When the heavens are brass?

by K.W. Leslie, 30 March

When it feels like God isn’t listening. But it’s just us.

Deuteronomy 28.23

When Christians start talking about how “the heavens are brass”—or bronze, depending on whether they grew up with the King James Version or the New International Version—they’re talking about unanswered prayer. The phrase comes from this verse:

Deuteronomy 28.23 KJV
And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron.

But the context of this verse isn’t actually about unanswered prayer at all. It’s about the sort of blight the Hebrews are gonna experience when they dismiss their relationship with God. Moses went into a bit of detail about it, too.

Deuteronomy 28.1-24 KWL
1 “If you happen to listen to your LORD God’s voice,
so as to observe and do every command I instructing you about today,
your LORD God will give you power over every country on earth:
2 All these blessings will come to you and overwhelm you,
for you listened to your LORD God’s voice.
3 You’ll be blessed in city, field, 4 the fruit of your belly, the fruit of the ground,
and the fruit of your animals—what your cattle drops, or your flocks produce.
5 You’ll be blessed in breadbasket, in yeast;
6 when you enter, when you leave.
7 The LORD will have your enemies which rise against you be struck down in front of you.
They’ll come at you from one direction, and run away from you in seven.
8 The LORD will teach you about blessing in your storehouses, in everything you undertake.
He’ll bless you in the land your LORD God gives you.
9 The LORD will raise you to himself: A holy people, as he swore you’d become.
So observe your LORD God’s commands. Walk in his ways.
10 All the earth’s peoples will see you call upon the LORD’s name, and fear you.
11 The LORD will give you a good surplus, fruit of your belly, beasts, and your ground,
in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors.
12 The LORD will open his good, heavenly treasury for you:
He’ll give rain to your land in its season. He’ll hand over every deed.
Many nations will owe you, and you’ll never borrow.
13 The LORD makes you the head, not the tail. You’ll go upward, not downward.
So listen to your LORD God’s commands.
Observe and do what I’m instructing you today.
Don’t dismiss any words I command you today.
Don’t go right or left, to follow or serve other gods.
15 “If it happens you don’t listen to your LORD God’s voice,
to observe and do all his commands and orders which I command you today,
these hardships will come upon you, and overtake you.
16 You’ll be screwed in city, field, 17 breadbasket, and yeast,
18 in the fruit of your belly, the fruit of the ground, what your cattle drops, or your flocks produce.
19 You’ll be screwed when you enter, when you leave.
20 The LORD will send you curses, frustration, and opposition in everything you undertake to do.
Till you’re wiped out, till you quickly die,
because of the evil actions you abandoned me to pursue.
21 The LORD will make plague stick to you till it wipes you from the land you’re entering to live in.
22 The LORD will smite you with illness, fever, hot flashes, high temperature, drought,
forest fires, mildew—all of which will chase you to death.
23 The skies over your head will be copper. The land beneath you, iron.
24 The LORD will rain dust and dirt from the sky. He’ll pour it on you till you’re exterminated.”

When Moses spoke of the heavens being brass, or nekhošét/“copper” (brass is made of copper, y’know) he was speaking of a sky which produces no rain. And the iron ground produces no crops.

So yeah: If you’re gonna talk about the skies being brass, and really mean unanswered prayer, don’t make the mistake of saying, “You know, like when the bible talks about when the skies are brass.” It’s not like when the bible talks about any such thing. It’s about when popular Christian culture talks about it. The bible does have passages about unanswered prayer. It’s just this ain’t one of them. Capice?

“Why do you write all that Catholic stuff?”

by K.W. Leslie, 29 March

In some of my posts about the stations of the cross, which I was writing about as Easter 2016 approached, I got trolled. Certain commenters (whom I’ve deleted and blacklisted, obviously) objected, profanely, to my writing about “Catholic stuff.”

I get this kind of pushback every so often. Because I write about Christianity, every so often I’m gonna write about medieval and ancient Christianity. The medieval stuff would be the Christianity which took place before Protestantism was invented in 1517. And the ancient stuff would be the Christianity which took place before Catholicism was invented—back when there was only one universal church, back before the Christians split into Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics by holding separate Fourth Councils of Constantinople in the 870s (and finalized in the Great Schism of 1054).

But your average person nowadays doesn’t know jack squat about history, much less Christian history. So as soon as I start writing about any Christian practices outside of their own particular denomination, some of ’em immediately assume I’m trying to push the denomination where those events took place. If it happened among Lutherans, they assume I’ve gone Lutheran; if it happened in the Church of England, they leap to the conclusion I’m a secret Episcopalian; and if among Catholics, I must be some kind of crypto-Catholic.

And they absolutely aren’t Catholic. On the contrary: They’re very, very anti-Catholic.

Usually they were raised to be. As was I. ’Member I mentioned I grew up Fundamentalist? I’d been baptized Catholic, but Mom left Catholicism for Protestantism when I was a preschooler. Well, we very quickly wound up in the sort of Fundie churches which were quick to warn us against the “dangers” and “evils” of the Roman church.

How their many customs were simply repurposed pagan rituals. How they did holy communion and baptism wrong. How they prayed rote prayers instead of real prayers. How they prayed to Mary and saints instead of Jesus and the Father. How they followed the pope instead of Jesus—and sometimes how the pope was destined to become the beast of Revelation 13. (Assuming the opposition party’s candidate for President didn’t turn out to be the beast instead.)

Jesus provides six kegs for a drunken party.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 March

Making wine of water.

John 2.1-11

Yeah, it’s a provocative title. But read verse 10: The planner pointed out you serve the lesser wine once people were drunk, and this was the point Jesus pulled the water-to-wine miracle. Everyone was too drunk to appreciate it.

Or, really, to notice this miracle. Which may have been why Jesus did it when he did. Like he told his mom, “My time isn’t come yet”—he was still trying to fly under the radar. But she knew what he could do, and—having the same character as his Father and the Holy Spirit—our Lord saw no good reason to deny the request. Why not?

Anyway, I like to bring this fact up whenever Christians start to object to people drinking at all. I don’t drink myself, and like them I’m not a fan of drunkenness (particularly public drunkenness). But Jesus did provide wine for a party, and no small amount either. Barrels of it.

John 2.1-11 KWL
1 For three days there was a wedding-feast in Cana, in the Galilee. Jesus’s mother was there.
2 Jesus was invited to the wedding-feast, as were his students.
3 Since the wine was late in coming, Jesus’s mother told him, “They have no wine.”
4 Jesus told her, “What’s that to me and you, ma’am? My time isn’t come.”
5 His mother told the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 There were six stone barrels placed there for Jewish ritual cleansing.
each containing about two or three buckets’ of liquid.
7 Jesus told them, “Fill the barrels with water,” and they filled them till full.
8 He told them, “Now ladle and bring some to the wedding-planner,” and they brought it to him.
9 As the wedding-planner tasted the water, it’d become wine.
He hadn’t known where it was. The servants, who ladled the water, had known.
The wedding-planner called the bridegroom 10 and told him, “Everyone first puts out the good wine.
Once people get drunk, the lesser wine. You kept the good wine till now?”
11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana in the Galilee.
He revealed his glory, and his students believed in him.

People also tend to miss the fact Jesus kinda told a joke: When his mom came to tell him about the wine shortage, his response was, “My time isn’t come.” Now, every other time this particular phrase comes up in the gospel of John, you’ll notice Jesus’s life was in danger:

John 7.30 KWL
So they were trying to arrest him.
But nobody laid a hand on him, for his time hadn’t yet come.
John 8.20 KWL
He spoke these messages in the treasury while teaching in temple.
Nobody arrested him: His time hadn’t yet come.

So what’s with the “time isn’t come” language? Jesus basically told his mom, “You want me to tell the guests there’s no wine? You realize what they’ll do to me? My time isn’t come!”

But most commentators interpret Jesus to mean he didn’t wanna do a miracle yet.

When God turns off the warm fuzzy feelings.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 March

Some of us are only following him for the euphoria. He wants us to follow him.

As I wrote in my article about confusing our emotions with the Holy Spirit, there are a number of Christians who aren’t pursuing God so much as they’re pursuing endorphins. They want the emotional high. That rush is their primary motivation for pursuing God.

Now, God’s got two typical responses for that sort of behavior:

  • He puts up with it. It’s not really harming us right now, and he can use it to redirect us towards proper, healthy ways of following him. So he’s gonna work with it.
  • He shuts it down. ’Cause it is harming us, or others; or it’s about to. ’Cause he’s trying to redirect us, but we’re either not listening, or we’re too easily distracted.

For endorphin junkies, when God makes ’em go cold turkey, it’s devastating. They feel nothing. In comparison with before, they feel like God went away; that he’s no longer there; that his presence is gone; that “the heavens are brass” (an out-of-context reference to Deuteronomy 28.23). Sometimes it’s called spiritual dryness, spiritual desolation, or as St. John of the Cross titled his book, a Dark Night of the Soul. Yep, if you’ve experienced it, you’re hardly the only one. At one time or another, every Christian will.

No, it doesn’t mean God left you. He didn’t. Unless you left him, he remains faithful: He won’t leave. He 13.5 But because we’ve confused our emotions with the Spirit, we feel like he’s left us. The warm fuzzy feelings we’ve incorrectly associated with him: Gone. Absent. Missed—’cause they’re pleasant, enjoyable feelings. But God determined they were getting in the way of true spiritual growth. So they had to go.

And y’know, since they’re the very same brain-chemicals we produce when we’re addicted to a narcotic, going without our spiritual high feels just as awful as when an addict quits their narcotics. Some of us plummet into depression. Some of us even quit Christianity: If God won’t give us a buzz anymore, maybe this was the wrong religion, and we oughta try one which does produce such feelings. (As if any clever con artist—or we ourselves—can’t psyche us into feeling whatever emotions we desire.)

The cycle: The good old days, and the dark times.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 March

Why history repeats itself.

Cycle. /'saɪ.kəl/ n. Series of events, regularly repeated in the same order.
2. [biblical] The repeating history of apostasy, oppression, revival, and salvation.
[Cyclical /'sɪ.klə.kəl/ adj.]

History repeats itself.

Most people figure it’s for the reason philosopher George Santayana famously stated: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” More accurately it’s that people didn’t learn from the past. They remember it just fine. But they think this time, they’ll get it right. The disasters of the past? People were naïve back then. We’re more intelligent, more evolved now. They failed, but we’ll succeed.

Then we don’t. ’Cause history repeats itself.

The usual form of this repetition is an up-and-down cycle. Historians call it all sorts of different things. An economic boom, followed by a period of downturn. An era of good feelings, followed by serious partisanship. A gilded age, followed by a panic. Good times, bad times, you know we’ve had our share.

We see the cycle in the bible as well. Different Christians call it different things. Often it’s the “cycle of sin” or “cycle of judgment” or “cycle of discipline”—something pessimistic. Since it’s an up-and-down cycle, some of us throw in the up side as well as the down: The “cycle of sin and repentance.” Regardless most Christians include the word cycle.

Looks like yea:

Round and round and round ya go.

Again, the steps and titles change depending on who’s making the chart. Sometimes all the phases cleverly start with the same letter, or spell out a word. (I don’t bother.) I have seven.

Be kind. For once.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 March

Christians know better than to pass off certain things as love… but we often overlook this thing.

We Christians don’t have a reputation for being kind. More like a reputation for being easily outraged, quick to judge, holier than thou, shunning, condemning, impatient, unforgiving buttholes. And if you were immediately offended by my using that word, you just proved my point: Our bad reputation is totally deserved.

What’s with all the Christian jerks? Largely it’s our lack of love. Love is kind, 1Co 13.4 but we Christians largely substitute the charitable, unconditional love of God, for the vastly inferior substitute: The sort of love which expects payback or reciprocity. We only love the worthy, not the undeserving; we only love good people, not sinners. Our so-called “love” has no real connection to grace.

And that’s a huge problem. Hristótis, the Greek word we translate “kindness,” Ga 5.22 actually means “graciousness.” True, kindness involves being friendly, generous, and considerate, like our culture defines kindness. But it’s much more: It’s the grace of God, in action. It’s one of God’s character traits, i.e. a fruit of the Spirit. When we’re kind, we’re practicing God’s grace.

When we’re unkind, we’re still fuming over my unexpectedly dropping the B-word, and plan to write an angry email… and then never, ever read this blog again. And feel totally justified in such behavior. Grace and kindness is for people who don’t deliberately use TV-safe profanities. Fr’instance people who accidentally use ’em… ’cause they don’t know any better, or they were stressed out or something. But they need to clean up their act, and stop doing it. Three strikes and they’re out. (Which is less than half of Simon Peter’s seven strikes, and way less than Jesus’s 490. Mt 18.21-22)

When we’re kind, we’re gonna be gracious, friendly, generous, humble, courteous—and nice. Yeah, I know plenty of Christians who are quick to point out kind and nice aren’t the same thing: Niceness is entirely about getting along with other people. And frequently people will lie, deceive, stifle their opinions, compromise their standards, or choose other evils, just to get along with others. They’ll be nice hypocrites.

I say we don’t have to deceive people to be nice to them: Why can’t we just be good for a change? Be better, more agreeable, more forgiving, more patient?

Besides, pagans are looking for niceness. They may not have any organized religious belief system, but most of ’em firmly do believe nice people are closer to God than mean people. So when they finally do start looking at religion, they try the nice ones first. The nice cults. The nice heretics. The nice con artists, who’ll lead them away, fleece the very clothes off ’em, and abandon them to hell.

Seems to me, if all it takes to win people over is to be nice to them, why are we objecting to niceness? Why is being a thorn in everyone’s side, so fundamental to our integrity?

Jesus gains his first four students.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 March

In which he meets Andrew and Simon, Philip and Nathanael. (James and John later.)

John 1.35-51

Honestly, the gospel of John doesn’t line up with the other gospels, which we call synoptics ’cause they share so many of the same stories. Wasn’t really meant to: The author likely knew one or more of those gospels, and was filling in all their blank spots. The synoptics make it sound like Jesus first met his students in the Galilee. John corrects that: Jesus met ’em in Judea.

John 1.35-39 KWL
35 Next day, John was again standing with two of his students.
36 Watching Jesus walk, he said, “Look: God’s ram.”
37 His two students heard what he was saying, and followed Jesus.
38 Jesus, turning round, watching them follow, told them, “Whom do you seek?”
They told him, “Rabbi,” (i.e. teacher) “where are you staying?” 39 He told them, “Come look.”
So they came, saw where he was staying, and stayed with him that day.
It was the tenth hour after sunrise.

Here we see two of John’s students. The word mathitís/“student” is often translated “disciple,” and people have the incorrect idea that a disciple is somehow different from a student. That it’s a deeper relationship, ’cause the disciple isn’t just trying to learn from the master, but be just like the master; like an apprentice. Or that it’s about lifestyle, not classroom instruction—so in some ways it’s less strenuous.

In fact there are all kinds of student/teacher relationships. Sometimes they’re all about learning data; sometimes they’re about lifestyle; sometimes the student is expected to become the teacher’s successor; however you do it. But saying “A disciple is different from a student” is rubbish. They’re synonyms.

In our culture, grade school students are different from college students, who are different from the people who attend a seminar, tutorial, music lesson, internship, training program, graduate school, or what have you. There are all kinds of students. Jesus’s students, considering he took ’em to synagogue so often, most likely matched the Pharisee system. The rabbis who instructed their young men were expected to train ’em to be Pharisees: To know the Law, love it, follow it, and also follow Pharisee customs and traditions. Jesus likely did the first three things. But he obviously, flagrantly violated the Pharisee customs and traditions, time and again. ’Cause he knew the intentions of the Law infinitely better than the Pharisees—and he had no use for Pharisee loopholes.

God knows the plans he has for you.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 March

Jeremiah 29.11.

Jeremiah 29.11 NIV
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Whenever English-speaking Christians quote this verse, I tend to hear the New International Version translation most often. Oddly, not the been-around-way-longer King James:

Jeremiah 29.11 KJV
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.

I suspect it’s ’cause the words “prosper” and “hope” and “future” are in the NIV, so it comes across as way more optimistic and inspiring. It’s why Christians quote it like crazy.

’Cause we do. Like the evangelists tell us, “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” and this verse brilliantly affirms it: God thinks warm, wonderful things about us. He has a good, fine plan, with a good future.

Some of us figure this future is heaven, and some of us figure it’s all the worldly success the American Dream can offer. But, y’know, Christianized. This way we’re comfortably wealthy, but our comfort and wealth somehow hasn’t turned us into out-of-touch, self-entitled jerks. Instead we’re “good stewards” of that wealth… but I gotta tell ya, in practice stewardship tends to look a little out-of-touch, and tends to hoard wealth on the basis of “God gave these riches to me, not the needy, so I must deserve it more than they.” But I digress.

Like many out-of-context scriptures, neither the NIV nor KJV variants are a mistranslation. I translated it myself, and my own results aren’t far different from the NIV and KJV. (Nor should it be.)

Jeremiah 29.11 KWL
“Because I know the intentions I plan over you,” the LORD states.
“Intentions of peace, not evil. To give you a proper ending, and hope.”

The verse is about what God has in store for his people. He plans good, not evil. (Especially not secret, behind-the-scenes evil stuff, like natural disasters and wars; whereas in public he maintains moral superiority. I know certain Christians claim otherwise, but God’s no hypocrite.) God wants his people to have good lives. Not bad.

Thing is: The people God addressed in this prophecy are the Hebrews of southern Israel, the tribes which the writers of the Old Testament collectively call “Judah.” (These’d be the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon; plus Levites and various members of other tribes who lived in the cities. Collectively, “Jews.”) Jeremiah prophesied it between the years 586 and 581BCE, after King Jeconiah, his family and court, and Jerusalem’s officials had been taken captive to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s troops. Jr 29.2 In fact the prophecy was a message to these very captives. Not necessarily to all the Jews in the sixth century before the Christian Era. And certainly not 21st-century gentiles. Nor even all us Christians.

But we’d sure like it to be us, wouldn’t we? And that’s why we claim it for ourselves.

Jesus’s easy victory over the devil.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 February

Mark 1.12-13, Matthew 4.1-11, Luke 4.1-13.

Mark 1.12-13 KWL
12 Right afterward, the Spirit threw Jesus into the wilderness.
13 Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, getting tested by Satan.
He was with the beasts. Angels were serving him.

That’s the extra-short version of Jesus’s “temptations,” as they tend to be called: Peirádzo/“test” is often meant in a tempting sense, ’cause part of the test is how badly we want what’s offered. But is it in Jesus’s divine nature to go about getting these things the wrong way? Nah. He’s never gonna put himself above his Father’s will. So let’s not treat these tests like they really made Jesus doubt his commitment to the Father. Any devout Christian can easily resist such temptations.

The Mark version doesn’t have a lot of details: Just Jesus and the devil, out in the middle of nowhere. Didn’t have to be way out in the middle of nowhere; in fact it’d be a stronger test of will if Jesus was just within sight of civilization. (As was the case in the Judean desert. Lots of hermits, nomads, even a few communes.)

If all we had was the Mark version, we’d imagine all sorts of horrors and enticements. (Especially since Mark brought up Jesus “was with the beasts”—something End Times fanatics would have all sorts of fun speculating about.)

Y’know, since it was only Jesus and the devil out there in the wilderness, it leads us to a rather obvious deduction: The authors of Matthew and Luke could only have got the particulars from Jesus himself. He shared the stories of his testing, probably with his students. Probably to teach ’em the sort of stuff the devil tries to use on us. And teach ’em how to resist.

In the Matthew and Luke versions, they’re not in the same order.

  1. Rocks to bread. Mt 4.2-4
  2. Dive from temple. Mt 4.5-7
  3. Bow to Satan. Mt 4.8-10
  1. Rocks to bread. Lk 4.2-4
  2. Bow to Satan. Lk 4.5-8
  3. Dive from temple. Lk 4.9-12

Why? There’s some speculation about the meaning of Luke’s order, but I don’t buy ’em. Luke is more likely the original story’s order. Matthew, in comparison, is focused on the kingdom, so the tests escalate from Jesus’s personal needs, to Jesus impressing Jerusalem, to Jesus conquering the world. Makes sense.

Why leave your church?

by K.W. Leslie, 25 February

Sometimes for good reasons. Sometimes bad. Up to you to decide.

As I’ve said previously, at some point Christians have to switch churches. Sometimes for good reasons; sometimes not.

  • God instructs you to go elsewhere.
  • They kicked you out.
  • Church leaders are untrustworthy. Sinning, abusive, fruitless, jerk-like, and unrepentant; or just not doing their jobs.
  • Ditto church members—and the leaders do nothing about it.
  • They’re a cult, or have a cultic reputation. Too legalistic, demanding, judgmental. If you don’t obey/conform, they have penalties.
  • They’re dark Christians: Too much fear and worry, not enough love.
  • You, or they, are moving to a new city. Or you work for another church.
  • Your spouse goes elsewhere, and isn’t coming back. Period.
  • You consider church to be optional anyway. Sleep, sports, or recreation—even doing nothing—seem better options.
  • They’re not cool enough. Or anymore.
  • You don’t like anyone there. You have no friends there. You burned a lot of bridges, so you need a “fresh start.”
  • They won’t let you lead, or otherwise get your way.
  • They’re not political enough.
  • They want you to contribute time/resources/money.
  • They denounce sin, particularly sins you commit.
  • There’s a drastic change in mission, emphasis, focus, or denomination—and you can’t get behind it.
  • You visited another church, and they felt far more right for you.
  • You don’t like their liturgical style, preaching style, or music.
  • You’re “not getting fed” or “not feeling the Spirit” or are otherwise bored.
  • Your kids don’t wanna go.
  • You want a bigger/smaller church.
  • You want more/fewer programs or resources.

You can probably think of more reasons than these. I sure can.

You might take issue with the placement of some of these things on the chart. I’ve known more than one politically-minded Christian who’s insistent the church must swing their way politically, and if it doesn’t, it’s supporting “the kingdom of this world” over and against “the kingdom of God.” Supposedly Jesus will make their party an exception when he overthrows the governments of this world. But political Christians regularly, naïvely think so, and would place politics in the “good reasons” column. I don’t.

Likewise I’ve known Christians who insist stylistic choices don’t matter in the slightest. Doesn’t matter if you hate the music, or think the sermons are useless and boring, or the kids can’t stand the youth group and would rather be pagans: That’s your church, and you stay there no matter what. For some Christians there are no debatable reasons. You don’t like your church? You don’t have to like it, you whiny muffin; you have to obey and conform. Suck it up and go to church.

Likewise I’ve known Christians who don’t want us making any such lists. Who are we to critique churches? We’re supposed to be humble, obedient, and stick with the churches God’s assigned us, rather than nitpicking their flaws, and seeking a church which suits our preferences instead of God’s. That’s just rebellion disguised as diversity.