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Showing posts from December, 2021

Getting hungry for God. Literally.

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

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

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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 disbi

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

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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

Resolutions: Our little stabs at self-control.

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Speaking for myself, I’m not into new year’s resolutions. Because I make resolutions the year round. 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

St. John’s Day.

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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

The 12 days of Christmas.

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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 fre

Santa Claus and misplaced, misunderstood faith.

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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 ho

Word!

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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 7 BC 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,

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

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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’

Heretics won’t believe the incarnation.

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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

Why do pagans celebrate a Christian holiday?

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Every year, on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, my city has a Christmas festival. (Well, not in 2020 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 c

Modalism: The illusion of three persons in one God.

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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

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

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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

Ancient heretic theories about Jesus.

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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 r

Foreknown before the world was founded.

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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.

The Carmen Christi: When Jesus made himself nothing.

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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 Je

When God became human.

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

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

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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 J

The ikon of the invisible God.

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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 cr

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

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

“It counts as church, right?”

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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 shoul

The living word. Whom the apostles have seen.

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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