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

07 February 2018

Can’t hear God? Read your bible!

’Cause sometimes God holds back his answers when he’s already given them in the scriptures.

So I’ve written on how prayer is simply talking with God. It’s not a one way-monologue where we do all the speaking, but God communicates back through omens, signs, coincidences, and other natural revelations which we can easily misinterpret. We talk; he talks back. Once we get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy to hear his responses whenever we pray.

That is, till we don’t.

’Cause sometimes we can’t seem to hear him. Much as we try, we can’t detect what he tells us. Maybe he’s talking and we’re too stubborn to listen; maybe he’s not, ’cause he’s waiting for us to finally act upon the last thing he told us to do. (Oho, didn’t think of that one, did you?)

Or maybe it’s time we stop putting off reading our bibles.

’Cause once we learn how to hear God, too many of us Christians get into the bad habit of not reading the bible. We figure why bother?—God already tells us everything we need to know! So we don’t read the scriptures and find out what else we might need to know. If it really is a need-to-know deal, God’ll tell us. Right?

Yeah, it’s immature behavior. And God’s training us to be better than that. You think Jesus, just because he is God, has godly wisdom and character in abundance, figured it was okay to give the scriptures a pass? Nuh-uh. He made darned sure he knew ’em better than everyone. Jesus read his bible, and we’re to be like Jesus.

So from time to time, when he feels we need to crack our bibles and get back into ’em, God stops talking. Or he straight-up tells us (as he has me, many times), “I already answered that in the scriptures; read your bible.”

Hence that’s become my go-to response whenever somebody tells me, “I haven’t heard from God lately,” or otherwise complains God feels so distant, or the heavens feel like brass when they pray. Dt 28.23 My usual advice: “Read your bible.”

Okay, maybe you already do read your bible. Good. Keep it up. I’ll explain why.

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.

13 December 2017

The prayer of Nehemiah.

And the need to seek God’s will in our prayer requests.

Back in the ’00s, the prayer of Jabez got a bit of attention with a popular book. Which was quickly followed up by other writers, covetous of The Prayer of Jabez’s success, whose books probably didn’t sell as well for that reason: Books on the Lord’s Prayer and the Jesus Prayer and other tricks to successful prayer.

The only real trick is remembering God can’t be reduced to formulas, and that he has every right to say no. These books don’t necessarily teach this fact. Instead, the idea is if we pray like Jabez, God’ll expand our territory. Pray the Jesus Prayer and receive peace. Pray the St. Christopher prayer and kids get protection; pray the St. Jude prayer and get a yes to your hopeless cause; pray the rosary and get special protection; do X and now God owes us Y.

Doesn’t work like that. And to help that idea sink in a little, I remind you of the Prayer of Nehemiah, offered by Nekhémya bar Khakálya right after he heard what a mess Jerusalem still was.

Nehemiah 1.5-11 KWL
5 I said, “Please LORD, God of heaven, great God,
scary covenant-keeper, lover of those who love you and keep your commands:
6 May your ear now be attentive, your eyes open, to hear your slave’s prayer,
which I pray to your face daily and nightly over Israel’s descendants, your slaves:
I confess the sins Israel’s descendants sinned against you. I and my father’s house sinned.
7 We hurt, hurt you, and didn’t keep the commands, decrees, and rulings you sent your slave Moses.
8 Now remember the word you sent your slave Moses, saying,
When you trespass, I’ll scatter you among the nations.
9 Return to me, keep my commands, do them, and if you’re exiled to the heavens’ edge,
I’ll gather you from there, and return you to the place I chose where my name dwells.’
10 They’re your slaves, your people whom you rescued with your great strength and strong hand.
11 Please Master, have a listening ear for your slave’s prayer,
for your slaves’ prayer—we who wish to respect your name.
Please grant your slave success today. Give me compassion before this man’s face”
for I was the Persian king’s butler.

And though Nehemiah didn’t neatly sum it up as did the author of Chronicles, 1Co 4.10 God went along with his request, and Nehemiah himself got to go to Jerusalem and fix its problems.

06 November 2017

“Be still and know that I am God.”

It’s not about being quiet.

Psalm 46.10

Most people shorten this verse to simply, “Be still and know that I am God.” But sometimes they actually do know the entire verse:

Psalm 46.10 KJV
Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

When people do remember the rest of this verse, they tend to recall (and prefer) a translation without that bothersome word “heathen” in it. The word goyím properly means “foreigners,” which we also translate “foreigners” or “nations”—the Amplified Bible, ESV, NASB, and NIV went with “I will be exalted among the nations,” which works better for them. Be still, know God is God, and if everybody can just chill out and meditate for a bit, God can be exalted by all the nations, round the world.

Yeah, this tends to be considered a meditation verse. I’ve been in prayer groups where Christians have talked about meditation, and they misquote Psalm 46.10 all the time. “Remember, we’re just trying to be still and know God is God.”

Other times Christians wanna encourage one another to relax. People get agitated, emotional, panicky, flustered, and once again Psalm 46.10 pops up: “You need to just be still and know God is God. God’s on the throne. He can solve every problem.” Or less patiently, “Can you be still for a minute, and know God is God?”

Actually, this less-than-patient last example, though still wrong, is closest to what Korah’s sons were talking about in this particular psalm.

31 October 2017

God reveals himself through prayer.

Why does God listen to our prayers? For the same reason he reveals himself to us.

Prayer is of course talking with God. We talk to him and he talks back. It’s not a complicated idea, though we might, and do, complicate it.

Prayer is therefore the most common, most usual way God communicates with his people. Yeah, we can…

  • Experience a personal appearance by Jesus.
  • Hear prophets share what he told them.
  • Read about his will in the bible.
  • See, or be empowered to perform, miracles.
  • Have warm fuzzy feelings in church and assume that’s a God-encounter.
  • Have warm fuzzy feelings about nature and try to deduce what he’s like from that.

Christians list all these things as forms of revelation, though I would object to the last two. But nearly all of us pray, and nearly all of us hear God when we pray, so that’s how nearly all of us get revelation.

Now yes, there are those Christians who insist they don’t hear anything. To their minds, prayer is unidirectional: We talk, God hears, but God says nothing, ’cause he doesn’t need to say anything, ’cause he said everything he cares to say in the scriptures. This belief is largely based on cessationism, the belief God turned off the miracles—and in so doing, functionally abandoned his people—till the End Times. If you’re surrounded by cessationists, you’re gonna get the idea most Christians think like that. You’d be entirely wrong. Most of us hear God. (Not necessarily well, but I’ll discuss that in the next several prayer articles.)

Hearing God is demonstrated all over the scriptures. ’Cause the scriptures were written by prophets, and how’d they get their information? Yes, some Christians imagine they opened their mouths and God’s words came out of them like they were meat puppets. But in more cases they went to God with questions—with prayers—and during those prayers God responded, and that became their prophecies.

This is why prayer and prophecy are so closely connected. That’s usually how God gives prophets his messages for other people: He’ll say, “Tell them this.” You wanna see more prophecy in our church? Then y’all need to pray more often. You don’t get one without the other. (And if you do, those “prophecies” are usually messed up.)

24 October 2017

“Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Don’t ever let this saying become a platitude.

When disaster strikes, whether natural or manmade, one of the most common platitudes we hear thereafter is, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

In the past several years the expression has seen a bit of backlash. Mainly because the people who say it have turned it into an empty, hypocritical saying. By their actions, they demonstrate they’re not really thinking of the disaster victims. And either they’re also not praying, or they’re praying in some manner that doesn’t change ’em whatsoever—contrary to how we all know prayer is supposed to work.

To be fair, some of the backlash comes from nontheists who are pretty sure prayer is bunk: Nobody’s listening, so we Christians are only talking to the sky; nobody’s interacting with us, so we Christians aren’t gonna change. Prayers are therefore just as useless as when some pagans attempt to send positive thoughts, vibes, and energy towards the needy: All they actually do is psyche themselves into feeling really happy things, then feel a little burst of euphoria which they figure is them “releasing” those thoughts into the universe—and then they’re back to life as usual. Unless the happy thoughts get ’em to deliberately behave in more positive, productive ways towards those around them, the universe is no different. Nor better.

Give you an example. One of the United States’ recent mass shootings might take out more masses than usual. The news media covers it like crazy; the public is horrified; the usual senators tweet that their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims and their families. And those who want gun restrictions object: These particular senators aren’t gonna change the gun laws whatsoever. If anything they’ll try all the harder to eliminate gun restrictions. Which means more mass shootings are inevitable. So what good are those senators’ thoughts and prayers?

I mean, functionally it’s the same as when James objected to “faith” which lacked works:

James 2.14-17 KWL
14 What’s the point, my fellow Christians, when anyone claims to have faith and takes no action?
This “faith” doesn’t save them.
15 When a Christian brother or sister becomes destitute, lacks daily food,
16 and one of you tells them, “Go in peace! May you be warm and fed,”
and doesn’t give them anything useful for their body, what’s the point?
17 This “faith,” when it takes no action, is dead to the core.

Our “thoughts and prayers” frequently aren’t any different than wishing the needy well, but doing nothing to make ’em less needy. Sometimes out of our own laziness, sometimes our own ill will. And the needy aren’t dense. They see the irreligiousness of it. They’re calling us on it. Rightly so.

If our thoughts and prayers do nothing, our faith is dead.

17 October 2017

Prayer walks.

’Cause walking and praying is super easy. Well, for most of us.

One of the few activities we can do, yet pray at the same time, is walk.

For this reason certain Christians take prayer walks. More than just pacing back in forth in our rooms while we pray, we take some time out of our day to just go for a walk. Not to any specific destination; we’re gonna loop around and come back home. Not for exercise, although we might do that too. (Turn it into kind of a prayer jog.) Walking’s not the purpose. Prayer is.

Although sometimes we Christians turn the prayer-walk route into something significant. Fr’instance at the beginning of every year, Christians in my town wanna pray for the town. So they take a prayer walk which is specifically mapped so they’ll reach certain important places. Like city hall, the town square, the civic center, certain parks and schools and fire departments, maybe the run-down or more criminal parts of town, maybe certain businesses Christians do and don’t approve of. But while we call these things “prayer walks,” I remind you a proper prayer walk isn’t about the physical destination. It’s about the spiritual destination. We’re not trying to go someplace; we’re trying to grow closer to God.

Hence certain Christians (and our churches) put together prayer walks which deliberately go nowhere. On the church property, you’ll find a “prayer walk” trail which goes round in a circle, and takes you right back to where you started. Or there’ll be a sidewalk which goes all the way around the building… and if you were wondering why it goes round the back when there’s nothing back there, now you know.

Other churches have labyrinths, a diagram on the floor, or on the ground outside, where Christians can walk through the diagram and pray. A lot of pagans imagine labyrinths are cool and “mystical,” and have tried to co-opt the idea (and as a result have weirded out a lot of Christians about their use). But relax; labyrinths are a Christian thing. A prayer walk when your church doesn’t really have the space for something larger.


Walking the labyrinth at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres. Wikimedia

And of course some churches have stations of the cross dioramas or paintings placed round the building for us to walk to and pray at.

10 October 2017

Te Deum.

One of Christendom’s better-known rote prayers.

Te Deum /teɪ 'deɪ.əm/ is a rote prayer. Really it’s a hymn which dates back to the late 300s. It’s named for its first words, Te Deum laudamus/“To God we praise.” Traditions say it was written by St. Ambrose when he baptized St. Augustine. Or St. Hiliary or St. Nicetas of Remesiana wrote it. Meh; who cares how we got it. It’s been a popular prayer for the past 17 centuries, and has been set to music many times in many ways.

The Presbyterian Church’s Book of Common Worship translates it like so.

We praise you, O God,
we acclaim you as Lord,
all creation worships you,
Father everlasting.
To you, all angels, all the powers of heaven,
the cherubim and seraphim, sing in endless praise:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
The glorious company of apostles praise you.
The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.
Throughout the world the holy church acclaims you;
Father, of majesty unbounded,
your true and only Son, worthy of all praise,
the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.
You, Christ, are the king of glory,
the eternal Son of the Father.
When you took our flesh to set us free
you humbly chose the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the sting of death
and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You are seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We believe that you will come, and be our judge.
Come then, Lord, and help your people,
bought with the price of your own blood,
and bring us with your saints
to glory everlasting. BCW 570-571

18 September 2017

Praying when we suck at prayer.

Hey, we’re not all experts.

Years ago I was reading Richard Foster’s Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, a useful book on prayer. In it he described the most basic, elementary form of prayer he could think of, which he calls Simple Prayer. Basically it’s just talking with God, which is all prayer really is.

But I believe there’s a form of prayer even more elementary than Simple Prayer: It’s what I call the I-Suck-At-Prayer prayer. It’s the prayer every new Christian prays. The prayer every pagan prays when they’re first giving prayer a test drive. The prayer even longtime Christians stammer when we’re asked to pray aloud, and suddenly we feel we’ve gotta perform… but not overtly. Christians might pray every day and rather often, yet we’ll still pray the I-Suck-At-Prayer Prayer from time to time.

It’s based on discomfort. It’s when we realize we need to pray in a manner we’re not used to. Maybe somebody else has been leading our prayers. Maybe we’ve been praying too many rote prayers—it’s easier to use the prayer book, or the pre-written prayers in our favorite devotional, and just got out of the habit of extemporaneous prayer—praying without a script, talking to God just like we’d talk to anyone. Some of us feel incapable of it, so we never do pray like that.

So we stammer. Stumble. Suffer stage fright. And our prayers become big ol’ apologies to God for how poorly we’re doing. “Forgive my hesitation; I need to pray more often.”

Foster described Simple Prayer as the starting point of prayer. But plenty of people don’t even make it to the starting block. We get too hung up on “I suck at prayer,” too busy apologizing for our inability to express ourselves, too busy flogging ourselves for not praying “properly.”

I put “properly” in quotes ’cause we Christians often have a screwy idea of what’s proper in prayer, and get way too hard on ourselves because we don’t meet our own unrealistic expectations. Usually we’ve picked up these ideas from “prayer warriors” who make their showy public prayers sound impressive—and people assume their prayers oughta sound like that.

Hence we wind up with Christians who…

  • feel we should only pray in King James Version English.
  • replace every “um” and “uh” in our speech with “Father God” and “Lord Jesus,” and other names of God.
  • pad our prayers because we’re not sure short prayers are effective.
  • try to psyche ourselves into a prayer mood because we don’t know the difference between emotional and spiritual.

As I’ve said, prayer is talking with God. Nothing more than that. If we can talk with our family members, we can definitely talk with God. (If you struggle to talk with them, or they’re distant instead of gracious, I get why God might be a problem.) We don’t have to sound formal. We don’t have to speak in bible language. We don’t even have to be articulate—though we should make an effort, ’cause we are trying to communicate after all. We just gotta go find some privacy, open our mouths, and talk with God.

12 September 2017

Sometimes you shouldn’t say amen.

It’s important to agree in prayer. It’s also important to know when not to.

Ever been in this situation?— You’re in a prayer meeting, church small group, or some other Christian function. And whoever’s praying at the moment is saying something you totally don’t agree with. Something you kinda can’t agree with.

Fr’instance someone who uses prayer time to go on long rants about stuff they don’t like, and disguise them as prayers. Sometimes it’s political stuff: “Oh holy Lord, knowest thou those liberals in Washington? Gettest thou them out of the White House!” Sometimes it’s social issues, or pet peeves, or whatever those radio talk show hosts have got ’em riled up about today.

Or it’s bad theology. “Lord, I know you’ll give us what we ask because your word won’t return void,” even though none of what they prayed was his word (and it doesn’t even mean that). Or assumptions about how some evil we’re praying against was part of God’s plan all along, or name-it-and-claim-it demands, or statements about God’s character which actually go against his character.

Or it’s bad fruit. Anger, hatred, separatism, envy, justification for evil behavior, self-righteousness. Sometimes they think an authentic God-experience needs to be an emotional one, so they’re unnecessarily whipping up their emotions into a lather. Sometimes they’re babbling like pagans. Stuff the prayer leader should clamp down on… except sometimes this is the prayer leader.

So at the end of this rant prayer, they’ll say “Amen.” Custom in most churches for everybody else to repeat the amen, ’cause their prayer is our prayer. Or we agree with what they prayed for. Amen, you might recall, means “true; we agree; let it be so; so say we all; let their prayer be ours.” We’re at least okay with them praying that.

But you’re not okay with it.

And y’know, that’s fine. If you object to the prayer, you don’t have to say amen. Say nothing.

And if you object strongly enough—if, start to finish, it was awful, and the exact opposite oughta’ve been prayed—you can even go with the word anathema. It’s an ancient Greek word which means dammit—and yes it’s in the bible six times, and tends to be translated “accursed.” 1Co 12.3, 16.22, Ga 1.9 Not every Christian knows it, so they may have no idea what you mean by it. Those who do, may be shocked by it, ’cause Christians aren’t (and shouldn’t be) in the habit of anathematizing prayers. I will say they’ll be a lot more shocked if you actually say “dammit,” but if the prayer was a particularly vile one, they’ll probably understand.

But then again you might be in a room full of particularly vile Christians, so they definitely won’t understand. Your call.

Just saying if amen isn’t the appropriate thing to say, don’t say it.

05 September 2017

“Devotions”: Times we especially focus on God.

And hopefully pray. Don’t forget to pray!

DEVOTIONS /di'voʊ.ʃənz/ n. Prayers, religious observances, or worship.
[Devotional /di'voʊ.ʃən.əl/ adj.]

It’s a really good idea for Christians to block off several minutes of time, every single day, solely for the purpose of connecting with God. A little bible, a little prayer, a little meditation or contemplation. Something which helps us focus our lives on God.

’Cause life is busy. Or it’s not really, but we just suck at time management, so we never make the time for God. You know how there are certain friends and family members you just never hear from?—they’re either way too busy, or time with you frankly isn’t one of their priorities? Well, for a lot of Christians, we’re in danger of having that kind of relationship with God. One where we sorta take him for granted in our lives, but when’s the last time we really sat down with him and talked?

So, devotional time.

Part of your average Christian’s struggle with devotions, comes from the fact they really don’t know what to do with themselves during this time. What should we pray? What should we read, and meditate on?

That was my struggle as a teenager and young adult: Nobody had properly taught me how to have my own devotional time. They talked about having one. “I sit down with my coffee and my bible, and read, and pray, and have my quiet time.” Okay; what d’you read? How many chapters?—or do you read a paragraph and spend the rest of the time meditating on it? What d’you pray?—and how do you pray for 15-minute stretches when you only have two minutes’ worth of material?

Whenever I was at youth functions, the youth pastors would lead the devotional times. But I’m gonna be blunt: Those weren’t proper devotional times. Those were mini-lectures disguised as worship. Pastor’d discuss the dumb things we kids did, or might do, and how we oughta think about such things, and lead us to pray, “Lord Jesus, help me behave like the pastor was talking about,” even if deep down we didn’t really care.

Some of the adults I knew were dependent on devotional books and magazines. (“Devotionals,” for short.) One of the more popular devotional magazines at my church was Our Daily Bread. I still know plenty of folks who make a point of reading through Oswald Chambers’ 365-day devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, every year. I own a few devotional books: Brief writings by clever Christian authors, arranged in 365 clips for my convenience, with a bible passage to read for edification, and a brief prayer in case I can’t think of anything to tell God.

I get why people use the canned material: They don’t know where to start. The problem? That’s not your relationship with God. That’s you reading about Oswald Chambers’s relationship with God; or about the relationship of whoever wrote the devotional you’re using this year. Praying their prayers instead of your own. Meditating on their ideas instead of the scriptures. Yeah, some of ’em have good ideas, but still: Ever call up a friend on the phone, then read somebody else’s letters to them? It’s kinda like that.

No, I’m not saying ditch the devotional books. Keep ’em if you like ’em. But don’t confuse them for proper devotions. It’s gotta consist of you and the Holy Spirit. Any facilitators have gotta be temporary, there till you get the hang of doing this on your own.

04 August 2017

Tongues and unfruitful minds.

Plus the unfruitful cessationist interpretations of this passage.

1 Corinthians 14.13-19.

This is a passage Christians like to quote. For different reasons.

For Pentecostals it’s to quote the apostles—specifically Paul—when they wrote, “I speak tongues more than all of you.” Then argue, “See? Paul did it. Why can’t we?” And then, more often than not, proceed to do it contrary to everything else Paul taught about building up the church.

For anti-Pentecostals, it’s to point to the statement, “Pray that you can interpret,” then loudly object, “People ought never speak in tongues tongues at church unless they follow up with an interpretation.” Then they proceed to ban even the tongues which might be followed up with interpretation, just to be on the safe side. If they’re full-bore cessationist, they’re pretty sure tongues are devilish anyway.

Well, let’s look at the passage in question.

1 Corinthians 14.13-19 KWL
13 So tongues-speakers: Pray that you can interpret.
14 When I pray tongues, my spirit prays. My mind isn’t fruitful.
15 Why is this? I’ll pray by my spirit; I’ll pray by my mind.
I’ll sing by my spirit; I’ll sing by my mind.
16 For when you praise in your spirit, and the place is full of newbies,
how will they say amen to your thanksgiving, since they don’t know what you said?
17 You did give thanks properly, but others weren’t built up.
18 I thank God—and I speak tongues more than all of you.
19 But in church, I want five words in my mind to speak so I can also instruct others.
(That, or tens of thousands of words in tongues.)

Yes, my translation reads a little different than others you might’ve read. That’s because we have different biases. When others translate this passage, they imagine the apostles were contrasting. To them this passage is about speaking tongues versus speaking ancient Greek—or English, or Spanish, or whatever the locals speak.

That’s not at all my attitude, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the apostles’ attitude either. They spoke tongues; they never forbade it; they ordered the Corinthians to not forbid it either. 1Co 14.19 The issue wasn’t tongues versus no tongues; it was proper versus improper. It was using tongues for personal worship, not group worship, nor to create a “spiritual” atmosphere.

If you’re convinced the apostles were trying to contrast between tongues and no tongues, it’s really easy to make it sound that way by slanting your translation. First of all, the word de/“and.” Ancient Greek used it to connect sentences which had a common theme, much like today’s English uses paragraphs. When you translate, you can drop every de entirely; it shouldn’t change the meaning of the translation any. But when you translate de as “but,” like the KJV and many other translations, you’ve introduced a contrast which isn’t in the original text. And here’s what you get. (I highlighted every word in the passage which translates de.)

1 Corinthians 14.13-15 NIV
13 For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.

Plus if you translate i/“or” as “than,” you get:

1 Corinthians 14.19 NIV
But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Those four little words make four big differences, ’cause now people have the idea tongues are negative and undesirable—that in our churches, people should speak English only.

Bias, man. It’s a sneaky little critter.

28 July 2017

The king’s English.

How to properly speak in Elizabethan English.

A lot of Christians—myself included—are big fans of the King James Version of the bible. A lot of ’em even worship the KJV, but let’s not go there today.

When I was a kid I memorized a lot of verses in this particular translation. As I got older my churches and AWANA preferred the New International Version, so I’ve got a hodgepodge of translations in my brain. But I like the KJV, and still quote it regularly. Often because I prefer the way they translated a verse; often because I like the old-timey English. To a lot of people it sounds formal and authoritative. I just think it sounds cool.

The KJV was first published in 1611, but the language it uses was old-timey even then. It’s English as it was spoken in the 1500s; arguably even the 1400s. Some verses are no different from the way William Tyndale originally translated the New Testament in 1525. They weren’t striving for English as it was spoken—unlike modern translators like me. They were striving for formal, historical, classical English. Problem is, language evolves. English especially. In the four centuries since the KJV was published, some of those words significantly changed meaning. That’s part of the reason we need to retranslate the bible on a regular basis: The scriptures never need updating, but the English definitely does.

Still, many Christians love the Elizabethan-era English—the stuff I call “the king’s English”—in the King James. And sometimes try to use it themselves. Like in prayers: They love to pray King James style. Makes it sound formal. So whenever they address God, it’s all “thee” and “thou.”

Three problems with the way they do this:

  • They barely know the current rules of grammar, so of course they mangle the Elizabethan rules. They get the pronouns and verbs wrong all the time.
  • They think “thou” is the formal way of saying the familiar “you.” It’s actually the other way round. “Thou” was how you addressed friends and family; “you” was how you addressed nobles and superiors. Just like French’s tu and vous, or Spanish’s tu and usted. Regardless, it’s entirely proper to address God with the familiar “thou.” He’s our Father, remember?
  • Speaking of tu in Spanish and French: That’s actually the proper way people in 1611 pronounced “thou.” It rhymes with “you.”

I should point out the KJV doesn’t actually do formal address. Read it again: Everybody gets addressed as “thou.” Slaves and kings, employees and bosses, prophets and pagans, God and the devil: Everybody gets the same pronoun. “You” is only used for plurals. The KJV never bothered to use formal pronouns, because there’s no such thing as a formal pronoun in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Technically, English ditched the informal pronoun and addresses everyone formally. Kinda as a compliment; like how “ladies and gentlemen” addresses everybody, not just nobles. “Thee,” “thou,” and “thy” faded out of use; even Quakers (who used to address everybody with familiar pronouns, because we’re all equal in God’s eyes—which used to really bug nobles) don’t bother to use “thee” and “thou” anymore. The formal pronoun became our only pronoun.

But since old-timey prayers and psalms address God as “thou,” Christians leapt to the conclusion that’s special language for how to address God, and thus the formal and informal pronouns swapped places.

If you wanna still use “thou” to address God, of course he doesn’t mind. And if you wanna speak the rest of your king’s English properly… well, you’ve come to the right place.

26 July 2017

The rosary: Meditation… oh, and prayers to Mary.

Why you won’t see a lot of Protestants pray rosaries.

A reader asked me about rosaries. I gotta admit I don’t have a lot of experience with ’em, ’cause it’s a Roman Catholic tradition—and I grew up Fundamentalist, and Fundies are hugely anti-Catholic. Many Evangelical Protestants are wary of Catholics too; either way they don’t do rosaries.

A rosary is a super-long series of rote prayers. How you keep track of which prayer you’re on, is usually with a strand of rosary beads. (People tend to refer to the beads as the rosary, but that’s not quite accurate.) Anyway, you pray a different prayer, or sequence of prayers, for each bead.

The reason Protestants aren’t so familiar with rosaries, is because the bulk of the prayers are to Jesus’s mother, Mary the Nazarene. The most frequent prayer in a rosary, prayed from 50 to 150 times, is the Ave Maria/“Hail Mary.” Goes like so.

Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee. Lk 1.28
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Lk 1.42
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
Amen.

Whereas few Protestants pray to saints. Yeah okay, some of us talk to dead loved ones, and hope God passes our messages along to them. But to Jesus’s family members and first apostles? Or the church’s official saints, whether ancient, medieval, or recent? Well, some Protestants are okay with it. The bulk of us chafe at the idea.

There are different rosaries, meaning different sequences of rote prayers. Here’s a common rosary:

  • First the Paternoster/“Our Father,” a.ka. the Lord’s Prayer.
  • Then the Gloria/“Glory Be.”
  • Then 10 Ave Marias.
  • Repeat 15 times.

And some Catholics won’t just pray one rosary in a stretch. They’ll pray two. Or five.

Why on earth are they praying hundreds of prayers in one sitting? Meditation. You don’t just recite the prayers while your mind remains unfruitful; you think about Jesus. Think about the scriptures. Pray silently with your mind, like you do when you’re praying in tongues.

If you’ve heard of “the mysteries of the rosary,” no they’re not weird secrets about how rosaries work, nor weird revelations you get when you recite ’em. The mysteries are simply things you meditate on while you’re going through a rosary. Like Jesus’s annunciation, or when Mary visited Elizabeth, or Jesus’s birth—these are called “joyful mysteries” because they’re about Jesus’s first coming. The “sorrowful mysteries” are stories about Jesus’s death, the “luminous mysteries” are teachings about Jesus being the world’s light, and the “glorious mysteries” are about Jesus’s ascension and establishing his kingdom (and yes, about Mary going to heaven too). It’s all good stuff to meditate on.

As you might notice, the prayers to Mary are a huge roadblock to Protestants. That’s why the rosary remains largely a Catholic practice. Other Christians also use prayer beads or prayer ropes, meditate, and pray decades of rote prayers… but not to Mary. They’ll pray the Jesus prayer, the Lord’s prayer, or some other rote prayer that’s addressed to God. Not a saint. Not even the very best saint, like Mary.

19 July 2017

The effectual fervent prayer… of an obnoxious person.

God expects us to get in his face sometimes.

Luke 11.5-8, 18.1-8

Right after teaching the Lord’s prayer, Jesus told the Friend at Midnight Story. Yeah, he meant it in context of prayer. Yeah, it’s an odd little story. Odd because the protagonist is so annoying. And Jesus presents this as if it’s a good thing.

Luke 11.5-8 KWL
5 Jesus told them, “Any of you will have a friend,
and go to him at midnight and tell him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves,
6 because a friend of mine came off the road to visit me,
and I have nothing I’ll give him to eat.’
7 At this point, he’d say from within in reply, ‘Don’t put your trouble on me.
The door was shut already. My kids are with me. We’re in bed. I can’t get up to give you a thing.’
8 But I tell you, if he’ll not give it, nor get up for the sake of being your friend…
actually, he’ll get up for the sake of your rudeness, and will give you as much as you need.”

Now use this story as an analogy for prayer. You’re the person beating on the door. You have a friend in need; for once you’re not praying for yourself, but interceding for someone else. You’re short on resources, but you’ve gone to someone with greater resources. Like God, who has unlimited resources.

But the “friend” in this story isn’t actually God. As is made obvious by his behavior. It’s a little hard to imagine God asleep in the middle of the night. Or that he doesn’t wanna be bothered. Or that he’s latched the door for the night; he’s bundled up in bed with his kids; he’s done, and we’ve come to him too late. If we understand God’s unlimited grace, we know better. (If we don’t, we may not, which is why we might not pray as often as we ought. Might need to get to know his unlimited grace first.) The “friend” isn’t meant to be God, but to be compared to God. If this is how friends behave, isn’t God a better friend? Won’t he do way better for you?

And likewise the friend’s motivation, versus God’s. The friend doesn’t wanna do anything for you. In Jesus’s culture bedtime was after sundown, so midnight was right in the middle of the sleep cycle, where people really don’t wanna be woken up. Jesus has kinda arranged the story so you’ve come to the door at a really inconvenient time, where any good friend would be very unmotivated to do anything. Jesus’s audience would’ve experienced something like this, so they could relate.

They’d also relate to Jesus’s idea: No matter how close you may be, he may not care to help you out whatsoever. But he’ll help out just the same, because you’re just rude enough. Because he’ll want you to leave him alone. And again: If this is how friends behave, isn’t God a better friend? He doesn’t help us just to get us to shut up. He helps us out of his abundant love.

05 July 2017

Prayer and posture.

On assuming the position.

I neither close my eyes nor bow my head when I pray.

Yep, that’s right. My eyes are open and I’m looking forward. Sometimes upward; sometimes downward. Sometimes at a list of prayer requests, or at a bible ’cause I’m looking for relevant scriptures, or at the person I’m praying for.

If I’m praying in the middle of an on-the-street ministry, of course I’m watching out my fellow ministers. ’Cause when people pray in public with their eyes closed, that’s the very best time for people to hassle us. Or lift our wallets. Or even shank people. It’s neither practical, safe, nor wise to close our eyes in some neighborhoods.

And if I’m working with kids, you know some of ’em are gonna take advantage of the times no one’s looking. They’re regularly surprised to find me looking. And a little disappointed ’cause now they can’t get away with anything. Sometimes they feign a little offense: “Why weren’t your eyes closed while you were praying? You know you’re supposed to close your eyes.”

Says who? Well, some pastors: “Let’s bow our heads and close our eyes.” Maybe even fold our hands. It’s how I was taught to do it as a child. My pastors still ask the congregation to do it, ’cause they’re about to ask people to confess stuff, and don’t wanna embarrass the confessors.

But the practice comes from western custom. Not bible, ’cause ancient practice was to lift one’s hands to the sky. Ne 8.6, Ps 28.2, 63.4, 134.2, 141.2, Lm 2.19, 3.41, Lk 24.50, 1Ti 2.8 Sometimes while kneeling. He 12.12

Two stories attempt to explain where western custom came from:

  • It’s the natural position medieval monks would take while they were at their studies, hunched over their bibles. (Assuming they could read, and had access to bibles.)
  • Kings used to demand their subjects approach them on their knees, with bowed heads, and not look ’em in the face. Since God’s our king, Christians figured we oughta approach him the same way.

But as custom, it’s optional. Bible doesn’t mandate any particular posture when we pray. God’s okay with us praying in any position. Standing up, sitting down, laying face down or face up, kneeling, bowing with our head to the floor, standing on our heads. The important thing is we don’t stop praying, and if we feel we simply have to assume a certain posture before we can pray properly, we’re letting that posture interfere with our prayer lives. So cut it out.

There’s nothing wrong with a custom when it helps us worship God better. There’s everything wrong with it when we’re more fixated on the custom than the actual worship. You know, like those kids who insist it’s not a real prayer unless we prayed with our eyes closed. Where’d they get that idea? From adults who told them, “We can’t pray till everyone’s eyes are closed”—and never bothered to explain they really meant won’t, not can’t.

That’s how customs wind up taking priority. (Something we need to watch out for when we teach newbies and kids to pray. So remember that for later.)

28 June 2017

The prayer of Jabez.

Why it’s not quite how popular Christianity imagines it.

Back in 2000 Bruce Wilkinson wrote a tiny little book called The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life. It sold like hotcakes ’cause it was inexpensive and brief—perfect for Christians with ferret-like attention spans. It contained a single sermon’s worth of material about an obscure ancient Hebrew by name of Yahebéch/“Jabez.”

Here ya go: Every last thing the bible has on Jabez. It’s not much.

1 Chronicles 4.9-10 KWL
9 Jabez was heavier than his brothers.
His mother called his name pain/Jabez to declare, “I birthed him in pain.”
10 Jabez called on Israel’s god to say, “If you bless anyone, you bless me!
You made my borders lengthy. Your hand’s with me. You’ve kept me from evil, lest it pain me.”
God went along with whatever he asked.

True, that’s not how people popularly translate it. First of all, they tend to translate nikhbód/“was heavier” as “was more honorable” (KJV) —possibly to match the Septuagint’s translation éndoxos/“glorious.” I’ve heard so many preachers say, “His mother birthed him in so much pain, she even named him after the pain. But we don’t know any more of the backstory than that.” Y’know, Jabez being a 12-pound infant would totally explain everything.

Likewise other translations take im-barékh/“if [you’re] blessing” (or “unless you bless,” Ge 32.26), and turn it into a wish, “If [only you’d] bless…” like the Septuagint’s Eán evlogón evloghísis me/“When you bless, you should bless me.” The whole passage becomes a prayer request, like the NIV puts it:

1 Chronicles 4.10 NIV
Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.

After all, if God granted his request, it’s gotta be a request.

It’s not. It’s thanksgiving. God had blessed this little fat kid and grown him into a successful, influential person. His name meant pain, but God kept him from pain. He stretched out his mom; now God stretched out his territory. (Okay, I admit that last comparison’s a little icky. But you won’t soon forget it.)

So while the people snapping up The Prayer of Jabez read it and assume God granted him all this stuff because he dared to pray big things, the rest of us can realistically understand this prayer ain’t a formula. Jabez praised God after the fact, not before. He remembered where his success really came from. Something many a materially successful Christian doesn’t always consider.

13 June 2017

God’s will in heaven and on earth.

Praying God’s will be done in heaven.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus instructs us to pray,

Matthew 6.10 KWL
“Make your kingdom come. Make your will happen both in heaven and on earth.”

Often this gets translated “On earth as it is in heaven,” following the Book of Common Prayer; the KJV has “in earth, as [it is] in heaven.” Christians tend to interpret this concept, “As in heaven, so on earth,” because we assume heaven already follows God’s will, and so we’re praying earth would do likewise. (That is, unless we’re Calvinist and assume God sovereignly makes his earth already follow his plan… evil notwithstanding.)

Thing is, we’re reading a whole lot into that word os/“as.” Hence we never bother to ask the fairly obvious, hidden-in-plain-sight question: Does God absolutely, sovereignly rule over heaven?

“Of course he does,” is the knee-jerk reaction. If God gets his way anywhere, certainly it’s in heaven. Because God’s the absolute ruler of heaven. Either it’s where his throne is, Ps 11.4, Rv 4.2 or heaven itself is his throne, Is 66.1, Mt 5.34 with all the armies of heaven ready to carry out God’s commands. 1Ki 22.19 We imagine God’s kingdom already exists there. The issue for us Christians is bringing this kingdom to earth. That’s why we pray, “As in heaven, so on earth.”

Thing is, if heaven’s where God absolutely, sovereignly always gets his way, why’d a war break out there?

Revelation 12.7-9 KWL
7 War came to the heavens: Michael and its angels battling the dragon;
the dragon and its angels battling back 8 and failing.
No place was found for them anymore in the heavens.
9 The great dragon was thrown out, the primeval serpent which is called devil and Satan.
The deceiver of all civilization was thrown to earth,
and its angels were thrown out with it.

We assume God always gets his way in heaven, but at some point in heavenly history he clearly didn’t. ’Cause Satan defied him. Just as Adam and Eve disobeyed him on earth, Satan challenged God’s will in heaven. Just as Adam and Eve had to be banned from paradise, Michael had to chuck the devil, and a whole lot of its confederate angels, out of heaven.

Y’see, since God is love, 1Jn 4.8 he wants to love his creation, and wants his creation to love him back. If it lacks free will, it can’t do that. Involuntary love isn’t love; it’s just programming. So God had to take the massive risk of imbuing all his creatures with free will. That’s not just his creatures here on earth. It includes all his creatures in heaven.

Satan’s very existence indicates not just earth has a sin problem. Heaven has one too. And heaven needs to be fixed same as earth.

06 June 2017

Punishing ourselves. (Don’t!)

Stop it!

Crack open a dictionary and the first definition you’ll find for penance is often “voluntary self-punishment as an expression of repentance.”

Actually that’s not what penance is supposed to mean. Our word penance comes from the Latin verb pænitere/“be sorry.” That’s all penance means: We regret what we did, we apologize, we ask forgiveness, and we resolve to do better in future. Period. When Christians confess our sins to one another, that’s all penance, penitence, repentance, or whatever word we wanna use for it, ought to consist of.

Problem is, the way Christians have historically demonstrated how sorry we are, is to prove it by making ourselves suffer. By undergoing punishment. Sometimes voluntarily. Sometimes not.

So let me make this absolutely clear: God’s kingdom is about God’s grace. Christians punishing themselves, or punishing one another, is contrary to grace. It’s not a fruit of the Spirit.

I won’t go so far as to call it a work of the flesh. That’s because there’s a time and place for penalties and consequences. But that time and place is only in the context of restitution, and the unrepentant.

When Christians hurt one another, we need to make it right as best we can. If we can’t, grace is gonna have to make up the difference. If the neighbor boy burns your house down, of course he can’t afford you a new house; forgive! But if he swiped your bike, of course he oughta return the bike—and even if he doesn’t, forgive! Mt 5.38-42 Any additional penalties need to be tacked on by parents or the state. Not the Christian; not the church. Christians are only to forgive.

Now sometimes Christians don’t regret their sins. They’d willingly do ’em again if the circumstances repeated themselves—and will even proudly say so. “Of course I hit him for insulting my wife; anyone who goes after me and mine should expect it.” When people are more interested in their rights, their lusts, their vengeance, their will, their flesh, than in following Jesus, these people need to be removed from your church before they harm you. ’Cause they will.

Applying penalties and consequences to Christians who wanna get right with God, means you’re teaching them this is how we get right with God. Not by trusting God to save us, but by striving to save ourselves. Not by grace; by good works. Not by receiving, but by effort. Not by love; by merit.

Nope, it has nothing to do with God. He does not want us to hurt ourselves. If you think God told you to do it, that wasn’t God. Period. Don’t do it. If you’re doing it, stop it.

There’s enough pain and suffering in the world as it is. God wants to fix it, not create more of it. He doesn’t do abuse. He doesn’t approve of self-abuse. Even though plenty of Christians claim, “God wants us to suffer so we truly understand and share Christ’s suffering,” Pp 3.10 or “God gave me this thorn in the flesh, same as he did Paul,” 2Co 12.7 or “I need to beat my body so I can develop self-discipline.” 1Co 9.27 WEB Obviously they’re pulling those verses out of context. They’re wrong.

Yes, in our messed-up world, Christians suffer. Everybody suffers. Life is suffering. Jn 16.33 But to manufacture our own suffering? To produce more suffering? It’s contrary to the kingdom. It’s devilish.

17 May 2017

A few tongues to set the mood?

Tongues aren’t mood enhancers. They’re prayer and prophecy.

1 Corinthians 14.5-12.

One of the practices I see too often in Pentecostal churches is the very same one Paul and Sosthenes saw in the church at Corinth. It’s the use of praying in tongues as atmosphere. “Okay everybody, call out to God in your prayer language,” will be the instruction. (Sometimes with the caveat, “If you have a prayer language,” and hopefully they do.) Then everybody’s expected to pray, or sing, or make various joyful noises, in tongues.

What’s this all about? Well, tongues are prayer. So we’re praying, and prayer is good. Right?

Except that’s not entirely why they’re doing it. They’re doing it to set the mood. “Change the atmosphere,” might be another way Christians put it. Create a vibe.

Ostensibly it’s to call upon the Holy Spirit, ’cause he’s the one who empowers tongues. 1Co 12.10 Makes it more obvious he’s in the room… ’cause he’s working the room, in order to get all these tongues unloosed. Secondarily, once people realize the Spirit’s in the room, that God’s really up to something, their attitudes might change.

Plus there’s this false idea found among too many Christians that when we pray, we gotta be in the right headspace. We gotta “incline our hearts towards prayer.” We gotta psyche ourselves into feeling holy, or receptive to anything God might say, or at least banish distracting (or naughty) thoughts from our minds.

For many Christians, when we find ourselves in a church building where a whole lot of Christians are audibly worshiping, it feels… well, different. Otherworldly. Holy. They love this feeling. It’s part of the reason one of my Orthodox friends loves going to church: He doesn’t speak a lick of Russian, but the incense and all these guys praying away in Russian… it just makes him feel transported to a mystic place. Pentecostals also don’t mind not understanding a word. And honestly, they wouldn’t mind (well, much) if it turns out a number of these “prayers” aren’t even prayer, but Christians making funny sounds to the best of their ability—with no Holy Spirit behind any of it. I’ve caught plenty of Christians praying in Spanish, figuring none of these monolingual Anglos sitting by them would know the difference anyway.

Like I said, it’s about setting the mood. Evoking a feeling of the Holy Spirit in the building, empowering people to pray. So… now that he’s empowered the tongues, what’s he gonna do next? ’Cause his presence is here! He’s making the place holy! The Holy Spirit’s gonna do something!

So what does he wind up doing? Well, it varies by church. In most of the churches I’ve been to: Not a lot.

I mean, the church service was nice. The music was good. People came away feeling positive and uplifted. But what’d we see in the way of miracles? Prophecies? People getting cured of illness? People having life-changing transformations, like coming to Jesus, dedicating themselves to follow him better, making major life decisions? Well… maybe there was four or five of those. But that happens at any church; even among cessationists, who are pretty sure the Holy Spirit’s only job is to magnify your bible. If that.

Oh, I won’t even touch what the cessationists think about this practice. They got their own issues anyway.