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Showing posts with label #Context. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Context. Show all posts

28 August 2019

Tithing: Enjoying one’s firstfruits with God.

TITHE taɪð noun One-tenth.
2. verb. Set aside a tenth of something, either as savings or as a charitable donation.
3. verb. Give [either a tenth, or any variable amount] to our church.

Most Christians define tithe as a donation to one’s church. But what we donate is pretty variable. Might be $20 a week, or $100 a month, or two hours of volunteer work (i.e. cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming the carpets, sterilizing the toys in the nursery… you do sterilize the toys regularly, right? Babies put ’em in their mouths). It’s whatever we regularly donate, although some of us aren’t all that regular about it.

But for small churches, what we collectively donate isn’t always enough to cover our church’s expenses. Nor does it allow us to give pastors a stipend, or do much charity work… or pay the utilities or rent. Which is why Christian preachers so often feel they should remind us the word “tithe” comes from the Saxon teóða, “tenth”: It means a tenth of something. And that something would be your income. Whatever your job pays you, your tithe should equal a tenth of it—and that’s what you oughta be contributing to your church.

And you need to bring your whole tithe to church. ’Cause it says so in the bible.

Malachi 3.8-12 KWL
8 “Does any human cheat God like all of you cheat me? You say, ‘How do we cheat you?’
In tithes. In offerings. 9 You’ve cursed yourselves. The whole nation is cheating me.
10 Bring your whole tithe to my treasury: There’s unclean food in my house!
Please test me in this,” says the LORD of War. See if I don’t open heaven’s floodgates and pour down blessing till you overflow.
11 I rebuke the blight for you: It won’t ruin your crops. It won’t kill the vines in your field,” says the LORD of War.
12 “Every nation will call you happy, and consider you a land of delight,” says the LORD of War.

Most preachers only quote verses 8-10, and don’t bother with verses 11-12. They should. These verses reveal the context of what the LORD actually means by מַעֲשֵׂר/mahašer, “tithe.” He’s not talking about Christians who are stingy with donations: He’s talking about Hebrews who didn’t contribute their crops to their community food closets. Old Testament tithing was about food.

I know; you might never have heard this idea before. You’d be surprised how many Christian pastors are totally clueless about this fact. I grew up Christian, and hadn’t heard any of this stuff till my thirties. But it’s all in your bible, hiding in plain sight.

26 July 2019

Those who wait on the Lord.

Isaiah 40.31.

Isaiah 40.31 NKJV
But those who wait on the LORD
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.

When I visit fellow Christians’ homes, a lot of ’em have a painting or mass-produced sculpture of an eagle somewhere. Some of the art’s of an American bald eagle, and are meant to express the owner’s patriotism. Others were purchased at the local Family Christian Stores, back when they were still around. Bald eagle or not, connection to God ’n country or not, they’re meant to express the owner’s trust in God. They’re universally captioned with this particular Isaiah verse, in various translations, always mounting up with wings as eagles.

The eagle appeals to a lot of Christians because of the idea Isaiah expressed: The LORD Almighty, our creator, has inexhaustible strength, Is 40.28 and empowers the weak. Is 40.29 Even the strongest of us may fail, Is 40.30 but God can renew our strength. Indefinitely. Is 40.31

It’s great encouragement for those of us who have energy-draining jobs or lives. When our own batteries are depleted or dead, God can recharge ’em. When our resources are taxed, God always has more. Many’s the time I’ve told my students, “I ran out of patience with you. Ran out long ago. I’m drawing on God’s patience now.” Tapping what people like to call “God’s dýnamis power”—showing off one of the Greek words they think they know, by which they mean his explosive power, but more accurately is his dynamo of endless cosmic supply. Either way, his power’s available to every Christian. Right?

Actually… right. It is available to every Christian.

But it’s not promised, which is how we Christians wind up taking this verse out of context. We look on it as a promise of God, a prophecy of something he’s guaranteed to give us. And while it is a prophecy, it’s not a promise. It’s situational. And it takes wisdom to recognize whether we’re in that situation… or whether we’re foolishly burning ourselves out for no good reason.

18 July 2019

“God will not be mocked.”

Galatians 6.7.

Here’s a verse I hear frequently misquoted. (So have you.)

Galatians 6.7 KJV
Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

Y’notice most of the time when Christians quote it, it’s not necessarily because somebody’s mocking God. Usually somebody’s mocking them, the Christians. Occasionally God’s getting mocked too, but he’s collateral damage. The mockers are mainly focused on the Christians: Once again, one of us did something dumb, so people are having a laugh at our expense.

Well when certain Christians get mocked—like when they’re new, and too immature to have the Spirit’s fruit; or when they’re longtime Christians, but never did develop patience, so they can’t take a joke; or they’re otherwise deficient in joy—they wanna rebuke their scoffers. Call down curses, ideally, but they’re happy just to have a clever comeback. “Have your fun now,” they menace their scoffers, “but your time will come. God will not be mocked.”

Sometimes the outraged Christian will continue with the rest of the verse they’re misquoting. Still out of context, of course. “You,” they’ll indicate, “will reap what you sow.” Not that karma will get ’em and they’ll get laughed at too; they’re thinking more about burning in hell, or some other disproportionate, but satisfying, punishment.

Anyway. Note how the King James Version of the verse is present tense, not future: It’s not “God will not be mocked” but “God is not mocked.” It’s present tense in Greek too: θεὸς οὐ μυκτηρίζεται/Theós u myktirídzete. It has to do with what was currently happening when Paul wrote it to the Galatians. Not with what’s currently happening when a pagan laughs at a Christian; not with nontheists getting their comeuppance on Judgment Day. Certainly not with our various unchristian revenge fantasies.

What were its circumstances when Paul originally wrote it to the Galatian church? Glad you asked.

16 May 2019

Forgetting the past.

Philippians 3.13-14.

Here’s a verse that’s really popular with motivational speakers:

Philippians 3.13-14 NLT
13 No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

They especially wanna zero in on the “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead” bit in verse 13. Then they add, “This is precisely what we need to do: Forget the past! Don’t dwell on it. Put it behind you. Those things don’t matter anymore. Look only at the things which are right in front of you. They’re the only things which matter.”

Okay. It’s true a lot of people spend way too much time living in the past. People obsess about it. Speculate about all the “what ifs” which might’ve taken place had they done things differently. Regret mistakes. Grow more and more bitter about those mistakes as time go on.

That unhealthy fixation on the past is a real problem, and needs to be discussed and dealt with. But the healthy way we deal with it is not to forget the past; not to blot it out of our minds, suppress it, or otherwise no longer think about it. Our pasts, like ’em or not, are part of who we are and how we came to be.

Meanwhile it isn’t even what this verse is about.

10 May 2019

Guard your heart.

Proverbs 4.23.

Proverbs 4.23 NIV
Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.

As a teenager I heard many a youth pastor quote this verse. Except they’d use the 1984 edition of the NIV, which goes, “Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Which I like much better than the update; it’s more poetic. Although the way I initially memorized it was the KJV’s “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it [are] the issues of life.”

They quoted it ’cause they were encouraging us kids to be very, very careful about who or what we loved. ’Cause you know teenagers: Either you are one, or used to be one. And I’ll be blunt: Teens are so horny. The flood of new hormones in our systems, combined with how we’ve not yet learned to control our emotions, don’t help at all. I had all sorts of crushes on all sorts of girls and women, and stifled them as best I could. Of course, once two teenagers find they’re mutually attracted to one another, they seldom stifle anything, which is why so many of the kids in my youth group—good Christians or not—were fornicating like monkeys in the zoo. Precisely what parents and pastors fear. Hence all the sermons.

Of course “guard your heart” has other applications. Because teens are immature, they fall for anything. Not just for sexual temptations; they get sucked up into any ridiculous fad. Fr’instance my nephew is into vaping. It’s dumb, but so’s cigarettes, and I knew plenty of kids who got into cigarettes for the very same reason: They figured it was cool, all their friends did it, and they were so susceptible to peer pressure. At his age I liked to think I stood apart from the crowd, but even so, I got into all sorts of fads. And trouble. I was young and naïve, didn’t know any better, didn’t listen to the adults who did: I followed my heart every which way.

Hence adults kept returning to this verse, time and again. Or at least these three words: “Guard your heart.”

Don’t follow the crowd’s taste in music, clothes, cars, and especially misbehavior. Don’t fall in love with the wrong people, especially half-hearted Christians who might lead you away from Jesus—or worse, pagans. Don’t have sex, lest the girl get pregnant and wind up having an abortion (and since this was a conservative church, everyone pretended this never happened, even though I personally know five girls in my youth group whose pregnancies way-too-conveniently disappeared). Marry, but not yet—not till you’ve finished college, secured a good career, and made other caveats to Mammonism which Christians like to disguise as “good stewardship.” Basically anything which might derail your parents’ plans for your life: Just don’t.

Don’t get me wrong. Telling teenagers to get hold of their emotions is very good advice. Hard to follow, but still good advice. ’Cause teenagers—and for that matter most adults—don’t know how. They’ve never developed because kids suck the Spirit’s fruit of self-control, of gentleness, of learning the difference between love and desire. Hormones fuddle teenage minds way beyond reason. Even if the poor kids do learn some level of self-control in childhood, they’re going through an entirely new obstacle course. Adults who never learned self-control either, imagine the solution is to give kids lots of rules… as if that tactic ever worked on them. What teens, and really all of us, need is patience, kindness, guidance, and grace.

But since this article is part of my series on bible verses in context, you know I’m gonna point out that Solomon wasn’t writing about emotions.

25 March 2019

“The fool says there’s no God around.”

Psalm 14.1, 53.1.

The New Living Translation renders Psalm 14.1 and 53.1 exactly the same:

Psalm 14.1, 53.1 NLT
Only fools say in their hearts,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
not one of them does good!

It’s because Psalms 14 and 53 are actually the same psalm. David ben Jesse wrote it five centuries before Psalms got put together—and Psalms is actually made of five different psalters. The first book Ps 1-41 had it, and so did the second Ps 42-72 —so yep, it’s in there twice. For fun, you can compare the two psalms for the differences which slipped into the psalm over time. It’s kinda like different hymnals which have alternate verses to your favorite hymns. (“Amazing Grace,” fr’instance, is a bit different from the way John Newton originally wrote it.)

Differences the NLT actually muted. ’Cause it translated two different words as “actions.” Psalm 14.1 has עֲלִילָ֗ה/alilá, “a doing,” and Psalm 53.1 has עָ֝֗וֶל/avél, “an immoral deed.” The NLT’s translators wanted to emphasize the verses’ similarities so much, they erased their differences. Which isn’t always the right route to take, but one the NLT and NIV translation committees prefer. This is why I tell people to study multiple bible translations: Y’never know what you might be missing because of the translators’ various agendas.

But I digress. Today I’m writing about the first part of the verse, which the KJV phrases thisaway:

Psalm 14.1, 53.1 KJV
1A The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.

It’s a verse I’ve heard quoted many, many times. Usually by Christians who wanna refer to nontheists as fools.

Frequently Christian apologists wanna use this verse as a proof text to argue in favor of God’s existence. As if quoting bible is how you prove God exists: “See, the bible says he’s real, so there.” That’s gonna work on a nontheist exactly the same as if I whipped out a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and said, “See, Oz is a real place!” You don‘t prove God exists with words; especially rude words. You prove he exists by giving ’em a God-experience. Anything else basically makes you the fool.

And I wanna back up even further and question whether this verse is even about nontheists at all. Y’might guess I would say it’s really not.

15 February 2019

No, Jesus didn’t declare all foods clean.

Mark 7.19.

Mark 7.17-19 NIV
17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

Jesus has an actual point to make with this passage, but a number of Christians skip it altogether because of how they choose to interpret it. Namely they take the clause καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα/katharídzon pánta ta vrómata, “cleansing [out] all the food,” chop it off the sentence Jesus was speaking, and turn it into the declaration, “All the food [is] cleansed.”

This spin isn’t just found in the NIV either:

ASV.This he said, making all meats clean.”
AMPLIFIED. “(By this, He declared all foods ceremonially clean.)”
CSB.(thus he declared all foods clean).”
ESV/NRSV. “(Thus he declared all foods clean.)”
GNT. “(In saying this, Jesus declared that all foods are fit to be eaten.)”
MESSAGE. “(That took care of dietary quibbling; Jesus was saying that all foods are fit to eat.)”
NASB. “(Thus He declared all foods clean.)”
NET. “(This means all foods are clean.)”
NLT. “(By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.)”

It’s not found in every bible. A number of ’em take Wycliffe and the KJV’s lead, and use some form of their “purging all meats.” I did too:

Mark 7.19 KWL
“Because it doesn’t enter their heart, but into the bowels, and comes out into the toilet.
All the food gets cleaned out.”

I did it because that’s the literary context. Katharídzon pánta ta vrómata isn’t a sentence fragment Mark inserted to interpret Jesus’s teaching; it’s a clause that’s part of the teaching. Jesus is explaining how food goes in the face, goes out the butt, goes down the toilet, and doesn’t corrupt the heart like our depraved sinful nature can. So when Pharisees fixated on external ritual cleanliness, they were missing the point.

Kinda like we miss the point when we insist this passage is all about how there are no longer any kosher rules… so now we can eat fistfuls of pork.

01 February 2019

The cloud of witnesses.

Hebrews 12.1.

Hebrews 12.1 NIV
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…

Growing up, my pastor liked to start his sermons by referring to a recent football or baseball game. He was a big sports nerd, as were other people in our church.

Many of whom hate the label “sports nerd,” ’cause they’re from a generation where “nerd” wasn’t recognized—as it is today—as a good thing. Part of how they figured they could dodge the “nerd” label was by getting into sports: Supposedly sports is the opposite of nerdery. But it’s not at all. Nerdery is about obsessive interest, and sports nerds are frequently way bigger nerds than those who are into video games and comic books. Anyway I digress.

Mom wasn’t a fan, knew nothing about any of the teams or athletes Pastor would go on and on about, and wanted him to hurry up and get to Jesus. The sports references irritated her. “Why‘s he always gotta talk about sports?” she groused. Because that’s what nerds do.

And there’s precedent in the bible. Both Paul and the writer of Hebrews liked to make reference to track and field events. Every large city in the Roman Empire—Jerusalem included!—had an amphitheater where games were held. Yeah, sometimes they were gory gladiator fights. But there were also footraces and chariot races; same as NASCAR today, humans have always felt the need for speed. And the apostles liked to refer to these races as metaphors for the Christian life.

Problem is, lots of Christians don’t know about ancient sports, and don’t understand the references.

Namely there’s Hebrews’ author’s mention of a νέφος μαρτύρων/néfos martýron, “cloud of witnesses.” Christians read that and assume it refers to a crowd of witnesses. Which is actually how the NLT chose to render it.

Hebrews 12.1 NLT
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.

No, a néfos isn’t an ancient synonym of ὄχλος/ókhlos, “crowd.” You don‘t see other first-century authors using néfos to describe a lot of people. Clouds meant clouds. Or haze, or mist; or if the clouds weren’t made of water, smoke or dust.

But Christians make the assumption the “witnesses” refer to a large crowd of spectators on the sidelines or in the stands. And why are they on the sidelines? Why are they only witnessing our race, instead of getting down there on the field and helping, coaching, maybe running with us?

Well, I’ve heard many a preacher explain, it’s because they’re dead.

No, really. The word μάρτυς/mártys is properly translated “witness,” as in someone who saw something happen, and can therefore give testimony before a judge. But quite frequently Christians translate it literally as “martyr”—and our culture adds a whole extra meaning to that word. To us a martyr isn’t just someone who witnessed stuff. Martyrs are victims. They had stuff done to them. In the case of Christian martyrs, they usually got killed because they were Christian, and wouldn’t renounce Jesus even when threatened with death.

So these “witnesses“ aren’t just ordinary human spectators: They’re the ghosts of dead Christians. They’re in the stands because they can’t participate, ’cause they’re dead. But they can look down from heaven—which is up in the clouds, isn’t it? So that’s why the author of Hebrews brought up a cloud.

Yeah, it’s a thoroughly creepy idea. But popular Christian culture is full of ideas like this: Totally wrong, and kinda pagan, but nobody challenges or doubts them, because some folks actually find comfort in the idea of dead people watching over us. Unless it’s that one pervy uncle, and we’re bathing. But otherwise…

Nevermind. Should I get to the proper context of this verse? Probably should.

07 December 2018

The star coming out of Jacob.

Christians list it among the verses predicting Jesus. It really doesn’t.

Numbers 24.17.

The Hebrews of the Exodus weren’t the only Hebrews in the middle east. There were other Hebrew nations, who probably spoke Hebrew same as the descendants of Israel whom Moses led. Namely:

  • The ISHMAELITES, descended from Abraham’s oldest son Ishmael.
  • The MIDIANITES, descended from Abraham’s sixth son Midian. (What, you didn’t know Abraham had more sons than just Isaac and Ishmael? Ge 25.1-2 Lots of people don’t. See what happens when you skip parts of the bible?)
  • The MOABITES and AMMONITES, descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot.
  • The EDOMITES, descended from Israel’s brother Esau.
  • Plus Abraham’s son fourth son Yoqšan is the grandfather of “Ašurím and Letuším and Lehummím,” Ge 25.3 names which have a plural -im ending, which therefore means they’re not individuals but tribes.

Israel’s family went to Egypt to dodge a famine, but Ishmael, Lot, Esau, Midian, and Yoqšan’s families had stayed in the area and become their own nations. Over time some of those nations assimilated with Israel and became today’s Jews; the rest became today’s Arabs.

I bring them up ’cause Moab’s king, Baláq ben Chippór, was terrified the Israelis might ruin his nation. So he hired a mercenary prophet named Balám ben Beór to curse them, because word had it Balám’s blessings and curses stuck. But Balám wouldn’t curse Israel, ’cause the LORD got to him first and ordered him not to. Instead all Balám prophesied were blessings. Like this one.

Numbers 24.15-19 KWL
15 Balám lifted up this declaration and said, “The whisper of Balám, Beor’s son.
The whisper of the noble whose eyes are open.
16 The whisper of the hearer of God’s words, who knows the Highest’s plans,
sees the Almighty’s vision, falling in a trance with eyes uncovered.
17 I’m not seeing him just now; I’m not beholding him near just now:
A star proceeds from Jacob. A scepter rises from Israel.
It shatters Moab’s sides. It tears down all Šet’s children.
18 Edom becomes occupied. Seir is occupied by its enemies. Israel does mightily well.
19 One from Jacob reigns, and destroys the city’s survivors.”

Sounds more like a curse on Moab/Šet and Edom/Seir. (Those are different names for the same nations, just like Jacob/Israel.)

Through Balám, the LORD was clearly telling Baláq his nightmare would come true: Israel would eventually smite them. And smite Edom.

The star and scepter Balám spoke of are the ancient symbols (and still the present-day symbols) of a king. But bear in mind Israel had no king. The closest thing they had to a king was a head priest—and a thousand years later the head priests did become kings, but that’s leapfrogging a few centuries of the first monarchy—namely Saul, David and his descendants, and Jeroboam and the various Ephraimite dynasties. Saul’s kingdom was three centuries away, and till then Israel was randomly led by prophets, priests, and libertarian anarchy. No sign of any star and scepter for a long time.

So yeah, it’s a prophecy of a future king of Israel. Which, to be honest, isn’t that miraculous a thing to foretell. Nations need leadership, and in those pre-democracy days it meant one guy would find a reason to declare himself king, eliminate his competition, rule, and leave his throne to a competent son… or an incompetent one who’d quickly be overthrown. Predicting a king was sorta commonsense.

The miraculous part was stating this king would smite Edom and Moab, and win. Which David eventually did, 300 years later. Hence this is considered a messianic prophecy, ’cause David was God’s mašiakh/“messiah,” his anointed king.

And if it’s about one messiah, Christians tend to figure it’s also a prophecy about our Messiah, Jesus the Nazarene.

25 October 2018

“But in these last days”… prophecy stopped?

How people’s doubts got added to our bible translations.

Hebrews 1.2

In the New International Version, the book of Hebrews begins like so.

Hebrews 1.1-2 NIV
1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

The English Standard Version translates it similarly.

Hebrews 1.1-2 ESV
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

Other translations also present the similar idea: In the past God spoke through the prophets, but in the present he speaks through his Son.

So the argument goes whenever cessationists wanna insist God doesn’t speak through prophets anymore. Prophets, they insist, are an Old Testament phenomenon. A bible-times office. Not a present-day position; God doesn’t do that anymore. Like the Muslims deem Muhammad, Jesus is the last and greatest and final prophet. The title the NIV adds to this passage even says so: “God’s Final Word: His Son.”

I do agree Jesus has the last word on every controversy, disagreement, or discussion among his followers. He’s our Lord, so of course he has final say.

But what this title implies—and what cessationists totally mean—is prophecy stopped: There are no more prophets. We’re done with that. We don‘t even need them; we have a bible. That’s all the revelation we’re gonna get from God; he doesn’t see fit to add to it; and we’d better not claim we have further revelations from him. (And when they interpret what the bible means, and insist we gotta live by their doctrines, somehow them adding their 2 cents to the bible doesn’t count as further revelations.)

Doesn’t matter that there are New Testament prophets, particularly John of Patmos; doesn’t matter that Paul encouraged the Corinthians to prophesy; doesn’t matter that Christian history is dotted with prophets. Their proof text for why there aren’t prophets any more—one of many—is how the very book of Hebrews begins by saying God used to speak through prophets, but in the last days it’s just Jesus. And then Jesus got raptured to heaven and doesn’t talk to us anymore. And while the Holy Spirit might’ve permitted just a bit of prophecy in Peter and Paul‘s time, once those guys finished writing the New Testament, the Spirit stopped talking too.

Thing is, the whole basis of this argument hinges on one little word in their proof-text: “But.” In bible times God spoke through prophets, but now it’s just Jesus. Do we find this word in every bible translation? Nope.

WYCLIFFE: “…at the last in these days he hath spoken to us by the Son…”
GENEVA BIBLE (includes it in verse 1): “…in these last days he hath spoken unto us by his Son…”
KJV: “…hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son…”
ASV: “…hath at the end of these days spoken unto us in his Son…”
CSB: “In these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son.”
DARBY: “…at the end of these days has spoken to us in the person of the Son…”
ISV: “…has in these last days spoken to us by a Son…”
MEV: “…has in these last days spoken to us by His Son…”
NASB: “…in these last days has spoken to us in His Son…”
NET: “…in these last days he has spoken to us in a son…”
NKJV: “…has in these last days spoken to us by His Son…”
NLT: “And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son.”

Obviously that’s not every translation. A number of translations include “but,” though you’ll also notice an equal number of ’em have not. Including the oldest English translations.

’Cause cessationists, and those who lean in that direction, added “but” to the bible. And in pinning their arguments to the word they’ve illegitimately inserted into the scriptures, are they riding that “but” hard.

16 October 2018

Vain repetition?

And the ridiculous idea that repetition and prayer in worship might lead to something devilish.

When I wrote on God-mindfulness last week, I mentioned one of the techniques people use to remind themselves God’s always here, is by praying the Jesus Prayer. It’s a really short rote prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—which we can use to help focus when we meditate on God, or remind ourselves he’s right here with us.

But of course someone (and we’ll call her Fenella) read the article on God-mindfulness, read the article on the Jesus Prayer, and despite my warnings, immediately leapt in her mind to a dark place. “That,” Fenella insisted, “is not biblical prayer.”

Um… in the Jesus Prayer article I pointed out the three bible passages the Jesus Prayer is based on. One of which was prayed to Jesus, personally and directly, by Bar Timaeus. And Jesus answered it—despite the naysayers who tried to shush Bar Timaeus. You know, like Fenella’s kinda doing. (I really don’t think this ever occurred to her.)

But Fenella’s beef isn’t with asking Jesus for mercy; it’s with what she calls “vain repetition.” Because when Christians say the Jesus Prayer, we tend not to say it just the one time. We say it dozens of times. Over ’n over ’n over ’n over ’n over. And to Fenella’s mind, that’s what pagans do, like the Hindus and Hare Krishnas and Christian cultists. They fervently repeat things over and over again because it’s how people psyche themselves into a euphoric mental state. Various dark Christians claim that once we enter this mental state, it’s like we’ve opened up the door to our spirit. And now devils can step right in.

No, seriously. They believe repetition, because it’s what pagans do, invokes pagan gods. Fenella’s not the first person who’s told me this, either. I’ve heard it too often. And sorry in advance if this sounds unkind, but it’s still how I feel: The Christians who teach this have gotta be the stupidest creatures in God’s universe. Because Satan successfully tricked ’em into believing and teaching, “Oh no, better not talk to God too much or I’m gonna get possessed!

These folks claim devils can go into the place the Holy Spirit occupies as his temple without getting devastated by the light. 1Jn 1.5 But dark Christians regularly make the mistake of vastly overestimating dark powers. I’m not saying there’s no such thing as evil, temptation, and spirits which wanna trip us up; of course there are. I’m saying the idea our prayers to the Almighty—in which we’re asking for grace, in which we’re trying to be mindful of God’s presence, in which we’re trying to meditate on his scriptures—because we say them too often for these people’s comfort, the imagine these prayers let in devils? Even if we’re talking to God earnestly but wrong, does it sound anything at all like our gracious heavenly Father to even let such a thing happen? It isn’t just contradictory; it’s downright dumb. Christians, please don’t follow stupid people.

Rant over. Let’s get into what a “vain repetition” is, and what Jesus meant by it.

03 October 2018

Being strong and courageous.

Sometimes people wanna fight. And think they have a verse which permits fighting.

Joshua 1.9.

One of my biggest peeves about the way Christianity is practiced in the United States has to do with the way certain Christianist men’s groups regularly twist the scriptures in order to justify culturally-defined “masculinity.” Not masculinity as Jesus demonstrated it, nor even as the fallible men in the bible practiced it: Masculinity as defined by popular American culture. With, frequently, a lot of chauvinism and sexism mixed in.

A lot of these men have taken their cues from the 1990s’ mythopoetic men’s movement, which author John Eldredge repackaged for Christians so we can do the same thing. They scoured myths, legends, and fairy tales for clues as to what’s really true about masculinity. Took a lot of those old stories out of context, in so doing. Eldredge prefers pulling his ideas from the bible and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, but he makes the same mistake of overlaying his prejudices on them, then claiming his prejudices came from them. Or are at least supported by them.

So men nowadays, claim Eldredge and the sexists, are too effeminate. Cowardly, wimpy girly-men. Our culture requires men to suppress our manly urges and behave ourselves. But, they insist, our urges are natural and good: Men were meant to be wild, free, and fighting. Not just fighting randomly in bars and sporting events, but fighting for noble causes—for truth and justice, to tame nature, in the defense of loved ones, in the cause of Christ, in certain political venues, to pretty much punch anyone who dares challenge our prejudices…

Really, any excuse will do. So long as we get to do some fighting.

For fighting, they insist, is the deep down—but suppressed!—desire of a man’s heart. Men fought throughout human history. Men needed to fight, ’cause noble causes. They claim God gave us this desire to fight, smite, scratch, and bite. And God wants to give us the desires of our hearts, right? Ps 37.4 Yet our culture keeps trying to “civilize” us. So fight that culture; it’s all pagan and secular anyway, and feminists took it over back in the ’70s or something, and now they’re turning us into wimps. Fight back. Be a man. Kick some ass.

This verse is their mantra:

Joshua 1.9 KWL
Don’t I command you? Be tough! Be strong! Not afraid, not shattered.
For your LORD God is with you everywhere you go.”

In the NIV it’s “Be strong and courageous,” and Michael W. Smith wrote a song about it, so that’s how we tend to hear it in the United States. And this verse is used to defend “masculine” behavior—legitimate and not.

I write all the time about how people bring our prejudices with us into Christianity, project them upon Jesus, and pretend he endorses all our beliefs—that we got ’em from him. Unfortunately, those who don’t really know Jesus, like pagans and newbies, fall for this. And either they recoil from this fraudulent Christianity in horror… or they fall for it, ’cause it fits so well with their own prejudices, and become twice the sons of hell as their forebears. Mt 23.15

So if men are competitive; if they enjoy rough, violent sports and video games; if they love the idea of standing their ground and shooting bad guys in the head, Jesus must approve, right? These violent urges must’ve been put into us by God, right?

Not in the slightest. They come from our selfish, violent, corrupt sin nature. God never put that in us; sin did.

29 August 2018

“No weapon formed against me shall prosper.”

In what situation should we expect this verse to apply?

Isaiah 54.17

You hear people quote this one when they’re claiming God promised them invulnerability.

Against what? Well it depends on the Christian. Very few are gonna claim this verse is about bullets; when a gunman busts into a school and opens fire, the few who stand up and declare, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper!” are gonna quickly discover this verse doesn’t apply to their situation at all.

Most of the time we figure this has to do with spiritual warfare. Which is about resisting temptation, Ep 6.10-13 although a number of Christians think it’s about believing so hard that they’ll get what they ask for, that they do. So the “weapons,” they imagine, are unbelief, discouragement, and the usual inconveniences of life which might shake our determination. Not desires and fleshly impulses, the actual wiles of the devil. If we don’t know what we’re actually meant to resist, turns out every weapon formed against us shall prosper.

So when people desire to be #blessed (with or without the hashtag), they’re naming-and-claiming the idea, “No weapon formed against me will prosper! I will get my blessing!” And believing so hard, blessings will just materialize out of thin air like a genie’s granted wishes.

Of course that’s not what the original verse means. Duh.

The verse comes from Isaiah, and the first thing you’ll notice is people have personalized it when they quote it. They phrase it “No weapon formed against me,” whereas the King James Version went with thee, which is old-timey English for “you.” No weapon formed against the person the LORD is speaking to through this prophecy. Wanna bet he’s not speaking directly to you or me personally? I would; it’s a solid bet.

Isaiah 54.17 KJV
No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness is of me, saith the LORD.

There are those folks who will insist the second sentence of this verse, “This [is] the heritage of the servants of the LORD,” means it totally does apply to them, ’cause they’re a servant of the LORD. And they might have a better case for themselves if they actually acted like God’s servants, instead of presuming he owes them #blessings even though they suck at obeying Jesus, and produce no more spiritual fruit than any pagan.

But even if we Christians are obedient and fruitful, is the LORD still speaking to us in this prophecy? Well, let’s take a good hard look at it.

07 August 2018

Where there’s no vision. (It’s not your vision.)

It’s not your motivational-speech verse either.

Years ago I taught at a Christian junior high. We had a chapel service, and one of my fellow teachers was gonna preach a nice motivational mini-sermon, and came to me for help: He was trying to find this verse in his bible, and couldn’t:

Proverbs 29.18 KJV
Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

It’s because the school’s official translation was the New International Version, but he had the verse memorized in the King James Version, and the NIV had updated the vocabulary so much, he couldn’t recognize it anymore. The 1984 edition of the NIV put it thisaway:

Proverbs 29.18 NIV (1984)
Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint;
but blessed is he who keeps the law.

The current edition updated it even further. Plus made it gender-inclusive.

Proverbs 29.18 NIV (2011)
Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint;
but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.

“Wisdom’s instruction” isn’t that precise a translation of torah/“Law,” but whatever.

My coworker was confused by the update. Because he already had a specific reason for wanting to use this verse as his proof text: He wanted to talk to the kids about why it’s important for each of us to have a vision for our future in mind.

It’s not about that, I explained to him. It’s about revelation. It’s about God’s vision for our future. Which is why he gave us his Law. It’s not about making our own plans.

He nodded, and I thought he had heard me. But when it came time to speak to the kids, first he quoted the NIV, then said, “But in the King James Version it says, ‘Where there’s no vision, the people perish.’ And that’s what I wanna talk to you about today. You gotta make plans for your future. You gotta have a vision. Otherwise you’ll perish.”

And so on. Context be damned; he had kids to motivate. Stupid translators and their insistence on accuracy were only getting in his way.

So that was disappointing, and I lost a lot of respect for him as a Christian and an educator. But it’s hardly the first time I’ve tried to correct a fellow Christian, only to have it fall on deaf ears. Still happens all the time. Hopefully you haven’t come to this blog, or this article, with this know-it-all mindset.

12 July 2018

“Before I formed you in the womb…”

So you’re prolife. Doesn’t mean you get a free pass to misappropriate bible.

Jeremiah 1.5

May as well state my biases up front: I’m prolife.

In the United States we use this term to describe a person who doesn’t approve of aborting a pregnancy. Depending on the person, we either want the practice discouraged, banned outright, made a crime, or even made a capital crime with death penalties all around. Which goes way too far for me, because I’m prolife in the proper sense of the word: I don’t want anybody to die. Not just fetuses.

The real problem with abortion is a society which claims they care about women and motherhood, but they only care about self-supporting women and mothers. When women get pregnant, hadn’t planned on it, and don‘t know how they’re gonna have the time or money to raise a child, society’s response isn’t, “How can I help? Whatever you need, just ask; I’m there.” It’s usually condemnation: “You should’ve expected this.”

No moral support, no financial support, no personal support; God forbid we suggest government support. So the pregnancy is turned into a massive burden… and the easiest way out of the burden appears to be abortion. Social Darwinism turns into actual Darwinism.

You honestly want abortion to be gone, or at least rare? Start supporting women. Start caring for the needy. Love your neighbor. Don’t be one of those hypocrites who only care about fetuses, but not about women struggling to raise kids. Rant over.

So. In conservative Evangelical churches, it’s kinda taken for granted we’re prolife. Most of us are. But not all; you can kinda tell who’s not, by how much they squirm in their seats whenever the speaker starts to condemn abortion.

Me, I start to squirm whenever they misquote bible in support of their cause. I’m pretty sure “Thou shalt not kill” Ex 20.13, Dt 5.17, Mt 5.21 does the job just fine. But prolifers feel we gotta quote other verses to defend our worldview. Any verses which suggest “a person’s a person, no matter how small” Horton Hears a Who! and actually references a fetus, is trotted out as “proof” God considers them people.

This bit from the first chapter of Jeremiah in particular. For some reason, I hear people quote it in the NIV more so than the KJV. I suspect it’s because the KJV uses the word “belly,” which isn’t clinical enough for ’em.

Jeremiah 1.5 NIV
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

“See?” prolifers will point out, “God knew us before we were born.”

Um yes, but y’all need to read that verse again. It says Beterem echorkha vebeten/“At [a time] before I formed you in [the] womb.” Not when God formed Jeremiah in the womb; before.

The verse is about foreknowledge, not fetuses. God knew Jeremiah before God created Jeremiah.

19 June 2018

Dem bones.

It’s not about God bringing your dreams back to life.

Ezekiel 37.1-10.

Your average Christian knows very little about the prophetic book of Ezekiel. Most of ’em know only three things about it:

  1. At the beginning of the book, Ezekiel gets this vision of God’s throne which includes four freaky creatures with four heads, and what sound like living gyroscopes beside each of them. Ek 1 And for some looney reason, people who are into UFOs insist that’s what Ezekiel saw; it strikes ’em as more mechanical than miraculous.
  2. Apparently there’s such a thing as “Ezekiel bread.” Ek 4.9 Every once in a while, some overzealous Christian will bake a loaf and inflict it upon the people of their church. Here’s the deal: Ezekiel bread was meant to be awful, to make a point about suffering. But Christians’ll try to fix it up somehow: Add lots of yeast, sugar, disproportionate amounts of flour, and even butter. Most of the time it’s still awful. People, the bible isn’t a recipe book!
  3. And the bit I’m getting to today: The Valley of Dry Bones story. In it, God demonstrates his power to Ezekiel by taking long-dead bones, turning ’em back into humans, and bringing them to life.

The title of this article comes from the gospel song, “Dem Bones,” which most people don’t know is a spiritual, ’cause all they know is, “Ankle bone connected to the shin bone, shin bone connected to the knee bone…” They think it’s about anatomy. Or skeletons. Well anyway.

Ezekiel wrote his visions from Tel Aviv, Iraq. Not Tel Aviv, Israel; Iraq. (The city in Israel is named after Ezekiel’s village.) He lived in Iraq because Israel didn’t exist anymore. The Babylonians invaded and destroyed it, then scattered him and all his loved ones to the four winds. Now he lived in Iraq, figuring he’d never see Israel again.

So, in both straight-up messages, weird demonstrations, and apocalyptic visions, the LORD was trying to tell Ezekiel and his neighbors how Israel wasn’t permanently destroyed. Its restoration might be impossible for them to imagine, like dry bones turned into living bones. But God was gonna bring his nation back.

But you know how humans are: We always gotta make everything about us. And generations of Christians have misappropriated this story, claiming it’s about them, about restoring their lives—or their career, their church, their broken family, their nation, what they’ll see in the End Times, you name it. I still hear sermons where preachers swipe the idea and claim it for themselves.

Still just as invalid.

26 April 2018

The appearance of evil.

Don’t worry about how things look. Worry about obeying God.

1 Thessalonians 5.22.

1 Thessalonians 5.22 KJV
Abstain from all appearance of evil.

I’ve said many times before: The King James Version is a very good bible translation. Problem is, it’s a 407-year-old bible translation. Therefore it uses the English of William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson… and arguably William Tyndale, who translated the first popular English bible translation 482 years ago, and whose version was still fairly well-known.

Four-century-old English is not the American English we use today. ’Cause language evolves. If you have kids of your own, you’ve heard it happen with your very ears: People redefine words to suit themselves, and if their redefinition catches on, that’s the new definition. Oh, you might hate it, like when literally grew to mean “well, not literally.” But that’s a recent one. Plenty of other transformations happened long before you had any say about it.

Hence many of the words in the KJV have the same meaning as they did in 1536, when Tyndale first used ’em. But many don’t.

Appearance is one of them. When the KJV used it, it meant the act of becoming visible: When you make an appearance at a social function, you’ve shown up and people can see you. Well, in this verse the apostles instruct the Thessalonians that whenever evil shows up and people can see it, stay away.

Simple, right? But in the present day appearance has another, more common definition, and that’s the one people assume the KJV was using. It means the act of looking like something else, of seeming.

And that’s why plenty of Christians read this verse, and claim, “Stay away from anything which seems evil.” It might not actually be evil; it might be benign; it might even be good—but because it looks evil, because the public believes it to be evil, stay away. Have nothing to do with it. Keep your reputation intact.

One is holiness. The other, hypocrisy.

02 April 2018

“God will never give you more than you can handle.”

Tell that to Moses sometime.

1 Corinthians 10.13.

This verse gets misused often. And just as often, underused and ignored.

1 Corinthians 10.13 KJV
There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.

Since this is part of a series on context, let’s first deal with the out-of-context way Christians quote it: They use it to proof-text the old platitude, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”

You can kinda see how it devolved into that. “God… will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able” somehow lost the word “tempted,” which is the entire point of this verse. It’s about temptation. God doesn’t allow us to be overcome by temptation. God always provides a way out of temptation. Anybody who claims, “I had no choice but to give in”—that’s rubbish, because God always provides a way out, and they simply didn’t wanna take it.

Without “tempted,” it’s simply, “God won’t give you above that ye are able,” or “what you can handle,” or however we care to phrase it: Times may be tough, but relax! You can do this. God may challenge you, but he’ll never, ever push you beyond your breaking point.

That’s where the misinterpretation goes all wrong. ’Cause every Christian gets pushed past our respective breaking points. It’s called “the crisis of faith,” and if you’ve been avoiding yours, you’ve been avoiding God. Some of us, he’s gotta break like a piñata. ’Cause the stuff in us, which he’s trying to get out of us? It ain’t candy.

There is a time to build up, and a time to break down. Ec 3.3 And sometimes God’s behind the breakdown.

11 January 2018

Sock-puppet theology: Meditation gone bad.

Or as I call it, sock-puppet meditation.

Beginning with the frequently-misunderstood passage:

Hebrews 12.1-2 KWL
1 Consequently we who have a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us,
who put aside every weight and easily-distracting sin:
We run the contest set before us through patient endurance,
looking to the start and finish of faith: Jesus.
2 He endured in joy instead of on what was set before him,
despising the dishonorable cross, and sits at the right of God’s throne.

It’s a sports metaphor, and since we do track and field events a little differently than they did in the Roman Empire, stands to reason Christians will miss, and misinterpret, some of the ideas.

The “cloud of witnesses” among them. Nefós/“cloud” is an odd wording. Christian tradition has borrowed the pagan idea of dead relatives looking down from the heavens upon the living, and interpret this verse to mean departed saints who once witnessed about Jesus, who watch present-day saints as spectators. Cheering us on, we hope. (Cringing at how we repeat all their old mistakes, more likely.)

It’s not at all what the author of Hebrews meant. She meant fellow runners.

See, the ancients didn’t run on the rubber or polyurethane surface we put on our running tracks today: They ran on dirt. And what do you get when a bunch of runners race through dirt? Clouds. There’s your cloud of witnesses: Fellow runners. Active co-participants. Not spectators, who usually can’t see through the clouds, which is why we switched to asphalt tracks, and eventually to the stuff we use now. Modern technology made it so we can’t recognize the context anymore, and now the CEV, GNB, and NLT straight-up translate nefós as “crowd.” Meaning, most of us imagine, the crowd of spectators.

I bring this up ’cause the interpretation of a passage makes a really big difference when we meditate upon it. As we do; as we should. But if our mental image of a “cloud of witnesses” consists of spectators instead of co-laborers, we’re gonna get a very different mental image. One which can go all kinds of wrong.

14 December 2017

“Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.”

Of course we have some iffy ideas about what “waiting on the Lord” entails.

Isaiah 40.31

Whenever I visit fellow Christians at their homes, a large number of ’em have a painting or sculpture of an eagle somewhere. Often it’s an American bald eagle, meant to express their patriotism. Others were purchased at the local Family Christian Stores before it went bankrupt and shut down. Patriotic or not, if it was produced by Christians, it’s gonna be captioned with the following Isaiah verse:

Isaiah 40.31 KJV
But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

The sentiment which really appeals to Christians, whether it’s blended with patriotism or not, is the idea the LORD, our creator, has inexhaustible strength, Is 40.28 and empowers the weak. Is 40.29 Even though the strongest of us may fail, Is 40.30 God can indefinitely renew our strength. Is 40.31

Well, if we trust in the LORD. Hopefully we do.

So it’s meant as encouragement for those of us whose batteries run low, thanks to working hard, playing hard, and otherwise doing a crappy job of resting. When we’re exhausted, God can recharge us. When our resources are taxed, God can replenish ’em. Many’s the time I’ve told my students, “I ran out of patience with you a long time ago; I’m tapping God’s patience now.” Tapping God’s dyamis power,” his dynamo of endless cosmic supply, is possible for every Christian.

Right? Well… now we get to the bit where Christians take this verse out of context.