Jesus’s first command: Love God.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 October

The most important of the commands to follow.

When Moshe ben Maimon of Spain (1135–1204, also called Maimonides by westerners, Rambam by Jews) wrote the Sefer Hamitzvot/“Book of Good Deeds,” he sorted God’s commands into a list of 613. His first command was the first of the Ten Commandments, which in Jewish reckoning is this verse:

Exodus 20.2 = Deuteronomy 5.6 KWL
“I’m your god, the LORD,
who took you out of Egypt’s land, out of the slaves’ house.”

Makes sense, right? It’s the first one the LORD declared aloud from Sinai.

But when Jesus was asked the most important of God’s commands, he listed two. Respectively, they’re Moshe ben Maimon’s fourth and 13th commands.

Mark 12.28-31 KWL
28 One of the scribes was standing there listening to the discussion.
Recognizing how well Jesus answered the Sadducees, he asked him,
“Which command is first of all?” 29 Jesus gave this answer:
“First is, ‘Listen Israel: Our god is the Lord. The Lord is One.
30 You will love your Lord God with all your mind, life, intent, and strength.’ Dt 6.4-5
Second is, ‘Love your neighbor like yourself.’ Lv 19.18
No command is higher than these.”

It’s kinda understandable why Moshe went with the first commandment. It is the first commandment, after all. And it identifies which God we’re to follow. We don’t follow one of the other beings which identify themselves, or which others identify for us, as God. When pagans refer to “the universe,” or nontheists mockingly refer to “the imaginary man in the sky,” we Christians reject those ideas as God. That’s not our God. Our God is the being Jesus identified as his Father; and when this being identified himself, it was as YHWH/“the LORD,” Ex 3.14-15 the name he permanently chose for himself. He’s the God who rescued the Hebrews from Egypt. That God is our God.

Identifying which God is our God, is really important to us humans. It’s why your typical theology book begins with nailing down which God we follow. The Father of Jesus; the God of Israel. There’s usually a bit in there about whether he exists, which is entirely unnecessary if you’ve met him (but a bothersome number of theologians aren’t actually sure they have… which is another discussion).

Of course if you ask God—as this scribe asked Jesus, God incarnate— he’s gonna say the most important command he gave is to love God. Just as he had Moses tell the Hebrews.

Deuteronomy 6.4-5 KWL
4 “Listen, Israel: Our god is the LORD. The LORD is One.
5 Love your LORD God with all your mind, all your life, and all your power.”

In Mark Jesus divided mehódekha/“your powerful[ness]” into two ideas: Dianoías/“intent,” and iskhýos/“strength.” Your mental power; your physical power. In case anybody was looking for a loophole—as we so often do—Jesus plugged it.

Saying grace.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 October

You know: Praying for your food.

The most common type of prayer—the one we see most often, and probably the type taken the least seriously—is the prayer before meals. We call it “grace.” Not to be confused with God’s generous, forgiving attitude.

Why don’t people take it seriously? Because it’s dead religion. Christians might pray it as a living act of religion, one of the acts we do to further our relationship with God. But Christians and pagans alike say grace before meals as the dead kind of religion: We do it ’cause it’s just what people do in our culture. It’s custom. It’s tradition. It’s habit. But it doesn’t mean anything.

Nope, not said out of gratitude. Nor love. Nor devotion. Nor even as a reminder of these things. We say grace because if we didn’t say grace, Grandma would slap the food out of our hands and say, “You didn’t say grace!” We say grace because Dad would take his seat at the table, fold his hands like you do for prayer, and give us kids dirty looks until we stopped eating, noticed what he was doing, and mimicked his behavior. We say grace because it’s how people wait for everyone to be ready before the meal starts. God has nothing to do with it—beyond a minor acknowledgment.

You notice in these scenarios, it’s because Grandma or Dad wanted to say grace. Not because anybody else did. Or even cared. It’s enforced religion: Everybody’s gotta participate in their spiritual practice, not to grow our own relationships with God, but because our parents felt it wasn’t proper to eat before a ritual prayer. It’s a formality.

And in some cases, it’s a superstition: If you don’t bless the food, it’s not blessed. Some will even say cursed.

So as a result of all this Christianist junk behind saying grace, we wind up with people who treat it as an annoyance. Or even passive-aggressively mock it. Like the silly rote prayers.

Good bread, good meat.
Good God, let’s eat.
Rub a dub dub
Thanks for the grub
Yea, God!

At one children’s ministry I worked with, we had a rote prayer we used for grace. Actually it was an old hymn, suitable for thanking God for food. And since each line was eight syllables long, it meant it perfectly fit a whole lot of tunes. Like different TV theme songs. The adults would have the kids sing their grace to these silly songs… then wonder why the kids didn’t take grace all that seriously. Well, duh. Obviously they weren’t being taught to.

Okay, so let’s take a more serious look at saying grace. And, believe it or not, whether we oughta drop the practice. Yeah, you read right.

Things I want when I’m in a coma.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 October

Just in case there’s any question… and in case anyone remembers I blogged on it.

The subject came up recently. It's kind of a morbid subject, but honestly, you never know when you might wind up in a coma. I’m not expecting to go into one anytime soon; no, I’m not suffering from anything. But I know people who went from hale and hearty (or appearing so) to dead in very short periods of time. If I ever go into one, I should make my wishes nice and obvious. So I’m sticking ’em on TXAB. Somewhere, in the back of someone’s mind, they’ll remember I listed ’em here.

Here ya go. If I’m ever in a coma, this is what I want.

Keep me plugged in. Keep the feeding tubes going. Keep the oxygen flowing. I wanna live, dangit.

If I ever change my mind on that, I’ll stop trying so hard to live, and just die. So if I’m alive, assume I wanna be alive. Keep me alive. Don’t disconnect the food and air; that’s a nasty way to go.

I’ll make an exception if I’m brain dead. Then, obviously, I’m dead. Keeping my body alive, other than to harvest organs, means you’re struggling to let go, or hoping some miracle will bring me back to life—and y’know, you don’t have to wait for some miracle. I’m totally fine with being dead. I’ll be with Jesus; I’ll come back when he does. Relax.

Otherwise keep me plugged in.

Keep the morphine coming. This only goes for if I’m in pain. The times I’ve been prescription-strength stoned, I didn’t enjoy it. So if I’m not in pain, don’t dope me up. But if I’m in pain, or likely in pain, I’d rather be loopy than hurting, so go right ahead and load me up. I’m in a coma; it’s not like I’ll be operating heavy machinery anytime soon.

Speaking of pain: No poking, slapping, or otherwise abusing me in the hopes of getting a response. I won’t appreciate it.

If you wanna talk to me, that’s fine. Feel free.

Talk as normally as you can. I’ve watched people talk to the sick, elderly, and non-responsive as if they’re babies. I don’t understand that; I think it’s condescending and a little bit insane; don’t do it. Don’t get weird on me.

Don’t just take advantage of the fact I’m non-responsive. Don’t try to answer or speak on my behalf, or presume what my responses might be. You should know me well enough to know I won’t always give predictable answers. (Often on purpose.) If I have to listen to a schizophrenic conversation between you and your parody of me, I’m not gonna enjoy it. Would you?

Perfect love—without conditions.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 October

Matthew 5.43-48, Luke 6.27-36.

Sometimes I joke the two commands Jesus said were most important Mk 12.29-31 —love God Dt 6.5 and love your neighbor Lv 19.18 —are respectively the easiest and hardest commands. Really easy to love God. But the neighbors are such a pain.

Some respond with a laugh. Others disagree: They struggle to love God, but people are relatively easy for them. ’Cause people are visible and God is not.

And, they figure, the neighbors are easy to love. Of course by “neighbor” they mean “people who are friendly,” kinda like in Jesus’s story of the kind Samaritan. Lk 10.29-37 Kind people are easy to love. Unkind people not so much. And yeah, it’s not hard to love people who are always nice to you, but I find when you really know and spend time with people, they’re not always gonna be nice. Gotta give ’em credit for trying, but everybody slips up. I sure do. That’s why we Christians gotta be gracious.

Since God obligated the Hebrews to love their neighbors, a lot of ’em actually figured that’s as far as they needed to go in loving people. Kinda like that guy who provoked Jesus to tell the kind Samaritan story: He wanted to justify which neighbors to love. Don’t we all? But in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus objected to this sort of categorizing. God loves everybody, and if you’re following him, if you’re one of his kids, go and do likewise.

And Jesus didn’t pussyfoot around. He jumped right to the unlovable folks. Not icky, dirty, or smelly people, whom superficial Christians struggle to love, but can with a little effort (and especially after we wash ’em). Not sinners, whom self-righteous Christians likewise struggle to love, but sometimes can (again, after they straighten up a bit). Nope, Jesus went for the people who are just plain being hostile and hateful towards us. Persecutors. Mistreaters. Cursers.

Matthew 5.43-44 KWL
43 “You heard this said: ‘You’ll love your neighbor.’ Lv 19.18 And you’ll hate your enemy.
44 And I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.”
 
Luke 6.27-31 KWL
27 “But I tell you listeners: Love your enemies. Do good to your haters.
28 Bless your cursers. Pray for your mistreaters.
29 To one who hits you on the jaw, submit all the more.
To one who takes your robe and tunic from you, don’t stop them.
30 Give to everyone who asks you. Don’t demand payback from those who take what’s yours.
31 Just as you want people doing for you, do likewise for them.”

Yeah, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus already brought up the people who might punch you in the jaw, or try to sue your clothes off. Mt 5.39-40 That was to emphasize grace over karma. In this passage, it’s unconditional love. He orders us to ἀγαπᾶτε/aghapáte, “charitably love,” not just people who love us back, not just people who reciprocate, but everyone. Including people who never, ever will reciprocate.

You know, love ’em like our Father loves ’em.

Matthew 5.45 KWL
“Thus you can become your heavenly Father’s children,
since he raises his sun over evil and good, and rains on moral and immoral.”

Theologians call this prevenient grace—the grace God grants us before we even know he’s there, before we choose to follow him—and even for those who choose to not follow him. Sunlight for all. Rain for all. Life and health and food and water for all. Atonement for all. Salvation offered to all. Yes, God totally plays favorites, like his chosen Hebrews and Christians; but if anybody else wants to become one of his favorites, he’s not shutting them out. Jn 6.37 Neither should we.

Doctrine: Christendom’s fixed ideas. (Mostly.)

by K.W. Leslie, 12 October

And whether it’s safe to question them.

Doctrine /'dɑk.trən/ n. Official belief, or group of teachings, held by an organization.
2. Decree: A decision by officials as to how they choose to interpret an idea, or handle a controversy.
[Doctrinal /'dɑk.trən.əl/ adj.]

Doctrine is a formal word. A lot of Christians don’t realize this, and fling it around anyway. I know of one pastor who used to title his podcast, “Doctrines for Today.” Even though a lot of what he taught was more his interpretations of the scriptures; it wasn’t actually his church’s official stance.

Well… was and wasn’t. Y’see, he pastored one of those churches where the pastor runs the whole show. Nobody oversees him, nobody vetoes him. It’s a dictatorship. Hopefully benevolent, and I’m sure he’d like to think of himself that way, but he was super sexist, so I’m sure the women of his church didn’t consider him benevolent. But I digress; my point is his stances functionally were his church’s official stance. So they were kinda doctrines.

Historically, doctrine is one of those words we reserve for the core beliefs of Christianity. You know, the creedal stuff. Believe them, or at least uphold them, and you’re orthodox; reject ’em and you’re heretic. Ain’t no gray area.

Fr’instance:

There are others, but you get the idea. They’re Christian essentials.

How we Christians imagine God’s presence.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 October

Sometimes up. Sometimes by the cross or the Jesus picture. Sometimes on the church’s stage. It varies.

OMNIPRESENT /ɑm.nɪ'prɛ.zənt/ adj. Everywhere at once. Ubiquitous.
[Omnipresence /ɑm.nɪ'prɛ.zəns/ n.]

We Christians believe God is everywhere. Not just that he sees everywhere; Ps 33.13-14 he actually is everywhere. He’s not limited by space. (Nor time, although a lot of Christians only use the whole “sees everywhere” idea to discuss time. Not me. Everywhere also means every-when. Jn 8.58) The way David put it, God has no such limits.

Psalm 139.7-12 KWL
7 How can I leave your Spirit? How can I run away from your face?
8 You’re there if I climb to the skies, or rest in the grave: Look, it’s you!
9 I wear the dawn’s wings. I pitch a tent on the far side of the sea—
10 yet even there your hand guides me. Your right hand holds me.
11 I can say, “Yes, darkness surrounds me; night is ‘light’ around me”—
12 yet even darkness isn’t dark to you. Night shines like day. Darkness, light; doesn’t matter.

However. Though we believe this, we Christians sometimes talk about God’s presence as not always being here. Sometimes it’s here. Sometimes not.

By presence, Christians tend to mean a wholly different thing than omnipresence. We say yeah, sure, God’s everywhere, including here. But sometimes God is really here. The rest of the time he’s… well, not.

We make it sound a lot like God’s some semi-senile grandpa sitting in the corner, whose mind is almost always elsewhere. Though on some conscious level, he sorta knows stuff is going on in the room. And once we call upon him—“Hey grandpa!”—he snaps out of his reverie and interacts with us. But unlike this grandpa, God’s actually up to something in those other places. That’s why his mind is focused on that, and not so much this. He keeps a toe in our pool, just in case we need to call upon him again. When we do, here he is.

Is this really how God works? Not even close.

The Hebrew word we tend to translate as “presence” is panéh/“face,” as in “the LORD’s face,” or “the LORD’s presence,” or “before the LORD.” Found all over the bible. Ge 19.13, Ex 6.12, 1Sa 26.20, Ps 34.16, 1Pe 3.12 Of course it doesn’t mean a literal face. He didn’t really have one till he became human. So, “presence.”

God’s presence is everywhere. That’s literally what omnipresence means. But we humans can’t wrap our brains around the idea. You know how when you hear a voice and can’t see it, you look around till you know where that voice is coming from—and which direction to face? Psychologically, we need a direction to face. We need a focal point we can interact with. If we don’t have one, our mind will invent one for us. God’s gotta be in some direction, relative to our location. Up, down, in front of us, behind us, in the direction of Jerusalem, wherever. We need to know where his face is… so we can face him.

But he’s everywhere.

Standing with Israel?

by K.W. Leslie, 10 October

My views on Israel are not conventional. So, of course, they’re controversial.

The average American Evangelical believes that the Jews are God’s chosen people. ’Cause they are. Ek 20.5 There might be a few antisemites hiding out among Evangelicals, but for the most part we believe God chose Abraham, God chose Abraham’s and Israel’s descendants, God demonstrated salvation by freeing Israel’s descendants from Egypt, God set a king over them whom they called Messiah, and Jesus of Nazareth is the final and greatest and eternal Messiah. (Or Christ, as gentiles tend to call him. Means the same thing.) Our religion is a descendant of the Hebrew religion. We even swiped their holidays.

The average American Evangelical also believes the nation of Israel is a nation of God’s chosen people. God promised ’em the land of the Levant/Canaan/Palestine if they kept covenant with him, and upheld his Law. God encouraged the nations round about Israel to support it and ally themselves with it—if they knew what was good for them. Of course this is based on the presumption Israel followed God; and when Israel followed God, it and its allies prospered. When it didn’t, not so much.

Hence, as a nation, Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian and neo-Babylonian empires. It was made a client state of them, and the subsequent Persian, Greek, Seleucid, and Roman empires. (With a tiny bout of independence between the Seleucid and Roman periods.) Then, in the year 70, the Romans destroyed Israel again. And it stayed destroyed.

“Until the 20th century” is how most Evangelicals usually end that last sentence. Here’s where they and I part company.

The current nation contains God’s chosen people, in that many Israelis are Jews. It consists of a lot of the land the ancient Hebrews occupied. It’s the ancient nation’s successor state. But it’s not the same state, any more than Italy is the Roman Empire, Turkey is the Ottoman Empire, or Russia is the Soviet Union. It’s an entirely new state, founded in 1948. Despite what both Jews and Evangelicals claim, it’s a whole different country than the one founded by the LORD through Moses ben Amram in the 1400s BC.

So all the prophecies and promises in the bible which have to do with Israel? Don’t automatically apply to modern Israel. ’Cause it’s not the same country.

Bad candidates, Big Pictures, and false prophets.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 October

Woe to you when you call evil good. Even in election years.

I live in California. My state is two-thirds Democratic. Only liberal Republicans get elected to statewide offices anymore. Otherwise we elect Democrats, same as we have in the last six presidential contests. Barring some freak occurrence, we’re electing a Democrat to the Senate this year, and all our 55 electoral votes are going to the Democratic nominee for president.

So it’s out of my hands. Doesn’t matter whether I vote with the Democratic supermajority or against it.

I suppose I can concentrate on the other elections—which stand more of a chance of affecting my daily life. Got a city council race. A congressional race. State propositions.

But I keep coming back to the presidential race. Mainly because the candidates are so galling. The “third party” candidates are barely worth mentioning: One is greatly uninformed (and probably useless every day after 4:20 p.m.); one has demonstrated she’s more interested in being right than in making deals and bringing people to consensus, which is half the president’s job.

As for the institutional parties: The Democrat is largely competent, though I disagree with her in many areas. But she has a significant character defect: She’s willing to make serious ethical lapses, and justify them to herself because her intentions or goals were good. Let’s also not forget the level of grace ambitious people will automatically grant themselves—even though they’ll seldom grant it to others.

In any other election year, I’d easily lean towards her opponent. But it’s not just any other election year. She has great flaws, but her Republican opponent is vastly worse.

I likewise disagree with him in many areas. Particularly his xenophobia, his lack of knowledge of international issues, his tactless forms of diplomacy (and how he dropped his bluster during a trip to Mexico, demonstrating how he can’t be consistent in that either), his opportunistic switch to the prolife movement so as to appease Evangelicals, and his unproven economic and military beliefs. That’s in the areas where he’s expressed a coherent opinion. In most other situations his opinion is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.

I mentioned the Democratic candidate’s ethical lapses. The Republican candidate has the very same problem. But there’s more. Time and again he expresses little to no respect for the value of others; women in particular. Disagree with him, or challenge him in any way, and he responds with ridiculous insults, holds the grudge far longer than reasonable, and fires you if he can. If he doesn’t know, he lies; if he does know, he exaggerates; if he has to admit he’s wrong, he pretends he was never wrong to begin with. He makes foolish statements on a whim, holds no counsel with anyone but toadies, takes no thought no care to the international fallout.

He’s a manchild. His immature character renders him wholly unfit for any leadership position.

Doesn’t matter how “prolife” the president is.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 September

Abortion politics don’t actually do anything. ’Cause we need to do something.

I’m prolife. By which I mean I’m anti-death.

I know: Most of the time when Evangelical Christians call ourselves prolife, we really mean anti-abortion. We’re against that kind of death. All the other kinds?…

Well, some of us are against the other kinds of death. The rest of us only care about preventing abortion. To them, the unborn baby is the epitome of innocence, and totally undeserving of death. The rest of humanity: Meh, they’ve sinned already. Screw ’em.

In case you’re not clear what I mean by “the other kinds of death,” let me spell out a few of them.

  • Death due to criminal or terrorist activity.
  • Death due to domestic violence or child neglect.
  • Death due to inadequate healthcare.
  • Death due to inadequate gun laws.
  • Death due to inadequate prison supervision.
  • Death due to unnecessary, unjust war.
  • Death due to unnecessary, unjust police shootings.
  • Death due to inconsistent implementation of the death penalty.

Christ Jesus came into the world to defeat sin and death. Problem is, your typical “prolife” individual only frets about one form of death. But has no problem with implementing death of all other sorts, for every other form of sin. Not only that, they’re annoyed when we don’t implement it. All murderers should be executed, they insist, instead of clogging our prisons. All terrorists should be shot. Forget humane forms of execution; draw and quarter them!

For that matter, they’ve no problem with death being the unfortunate side effect their other beliefs. They want unlimited access to guns, and lose their tiny minds over a 5-day background check, yet bellyache against unrestricted access to abortion because it’s “too convenient.” They want free-market capitalism to dictate how healthcare runs—even if it means the sick can’t afford healthcare, and die—but rage when the free market decides abortion services oughta be made available. But I digress.

No, I’m not saying we need to abolish the death penalty, ban guns, never go to war, or nationalize healthcare. I wouldn’t mind way more responsible legislation regarding all these things. Stating, “The system has problems, so let’s be rid of the system,” is stupid. Doesn’t matter whether a liberal or libertarian says it.

But as we’re waiting for Jesus to return and overhaul our system top to bottom, let’s be good and faithful servants. Let’s do what we can to make it work as best we can. Let’s fight sin, and also fight death.

Reducing “prolife” to only being against one type of life, is also stupid. But let’s be blunt: It’s stupid because in its current form, it’s not actually a Christian movement. It’s political.

The prolife movement in the United states exists for the sake of winning the absolute loyalty of prolifers to the Republican Party. That is, so long that the party claims to be prolife. Claims is the vital word; in practice the Republicans do jack squat to reduce or prevent abortion. If they were serious, they’d’ve been successful. They’ve had the authority, the ability, and the mandate of their base. For eight years (from 2001 to ’09) they had control of the White House, and majority control of the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the statehouses. Eight whole years. Changed nothing.

Seriously. Substantively. Nothing.

Well, they did in that time finally get me to stop putting my faith in Republicans. I already distrusted the Democrats and third parties, so now I’ve been disabused of any naïve beliefs that any one party is any sort of savior. (Currently I’m registered as a Democrat, but only for pragmatic reasons. And yes, there are such political animals as prolife Democrats. Lots of ’em, actually. And unlike Republicans, you know they’re really prolife… ’cause they’ve very little to gain within their party for taking up that cause.)

“Can I pray for you?”

by K.W. Leslie, 20 September

Most people don’t mind at all if you do.

When you don’t know what to do, talk to God.

Not only is this always good advice to follow, but it’s good advice when dealing with others. When other people share their difficulties with us, we don’t always know how to respond. Prayer’s one of the best responses—if not the best, period. It’s turning to God as our first resort.

I know; plenty of people think they know just what to do when they hear someone’s troubles. That’s why they immediately offer it: Advice. No, the person sharing their woes didn’t ask for it. Often they just wanted to vent to someone. But that’s not gonna stop people from inflicting bad advice upon ’em anyway.

Remember Job’s friends? For a week he kept his mouth shut, Jb 2.13 but then he made the mistake of lamenting in front of them, Jb 3 and it opened up their floodgates of bad advice, naive statements, sorry platitudes—you know, the same stuff people still offer as advice, which just goes to show they’ve never really read Job. It pissed the LORD off, ’cause nothing they said about him was correct. Jb 42.7 Like I said, shoulda gone to him first.

Me, I try to keep the unsolicited advice to a minimum. If you want it, I’ll offer it, with the usual disclaimer that I’m hardly infallible. But really, the best response is, “Can I pray for you?”

And when we offer to pray for them, let’s not do the similar platitudinous “I’ll pray for you.” Mostly because among Christianists, “I’ll pray for you” means one of two things:

  • “I’m really offended by what you just said. Go to hell. No, wait; I need to sound Christian. ‘I’ll pray for you.’ Yeah, that’s the ticket.”
  • “Oh Lord, I don’t care about all your miserable problems. I’ve got my own stuff to deal with. How do I get out of this dreary conversation? ‘I’ll pray for you.’ Good; now I can leave.”

It’s seldom based on sympathy.

Well, don’t be one of those unsympathetic jerks. If you’re offering to pray for them, no time like the present. Stand right there and pray. Doesn’t need to be a long prayer; doesn’t need to be perfect words. Just needs to be you, telling God to help ’em out.