoever on how we’re to observe it. Or whom we’re to thank. Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the last Thursday in November in each year after the year 1941 be known as Thanksgiving Day, and is hereby made a legal public holiday to all intents and purposes and in the same manner as the 1st day of January, the 22d day of February, the 30th day of May, the 4th day of July, the first Monday of September, the 11th day of November, and Christmas Day are now made by law public holidays. —77th Congress, 6 October 1941 House Joint Resolution 41 The Senate amended it to read “fourth Thursday in November,” and President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law. So it’s a holiday

Immature prophets.

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Every Christian can hear God. This being the case, every Christian can share God’s messages with others: We can prophesy. We can become prophets. It’s why the Holy Spirit was given to us Christians in the first place: So we can hear and share God. Ac 2.17-18 Now, whether every Christian listens, hears God accurately , and prophesies accurately , is a whole other deal. See, Christians are at all different levels of maturity. Some of us call it “spiritual maturity,” but there’s no functional difference between intellectual, emotional, and spiritual maturity. If we‘re one, we’re automatically one of the others. Too many Christians presume our knowledge makes us mature, instead of puffing us up like a bratty child prodigy. Likewise too many Christians presume if we’re fruitful, we needn’t be knowledgeable—which means we’re not wise, which means we ain’t all that fruity. No matter which kind of immaturity we’re talking about, immature people are gonna do dumb. They don’t know

Thanksgiving. The prayer, not the day.

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In the United States, on November’s fourth Thursday, we celebrate a national day of thanksgiving. Today I’m not talking about the day itself though. I’m talking about the act. Americans don’t always remember there’s such a thing as an act of thanksgiving. Our fixation is usually on the food, football, maybe the parade, maybe the dog show. If you’re pagan, you seldom even think to thank God… or anyone. Instead you conjure up some feeling of thankfulness. You have a nice life, a decent job, good health, some loved ones, and got that [insert coveted bling] you’ve always wanted. Or you might not, but you’re thankful for the few things you do have. Or you’re not thankful at all, and bitter… and in a few minutes, drunk. But this feeling of thankfulness isn’t directed anywhere. Shouldn’t you be thankful to someone or something? Shouldn’t there be some being to thank? And that’s a question many a pagan never asks themselves. I know of one family who thanks one other. But paga

The 10 commandments.

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No doubt you’ve heard of the 10 commandments, or as they tend to be stylized, “The Ten Commandments,” as if they’re a movie title. (Which they were, repeatedly; the one with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner is the best-known.) In Hebrew they’re called the עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים / aserét ha-devarím , “10 words,” or “10 lessons.” Specifically they’re the 10 commands the L ORD spoke aloud to the Hebrew people from Sinai (or Horeb), a mountain somewhere on the west coast of the Arabian peninsula. No, the 10 commandments aren’t the only commands God gave the Hebrews. Nor the first. Nor even the greatest: When Jesus was asked about the most important commands, he listed none of the 10 commandments. He listed two other ones: Love God and love your neighbor. Mk 12.29-31 Those Christians who have no idea the L ORD gave about 613 commands in the Law —and that’s not even counting Jesus’s commands in the gospels—sometimes take Jesus’s top two commands, add ’em to the 10 commandments, a

Kingdom economics: How’s your eye?

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Matthew 6.22-23, Luke 11.34-36. Some of Jesus’s teachings tend to get skipped entirely. Let’s be honest: It’s because we don’t like them. Plenty of us hate the idea the Law still counts, and God judges us by it; we prefer dispensationalism. Plenty of us hate Jesus’s teachings on money, ’cause we still kinda worship it. So we borrow his parables about forgiveness, where money wasn’t even the point, and try to claim they’re about capitalism. Or socialism. Or they’re Jesus’s secret critique of socialism. Whichever suits us best. Today’s lesson from the Sermon on the Mount is in fact about money. Not opthamology. But because people nowadays are unfamiliar with the Hebrew idioms “good eye” and “evil eye”—and will even mix ’em up with the European idioms, and think they have to do with all-purpose blessings and curses—we’ll interpret this passage all kinds of wrong. Or claim, “Well it’s obscure,” and skip it. Usually skip it, and focus on the verses we can understand. Verses

Confession: Breaking the chains of our secret sins.

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CONFESS kən'fɛs verb . Admit or state one’s failings or sins to another [trustworthy] person. 2. Admit or state what one believes. [Confession kən'fɛs.ʃən noun , confessor kən'fɛs.sər noun .] The way to defeat hypocrisy, plain and simple, is authenticity. We’re not perfect—none but Jesus is—and we need to say so. And in many cases need to say more than just the generic “I’m a sinner,” with no further details: We need to give some of those details. We need to tell on ourselves. We need to confess. The practice of confession—heck, the very idea of confession—is controversial to a lot of Christians. ’Cause we don’t wanna! And I’m not even talking about people with deep dark secrets. Plenty of folks have little bitty secrets—stuff everybody kinda knows already, or can figure out easily—but the very idea of publicly admitting to such things, they find far too humiliating. Fr’instance. Back in college, in one of our men’s bible studies, our group leader was t

Hypocrisy in leadership: It can get really bad, really fast.

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Most Christian leaders know better than to let hypocrisy grow among their leadership structure. It’s poison. It’s how scandals start, ruin churches, drive people to quit Jesus (or at least give ’em an excuse ), and give all of Christianity a lousy reputation. So they take great care to keep hypocrites from ever being put in charge. Others take no such care, and are full of hypocrites. I used to single out particular churches, with particular leadership structures, for being particularly hypocritical. And yeah, it’s much easier for phonies to hide in churches with few to no accountability structures. (Or even with tremendous accountability structures, like the Roman Catholic Church… but the catch is their structure only offers forgiveness, not consequence , and that’s why so many evil leaders can get away with what they do.) It’s almost a given you’re gonna find hypocrites in anti- denominational churches : They want no oversight, no one to tell them to behave. But it’s hard

Loopholes.

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Popular culture, especially popular Christian culture, uses the word Pharisee as a synonym for legalist. That’s what we presume the Pharisees’ problem was: They overdid it on God’s commands. They were so careful to follow every single one of them perfectly (and in so doing, earn salvation ), they created all these extra doctrines and traditions as kind of a hedge around the Law. Supposedly they spent so much time fretting about the extra stuff, they’d never get around to breaking the Law. Yeah, that’s not why Pharisees had the doctrines and customs. Wasn’t what they were doing at all. If you want to know what the Pharisees were about, you gotta read the Mishna , a compilaton of what Pharisees were teaching as of the early second century. (Which of course includes what they taught in the early first century, i.e. Jesus’s day.) The Mishna is the core of the Talmud, one of the two main books of present-day Judaism. (The other’s the Tanakh, which we call the Old Testament

Hypocrites. They’re everywhere.

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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 .] The Greek word ὑπόκρισις / ypókrisis literally means “over [the] face.” In the ancient Greek religion, whenever someone claimed they spoke for the gods, they’d put on a bit of a show. When a man claimed Zeus spoke through him, he’d assume a deep voice, exaggerated gestures, and perform a sorta impersonation of Zeus. (Since we’re talking about fake gods, it was totally an act.) Comic and tragic masks. Wikimedia This “prophetic” acting evolved into Greek drama. Certain “gifted” poets, whom the Greeks believed had some divinely-inspired prophetic ability, would have actors memorize their “revelations” and present them to audiences. So the audience would kno

Treasures in heaven.

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Matthew 6.19-21, Luke 12.33-34. In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, after he finished objecting to hypocrisy in giving to charity, in types of prayer, and in public fasting, he moved on to talk about wealth and money. You’ll notice the three verses in Matthew I’m gonna point to today, don’t by themselves nail down precisely how we’re to stash our treasures in heaven. That, we actually have to pull from the parallel teaching in Luke : Give to charity. And if you know your Old Testament, you might remember this proverb: Proverbs 19.17 KWL Put the L ORD in your debt: Be gracious to the poor. He compensates you and gives peace to you. Jesus’s first-century audience would’ve known that one… and Jesus’s 21st-century audience had better learn that one. Matthew 6.19-21 KWL 19 “Don’t hoard wealth for yourselves on earth, where moths and corrosion ruin it , where thieves dig for it and steal it . 20 Hoard wealth for yourselves in heaven, where neither moth nor corro

God’s will isn’t complicated. But we sure make it sound so.

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When I was a kid, parents and pastors encouraged us to learn and follow God’s will. Wasn’t just a kid thing either. Churches encourage everybody to learn and follow God’s will. It’s what churches do. How do we do this? “Read your bible!” we were told. So we did. And… we found it had a lot of interesting stories, good advice, confusing visions, super boring genealogies, clever advice, inspiring poems, commands which were sometimes startling (“Wow, look at all the weird stuff God made the Hebrews do. Wait, does he still want us to do this?”) and sometimes made total sense (“Don’t eat bats. Well duh .”). But… we were still generally confused about where to find what God’s will is. Ah, said our youth pastors: It’s in the biblical principles. Apparently once we read enough bible, we’ll notice certain common themes throughout, and realize, “This seems like something God cares about.” To hear our youth pastors explain it: Turns out this —the connecting the dots between verses t

“You have not because you ask not.”

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James 4.2. Here’s a phenomenon I come across a little too often: Someone’s in need. They bring up their need to fellow Christians. And the fellow Christians respond, “Have you asked God to help you with that? ’Cause if you ask, he’ll help. You’re in need because you haven’t asked God about it. ‘You have not because you ask not.’ ” Me, I’m pretty sure the needy person has asked God for help. Whenever I’m in need, he’s my go-to. I go to other people second. And no, not because other people suck: I wanna see if I can achieve it myself first, or I can achieve it with God’s help first. I guess it comes from the American ideal of self-sufficiency… although I admit it’s not always the wisest ideal. Some burdens ought to be shared. And likewise some people try to avoid burdens whenever they can. That, more often than not, is the real motivation behind Christians telling the needy, “So have you asked God about it?” They don’t wanna help. But let’s set them aside for a moment, an

Pseudepigrapha: Influential ancient Jewish fanfiction.

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PSEUDEPIGRAPHUM su.də'pɪ.ɡrə.fəm noun . A document definitely not written by the author it claims, nor in the time it claims. Sometimes fraud; sometimes fanfiction. 2. A Jewish writing ascribed to one of the patriarchs or prophets of bible times, but actually written after 200 BC . [Plural, pseudepigrapha su.də'pɪ.ɡrə.fə noun ; pseudepigraphic su.de.pɪ'ɡræ.fɪk adjective .] The bible isn’t the only ancient Israeli book in history. Same as today—though certainly not in the same volume as today—tons of books were written, distributed, and became popular. And same as today, many were about God. Were they as Spirit-inspired as the bible? Nah. That’s why they’re not included. For some, like the apocrypha, for a while they were included in the bible. Ancient Christians certainly thought they were bible, ’cause they were in the Septuagint and in the Vulgate, i.e. their bibles. In the article on the apocrypha, I went over why Protestants don’t include ’em in our

When you fast, keep it private.

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Matthew 6.16-18. Believe it or don’t, some Evangelicals have no tradition of fasting. I run into ’em from time to time, and when I talk fasting, they’re quick to reject it: “That’s an Old Testament thing,” and “Jesus never told us to fast.” True to both. The L ORD never commanded fasting in all of scripture. Fasting has always been voluntary; nobody has to fast. But certain churches do promote it. Might be a Daniel fast at the beginning of the year, a Lenten fast before Easter, an Advent fast before Christmas, a partisan fast before Election Day. And peer pressure aside, nobody has to fast. They’re voluntary customs. You can opt out. Don’t even need special permission from the clergy… although every year when St. Patrick’s Day falls in mid-Lent, many a Catholic who wants to get plowed will beg their bishop for a one-day pass. But the way Jesus talks in his Sermon on the Mount, he totally expects his followers to fast. Bear in mind his audience was full of Pharis

Sharing Jesus patiently.

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For the sake of this article I’ll call him Uladzimir. He’s a pastor, and he was trying to teach me how he did street evangelism —where you stand in some public place, and share Jesus with passers-by. Most of the time, street evangelists pick someplace busy, but not hurried —someplace where people might hang out, and therefore have a few minutes to talk. Like a park, a shopping mall, a town square, a main street, a parking lot. For this instruction, Uladzimir took me to a mall. Pick a place to stand, he instructed, and watch the passers-by as they come your way. Look at their body language. Do they walk quickly, eyes straight ahead, pretending you’re invisible (like they do with beggars and pollsters), pretending they have somewhere to be? Skip them. Do they walk slowly, nodding or saying hello as they approach, seemingly willing to listen if you distracted them with a conversation? Talk to them. Still, Uladzimir pointed out, don’t forget to listen to the Holy Spirit th

Bummed your candidate lost?

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After Mitt Romney lost the American presidential race to Barack Obama in 2012, I wrote an article, “Bummed your candidate lost? Bad sign.” I didn’t update it much when I posted a similar article in 2016, after Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. The sentiments were the same; the only difference was which political party lost. And y’know, if it’s not partisan gloating nor gloom, the sentiments should be the same. This election year, the day after Election Day, the results are still up in the air, ’cause for once the states are taking their time to count everything, instead of declaring a winner as quickly as possible. It’s agitating the impatient, including the president. But eventually we’ll know who won… and one side or the other is gonna mope about it. Because same as every year, the losing side is gonna put on a brave face, say the usual platitudes— “God’s will be done,” and “God is in control,” and “God works out everything for our good,” et cetera, ad nauseam. God’s o

Vote! But bear in mind what your vote really does.

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God’s kingdom is not a democracy. True, when we talk about repentance, turning to Jesus, voluntarily following him, and our free will, it sounds like our choices have a lot to do with Jesus’s reign as king. And they do… for now. ’Cause for now, Jesus lets humanity choose sides. Once he returns, it’s to take possession of a world he’s already conquered, and finally run it right. People at that time will no longer have the final say about their rulers; Jesus will. And they definitely no longer get to choose the man in charge: Every knee’s gonna bow to Jesus. Pp 2.10-11 If that sounds disturbing or terrifying to you, it’s probably because you don’t know Jesus. Don’t worry; he’s awesome. We his followers suck, and definitely don’t represent him properly. And his partisan followers, of every political party round the world, are the very worst of us. Every election year, these partisans try to get out the vote. Everybody tells us to vote. Even churches who absolutely won’

Prayer’s one prerequisite: Forgiveness.

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Mark 11.25, Matthew 6.14-15, 18.21-35. Jesus told us in the Lord’s Prayer we gotta pray, Matthew 6.12 BCP And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. He elaborated on this in his Sermon on the Mount : Matthew 6.14-15 KWL 14 “When you forgive people their misdeeds, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 When you can’t forgive people, your Father won’t forgive your misdeeds either.” And in Mark’s variant of the same teaching: Mark 11.25 KWL “Whenever you stand up to pray, forgive whatever you have against anyone. Thus your Father, who’s in heaven, can forgive you your misdeeds.” He elaborated on it even more in his Unforgiving Slave story. Matthew 18.21-35 KWL 21 Simon Peter came and told Jesus , “Master, how often will my fellow Christian sin against me, and I’ll have to forgive them? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus told him, “I don’t say ‘as many as seven times,’ but as many as seven by seventy tim

Reformation Day.

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31 October isn’t just Halloween. For Protestants, some of us observe the day as Reformation Day, the day in 1517 when bible professor Dr. Martin Luther of the University of Wittenberg, Saxony, Holy Roman Empire (now Germany), posted 95 propositions he wanted to discuss with his students. Specifically, about certain practices in the Catholic church —in which, at the time, they were all members—to which he objected. Technically it wasn’t 31 October. Y’see, in 1517 Europeans were still using the Julian calendar, which was out of sync with the vernal equinox by 11 days. That’s why they updated it with the Gregorian calendar in 1582. Once we correct for that, it was really 10 November. But whatever. Reformation Day! Luther didn’t realize this was as big a deal as we make it out to be. It’s dramatically described as Luther, enraged as if he just found out about 95 problems in his church, nailing a defiant manifesto to the school’s Castle Church door. Really, the door was the scho

On not giving to certain churches.

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Recently the subject came up about funding one’s church… and about whether we oughta fund churches which really doesn’t need the money. Fr’instance a megachurch. People assume bigger churches are successful, and flush with cash, so it doesn’t matter whether they give these churches any money: The churches already have money. The Roman Catholic Church is loaded with expensive buildings, priceless artwork, huge tracts of land; heck, Vatican City is a sovereign nation-state which prints money and postage stamps. Hence whenever a Catholic diocese actually does need money, most people’s first response is, “Oh come on; you guys have money.” And don’t give. Now yes, churches with a lot of people are gonna need a lot of resources. More pastors, obviously. More support staff: More secretaries and assistants, janitors and groundskeepers, bookkeepers, security guards, IT and website personnel, counselors and life coaches, drivers and pilots… the organization can get pretty huge. Plu

How do we fund our churches?

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Back in high school I invited a schoolmate to my church. After the service he confessed he was really bothered by the offering plates. We passed offering plates right after the worship songs, but before the karaoke. (Many Christians call it “special music.” It’s where someone gets on stage and sings along to an instrumental track. Exactly like karaoke. ’Cause it’s karaoke.) People put cash and checks in the plates. Sometimes in little envelopes, so people can’t see how little they actually give. Sometimes not, so people can. This bugged him. In the church where he was raised, they had an offering box in back of the auditorium. If people wanted to inconspicuolusly put money or gum wrappers into it, they could. The box, he felt, was way more appropriate than our ostentatious “Look what I gave” display—which reminded him much too much of this story: Mark 12.41-44 NRSV 1 [Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many ric

For thine is the kingdom…

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Matthew 6.13. At the end of the Lord’s Prayer, in both the well-known Book of Common Prayer version and the King James Version, it ends with this line: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen. It comes from the Didache , an instruction manual for new Christians written in the first century. Yep, around the same time the New Testament was written. Its version of the Lord’s Prayer includes that line, whereas the oldest copies of Matthew do not. But because a lot of ancient Christians used the Didache to instruct new Christians, a lot of ’em were taught the Didache version of the Lord’s Prayer… and that last line gradually worked its way into ancient copies of Matthew . And from there into the Vulgate, the Textus Receptus , the Lutherbibel, the Geneva Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the King James Version. So it’s not from the bible? No it actually is from the bible. But it’s from Daniel , not Jesus. Comes from this vers