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18 January 2018

Sharing Jesus and sucky Christians.

If we make lousy representatives of Jesus, we’re often extra hesitant to share him with others.

There’s a popular saying among Christians, attributed to Ragamuffin Gospel author Brennan Manning:

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

It’s popular among wannabe-devout Christians, ’cause it lets us point the finger at irreligious Christians and say, “See, it’s their fault.” (And so much for grace.) But is it true? Has anybody bothered to poll nontheists and ask ’em, “Is that why you struggle to believe in God? Because of Christians who won’t act like Christ?” Have we sought to find out if there’s anything to it? Or is it too comfortable and appealing a “truth” to question?

I mean yeah, irreligious Christians need to shape up and stop treating God’s grace so cheaply. Duh. But I’m loath to park the blame for all the unbelievers in the world upon them. I’ve dealt with nontheists long enough to know better. The reason they don’t believe is ’cause they don’t wanna believe. All their reasons are after-the-fact excuses. Because that’s what humans do. We start with the hypothesis, then pick and choose any evidence which backs it. “The facts speak for themselves” only after we’ve thrown away any facts we don’t like.

Misbehaving Christians have nothing to do with nontheism. Anyone who tells you different, has an ax to grind against misbehaving Christians.

I certainly do, ’cause I used to be one of those misbehaving Christians. I grind an ax against my former self all the time. I tell on all the sins he committed, and use him for illustrations of what not to do. Many Christians do likewise with their former selves: We can do it with impunity, and not appear cruel. ’Cause it’d look totally cruel if we used, say, one of our kids as an example of what not to do. Or some other Christian in some other denomination.

I was a rotten kid in my youth. And yeah, I shared Jesus with people. But I actually got a few of ’em to come to church with me. Despite me. ’Cause that’s how the Holy Spirit works: He takes seriously messed-up humans, and does something good through us. He can, and does, use irreligious Christians to spread his gospel. I know from personal experience as one of those irreligious Christians.

That said, is it ideal when irreligious Christians share the gospel? Of course not. Got way easier to share the gospel when I started to act like Jesus. People don’t mind hearing the good news from good people. But when you’re kind of a dick, the good news doesn’t tend to come across as all that good. Too much hellfire, not enough grace. Too much hate; no love. Too likely to become dark Christianity, dark evangelism, and proselytism. Too likely to reproduce all those bad traits, like Jesus complained about the Pharisees doing with their converts. Mt 23.15

No; ideally we want fruitful Christians to exhibit all the same winsome traits as our Master: Love, kindness, patience, forgiveness, grace, compassion, peace, and joy. Because we’re trying to duplicate that in new believers; not the same fake fruit we find among Christianists, who’ve taken the place of Pharisees in that they’re creating the “sons of hell” nowadays.

Don’t misunderstand me. Irreligious Christians need to repent. But can they share Jesus, his gospel, and his kingdom? Of course they can. God’s used talking asses before, Nu 22.26-30 and apparently he still does.

17 January 2018

Doubt’s okay. Unbelief’s the problem.

Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. Unbelief is.

I’ve been told more than once, “In the scriptures, Jesus came down awfully hard against doubt. How then can you claim doubt is our friend?

’Cause Jesus’s objection wasn’t actually to doubt. It was to unbelief.

Contrary to popular opinion—and way too many bible translations—doubt isn’t the opposite of belief. Unbelief is. Doubt’s not the same as unbelief. Doubt means we’re not sure we believe. Unbelief means we’re totally sure—and we don’t believe at all.

Doubt’s what happens when we sorta kinda do believe. But we’re not entirely sure. So we suspend judgment till we get more evidence. And often that’s precisely the right thing to do. Y’realize Christians constantly get scammed by false teachers, fake prophets, and con artists who tell ’em, “Stop doubting me and just believe!” In so doing they’re trying to keep us from practicing discernment, because if we did use our heads we’d realize what they were up to. They don’t want us to think. Just feel. Follow your emotions, not your head. Ignore the gray matter God gave you, and listen to your brain chemicals… and ignore the fact most of us can turn them on and off if we tried.

Unbelievers definitely try to describe themselves as doubters. I’ve met plenty of nontheists who claim that’s what they really are: Doubters. Skeptics. Agnostics who are intellectually weighing the evidence for Christianity… but we Christians haven’t yet convinced them, so they’re gonna stay in the nontheist camp for now. Makes ’em sound open-minded and wise. But it’s hypocritical bushwa. Their minds are totally made up; they stopped investigating God long ago. They don’t believe; they’ve chosen their side of the issue; they’re straddling nothing.

Real doubt might likewise mean we’ve totally picked a side. There are Christians who doubt, but they’re still gonna remain Christian. (After all, where else are they gonna go? Jn 6.68 They’ve seen too much.) And there are nontheists who doubt, so they’re still gonna investigate Christianity from time to time, and talk with Christians, and try to see whether there’s anything to what we believe. Part of ’em kinda hopes there is. Or, part of ’em really hopes there’s not—but the Holy Spirit is making them doubt their convictions, ’cause he uses doubt like this all the time.

16 January 2018

Deacons: Those who serve the church.

As described in the scriptures, the church’s workers—whether we give ’em the title or not.

DEACON /'di.kən/ n. Minister. Might be the leader of a particular ministry, but not the leader of a church: Deacons are nearly always subordinate to the pastor or priest.
[Diaconal /di'ak.(ə.)nəl/ adj., less properly deaconal /di'kən.əl/ adj.]

The word diákonos/“deacon” originally meant “runner,” like someone who runs errands. You know, someone we’d nowadays call a gofer—as in “go fer coffee,” or run any other errands. Deacon first shows up in the bible when Jesus said if we wanna become great, we need to be everyone’s servant. Mk 10.43 Or when he said if anyone serves him, the Father values them. Jn 12.26

Deacon is used to describe the folks appointed to run the early church’s food ministry. Ac 6.1-6 The Twelve didn’t give them any more responsibility than that. But they picked mature Christians, and as a result people recognized these servants as leaders in their own right. Stephen and Philip did some very notable things in Acts.

A deacon means any minister in your church who’s officially or formally in charge of something. Not the volunteers who pitch in from time to time, who run one fundraiser, taught one Sunday school class once, or pitched in on the church’s work day. Deacons are actually in charge of stuff and people. They run the small groups. Lead the evangelism team. Lead the prayer team. Greet visitors weekly. Serve as ushers during the services. Handle the bookkeeping. Clean the building. Answer phones. Teach the classes. Run the kitchen. Preach sermons. Lead the singing. Run the website. Anything and everything: Deacons have duties.

True, many churches have made “deacon” an official title—and the only “deacons” are on the church’s board of directors. Yeah, board members do fit the scriptures’ definition of deacons. But in the scriptures, deacon is hardly limited to board members. Nor is it interchangeable with elders, even though deacons had better be mature Christians. Elders aren’t necessarily put in charge of things. Deacons are.

15 January 2018

Happy Martin Luther King Jr.® day!

When a saint gets commercialized by his family.


One of the few photos of Dr. King® in the public domain. Wikimedia

In the United States, the third Monday of January is Martin Luther King Jr.® Day. Due to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, it doesn’t fall on his birthday (he was born 15 January 1929) but it’s close enough. It’s a day to honor the life and acts of civil rights leader and Christian martyr, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.® He was one of the principal leaders in the 1950s civil rights movement, and a pastor in the Progressive National Baptist Convention. (One of that denomination’s founders… after the National Baptist Convention, USA, ousted King® and other activists for being too activist.)

So… what’s with all the little registered-trademark symbols (®) next to his name throughout this article? It’s because Martin Luther King Jr.,® his likeness, words, speeches, books, writings, and so forth, are owned by the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., which is wholly owned by King’s® children Martin III, Dexter, and Bernice. (Eldest daughter Yolanda died in 2007.) Use any of these things without the Estate’s permission, and when the Estate finds out they’ll sue you for infringement. I’m not kidding.

The Estate got serious about defending their copyrights in the 1990s. On 28 August 1993, USA Today honored the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, by publishing King’s® 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety. Sounds nice… but the Estate quickly sued the newspaper, which settled in 1994 for $10,000 in attorney’s fees and court costs, plus the standard $1,700 licensing fee. Yep, that’s how much it cost to publish the speech in the ’90s.

The Estate also sued CBS for including video of “I Have a Dream” in their 1994 documentary series 20th Century with Mike Wallace. They also sued producer Henry Hampton for including it in his 1987 PBS civil rights series Eyes on the Prize. Hampton paid $100,000, and PBS didn’t broadcast the series again till 2006; it first had to purchase the rights to include the King® footage. Whereas CBS fought the Estate in court till 1999, arguing this was a newsworthy public speech. A lower court agreed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned it: Giving the speech in public doesn’t count as giving it away to the public.

King’s® children routinely claim they’re not trying to profit off their father’s legacy: They’re only trying to keep opportunists from sullying his image. Which is a valid concern.

Problem is, everyone knows this argument is utter rubbish.

12 January 2018

Undoing God’s grace?

No, seriously: We don’t earn it. We can’t.

Before I started the bible-in-the-month thingy this month, I was reading a certain book (really, more of an extended rant) about holiness. Written by a guy I know; I won’t say who ’cause I’m gonna criticize him a little. We’ll call him Achard.

Achard spent a chapter ranting about fake grace. Which he didn’t really bother to define… but from what I deduced, he basically means cheap grace.

To recap: Cheap grace is when we take God’s amazing grace for granted: It’s meant to be our safety net for when we screw up and need forgiveness, but we treat it like a bounce house where we can spend hours in mindless fun, sinning away till we’re dizzy and kinda pukey. ’Cause grace!

Now yeah, when we find the cheap-grace attitude among Christians, it’s deplorable. God’s grace may be granted to us freely, but it cost Jesus his life. Treating it with anything other than the deepest gratitude is bad enough. Ignoring how God feels about sin, because we can go on sinning and he’ll just keep granting us grace Ro 6.1 is, to be completely blunt, a massive dick move. That’s not the love we need to show God in response. That’s exploitative, selfish, and depraved. That’s evil.

And therefore, Achard insists, not actually grace anymore. If we exploit his grace, God’s gonna take it back. We think we have his grace; we actually don’t. We’re exactly like those Hebrews in Isaiah 1 who presumed they had God’s grace because they were his chosen people, because they practiced all the festivals and ritual sacrifices he told ’em to practice—and all the rituals made up for their outrageous behavior towards the weak and needy of their community. They made God sick.

Isaiah 1.11-15 KWL
11 “What are your many sacrifices to me?” says the LORD.
“I’m full of burnt-up rams and animal fat.
I’m not interested in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats.
12 When you come before my face, walk in my courtyard, who requested this from your hand?
13 Don’t bring me empty offerings any more! Incense? It disgusts me.
Calling monthly and Sabbath assemblies? I can’t stand wasteful conferences.
14 My soul hates your monthly and special feasts. They’re a burden to me which I tire of carrying.
15 When you spread your hands, I hide my eyes from you.
When you pray ‘great’ prayers, I don’t listen: Your hands are full of blood!”

Achard is entirely sure if we think grace covers all, we have another think coming. It does not. Grace is only for those people who are actually trying to follow God. Not for those people who figure “Once saved, always saved—so obedience and holiness is optional,” and take the option to practice neither obedience nor holiness. These folks think they’re saved, but their nasty behavior and carnal attitudes have undone their salvation. They unsaved themselves.

Okay. Here’s where Achard and I part ways.

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, having a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us,
putting 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, and Christian tradition has borrowed the pagan idea of dead relatives looking down from the heavens upon the living, and interpreted it 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 are racing through dirt? Clouds. That’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 the stuff we use now. Modern technology made it so we can’t recognize the context anymore, and now the CEV, GNB, and NLT strait-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.

10 January 2018

What does your church believe?—your REAL church.

Some Christians do better in a church with more structure.

Recently a pastor friend of mine posted on social media, “One of the core values at our church is…” something. I don’t remember specifically what. Some virtuous practice. All I remember is immediately thinking, “No it isn’t.”

Because it isn’t.

Oh, I’ve no doubt it’s one of his core values. A virtue he no doubt wants his church to have. Probably preaches it in his sermons, includes it in his vision statements, sticks it on the church website. Likely practices it in his personal life.

But as I keep reminding Christians, the leadership of a church is not the church. The people are.

Your pastor’s core values are not your church’s core values. Your leadership team’s convictions are not your church’s convictions. Your statement of faith and official doctrines are not your church’s theology. Because the church is people. And your people believe all sorts of things. And if your people aren’t solid, growing Christians, your church likely believes all kinds of godawful heretic things.

I live in California, not the Bible Belt. A bothersome percentage of Californian Christians believe in astrology and superstition. In Hindu-style meditation and energy forces. That they’ve had past lives, and are getting reincarnated instead of resurrected. That vaccines don’t prevent illness, but crystals and essential oils do.

Oh, the Bible Belt ain’t any better. The bulk of ’em might’ve said some version of the sinners’ prayer, but too many still believe the very same things pagans do—that God isn’t a trinity, Jesus is a lesser god but not the real God, and the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force. That people get to heaven on good karma instead of God’s grace—and the reason they’re even going to church is to keep their karma points up.

So your church’s real core values? You’re not gonna find them on the website. You’d have to poll the church to find ’em out. And the poll results might really bother you.

09 January 2018

Wrongly defining God by his almightiness.

Humans worship power. Stands to reason they’d follow a powerful God.

Recently a friend was trying to emphasize to me how mysterious God is:

SHE. “God is almighty, right? So can he create a rock so heavy, he can’t lift it?”
ME. “Yes of course he could create such a rock.”
SHE. [figuring she got me] “But if he can’t lift it, then is he really almighty? Is he really God?”
ME. “Well first of all, God isn’t defined by his almightiness. But second of all, it’s a poor sort of almightiness that can’t create paradoxes.”

Yeah, she didn’t realize this wasn’t my first go-around with this particular question. I grew up inflicting it on my Sunday school teachers, just to see whether I liked any of their answers. (Seldom did I.) Theology professors still use it to mess with the minds of their students. I came up with my own answer back in seminary, just to mess with the minds of my theology professors.

But like my professors, she wanted to go back to my first comment, and object to it a little: The idea God isn’t defined by his almightiness.

Yep, that’s what people think, ’cause that’s what we were taught to think as children. Even pagan kids, when they’re taught what a “god” is, are taught it’s an almighty being, or at least an extremely powerful one. And Christians are taught God is, by definition, the Almighty. The Creator. The Prime Mover. The only one who can do absolutely anything. Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. It’s what makes him God, innit? If he’s not almighty, he can’t really be God, right?

Wrong. That’s human thinking. That’s how we define gods, but it’s not how God defines himself. You wanna know how God defines himself, you look at Jesus. ’Cause Jesus is God.

Yet when he was walking around on the earth during his first coming, Jesus wasn’t almighty. He gave that up. Deliberately. On purpose.

08 January 2018

Evil spirits.

Some of our beliefs about them are downright bizarre.

It’s odd: Lots of people, Christians included, believe in spirits. God’s a spirit, obviously. Jn 4.24 Angels are spirits. He 1.14 Dead loved ones exist as spirits in the afterlife—or heaven, as many people imagine.

Yet these very same people frequently refuse to believe in evil spirits.

I used to say this mindset comes from Platonism. Though really, Plato of Athens wasn’t the first guy to assume if we could escape this world of matter and decay, and just become pure spirit, all our self-centered impulses, greed, materialism, lusts, and so forth would cease to exist, and we’d be nothing but good. The ancient Greeks believed this, but the present-day folks who believe the same thing, don’t necessarily believe it for the same reasons. They believe all spirits are good… because it simply never occurred to them spirits might be bad.

Yeah, even though mythology, fairy tales, and horror movies are full of evil spirits. Monsters, boogeymen, ghosts, demons, elder gods which wanna destroy everything once they’re awakened. But for whatever reason, people imagine real-life spirits aren’t evil. That they’re nothing but benevolent. That’s what spiritualists will tell you—and don’t you think that’s precisely what their spirits would want ’em to think?

To some degree this is because too many people have overdone their emphasis on evil spirits. Christians in particular. Wasn’t so long ago that everyone assumed every psychological disorder in the DSM-5 was the product of evil spirits. Years ago I had a roommate who was suffering from depression, but he was convinced he was demonized. Fortunately one of my pastors was a psychologist, who could diagnose him properly. But you’re gonna find very few pastors (even though they do a whole lot of counseling!) have had psychological training. Of any sort. In fact some of ’em actually believe psychology is devilish—therefore people with psychological disorders are demoniac, and instead of meds they need an exorcism.

Thanks to this mindset, some Christians insist evil spirits are absolutely everywhere. I’ve been to “deliverance ministries” which insist every temptation, no matter how minor, has a devil behind it. The leaders demonstrate how to cast out these devils, claiming everyone’s infested with one or two of ’em, like bedbugs in an old mattress. Christians included!—their claim is we can’t be possessed (since we’re indwelt by the Holy Spirit, after all), but the critters can certainly latch onto us like leeches, and tempt us whenever we’re weak.

Okay: If devils could infest absolutely everyone that way, don’t you think they would? The entire planet would be hopelessly filled with the demonized. But it’s not. It is full of selfish people, who’ll act more evil than Satan itself. But that’s way different than people possessed, or at least heavily manipulated, by evil spirits. Humans are plenty capable of inventing our own evil. Few of us need any devil’s help in being evil.

05 January 2018

Epiphany: When Jesus was revealed to the world.

The holiday which grew into Christmas.

Epiphany (in some churches it’s called Theophany) falls on 6 January. Well, unless your church still follows the Julian calendar, in which case it’s gonna wind up on 19 January. It comes right after the last day of Christmas. In fact Christmas is celebrated on 25 December because of Epiphany.

See, Epiphany celebrates how Jesus was revealed to the world. True, the Christmas stories figure that was with the angels and sheep-herders, and maybe with the magi. But technically he was revealed at the beginning of his ministry, at his baptism, where John the baptist identified him as God’s son.

John 1.29-34 KWL
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming to him.
He said, “Look: God’s ram, taking up the world’s sin! 30 This is the one I spoke of!
‘The one coming after me has got in front of me’—because he’s first over me. Jn 1.15
31 And I hadn’t seen him! But I came baptizing in water so he’d be revealed to Israel.”
32 John testified, saying this: “I’ve seen the Spirit,
descending like a pigeon from the sky, and staying on him.
33 And I hadn’t seen him, but he who sent me to baptize in water
yes, him—told me, “On whomever you see the Spirit come down and stay on,
that’s who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
34 And I’ve seen. I testify: This is God’s son.”

The third-century Christians began to celebrate Jesus’s baptism in January. Why January? Historians’ best guess is the early churches divided up the gospels into a year’s worth of readings, and if you start with Mark, you get to the baptism story in the second week of the year. So it wasn’t ’cause anybody knew the date of the baptism; it’s just the date they read the baptism story.

Since Jesus was also sorta revealed as God incarnate at his annunciation, Epiphany celebrations began to include his birth stories. Till the early Christians realized the birth needed its own celebration. Thus the 12 days before Epiphany became the separate celebration of Christmas. Yep, that’s how it happened; Christians didn’t take over any pagan winter solstice festivals, and claim Jesus was born around the time the days began to grow longer. We still don’t know when he was born. Doesn’t matter, though. All we needed was a day—or 12—to celebrate. And for the longest time, Epiphany also lasted several days: Usually eight.

And Epiphany marks the end of Christmastime. Bummer.