Getting hungry for God. Literally.

by K.W. Leslie, 31 December
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 is more important than our lives. That’s the declaration we make when we fast: Our lives aren’t as important as God.

Why do we do such a thing? For the same reason Jesus did it, when he went to the desert for the devil to tempt him. Mt 4.1-2, Lk 4.1-2 Fasting makes people spiritually tough. It amplifies our prayer and meditation by a significant factor, which is why it’s a common prayer practice. When we deprive our physical parts, and shift our focus to the spiritual parts, those parts get exercised; they get stronger.

We reject our culture, which teaches us we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of anything. We recognize God, not food, is our source of life. Our minds get better attuned to God’s will. We hear him better, because our bodies physically feel our need for him. We detect spiritual things faster. We discern the difference between good and evil better.

Yeah, fasting does all that. That is, when we’re praying as well as fasting. If you’re fasting but not praying, it’s time wasted.

Don’t get me wrong. Other forms of self-deprivation do it too. Dieting for God, or going without certain beloved things and hobbies, because God’s more important than our desires, will also achieve the same things fasting can. Just not as quickly; not as intensely. The stakes just aren’t as high. Fasting is hardcore, remember? Going without bacon, as hard as that might be for you personally, isn’t life-threatening. (In fact it’s better for your health.) But though a small thing, it’s still a sacrifice, and part of the proper mindset: “God is more important than my palate.”

Why you’re not gonna read the bible in a year.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 December

So I wrote yesterday about how people choose to read the enitre bible as one of their new year’s resolutions, and how they really oughta skip the whole bible-in-a-year idea and read it in a month. Because it’s doable, and because you’re more apt to retain and understand it if you don’t stretch it out.

But some of you won’t. I know; I’ve heard the feedback. Many of you got it in your heads a month is impossible. Or unreasonable. Or that you need the extra time to process what you read. (And okay, I’ll take your word for it you actually do meditate on what you read, and aren’t just pretending to practice a real spiritual discipline just so you can weasel out of the challenge. ’Cause I know some of you legitimately do. The rest of you, I have my doubts… but fine; you meditate.)

Likewise I know plenty of Christians with plenty of self-control, but reading is a struggle. It’s never been something they enjoy, nor do for fun. For all we know, they have undiagnosed learning disbilities. (Some of ’em have been diagnosed.) So, for the life of ’em, they can’t manage to get through the bible. It really frustrates them because they know they really should read it, but, y’know, reading.

I should point out new believers regularly claim the bible has proven a giant exception to their reading difficulties. Zealous new believers will pick up a bible, find they can’t put it down, whip right through it… and soon after, seek something else to read. Reading the bible turned them into readers! But that’s not everyone, so let’s be fair.

For those folks who don’t struggle to read, I still point out the way bible-reading plans are commonly structured, they are poison to reading comprehension. To reading retention. To natural pacing. To context. To enjoyment! They turn what should be informative and inspiring, into a chore. And people hate chores, and are happy to find excuses to get out of ’em. “Whoops, missed two readings. Oh well; guess I’ll start over again next January.” Then they don’t.

Chopping the bible into 365 segments (or 366 in leap years, or 313 if they let you take Saturdays off) is a design feature of the yearlong reading plan. This is the very thing which makes the plans terrible.

Read the bible in a month. Yes, seriously. A month.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 December

January’s coming; you’re making resolutions, and one of ’em is to read the bible. As you should! It’s gonna make you more familiar with God. Some people unrealistically expect a new, profound God-experience every day as the Holy Spirit shows ’em stuff, but hopefully you’re more realistic about it. Hopefully you’re realistic about all your resolutions. Not everyone is.

So you need to read through through the entire bible, Genesis to maps. (That’s an old Evangelical joke. ’Cause a lot of study bibles include maps in the back. Okay, it’s less amusing once I explain it.) Every year Christians get on some kind of bible-reading plan to make sure they methodically go through every book, chapter, and verse. ’Cause when we don’t, we wind up only reading the familiar bits, over and over and over again—and miss a lot of the parts we should read. The reason so many Christians misinterpret the New Testament is because they know so very little of its Old Testament context. Every time I quote just a little bit of the Law to explain Jesus’s teachings, way too many people respond, “I’ve never heard that before.” Sadly, I know exactly what they’re talking about.

But part of the reason they “never heard that before” is because they totally forgot they did hear it. Because their bible-in-a-year reading plan had ’em read the Law back in February… and when they finally got to the gospels in September, they’ve clean forgot what they read in February. And by next February when they’re reading the Law again, they’ve clean forgot what they read in September.

So why take a year to read the bible? ’Cause everybody else is doing the bible in a year.

Seriously. It’s a big market. Publishers sell one-year bibles, which chop the scriptures into short daily readings. Sometimes really short daily readings, ’cause they’ll give you three readings: A chapter of the Old Testament, half a chapter of the New Testament, and half a psalm or some other poetry for dessert. If you don’t buy their specially sliced-up bible, there are websites which do it for you, or modules to add to your bible software, or you can just get a list of somebody’s bible-in-a-year plan and follow it yourself. Stick to it and in a year—a year!—you’ll have read the bible.

Yes the bible is a big thick book collection. But come on. It’s not so thick it takes a year to go through.

The year-long program makes the bible sound like this huge, insurmountable mountain to climb. It’s no such thing. Why, you can read it in a month. And no, I’m not kidding. A month. I’ve read it several Januarys in a row. Takes me three weeks.

Yes, there are bible-reading programs which read the bible in three months. That’s a little more reasonable. In fact if you wanna really get familiar with your bible, and quickly, it’s a great idea to do this three-month plan and read the bible four times in a year. (Ideally in four different translations.) Read it every time the seasons change—in December, March, June, and September. Get a bible-in-three-months plan and go with their schedule, or get a bible-in-a-year plan and read four times as much.

If you struggle with reading, or reading comprehension, fine; there are six-month bible-reading plans. But when we’re talking a whole year to read the bible, this pace has serious drawbacks. And not just ’cause it makes the bible sound impossibly massive.

Imagine reading any other book a page a day.

Bible chapters are short. ’Cause when the ancients wrote books, their chapters were short! A chapter is what we’d consider a section of a chapter nowadays. They’re like four or five paragraphs. If you’ve ever read Les Miserables the chapters are even shorter. The sections in these TXAB articles I write are just as long. And bible chapters are often longer than the average chapter in ancient literature.

So imagine reading a “big thick volume” of a book in only a chapter a day. Like Les Miserables, or War and Peace, or The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, over the course of a year. You’d never think to chop them up into 365 daily readings. But let’s say you did.

You’re gonna have the following troubles:

  • A narrative is gonna get sliced up. Several times. In several awkward places. Can you remember, day to day, where you are in the story? Hope so.
  • How well are you gonna remember a concept in one of the early chapters, when the concept comes up again three months later? And eight months later? And 11 months later?
  • When you can’t follow the storyline, you’re gonna get frustrated. Frustrated readers don’t usually go back and reread things in order to sort things out. They tend to stop reading altogether.

These are some of the many reasons why a year is much too slow. Three months is better. But if you want a serious overview of the bible with a fresh memory, read it in two months. And as I keep saying, you can read it in one. The entire bible, front to back, within the month of January. (Book order up to you, of course.)

Sixteen years ago I was listening to one of my audio bibles and noticed it was about 92 hours long. That’s listening to it at the relatively slow pace that a voice actor goes. I read much faster than that. I realized I could easily read it in half that time—which means it’s theoretically possible to read the bible in a week if motivated. You know, like zealous brand-new Christians tend to be. How often have you heard baby Christians claim they started reading their bibles and couldn’t put it down, and got through the whole volume in quicktime?

So in order to prove the bible-in-a-month deal was doable, I put the following limitations on myself. I think they’re reasonable and doable. I still follow ’em.

  • An hour (or so) per day. If I go over an hour, it’s only because I’m so close to finishing a book, it’d be nuts to stop with a chapter or two to go. Most days the reading takes less than an hour: Most of the bible’s books are short.
  • Only six days a week. I skip Saturdays—unless I miss some other day of the week; then I catch up Saturday. Still, only six days.
  • An unfamiliar bible translation, which oughta make me less likely to skim the verses I’m familiar with.

I read fast, which is why I’m usually done in three weeks. So you can totally do it in four.

Or listen to an entire audio bible.

Maybe you’re not much of a reader. Which is odd, considering you read TXAB and I write very few short pieces.

If that’s you, that’s fine. An audio bible might be more your speed. Get one. I have a page full of links. You can download one for free, or visit one of the many sites which stream the bible, like Bible Gateway. Or get an app (yes, Bible Gateway has one) and stick it on your phone. There are many available translations.

Like I said, one of my audio bibles takes 92 hours to listen to in its entirety. Divided into 24 days, I’d have to listen to about 3 hours 12 minutes a day. For some of us, the daily commute to work and back is longer than 3 hours (which is kinda nuts, but that’s life) and what d’you usually do in that time? Listen to other stuff? Curse at the other drivers? Load up on audio bible instead.

For those folks who live their lives with headphones on, you can listen to way more than three hours a day. Might finish the bible in two weeks, like one of those on-fire Christians who can’t put their bible down. Remember when you were like that? (Oh, you never were? Well, don’t worry. Statistically less than a third of us came to Jesus like that.)

Though the bible’s a big thick book collection, going through the whole of it in January is far from impossible.

“But I don’t wanna read it so fast.”

Ever since I first pitched this idea, a lot of people have been eager to tackle it for themselves. Bible in a month, baby! They drop everything else they’re reading, all the TV programs they’re usually watching, suspend their Netflix account, and cram bible for the month. And to their own great surprise, do it.

I get just as many people who really don’t wanna take the bible-in-the-month challenge. Which is fine. Nobody made this mandatory, y’know. I sure don’t. I just think it’s a good idea: Why take the snail’s-pace approach when you could be done already in January? Worse, lose track and drop the ball by mid-March, just like your gym membership?

For certain people, it’s not enough to say, “No thank you; not for me.” They gotta defend themselves. (Again, they really don’t.) And how do immature people defend themselves? By not just opting out: By slamming the practice, and condemning the person who promotes the practice. It’s not just “not for me,” but somehow evil. Reading the bible so quickly isn’t just a road not chosen; it’s a sin. Or so they tell me.

Here are the usual objections I get.

“IT’S DISRESPECTFUL TO MAKE A MARATHON OF READING THE BIBLE.” Disrespectful to whom? God? Did God decree we should only read his word in a slow, solemn pace, so that it takes a year? Or is he much more pleased when people are hungry for his word, and wanna read lots of it?

Slowness is neither respect nor reverence. It’s just slowness. True, some people are slow because they wanna be careful and methodical, and that’s good. But people are also slow because they’re lazy: If they’re slow about it, they don’t have to work too hard. Or they’re procrastinating: Put off the parts of the bible they don’t like, then whip through those passages quickly. When slowness is just an excuse to avoid reading the bible, it’s pure hypocrisy to claim speed is disrespect.

True, if we read the bible so fast we comprehend little to nothing, all so we can brag “I read it in one week; top that!”—yeah, it’s stupid. Too many people run marathons just so they can brag they ran marathons. So there are definitely people who speed-read bible so they can brag they sped-read bible. Don’t be one of those. If you’re struggling with reading comprehension ’cause a month is just too quick for you, take two or three, or however long it truly takes you. But 12 months, I still maintain, is impractically long. And foolish.

“THIS IS JUST A STUNT.” And so what if it is?

Most of the things our churches do in January are stunts. My church used to do a yearly 21-day diet fast. My neighbor’s church does a back-to-church deal so they can collect all the folks who resolved to do more church in the new year. Exactly what’s wrong with these stunts? Just because it’s wild and out of the ordinary, doesn’t mean you can’t profit by it.

If the bible-in-January stunt gets people to read their bibles for once, you should be all for it.

“HOW MUCH CAN YOU RETAIN FROM READING SO FAST?” Me? Quite a lot. I have a better-than-average ability at reading comprehension. You? I dunno. But it’ll be way more than you retain from reading so slow.

This is probably the most regular excuse I’ve heard for reading through the bible slowly: “We need the time to chew our spiritual food, and meditate on it better.” It’d be nice if that’s actually what people do with their daily bible readings, but let’s get real: They do no such thing. They only read ’em, maybe post a few bible memes on Instagram, then move on with their day. The whole “I need time to meditate” excuse? Yep, more hypocrisy.

The point of reading the entire bible isn’t actually retention, although some retention will happen. It’s to remind us what’s in the scriptures. Retention’s more likely when we read it more often, so when you do this bible-in-a-month thing every year, you’re really likely to retain stuff. But even if you just do it this once: There are parts we haven’t read in the longest time, and we need to be reminded they’re there. We need a refresher. Familiarity is something a lot of us Christians lack with the bible.

How much are we gonna retain? More than someone who never reads it. And while everyone on the three-month plan is a third of the way through, we even have time to go through the bible again. Twice.

“IT DOESN’T MAKE YOU A BETTER OR SUPERIOR CHRISTIAN.” Yeah it does. In a month I’ve read 12 times as much bible as those Christians on the yearly installment plan. That’s clearly superior.

Oh you mean morally superior? Well no; of course not. Not unless I actually follow God’s instructions in what I’ve read.

But like I said, I’ll have read 12 times as much bible. I got all God’s instructions down by the end of January, whereas the folks on the yearly plan won’t be half done till July. I have it fresh in my memory, and know where I need to go back and review; they don’t. Depending on how their plan is structured, they can go most of the year making the same mistakes, committing the same sins, because they haven’t yet been corrected—or because it’s been far too long since they read those corrections, and they forgot ’em already. I have a serious advantage over them.

No, I haven’t earned special heavenly Brownie points from God by reading the bible in a month. No, I’m not more righteous, more saved, more mature, more anything, unless I put what I read into practice. But I did get that bible read, and have a several-month jump on other Christians. That ain’t nothing.

“I CAN’T SPARE AN HOUR A DAY.” Fair enough. Many can’t. Some of us have crazy busy lives, and simply can’t take a free hour for ourselves and our spiritual lives. That’s a much bigger issue than reading the bible in a month. If you can only snatch a few minutes for yourself at a time, please spend it on prayer. When you get more time, then concentrate on bible study and mediation. If you want to plow through a bible within a month, you may have to resort to audio bibles.

But lots of people absolutely do have a spare hour. That is, after we part with some other leisure activity, like TV, video games, Facebook, or something they really don’t wanna put on hold.

“I’M NOT SURE I COULD BE THAT DISCIPLINED.” Also fair enough. But God’s calling you to be. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. When we lack self-control, it’s not because God hasn’t granted us the ability; it’s because we’ve not bothered to put this Spirit-granted ability into practice, and don’t exercise it. Compared to other forms of self-control—diets, quitting tobacco, going to the gym regularly, cutting back on luxuries—reading the bible in a month is rather easy. Unless we’re suffering from an addiction or medical condition, our lack of discipline isn’t a valid excuse.

Maybe you need an incentive: Once you finish the bible, reward yourself. Or read the bible with a partner, and if you finish the bible your partner can reward you, and vice-versa. Do it in a group and egg one another on. Ban all other reading material, all other forms of entertainment, from your life till you get that bible completely read. If you’re not disciplined, use this opportunity to grow your self-control.

One possible schedule.

Here’s one possible schedule you can follow. Gets you through the Old Testament (I listed it in roughly the order it was composed), then the New (generally bunching authors together).

January has 31 days, so there are plenty of extra days available.

And no, you don’t have to start on 1 January! Start anywhere. Start in mid-January and finish in mid-February. Start in February. Start on Wedesday instead of Sunday, and take your breaks on Sundays instead of Saturdays. Who says you have to sync up with any calendar?

I’ve seen other reading programs which divide the bible up into roughly equal amounts of reading each day. It means you gotta quit reading partway through a book. Ideally I like to read a book (any book, not just bible books) all the way through. So you’ll notice I didn’t bisect the books if I could help it. Psalms is an exception, ’cause Psalms is huge—and technically Psalms consists of five books of psalms, and I didn’t divide those five books.

If you wanna rearrange things for your own convenience—maybe you wanna read an Old Testament book, then a New Testament book, then the Old Testament again, and so on—go right ahead. Whatever gets you through the bible.

And if you wanna read equal amounts of bible each day, here’s the easiest way to do it: Go get one of those yearly bible-reading programs, and read 13 days’ worth of material each day. That’ll get you finished in 28 days.

Ready to take the challenge? Let’s start reading.

Resolutions: Our little stabs at self-control.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 December

Speaking for myself, I’m not into new year’s resolutions.

Because I make resolutions the year round. Whenever I recognize 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 admit I may procrastinate just the same. But not ’cause I’m saving up these changes for the new year.)

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 great 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 enough exercise? Sloppy finances? Non-productive hobbies? Too many bucket list items not checked off?

Since our culture doesn’t really do self-control, you might notice a lot of Americans’ resolutions aren’t really about breaking bad habits, but adding new habits—good or bad. We’re not gonna eat less, but we are gonna work out more often. We’re not gonna cut back on video games at all, yet somehow we’re gonna find the time to pray more often. You know—unrealistic expectations.

True, a lot of us vow to diet and exercise. Just as many of us will choose to learn gourmet cooking, or resolve to eat at fancier restaurants more often. (Well, so long that the fancier restaurants provide American-size portions. If I only wanted a six-ounce piece of meat I’d go to In N Out Burger.)

True, a lot of us will vow to cut back on our screen time—whether on computers, tablets, phones, or televisions. Just as many will decide time isn’t the issue; quality is. They’ll vow to watch better movies and TV shows. Time to binge-watch the shows the critics rave about. Time to watch classic movies instead of whatever Adam Sandler’s production company poops out. Sometimes it’s a clever attempt to avoid cutting back on screen time—’cause they already know they won’t. And sometimes they honestly never think about it; screens are a fact of life.

As Christians, a lot of us will resolve to be better Christians. We’ll pray more. Meditate more. Go to church more consistently; maybe join one of the small groups. Perhaps read more bible—even all the way through. Put more into the collection plate. Share Jesus more often with strangers and acquaintances. Maybe do some missions work.

All good intentions. Yet here’s the problem: It takes self-control to make any resolution stick. It’s why, by mid-March, all these resolutions are likely abandoned. So if we’re ever gonna stick to them, we gotta begin by developing everybody’s least-favorite fruit of the Spirit: Self-control.

St. John’s Day.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 December

The third day of Christmas, 27 December, is the feast day of the apostle John.

Yokhanan bar Zavdi (English, “John, son of Zebedee”) was a first cousin of Christ Jesus; their moms were sisters, and I suspect Jesus stayed with John’s family while he headquartered himself in Capharnaum. Jesus chose him and his elder brother James to be part of his Twelve, Mk 3.17 the apostles he sent to evangelize Israel, who were later expected to run his church. Paul of Tarsus considered him a pillar of this church. Ga 2.9

He’s widely considered the student whom Jesus loved, Jn 21.20 and therefore the author of the gospel we call John, plus three letters and Revelation. There are various scholars who aren’t so sure John wrote those scriptures, ’cause John didn’t put his name on anything but Revelation (and they speculate the John of Revelation was a whole different guy named John). And maybe that’s so. But there’s no reason the author wasn’t this John.

Tradition has it John later took charge of the Ephesian church—either after Timothy held the job, or as Timothy’s bishop. Most Christians assume John died during his exile on Patmos, but traditions say he returned to Ephesus, where he either died of natural causes, or was murdered by antichrists.

The 12 days of Christmas.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 December

Tomorrow’s the first day of Christmas. Happy Christmas!

After which there are 11 more days of it. 26 December—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 2021, 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 turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

We’re on the fourth day and that’s 20 frickin’ birds. There will be plenty more, what with the swans a-swimming and geese a-laying. Dude was weird for birds. But I digress.

There are 12 days of Christmas. But our culture focuses on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day… and we’re done. Department store policy is to remove the Christmas merchandise on 26 December, and start putting up New Year’s and St. Valentine’s Day stuff. (If the Christmas stuff is already sold out, fill ’em with New Year’s stuff now.) So the stores grant us two days of Christmas; no more.

Really, many people can’t abide any more days of Christmas than that. When I remind people it’s 12 days, the response is seldom surprise, recognition, or pleasure. It’s tightly controlled rage. Who the [expletive noun] added 11 more days to this [expletive adjective] holiday? They want it done already.

I understand this. If the focus of Christmas isn’t Christ, but instead all the Christian-adjacent cultural traditions we’re forced to practice this time of year, Christmas sucks. Hard. Especially since Mammonists don’t bother to be like Jesus, and practice kindness and generosity. For them Christmas is about being a dick to any clerk who wishes ’em a “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” I don’t blame people for hating that behavior. Really, Christians should hate it. It’s works of the flesh, y’know.

Christmas, the feast of Christ Jesus’s nativity (from whence non-English speakers get their names for Christmas, like Navidad and Noël and Natale) begins 25 December and ends 5 January. What are we to do these other 11 days? Same as we were supposed to do Christmas Day: Remember Jesus. Meditate on his first coming; look forward to his second coming. And rejoice; these are feast days, so the idea is to actually enjoy yourself, and have a good time with loved ones. Eat good food. Hang out. Relax. Or, if you actually like to shop, go right ahead; but if you don’t, by all means don’t.

It’s a holiday. Take a holiday.

Santa Claus and misplaced, misunderstood faith.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 December

Years ago round Christmastime, one of my 9-year-old students asked me, “Mr. Leslie, is Santa real?”

Oh good Lord, I thought, haven’t her parents had the Santa talk with her? I punted. “Ask your mom.”

This girl’s mom was one of those people with an all too common misconception: The way you keep your kids innocent is by keeping them ignorant. And of course this doesn’t work. As you might know from when you were a kid: When you had serious questions, you sought answers. If your parents didn’t have ’em, or wouldn’t give ’em, you’d go elsewhere.

And these days, older kids won’t even go to their parents for answers: They’ll do as their parents do, and grab their phone first. Wanna find out about anything? Grab your phone and ask Siri or Google. Heck, some of you might be reading TXAB right now because you went to the internet instead of texting your pastor.

I’m old: When I was a kid only academics and soldiers had internet. But when my parents weren’t forthcoming, I knew how to look stuff up in an encyclopedia. We had an old edition of the Britannica at home, and if it had little or nothing, there was always the public library.

And if I had to consult other people, there were plenty of knowledgeable adults around. Pastors, mentors, neighbors, schoolteachers, older relatives. Or when absolutely necessary, school friends—but I already knew they didn’t know anything. Not every kid does.

So as their schoolteacher, this is why I got questions about Santa. And God. And why people are so terrible. And how babies are made. And the definitions to certain words which children’s dictionaries correctly refused to include. And that’s just fourth grade; you should hear what junior highers and high schoolers ask—on the rare occasions they don’t assume they know it all.

I taught at a Christian school, so parents were usually okay with me answering God questions. That is, so long that my answers didn’t undermine their favorite assumptions. But some of ’em deliberately put their kids in Christian school to shelter them. Which is another common misconception: You do realize certain parents put their kids in Christian school because they’re bad kids, and are hoping the school will straighten them out so they don’t have to? So while you imagine you’re sheltering your kids, you’re actually throwing them into the hail. Nice job.

In any event the parents were so not okay with me answering any questions about baby-making. Heck, I didn’t wanna do it either; I kept telling them to ask their parents. I told one persistent girl, whose mom refused to have “the talk” with her, “Tell her, ‘If I don’t know how they’re made, what if I make a baby by accident?’ ”—and that worked.

I likewise knew (from experience; a story I’ll tell another time) parents definitely didn’t want me exposing their Santa game. Problem is, the girl asked me in the middle of class, and some of ’em decided to answer her question before her mom could: “Santa’s not real.”

“He’s not?” asked the girl.

“He’s real…” I fumbled, thinking specifically of St. Nicholas of Myra, “but maybe not in the way you’re thinking.”

“Which means,” insisted one of my very literal-minded students, “that he’s not real.” ’Cause kids know a wishy-washy answer when they hear it.

Word!

by K.W. Leslie, 22 December

John 1.1-5.

Many Christians are fascinated by the word “word.” Mostly ’cause of the following passage. It tends to get translated into past-tense verbs, but the aorist verb tense has no time; it’s neither past, present, nor future, but just is. So without other past-tense verbs to set that context for it, I just go with present tense.

John 1.1-5 KWL
1 The word’s in the beginning.
The word’s with God.
The word is God.
2 He’s in the beginning with God.
3 Everything came to be through the word.
Nothing that exists came to be without him.
4 What came to be through him, is life.
Life’s the light of humanity.
5 Light shines in darkness,
and darkness can’t get hold of it.

“The word” John speaks of, existed in the very beginning, is with God, and is God. And around 7BC became the man we know as Christ Jesus of Nazareth.

Why’d the author of John (whom, for tradition’s sake, let’s call St. John) use “word” to describe the pre-incarnate Jesus? For centuries, the assumption was λόγος/lógos came from Greek philosophy. Blame the gentiles: The early church’s writers didn’t know what the Pharisees taught, but they did know Greek philosophy, and insisted on interpreting bible through the lens of their own culture. Christians still do the very same thing today… but that’s a whole other rant. Let’s get back to criticizing ancient Christian gentiles.

Just our luck, ancient Greek philosophers had written a whole bunch of navel-gazing gibberish about the word lógos. ’Cause they were exploring the nature of truth: What is it, how do we find it, how do we prove it, how do we recognize logical fallacies, and what’s the deal with words which can mean more than one thing? For that matter, what’s a “word” anyway? Is it just a label for a thing, or a substantial thing on its own? Maybe that’s why God can create things by merely saying a word. Ge 1.3

And so on. Follow their intellectual rabbit trails, and you’ll go all sorts of weird, gnostic directions. Which is exactly what gentile Christians did.

Now let’s practice some actual logic, and look for once at John’s culture. What’d Pharisees teach about what “word” means? Apparently they had their own interesting ideas behind it.

Arianism: One God—and Jesus isn’t quite him.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 December
ARIAN 'ɛr.i.ən adjective. Believes God is one being, one person, not three; and that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are created beings and lesser gods.
[Arianism 'ɛr.i.ən.ɪz.əm noun.]

I’ve written on unitarian beliefs—namely how there’s one God, but contrary to how he’s been revealed in the New Testament, certain folks insist God’s not a trinity. Now, pagans and other monotheists don’t bother with the New Testament, so of course they don’t believe in trinity. But Christians do have the NT and claim to abide by it… and yet some of us still don’t believe in trinity. We call these folks heretics. (And of course they’d call us heretics, and round and round we go.)

One of the first major anti-trinitarian heresies Christians bumped into, is Arianism—a word pronounced the same, but is not the same, as the white-supremacist view Aryanism. It’s named for Áreios of Alexandria (c. 250-336), a Christian elder—or in Roman Catholic thinking, a priest. In Latin he’s Arius, and that’s usually what he’s called in history books. Arianism is based on Áreios’s insistence Jesus isn’t YHWH. He’s a second god, created by the Almighty, who does godlike things, but he’s not the God, but a lesser god. ’Cause God’s not a trinity.

You gotta understand where Áreios was coming from. When you read the gospels, Jesus is clearly a different person than his Father. His Father is God, Jn 8.54 and the usual, natural conclusion you’d come to is that God’s one person, and Jesus is another. Which is true! The hard part is the idea God is more than one person, and for Áreios and other Arians, that’s an impossible part.

Thing is, in the scriptures there are verses which bluntly state Jesus is God. Jn 1.1, Pp 2.5, What’d Áreios do with them? Simple: He allowed that Jesus must be a god. But not the God.

You gotta also understand where Áreios came from. Third-century Egypt was predominantly pagan and polytheist. They believed in Egyptian gods, Greek gods, Roman gods, and any other gods which sounded worth their time. Christianity, in contrast, is monotheistic: One God, and all the other gods are probably demons. The idea of trinity—of Jesus and the Holy Spirit being God exactly the same as the Father is God—rubbed Áreios the wrong way. To him it sounded way too much like weird gnostic polytheism. But two gods?—he could live with two gods.

Áreios was hardly the first to believe this. But he was the first to successfully spread the idea around. Largely through the use of catchy worship songs which taught his theology. Here’s a bit from his song “Thalia,” quoted by then-deacon (and Áreios’s chief critic) Athanásios of Alexandria. De Synodis 15. My translation:

The First One made the Son—the first thing he created.
He made the Son himself, giving birth to him.
Who doesn’t have any of God’s being nor uniqueness,
For he’s not the same. He’s not the same stuff as him.

The lyrics don’t sound all that catchy to me, but the music must’ve been way better.

Hence for a while there in the early 300s, Arianism was rapidly becoming the main form of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Even the emperor, Flavius Constantinus, had become Arian.

Okay. You might be going, “Why on earth are you writing about a 17-century-old heresy? Those people got condemned by the ancient Christians and died out.” And man alive would you be dead wrong. Arians are everywhere.

Heretics won’t believe the incarnation.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 December

1 John 4.1-6.

From time to time Christians ask me how I know whether someone’s an on-the-level Christian, or whether they’re a phony, a heretic, a hypocrite, or just generally on the wrong track. For two reasons, usually:

  • They honestly don’t know. And these guys make them nervous… and somehow I don’t, which is odd, but whatever. They’ve decided they can trust me enough to pick my brain.
  • They not-so-honestly do know, or think they know. So this is a test to see whether I believe as they do, and whether I can be trusted.

Let’s set the dishonest folks aside. The reason Christians get so nervous about heretics and wayward Christians is because most of ’em think if they follow the wrong guy, their salvation is in jeopardy. And they’re not wrong. They should be following Jesus!

Frequently I point ’em to 1 John. It’s a letter full of good commonsense advice about living in a fallen world, including a world full of Christians gone corrupt, ’cause that’s exactly what John had to deal with when he ran the church of Ephesus: Gnostics and heretics and antichrists. People who were trying to pull away some of the Christians of his church, who knew better but need a little reminding and a little encouraging.

“Spot the heretic” isn’t a complicated game when we know what Christians oughta believe. Problem is, so many of us know nothing. Or we’re looking for the wrong thing: We’re being very very careful to remain orthodox, or at least carefully conform to popular Christian culture. But in so doing, we’re not looking out for what Jesus warns us time and again to watch out for: Bad fruit.

So often, I’ve heard ignorant Christians say of fruitless, jerklike leaders, “But they believe all the right things.” They seem to have all their theological ducks in a row, so it’s okay that they’ve created little cults where you’re never allowed to ask them questions, nor be disloyal to them—as if our loyalty belongs to anyone but Christ Jesus alone.

Yeah, on the other extreme people will follow heretics because they’re such nice people. Because they’ve confused niceness with rightness. They’re not the same thing. My friendly waiter might never wash her hands; friendly or not, she’s wrong. As would I be if I decided to tip her with a tract instead of money.

But fruit counts. And orthodoxy counts. Christians oughta have both. Good works and faith in God. Obedience to Jesus’s commands and compassion and mercy and grace for those who flub those commands. John wrote about both. Read the letter sometime, and learn the importance of both.

Today’s passage focuses mainly on orthodoxy, but I figured I should first remind you both fruit and orthodoxy are important, lest you get the idea it’s just orthodoxy. You might also notice a little bit of good fruit comes up in this passage too. And of course Jesus’s incarnation—which is why I flagged it as a scripture for Advent.

1 John 4.1-6 KWL
1 Beloved, don’t believe every spirit!
Instead examine whether the spirits are from God,
because many fake prophets have gone forth into the world.
2 This is how you know God’s spirit: Every spirit is from God
who acknowledges Christ Jesus came in the flesh.
3 Every spirit is not from God
who doesn’t acknowledge Jesus is even from God.
And this behavior is of antichrist,
which you heard “is coming”: It’s already in the world. Now.
4 You children are from God, and you conquered them,
because the One in you is greater than what’s in the world.
5 They’re from the world, which is why they speak from the world,
and the world heeds them.
6 We’re from God. One who knows God heeds us.
One who’s not from God doesn’t heed us.
From this we identify the truthful spirit, and the erroneous spirit.

Why do pagans celebrate a Christian holiday?

by K.W. Leslie, 17 December

Every year, on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, my city has a Christmas festival. (Well, not in 2020 nor 2021, ’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.

“What’s with all the Christians?” a friend commented years ago.

“Well it is our holiday,” I reminded him.

I find it a drastic contrast. My family does too. I’m usually there early to set up and work my church’s booth, so I see everything. My family, most years, skips the newspaper’s opening festivities, ’cause all they care about are the church booths. Because I’m manning the booth, I kinda ignore the pagan tree-lighting stuff at the beginning. And the few times I’m not in a booth, I go to Starbucks and get something egg-nog-flavored, then go check out the sister churches in town.

Whereas the non-Christians who only wanna hear the Santa and reindeer songs? They clear out early. Things get way too Christian for them. They might go to the downtown bars; otherwise they’re done.

And many of us Christians are fine with Santa songs, but the opening festivities are too crowded and impersonal, and we’d rather check out church booths and say hi to our fellow Christians.

I’ve lived elsewhere, and visited their local Christmas celebrations. Those celebrations weren’t adopted by the local churches. As a result they were mostly about Santa and snowmen and reindeer… and I found ’em pretty dreary and empty, and didn’t go back.

Some years ago I bought an edition of C.S. Lewis’s letters, and among them is a bit about the oddness of pagans who celebrate Christmas. Imagine, Lewis wrote his brother, if some non-Buddhists decided to enthusiastically celebrate a Buddhist holiday. (I imagine them celebrating it American-style, with tacky decorations, songs, sales, movies, and festive coffee drinks.) Now imagine, since these non-Buddhists aren’t big on the Buddha, they remove all the elements of him from the celebration. Even insert some mascot, whom they celebrate more than the Buddha. Then celebrate anyway.

Lewis later developed this idea into a satire, “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus.” In it, the people of Niatirb (get it?) vigorously celebrate a holiday called Exmas, while the religious folks celebrate an alternate contemporaneous holiday called Crissmas.

I agree with Lewis: It’s super weird to celebrate some other religion’s holiday, yet push that religion clean out of it. It’s exactly as if pagans took over Hanukkah—and instead of remembering the Maccabees, they invented some guy named Hanukkah Harry who flies round the world and delivers socks.

But weird or not, I don’t wonder why people do it. They do it for the same reason they have sex though they’re not in love; the same reason they take heroin instead of seek true joy. It’s fun. Christmas is fun, whether Christ has anything to do with it.

True, it’s meaningless without Christ. But it’s still fun, and fun’s all people care about.

Modalism: The illusion of three persons in one God.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 December
MODALIST 'mod.əl.ɪst adjective. Believes God has multiple personas, approaches, functions, or aspects of his nature—which other Christians confuse with trinity.
[Modalism 'mod.əl.ɪz.əm noun.]

Some Christians don’t believe God’s a trinity. For a variety of reasons, but mostly because they can’t fathom the idea (and to be fair, it’s a difficult one), or they’ve been raised in an anti-trinitarian religion or church. Fr’instance if you were raised Muslim and later become Christian… well now you have to follow Jesus in a whole new way than you’re used to, plus there’s the fact he’s God. It’s a hurdle. Not an impossible one, but it’s not all that easy for some.

Because it’s not easy, these folks can sometimes slide into one of the usual Christological heresies which make him something other than God… or human. I keep bumping into modalism because I’m Pentecostal, and certain Pentecostal churches have full-on embraced modalism. They teach it instead of trinity. They think it’s mighty clever of them. I’m sure Sabellius of Rome thought the same thing when he came up with the idea in the 210s.

Modalism doesn’t claim Jesus isn’t really God, or isn’t really human. He is; he’s both. Jesus is absolutely God.

But… he’s also God the Father. And God the Holy Spirit. Y’see, God isn’t three persons; modalists insist he’s only one person, and there is no trinity. God is one. But he looks like he’s three, from our limited human point of view.

Why’s he look three? Time travel.

No, seriously. Time travel. I know; time travel is still theory, and hasn’t yet been scientifically documented. But we’re all familiar with science fiction, so we have a general idea of how time travel works.

When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 December

Galatians 4.1-5.

There’s a verse in the bible about how “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law.” Ga 4.5 KJV Christians like to quote it ’cause it references the birth of Christ Jesus, the first coming of Jesus. It’s an advent scripture.

In context there’s a lot more to unpack, so I’ll unpack it. First the passage:

Galatians 4.1-5 KWL
1 I say for as long as heirs are children,
all of them are nothing more than a master’s slaves.
2 Instead they’re placed under nannies and butlers
until the father’s appointed time.
3 Likewise us. When we’re children, learning the basics of the universe,
we’re like slaves.
4 When the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son,
birthed by a woman, birthed under the Law,
5 so he might redeem the Law,
so we might receive God’s adoption.

It’s used as a proof text for the incarnation, but it’s not actually about incarnation. It’s part of Paul’s explanation about the Christian’s relationship to the Law of Moses. As Paul regularly taught, the Law is a schoolmaster: It teaches us the difference between following God, between rightness and righteousness, and sin.

But now that Christ Jesus has come, we follow him, not the Law.

Not that the Law’s irrelevant! Nor nullified. But our relationship is with Jesus, so we follow Jesus. We’re saved by Jesus’s self-sacrifice and God’s grace, not the Law.

Ancient heretic theories about Jesus.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 December

Because the New Testament never bluntly spells out, “Here’s precisely what Christ Jesus did and how he works,” Christians have had to deduce a number of things about him, based on various things we gleaned from the bible.

Fr’instance most of us wanna know what he looked like. And while John, in Revelation, actually does say what he looks like, Rv 1.12-16 too many of us insist that passage isn’t meant to be taken literally. Mostly because Jesus has bronze skin and white hair, and too many of us expect a more conventional depiction of White Jesus.

In that, you can see the common problem among Christian theologians: We all have our biases. We come to the scriptures with an idea already in mind, and wanna find proof texts to back us up. Sometimes the scriptures won’t do that! And that’s okay; we’re wrong, and the scriptures are meant to correct us when we’re wrong. 2Ti 3.16 But too often we won’t admit we’re wrong; too often we’ve convinced ourselves our clever ideas are really God-ideas, so the scriptures have to prove us right. If being right is more important than being scrupulous (and for too many people, it absolutely is), we’ll subtly tweak the scriptures this way and that till they do “prove us right”—and that’s how we get heresies.

The ancient Christians ran up against a whole lot of heresies, ’cause the Roman Empire largely practiced freedom of religion. No really: As far as the Romans were concerned, you could worship any god you wished. True, they persecuted Jews and Christians—but that’s largely because we told people you couldn’t worship any god you wished. Wasn’t very liberal of us. But in any event, you could worship any god; you could even introduce new gods and build temples, and start synagogues and teach newbies about your god. A number of gnostics did exactly that, and taught all kinds of weirdness. Some of these gnostics claimed to be Christian, and had all sorts of weird heretic things to teach about Christ Jesus as well.

In our day we also have freedom of religion. And, yep, gnostics. Who teach all sorts of weird heretic things about Jesus, and start churches and sell books. They make some pretty good money at it; they get fans, which feed their pride and make ’em think they’re all the more clever and inspired. But they’re leading people away from God, his grace, and his kingdom. These aren’t little errors. They’ll interfere with people’s salvation, or trick ’em into rejecting God.

Of course these heretics already refer to us orthodox Christians as “heretics”—they’re entirely sure they’re right and we’re not. And to be fair, we’re all wrong. But these folks are so wrong as to be called heretic, where their beliefs stand a really good chance of leading people away from God. They prefer their ideas about what God is like, over what God actually revealed about himself. They figure either God’s revelations are wrong, or misinterpreted—whereas they got it right, and how clever of them to see what others don’t. How wise of them; how inspired; what special favorites of God’s they must be. And all the other delusions pride can trick us into.

Heretic theories tend to fall into one of five categories:

  1. JESUS IS ANOTHER GOD. Most heretics figure Jesus isn’t the God, but a god. Another god. The God created Jesus as another god under him, like his vice-God, or prince of all the angels, or demiurge who does all the work while he sits back and rules. Jesus is some powerful being who’s not the very same One True God.
  2. JESUS ISN’T REALLY GOD. Jesus gets called “the son of God,” but that’s just a title the Hebrews gave their messiahs, their ancient kings, to indicate how these guys weren’t gods, but only worked for God. And same as all we other humans are daughters and sons of God. Like us, Jesus is another one of God’s creations. He’s still Messiah, a great teacher and prophet; he’s gonna rule the world; he’s the best human God ever made. But not God.
  3. JESUS ISN’T REALLY HUMAN. Jesus is in fact God; he’s definitely God. But he couldn’t fully give up his divinity to become human (and why would he?) so his humanity was only pretense. He appeared to be human, lest he freak people out too much. But he’s fully divine, wearing what appeared to be a human form.
  4. JESUS IS A DEMIGOD. In pagan religions, gods and humans bred and made demigods, half-and-half hybrids who were either supermen or lesser gods, like Herakles and Perseus and Aeneas. Demigod heresies describe Jesus these ways—part-God instead of entirely God, part-human instead of fully human.
  5. JESUS IS GOD—AND YOU CAN BE GOD TOO! A number of pantheists have wormed this idea into Christianity: Every human being has a divine spark in us, and Jesus fanned his own spark into full-on divinity. Now he’s teaching us to do the same thing. Follow Jesus, and you can become God too.

Whereas, to answer these theories, orthodox Christians aver:

  1. Jesus is the same God, Pp 2.6 and God is One. Dt 6.4 There isn’t another God.
  2. Jesus is as God as God can be. Jn 1.1-2
  3. He’s human; Jn 1.14 more human than humans are, ’cause we sin, which dings us quite a lot.
  4. True, to become human, Jesus was depowered, Pp 2.7 and had to perform miracles through the Holy Spirit’s power. Ac 10.38 But godlike power doesn’t make you God; it’s like saying arms and legs make you human. Divine nature does, and Jesus absolutely has that. He 1.3
  5. There’s only one God, and we’re not him… and Jesus is.

Foreknown before the world was founded.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 December

1 Peter 1.17-21.

God doesn’t have two wills, but he’s always had two plans, and they’re no secret. Plan A is that we follow him, do what’s right, love God and our neighbor, and live with him in his kingdom. Plan B, the one which has to get implemented far too often, is that we totally botch the job of following him, so he has to forgive us and give us yet another chance to follow plan A.

1 John 2.1-2 KJV
1 My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: 2 and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

When God created us humans, our sin didn’t blindside him. None of our sins make him throw up his hands and say, “Well I can’t fix that.” He already had plan B in mind; he already knew how he was gonna fix everything. He knew how to crush the serpent’s head. He’d become human and atone for our sins himself. That’s why our sins don’t drive him away, and never have. Jesus took ’em out. For all time, all of human history; from Adam and Eve’s sins, to Moses and the ancient Hebrews, to the apostles and the people of Jesus’s day, to ours, to our descendants’. There is no dispensation where Jesus’s atonement doesn’t yet apply. Because God always foreknew it.

The apostles knew this, which is why they regularly wrote of Christ Jesus being foreknown—that long before he did anything, the LORD knew Jesus would accomplish it, and acted as if it’s already done. God fills all of time, and from his eternal perspective, it is already done. He’s not just speculating about what might happen someday; he’s there, at that point in history, observing it in real time. It’s not guesswork. It’s certainty. He knows it—and because he knows it millennia before we do, we say he foreknows it, but that’s just a fancier way of saying he knows it.

Hence all the Old Testament’s prophecies of a coming Messiah, and what he’d do. Because the LORD already knew it, and was just telling the rest of us about his wonderful plans to save us.

1 Peter 1.17-21 KWL
17 If you call upon the Father,
who impartially judges us by each person’s work,
one who sojourns for a time among you must live in godly fear,
18 knowing no perishable thing, no silver nor gold,
frees you from your empty lifestyle nor heritage.
19 Instead, like that of a spotless lamb,
it’s the valuable blood of a blameless Christ.
20 Foreknown—really, from the foundation of the world—
and revealed to you all at the last times.
21 Faithful to God, by whom he was raised from death,
who gave glory to him,
so that your faith and hope are to be in God.

And here Simon Peter reminds the churches of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia about how our good works, though important, don’t save us and don’t establish our individual relationships with God. Christ Jesus does. Don’t put the cart before the horse; our relationships are entirely because Jesus died for us, and therefore we can call upon the Father, and he can empower us to do good works. The cart’s the works. The driving force is Christ.

It’s a lesson we Christians regularly need to be reminded of, ’cause it’s so easy to take pride in our good deeds, and think they’re what make us righteous. They don’t. Faith and hope in God do.

The Carmen Christi: When Jesus made himself nothing.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 December

Philippians 2.5-11.

Many scholars and historians think this part of Philippians is actually a hymn sung by ancient Christians. Possibly composed by someone other than Paul, and Paul was only quoting it when he and Timothy wrote Philippians. But if this isn’t the case, it nonetheless became an ancient Christian hymn, known in Latin as the Carmen Christi/“Christ hymn.”

In it Paul and Timothy told (or reminded) the Philippians that God became human, died for us, and will be exalted at his coming. “Christ Jesus is Lord,” to the glory of God the Father.

I really like the way the International Standard Version translated it, ’cause they made it rhyme. (It used to have a proper rhythm too. It doesn’t now, ’cause when they updated it, they swapped out “Christ” for “Messiah”—which means the very same thing, but whatever. I prefer the old meter, so I swapped it back in verse 11.)

Philippians 2.5-11 ISV
5 Have the same attitude among yourselves that was also in the Messiah Jesus:
 
6 In God’s own form existed he,
and shared with God equality,
deemed nothing needed grasping.
7 Instead, poured out in emptiness,
a servant’s form did he possess,
a mortal man becoming.
In human form he chose to be,
8 and lived in all humility,
death on a cross obeying.
9 Now lifted up by God to heaven,
a name above all others given,
this matchless name possessing.
10 And so, when Jesus’ name is called,
the knees of everyone should fall,
wherever they’re residing.
11 Then every tongue in one accord,
will say that Jesus Christ is Lord,
while God the Father praising.

This passage comes right after Paul instructed the Christians of Filippi, Greece, to work together. Not in competition—not even “healthy competition”—but submissively, taking others into consideration instead of looking out for number one. And as an example of submission, of working with people instead of against ’em, here’s Christ Jesus—who does it par excellence.

Christ Jesus’s attitude is that love takes priority over power, so he divested himself of that power and became human, out of his love for us. Therefore we likewise should prioritize others.

When God became human.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 December
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 KJV
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

Not temporarily; not for just the few decades Jesus walked the earth. When he got resurrected, he went back into a flesh-’n-bone body. When he got raptured up to heaven, he still had, and has, his flesh-’n-bone body; he didn’t shuck it like a costume. God is now meat. Flesh, blood, spit, mucus, cartilage, hair, teeth, bile, tears. MEAT.

Not just look human. Not take over an existing human, scoop out the spirit, and replace it with his Holy Spirit. These are some of the dozens of weird theories people coined about how Jesus isn’t really or entirely human. Mainly they were invented by people who can’t have God be human.

To such people, humanity makes God no longer God. It undoes his divinity. He’d have to be limited instead of unlimited. And they define God by his power. It’s what they really admire, really covet, about God: His raw, unlimited, sovereign might. Not his character, not his goodness, not his love and kindness and compassion. F--- that; God has to be mighty, and they can’t respect a God who doesn’t respect power the way they do.

So that, they insist, is who Jesus really is. Beneath a millimeter of skin, Jesus was divinity incognito. He only pretended to limit himself, for the sake of fearful masses who’d scream out in terror if they ever encountered an undisguised God. He feigned humanity. But underneath that humanity, really omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omni-everything.

To such people incarnation soils God. It dirties him. Meat is icky. Humanity, mortality, the realness of our everyday existence, is too nasty for God to submit himself to. Sweating. Aching. Pains and sickness. Peeing and pooping. Suffering from acne and bug bites and rashes. Belching and farting. Sometimes the trots from bad shawarma the night before. Waking up with a morning erection.

Have I outraged you yet? You’re hardly the first. But this, as we can all attest, is humanity. Not even sinful humanity; I haven’t touched upon that at all. Just regular, natural, physical humanity. If God became human, he became that. And people can’t abide it.

Yet it’s true. And God did it intentionally. He wanted us to be with him. So he made the first move, and became one of us.

“Incarnational”: More Christ in our ministries, and ourselves.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 December
INCARNATIONAL ɪn.kɑr'neɪ.ʃən.əl adjective. Relating to being put in a body.
2. Embodying Christ Jesus in some way.
[Incarnate ɪn'kɑr.nət adjective, incarnation ɪn.kɑr'neɪ.ʃən noun.]

“Incarnational” is a word that’s been flung around American Christianity more and more frequently over the past decade. Not everybody knows what it means, but it’s a trendy word, and they wanna be trendy, so they use it. Or the word missional, which either means they consider themselves to have a mission from God, or they’re really dedicated to their organization’s mission statement.

For the most part, Christians use “incarnational” to describe ministries, churches, and institutions whose leaders don’t want them to be quite so… institutional, I suppose. They want their groups to come across as far more friendly, warm, helpful, loving, practical, and joyful. They wanna be like Jesus.

They use “incarnational” to describe the sort of group they hope to be: One which acts as Jesus’s hands and feet to the world. One which loves like he does, helps like he does, heals like he does. One which makes it crystal clear this is Jesus’s organization: It’s run just as if he literally sits in the CEO’s office, or runs the boardroom.

Or, y’know, not. Because only some of these organizations understand what it really means to be like Jesus.

Honestly, all some of them are going for is the Jesus-vibe. They want their organizations to feel like Jesus—and who doesn’t love Jesus? (Other than antichrists.) Jesus is loving, forgiving, accepting, draws everybody to him, turns no one away, is kind, is gracious; he’s better than Santa Claus because he’s real. These groups want people to love them the same as they love Jesus, so if they claim they’re like Jesus, maybe they can get in on some of that love and devotion.

No I’m not just being cynical. I knew a Christian bookstore owner who loved to talk about being incarnational. It was his favorite buzzword. He was gonna be Jesus to his community by selling bibles, books, CDs, and Christian tchotchkes.

But if a needy person came to his store to beg for food, money, medical help, or even a job? Oh, that wasn’t his problem. That needy person should go to one of the churches. Or the Food Bank. Or some homeless shelter which our town doesn’t have. But not the county government; he didn’t want his taxes paying for such things.

He wasn’t running a charity, y’see. It wasn’t a not-for-profit bookstore. He was trying to make enough money to keep his store open, pay his employees (although barely; pay them minimum wage, and keep ’em part-time so he wouldn’t have to pay benefits), and make himself some money. It’s a business. A “Christian business,” ostensibly there to grow God’s kingdom, but really there to grow his bank account; which is why he may have claimed to abide by biblical principles… but didn’t pay his employees at the end of every day like the bible commands. Dt 24.15

But he sure loved to claim everything he did was incarnational. And I’m sure there’s a joke there about how when his business collapsed during the recession, it was just like how Jesus died… but that’s where the analogy all falls apart, and isn’t funny anyway.

See, whether an organization does act like Jesus is a whole other thing. It all depends on how well the people who run the organization, know and follow Jesus. Some of ’em don’t know him as well as they imagine. But as long as their customers think they’re a “Christian business”, they’ll keep up the façade, and use all the appropriate trendy Christian buzzwords to keep the customers happy. The instant they detect another word has become popular, they’ll ditch “incarnational” for that. It’s not about following Jesus so much as staying fresh.

The ikon of the invisible God.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 December

Colossians 1.15-20.

The apostles often dictated their letters, as you can tell from their big run-on sentences. This’d be one of them. I broke it up into sentences, as do most interpreters, but really it’s just one big eulogy Paul and Timothy wrote as they were greeting the Christians of Colossae, Phrygia Pacatiana (now ruins outside Honaz, Turkey).

In so doing they described how they thought of Christ, the Son of God. They identify they’re talking about the beloved Son in Colossians 1.13, then go into greater detail about who this Son really is: Ikon of God, firstborn of creation, through whom God created matter and power; firstborn from the dead, so he could be firstborn of everything; leader of the church, fully containing God within himself, reconciling all creation to God.

It’s a pretty cosmic description for a Nazarene handyman-turned-schoolteacher. But that’s our Jesus.

Colossians 1.15-20 KWL
15 The Son is the ikon of the invisible God,
firstborn of every creature,
16 so that by the Son everything in the heavens and on the earth is created,
the visible and the invisible (thrones, dominions, chiefdoms, or powers)
—everything was built through him and by him.
17 The Son is above everything,
and everything holds together because of him.
18 The Son is the head of the church’s body.
The Son is first.
Firstborn from the dead,
so that he might take first place in everything.
19 Because God is pleased in all fullness to dwell in the Son,
20 and by the Son reconcile everything to him,
making peace through him by the blood of his cross,
whether with things on the earth or things in the heavens.

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

by K.W. Leslie, 06 December

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 you can take it from there.

Round the year 270, Nikólaos was born in Patara, in the Roman province of Lykia. That’s just outside present-day Gelemis, Turkey. No, he wasn’t Turkish; the Turks didn’t move in till the Middle Ages. He was Anatolean Greek. Hence the Greek name, which means “people’s victory,” same as Nicodemus.

Nicholas’s parents were Christian. When they died, he was raised by his uncle, the town bishop, who had the same name as he, Nikólaos. Seems his uncle groomed him to go into the family business: Nicholas was trained to be a reader, the person who reads the bible during worship services. Later he became a presbyter—or, as they were considered in the Orthodox tradition, a priest.

Tradition has it Nicholas’s parents were wealthy, and he was very generous with his inheritance, regularly giving it to the needy. Probably the most popular St. Nicholas story tells of a man who couldn’t afford to marry off his daughters. Apparently they needed a large dowry in order to attract decent husbands. (Though you gotta wonder just how decent such husbands would be… but I digress.) Mysteriously, three bags of gold appeared just in time to pay for each daughter’s dowry. Of course their anonymous benefactor was Nicholas.

Depending on who’s telling the story, these weren’t bags of gold, but gold balls—and here’s where the three-ball symbol on pawnshops supposedly comes from. Or the gold appeared in the daughter’s stockings as they dried over the fireplace (even though stockings weren’t invented yet) and here’s where the custom of gifts in Christmas stockings supposedly comes from. Or Nicholas threw the gold down the chimney, and here’s where that story comes from.

Of course, people are gonna try to connect Nicholas myths with Santa myths, so as to explain how on earth these two guys are the same person. So there’s the strong likelihood none of these stories are true. Nicholas had a reputation as a gift-giver. The rest is probably rubbish.

“It counts as church, right?”

by K.W. Leslie, 02 December

Though four out of five Americans identify ourselves as Christian, only one of these five actually go to church.

Nope, not kidding. Yes, the polls indicate about half of all Americans are regular attendees. In part because people play mighty loose with what “regular” means: They think it means once a month or more. Once a month counts as “regular.”

How often are Christians expected to participate in church? Well check out the standard expectations found in the scriptures:

Luke 9.23 KJV
And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.

Looks like the first Christians took Jesus’s “daily” idea and ran with it:

Acts 2.46-47 KJV
46 And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, 47 praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

They were even able to make daily counts of their attendees:

Acts 16.5 KJV
And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily.

And when it came time to instruct non-Christians, new believers, and new students, it also took place daily:

Acts 5.42 KJV
And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.
 
Acts 17.11 KJV
These [Bereans] were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.
 
Acts 19.9 KJV
But when divers were hardened, and believed not, but spake evil of that way before the multitude, he departed from them, and separated the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus.

The usual practice among Christians nowadays is to only meet weekly for church. This means those who consider ourselves “regulars” because we attend once every week, are actually meeting a seventh as often as the ancient Christians. Less, considering those Christians would meet for hours-long services, whereas American Christians get antsy if the service lasts any longer than 90 minutes. (Some of them are even reading this article and gasping, “Ninety minutes? We’re done in an hour!” Yeah, we suck.

I know the polls say half, but as presidential polls have lately proven, people lie to pollsters all the time. They’d like to think they’re regular churchgoers. But whenever I’ve pinned down some of these so-called “regulars,” and ask ’em the last time they set foot in a church building, they gotta think about it, so it’s not recent. Nor all that regular. And when they’re being honest, the last time they attended was either Easter, Christmas, or for a wedding or funeral. “Regular” means twice a year. If that.

Heck, I’ve caught people claiming they were regulars at my church. After all, they visited for Christmas! Sometimes I’ll mess with them a little: “Oh, and how’d you like Pastor Dave’s message?” Oh, they’ll respond, they loved it. But our pastor’s name isn’t Dave. Four other churches in town have a Pastor Dave; we don’t. Still, a regular should know the pastor’s name, don’t you think?

Likewise if none of the pastors in your church know who you are, y’ain’t a regular. I’ll grant you some leeway if you attend a megachurch, where the pastors can’t possibly know everyone. But someone in your church’s leadership oughta be able to identify you in a police lineup.

Regardless—and regardless of what people imagine—any twice-a-year Christian isn’t a regular.

How about once-a-month attendees? Meh. I consider they’re doing the bare minimum to be considered “regular.” The standard in the scriptures is daily, remember?

But when I talk with strangers, and they identify as Christian, quite often they won’t bother to pretend they’re regulars at any church whatsoever. They’ll admit they have no church. At this rate, they’re not planning to find one either.

The living word. Whom the apostles have seen.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 December

1 John 1.1-4.

Just as John introduced his gospel by pointing to the Word who became human, Jn 1.1-5 he also introduced his first letter by pointing to the living Word again. The Word who’s with God and is God, Jn 1.1 the Word who created everything in the cosmos, Jn 1.3 but specifically the Word who’s in the beginning. Jn 1.2 This is the person John proclaims, and writes about, to the recipients of his letter.

Some have argued John’s really writing about the Father. After all, the Father’s there in the beginning. But John wrote this person is with the Father, 1Jn 1.2 so he’s clearly not the Father. He’s a different person. So… which other person was with the Father in the beginning? Well there’s the Holy Spirit… but nah, John’s writing about Christ Jesus.

Yeah John doesn’t come right out and bluntly say he’s writing about Jesus. But did he really have to? Are we that dense? Well… maybe those of us who insist John’s writing about the Father. Everybody else, who isn’t trying to be contrary for contrariness’ sake, should have no trouble recognizing who John meant.

1 John 1.1-4 KWL
1 About the living word: He’s in the beginning.
We saw him with our eyes. We saw him up close and our hands touched him.
2 He revealed life. We saw it, witnessed it, and report it to you:
The life of the age to come which is with the Father, revealed to us.
3 We saw it, heard it, and report it to you all, so you can also have a relationship with us—
and our relationship is with the Father and with his son, Christ Jesus.
4 We write these things so our joy might be full.

Scriptures for advent.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 November

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 man he’d be.
How Joseph became Jesus’s father. Mt 1.18-25 Not foster father; adoptive father. God commissioned Joseph to raise his Son.
Christ the Savior is born. Lk 2.1-7 The political circumstances at the time Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
The sheep-herders’ vision of the angels. Lk 2.8-20 Jesus came to save everyone. Here, some of the everyone hear the good news.
The prophets who recognized Jesus. Lk 2.21-40 In temple, two prophets confirm who Jesus is to his parents.
The magi and the monstrous king. Mt 2.1-18 When word got out Messiah had been born, people died.

Messianic prophecies. (Or not.)

The first prophecy of a savior. Ge 3.14-15 After humanity messed up the universe, God indicated he has a plan to fix it.
The star coming out of Jacob. Nu 24.17 Centuries before Israel had a king, Balám predicted one.
The prophet like Moses. Dt 18.15-19. Moses spoke of prophets in general, but this particularly applies to Jesus.
The heir to David’s throne. 2Sa 7.1-17 The LORD told David his throne would last forever. In Jesus, it does.
Not allowed to rot. Ps 16.10 Jesus wasn’t in the grave long enough to rot… which resembles a line in a psalm.
Messiah and Melchizedek. Ps 110.4 How God’s chosen king is like this obscure ancient gentile king.
Jesus, our Immanuel. Is 7.14 How Jesus is like a prophecy about an oddly-named little boy.
The Son who was given us. Is 9.6-7 As disaster drew near to 8th-century BC Israel, Isaiah foretold a Messiah who’d set everything right.
One who brings justice to the gentiles. Is 42.1-4, Mt 12.14-20 A passage Jesus fulfilled—which is about Israel, but Jesus actually does it.
Plucking Jesus’s beard. Or not. Is 50.6 In stories of Jesus’s passion, we regularly hear of people tearing out his beard. It’s not in the gospels; it’s in Isaiah—and he’s speaking of himself.
Our suffering servant. Is 53 ’Cause usually people try to conquer the world by defeating others, not by suffering.
Rachel weeping for her children. Jr 31.15-17 The destruction of Ramáh is a lot like when Herod massacred Bethlehem’s children.
The Son of Man. Da 7.13-14 Jesus’s favorite description of himself comes from a Danielic vision.
“Out of Egypt I called my Son.” Ho 11.1 How fulfillment isn’t the same as a prediction coming to pass.
Christ is born in Bethlehem. Mc 5.1-4 Why the scholars figured Messiah came from that little town.
Is there a prophecy of Jesus’s hometown? Mt 2.23 No; it’s wordplay. But wordplay can be a type of fulfillment.

The second advent.

The Son of Man’s returning. And everyone will see it. Mt 24.23-28 It won’t be any secret rapture; it won’t happen quitely in some obscure corner of the world; it won’t be something only Christians can see.
Jesus describes his second coming. Mk 13.24-27 After Jesus describes the great tribulation, he talks about his return.
When is Jesus returning? Mk 13.32-37 Jesus didn’t say. So watch out for his return.
The Five Stupid Teenagers Story. Mt 25.1-15 Don’t get tricked into missing the second coming.
The Lambs and Kids Story. Mt 25.31-46 Those who are headed for the kingdom are already acting as if they’re in it.
The Talents Story. Mt 25.13-30 What’re we doing with our king’s investments in our lives?
The Wheat and Darnel Story. Mt 13.24-30, 13.36-43 Till the second coming, we gotta put up with the weeds.
When Jesus got raptured. Ac 1.6-11 What goes up must come down.
Apostasy before the second coming. 2Th 2.1-12 Before Jesus returns, there’ll be a lawbreaker running amok.
Set your hearts for Jesus’s return. Jm 5.7-8 The End takes place on Jesus’s timetable, not ours.
No, seriously: When’s Jesus returning? He’s taking forever! 2Pe 3.1-9 I know; it’s been 20 centuries. Don’t give up hope.

There’s a nice pile of reading material there. More to come.