Gossip, prayer, and trustworthiness.

by K.W. Leslie, 31 May

Sometimes it’s not a prayer request; it’s gossip.

The gossipy prayer request. High school likely wasn’t the first place I encountered it, but certainly the first time I became aware of it. We were in a youth group meeting, the pastor was taking prayer requests, and one kid raised her hand and proceeded to give us way too much detail about a girl most of us knew.

Definitely gossip. But that’s how gossips have discovered a loophole: Gossip may be bad, but praying for one another is good! So now they can gossip freely, on the grounds it’s all stuff we need to know. Right?

Wrong; rubbish. We don’t need to know a thing. All we need to know is someone needs God’s help, and that God can help. If your friend (let’s call him Vasko) needs prayer, all you gotta tell the prayer leader is, “Please pray for my friend Vasko; he’s having a rough time, and that’s all I can tell you.” A gossipy prayer leader will pry, but a wise prayer leader will say “Okay,” and respect it as an unspoken prayer request.

Yeah, you could try to leave Vasko’s name off it, but too many prayer leaders kinda prefer a name. They find it a little awkward to pray for “Jamillah’s friend,” or whatever your name is. But if you wanna conceal the name too, that’s fine; God knows who you’re praying about; tell the prayer leader, “Let’s call him [made-up name],” and that tends to work.

And yeah, if you’re in a roomful of immature Christians (namely kids) you might get someone who blurts out, “I know who you’re talking about.” Shut them up quickly: “Maybe you do, but I didn’t say who it is because I’m trying to respect their privacy.” Most times that’s enough of a rebuke to keep people quiet. Most times.

Praying for ordinary stuff.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 May

Seriously. You can pray for anything.

There’s this mindset people get into: Spiritual things take up one segment of our lives, and secular things the rest.

  • Going to church and reading bible: Spiritual.
  • Going to the coffehouse and reading the news: Secular.
  • Going to a restaurant: Secular. Except for the bit at the beginning where we say grace. But once that bit of diligence is over, we needn’t think about God any longer.

Problem is, that’s entirely wrong. Everything is spiritual. Not just ’cause we carry the Holy Spirit with us, and we need to stay mindful of his presence and instruction. But because we’re meant to be light in a dark world, and bless everyone around us. (Not just our food!)

And one of the ways we get over that artificial secular/spiritual divide is by praying for ordinary stuff. What do I mean by “ordinary”? Glad you asked: Anything and everything. There’s no subject off-limits to God. Anything you can talk about with your friends, you can talk about with God. Anything you can’t discuss with friends (’cause it’s private, uncomfortable, or they’re gonna make fun), you can still talk about with God.

Seriously, anything. Even taboos, like toilet stuff and sex. If you can discuss it with your doctor (and should!) you can talk about it with God. Now, kids will talk about this stuff for shock and giggles, and parents will try to clamp down on it: My grandparents objected to stuff you don’t discuss “in polite company,” and Mom used to object, “Would you say those things if Pastor were here?” (As if your pastor hasn’t said worse. I went to seminary; I know better.) But again: You can talk about everything with God. And should. Hold nothing back. He’s heard it all; he knows it all; he’s seen worse. You won’t shock him.

Oh, you’ll definitely shock other Christians. I still do. One of ’em still hasn’t gotten over the fact I used the word “horny” in a prayer. She was raised to believe there are unfit subjects for church, prayer, and other Christians. Which, I pointed out, isn’t just false; it’s heresy. If Jesus is Lord over all, that’s part of the “all.” If Christians can’t discuss real problems, and bring ’em to God, it interferes with our relationships with Jesus.

So we have to fight this secular/sacred mindset: There can’t be taboo subjects in God’s kingdom. True, there are subjects we might consider profane, and they’ll have to be handled sensitively for others’ sake. But nothing’s outside of God’s realm. Nothing’s out-of-bounds to share with him. NOTHING.

When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 May
SUPERSTITION su.pɜr'stɪ.ʃən noun. Belief or practice based on a false idea of cause and effect. Usually faith in magic, luck, karmic consequences, junk science, or ignorance. Sometimes irrational fear of the unknown.
2. Belief or practice held despite reasonable contrary evidence.
[Superstitious su.pɜr'stɪ.ʃəs adjective.]

Obviously the title comes from the Stevie Wonder song. (And if you don’t know it then you’ve been deprived. That bassline alone makes it a classic.)

Christians might claim we’re not superstitious: We trust Jesus, not circumstances! But spend any time at all among us, and you’ll find that to be utter rubbish. I would argue Christians are generally more superstitious than pagans.

Some of it comes from dark Christians who are entirely sure devils are lurking under everything they don’t like. I grew up among such Christians. Some of ’em actually tried to teach me that because the rock ’n roll backbeat runs contrary to the human heartbeat (and no it doesn’t), it makes anyone who listens to it extra receptive to demonic possession. That all sorts of things make people extra receptive to demonic possession. Your radio, your television, your computer, your phone; certain books, certain movies… I would guess the public library is just teeming with critters eager to jump us, if these folks are to be believed, and no they’re not.

Some of it comes from Christians who’ve been taught by young-earth creationists that you can’t trust science. So they don’t. But they’re willing to trust everything else, and unfortunately a lot of the alternatives are based on junk science, created by quacks and charlatans, promoted by fearmongers, spread by unproven anecdotes. They give people a false sense of “wellness” when in fact they’re not well at all. They get Christians to shun vaccines, avoid medication, fear psychiatry, reject treatments, refuse blood transfusions, and replace tried-and-proven methods with vitamins, herbs, oils, scents, homeopathy, and “eastern” (properly, pagan) medicine. You know, the stuff witch doctors tried in Jesus’s day, which ultimately left people so plagued with evil spirits, Jesus might’ve had to do more exorcisms than cures.

Some of it comes from Christians who have no idea how God talks to us. Often their churches never taught ’em, and sometimes don’t even believe God talks. So they had to figure it out on their own, and of course they’ve guessed wrong. Or they found some pagan ideas about how “the universe” speaks to us, gave ’em a try, they seemed to work, and that’s become their go-to method for “reading the signs,” interpreting the clues God supposedly leaves us in nature. Thing is, most pagan ideas are based on karma. So no surprise, a lot of the Christian practice of signs-interpretation is also based on whether we’re “worthy enough” for God to do stuff for us.

And some of it is just minor, silly things. Fr’instance my youth group once held a raffle, and just for evil fun I found us a roll of tickets whose numbers started with 666. Many of the adults in our church were pleased to buy our tickets… until they found out what their ticket number began with. Some of ’em wouldn’t even touch their tickets. It’s not like possession of a raffle ticket makes you complicit with the Beast! But still: That number is a serious boogeyman to a lot of people.

But superstition betrays two things: People don’t know or trust God as much as they claim. And people are seriously deficient in common sense. In some cases they suspend their common sense, ’cause they think they have to; they think they’re not allowed as Christians to trust science, or think it’s some sort of faith compromise.

But the reality is the Christians who tell them to do so, the people they look up to for spiritual guidance, are superstitious fools. So superstition gets spread instead of faith, even disguised as faith. And Christians get mocked for being morons.

It’s a cycle we’ve gotta break by using our brains: Demand evidence. Demand proof. Test everything. Same as we do (well, should do) with prophecy. 1Th 5.21 Don’t be gullible; be wise. Don’t be superstitious; persistently pursue truth.

The centurion’s servant—and his surprising faith.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 May

A gentile whose level of faith surprised even Jesus.

Matthew 8.5-13 • Luke 7.1-10.

Luke tells this story after Jesus’s sermon on the plain, and Matthew after his Sermon on the Mount—but curing an infectious man first. Mark doesn’t tell it. And John… tells a whole other story, although certain Christians try to sync it together with this one. But not well.

The story begins with Jesus again returning to his home base of Kfar Nahum, and in Matthew encountering the local centurion; in Luke hearing from local elders about this centurion. Y’might know a centurion was what the Romans called the captain in charge of a century, 100 soldiers. I don’t know whether all 100 were stationed in Kfar Nahum, or spread out over multiple cities in the province; it all depended on how far the Romans felt they needed to clamp down on the people.

What we do know is this particular centurion had a home in town, and an employee who was either suffering greatly, or dying. Luke calls him a slave who was éntimos/“held in high regard.” Ancient slaves were either debtors, convicts, or had lost a war, and were bought and worked as punishment. Attitudes towards them are significantly different than American attitudes when slavery was legal here: Slaves were still considered fellow human beings. The centurion held his slave in high regard either because he was a good guy, a good worker, or had a valuable skillset. We don’t know which. Matthew calls him a servant, and maybe that’s how the Roman thought of him.

So the slave’s illness was enough to bring to the attention of a rabbi well-known for curing the sick.

Matthew 8.5-7 KWL
5 On returning himself to Kfar Nahum,
a centurion came to Jesus and encouraged him to help him,
6 saying, “Master, my servant has been bedridden in my home, paralyzed by terrible suffering.”
7 Jesus told him, “I will come cure him.”
Luke 7.1-6 KWL
1 When Jesus finished putting all his words in the people’s ears,
he returned to Kfar Nahum.
2 A certain centurion’s slave who had an illness was near dying.
The slave was highly esteemed by the centurion.
3 Hearing about Jesus, the centurion sent him Judean elders,
asking him, since he’d come, if he might cure his slave.
4 Those who came to Jesus encouraged him earnestly, saying this:
“The one for whom you’ll do this is worthy.
5 For he loves our people, and built us our synagogue.”
6A Jesus went with them.

In both cases Jesus had no problem with going to the centurion’s house to cure the slave. Now, compare our Lord’s attitude with that of Simon Peter, who admitted he still thought of gentiles as unclean when the centurion Cornelius called him to Caesarea. Ac 10.28 Jesus was happy to go; Peter had to first see a vision about butchering unclean animals. Ac 10.9-16 Why Peter hadn’t adopted his Master’s attitude about gentiles, I’m not sure. My guess is he had some very old prejudices, and they took a while to break off him. Paul still had to fight him on it, some 20 years later. Ga 2.11-14 But I digress.

Notice how Matthew describes the centurion and Jesus having a personal conversation, but Luke has the centurion send some of the presvytérus/“elders” to Jesus with a recommendation. These’d be the mature believers in the religious community, the Pharisees who probably founded their synagogue, ’cause synagogues are a Pharisee thing. They told Jesus this guy had built their synagogue—so we’re talking a believer who was willing to put his money into his faith. Worthy by their standards; maybe by Jesus’s too. In any event, off they went.

Near-death experiences, and the afterlife.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 May

Funny how everybody sees the afterlife they expect.

In yesterday’s article, “How long does hell last?” I brought up the subject of near-death experiences, those cases where people died and came back, and have a tale to tell about what they saw in the afterlife.

And they have all sorts of tales. Like of an out-of-body experience, where their ghost watched the doctors or EMTs trying to bring ’em back to life. Like a spirit-realm experience, where they met angels, dead loved ones, Jesus, or the Father. Like an afterlife experience, where they travel through a tunnel of light and get to poke around heaven for a bit. In some cases it’s the bad afterlife, and they’re in hell.

These stories are really popular, and people share them and cling to them for hope. Books about them sell. Movies too. Since we have big questions about the afterlife, we figure near-death experiences help answer these questions.

This is also true for Christians. The scriptures don’t tell us a whole lot about the afterlife, because God’s kingdom is about new life, not afterlife. Resurrection, not living in a realm of the dead. So since the afterlife ultimately doesn’t matter—we’re getting rescued from it!—all we know about it are hints, clues, and no real details. But we want details: If Jesus doesn’t return before we die, we’re gonna experience the afterlife, and wanna know what we’re in for. So we tend to fill in those gaps in our knowledge with educated guesses, mythology… and of course the near-death experiences of those who’ve “been there.”

Yeah, putting it in quotes kinda tips off the fact I doubt they’ve really been there. Here’s why.

How long does hell last?

by K.W. Leslie, 24 May

Some say forever, some say temporarily, and some say no time at all.

As I explained in my article “The four hells,” there are four words translated hell in the scriptures, and the one I mean by “hell” is ge-Henna, the trash fire outside Jerusalem, reimagined in Revelation as a pool of fire and sulfur outside New Jerusalem. Rv 20.10-15 Into it go Satan and its angels, the Beast, the fake prophet who promotes the Beast, the personifications of Death and Hades (i.e. the afterlife), and everyone whose name isn’t listed in the life scroll—everyone who refused to turn to God for salvation, and therefore don’t get to enter his kingdom.

The Beast and prophet are explicitly described as being “tortured there, day and night, age to ages.” Rv 20.10 Though this lake is known as the second death, Rv 20.14 it doesn’t have a sense of finality like death seems to. Death feels like an absolute stopping point—when you’re dead, you’re not alive, you’re not moving, you’re not breathing, you’re not thinking, you’re not anything; you’re dead. Whereas the second death sounds more like the beings sent into it aren’t inert, but moving, conscious… and suffering from eternal torment. Because they’re in fire. Everlasting fire, as the King James Version put it. Mt 25.41 KJV Where quite unlike the trash fires of the literal ge-Henna, the worms don’t die, and the fire never goes out. Is 66.24, Mk 9.48

Now, I know certain dark Christians who love this idea of eternal conscious torment. Partly because there are certain people they’d love to see tortured forever. Satan obviously. But most of the time they’re thinking of certain political opponents. Certain unrepentant adversaries we’ve defeated in war. Certain obnoxious people they know. Yeah, I know: We all have people we don’t like, but… longing to see them burn forever? What is wrong with these people? Since God doesn’t wanna see anyone perish, 2Pe 3.9 and these people do, this sort of fleshly, fruitless gracelessness suggests these people don’t have any real relationship with God, much as they claim to. I don’t care what they call themselves.

The other reason they love the idea of eternal torment—a reason which is just a bit more legit than t’other—is because they figure it’s a powerful motivator for getting people into God’s kingdom. If anyone’s on the fence about this idea of living under Jesus’s reign in peace and harmony (mainly ’cause the church is full of a--holes like me), Christians can point out the alternative: Outside the kingdom, it’s hot, stinky hell. You don’t wanna go to hell! We don’t want you there either; God doesn’t want you there either; why go there when you don’t have to? Don’t worry about the jerks in the church; Jesus’ll deal with them. Focus on Jesus. Turn to him. Let him save you.

The rest of us really don’t love the idea of eternal torment. Problem is, we don’t really see any way around it. That’s what Jesus describes in the scriptures. So that’s the reality we’re obligated to deal with: When people reject Jesus, that’s the destination they’ve effectively chosen. If people prefer a cosmetic relationship with Christianity over a living relationship with Jesus, that’s where they’re going.

It’s not like we can make up a reality we like better. Although that’s never stopped people from trying, has it?

Introducing death.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 May

Humans die. Here’s why.

The first time we read about death in the bible, it’s in the Adam and Eve story. God tasks the first adám/“human” with taking care of a garden. Which is described as edén/“delightful,” but we tend to treat that adjective as a proper name, Eden, same as we do the word for human, Adam.

Unlike fast-food jobs, Adam was given free rein to eat anything he found growing there. Well, almost anything. One particular tree, you remember, was off limits.

Genesis 2.15-17 KWL
15 The LORD God took the human
and set him in a delightful garden to work it and watch over it.
16 The LORD God commanded the human, saying, “Eat, eat, from every tree of the garden.
17 From the knowing-good-and-evil tree: Don’t eat from it.
For on the day you eat from it, you’ll die, die.”

Ancient Hebrew repeated itself for emphasis. “Eat, eat” meant God was serious about Adam eating whatever he wished; “Die, die” meant God was serious about the knowing-good-and-evil tree being toxic.

No doubt you also know the rest of the story: God’s warnings notwithstanding, the first humans did eat from that tree. That’s the risk inherent in free will: Sometimes people exercise it to do profoundly stupid things. Satan used its free will to go wrong; Adam and Eve did too. And since actions have consequences, they were gonna die, die.

Genesis 3.17-19 KWL
17 God told the human, “When you heard your woman’s voice,
you ate from the tree I commanded you about, and said not to eat from it.
The ground—what you produce from it—is cursed.
All the days of your life, you’ll eat of in in pain: 18 Thorns and thistles will grow from it.
You’ll eat the grass of the fields, 19 and eat bread by the sweat of your nose
till you go back to the ground that you were taken out of:
You’re dust, and you’ll go back to being dust.”

Humans were meant to live forever. Now we don’t.

Sin is why. Apparently Adam could’ve got hold of the tree of life, eaten of it, and lived forever despite this curse. Which is why God had to boot the humans out of the garden and post angelic guards around it. Ge 3.22-24 God doesn’t want sin to live forever; he wants to put an end to it. That’s why we’re gonna die. Why, frankly, we gotta die: Our sins die with us.

That is, till Jesus died for us, and our sins died with him—and now we can go back to living forever.

Saved exclusively through Jesus.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 May

It’s the exclusivity that bugs people.

One of the things about Christianity that offends people most is how we claim we can only be saved through Christ Jesus.

We do have bible to back up the idea, y’know.

Acts 4.8-12 KWL
8 Then Simon Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, told them, “Leaders of the people and elders:
9 If we’re investigated today about a good deed to a disabled man—how was he cured?—
10 it must be made known to you all, and all Israel’s people:
In the name of Messiah Jesus the Nazarene—whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—
by this Jesus, this disabled man stands before you, cured.
11 This Jesus is ‘the stone dismissed by you builders, who became the head cornerstone.’ Ps 118.22
12 Salvation isn’t found in anyone else, nor is there given to people
another name under heaven by whom it’s necessary for us to be saved.”

Jesus is the only way by which people have access to God:

John 14.5-7 KWL
5 Thomas told Jesus, “Master, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?”
6 Jesus told Thomas, I’m the way. And truth, and life. Nobody comes to the Father unless through me.
7 If you knew me, you’ll also know my Father.
From now on you know him. You’ve seen him.”

These absolute statements make Christianity exclusive: You gotta have a relationship with Jesus if you want to get to God. There’s no getting around Jesus. He is how God chose to reveal himself, so if we reject Jesus, we’re rejecting what God’s trying to tell us. Bluntly, we’d be rejecting God.

Now if you’re of another organized religion… big deal. Your religion already has its own claims of exclusivity. Muslims figure there’s no god but God—and Muhammad’s his messenger, so if you wanna know God you gotta embrace Muhammad’s revelations. Buddhists don’t even care about Jesus; he’s a nice guy, but they prioritize the Buddha’s teachings. And so forth.

What these absolute statements tend to annoy most, are those pagans who are trying to claim all religions are the same, or just as valid as one another, or that it’s okay if people have a hodgepodge of beliefs from every religion. Namely it’s okay if they make up an eclectic religion, where they get to pick ’n choose their favorite beliefs from here, there, and everywhere. But if there’s no getting to the Father apart from Jesus, and they’re trying to get to the Father every which way, it kinda reveals they don’t know what they’re doing.

A lot of Christians claim what these bible quotes mean is we must become Christians or we’re going to hell. And that’s not actually what they say. They say—no more, no less—that salvation comes exclusively through Jesus. Not that we gotta first become Christians. Not that we gotta first embrace Christian doctrines. These aren’t statements about the steps anyone has to take. They’re only statements about how God works: Through Jesus.

So if God chooses to save someone from one of those other religions, be they Muslim, Buddhist, pagan, even atheist: He’s only gonna do it through Jesus. Regardless of how they—or we—imagine salvation works.

Yeah, here’s where I start to confuse and lose people.

The Twelve and the miracles.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 May

The hangups Christians have about how the apostles could somehow do miracles before Pentecost.

Mark 6.12-13 • Luke 9.6.

Of Jesus’s students, he assigned 12 of them to be apostles, “one who’s been sent out,” and eventually he did send ’em out to preach the gospel, cure the sick, and exorcise unclean spirits.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Mark 6.12-13 KWL
12 Going out, the apostles preached that people should repent.
13 The apostles were throwing out many demons, anointing many sick people with olive oil—and they were curing them.
Luke 9.6 KWL
6 Coming out, the apostles passed through the villages,
evangelizing and curing the sick everywhere.

Yep, all of them. Even Judas Iscariot.

And here’s where we slam into a wall with a lot of Christians. Because they cannot fathom how these apostles went out and cured the sick and exorcised evil spirits.

They’ll grudgingly acknowledge that the apostles did it. The gospels totally say so, and who are they to doubt the gospels? But y’see, their hangups come from the fact they have a lot of theological baggage about how miracles work, how the Holy Spirit empowers people, when the Holy Spirit historically empowered people, and the fact miracles seem to have nothing to do with the apostles’ maturity level: Once they were done doing these mighty acts, they came back to follow Jesus, and seemed to be the same foolish kids they always were.

Oh, and we can’t leave out Judas Iscariot. Christians really don’t like the idea Judas was curing the sick and casting out devils. Since he was one of the Twelve, and since these verses imply he did as the others of the Twelve did, it means Judas did miracles. And this, many Christians cannot abide. I remember one movie in particular where Judas specifically did no miracles; he lacked faith, so Simon the Canaanite, whom Judas was paired up with, Mt 10.4 did ’em all. ’Cause later Judas turned traitor and appears to have gone apostate—so Christians don’t want him having power, and balk at the idea the Holy Spirit really entrusted him with any such thing. It violates their sense of karma.

First thing we gotta do is put down the baggage and accept the scriptures: Jesus sent out his apostles, young as they were, green as they were, to go do supernatural acts of power. Which they did. We can debate the how and the why, but none of this hashing out should violate the fact they did the stuff. If it does, we’re doing theology backwards, and wrong.

Discernment isn’t prophecy.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 May

If it looks like the science of deduction, or carnival mentalism, ’tain’t prophecy.

Here’s a bit from “The Red-Headed League,” a Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle.

“Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labor, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”

Mr. Jabez Wilson started up in his chair, with his forefinger upon the paper, but his eyes upon my companion.

“How, in the name of good fortune, did you know all that, Mr. Holmes?” he asked. “How did you know, for example, that I did manual labor? It’s as true as gospel, for I began as a ship’s carpenter.”

“Your hands, my dear sir. Your right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed.”

“Well, the snuff, then, and the Freemasonry?”

“I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the strict rules of your order, you use an arc-and-compass breastpin.”

“Ah, of course, I forgot that. But the writing?”

“What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiny for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk?”

“Well, but China?”

“The fish which you have tattooed immediately above your right wrist could only have been done in China. I have made a small study of tattoo marks, and have even contributed to the literature of the subject. That trick of staining the fishes’ scales of a delicate pink is quite peculiar to China. When, in addition, I see a Chinese coin hanging from your watch-chain, the matter becomes even more simple.”

Mr. Jabez Wilson laughed heavily. “Well, I never!” said he. “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all.”

“I begin to think, Watson,” said Holmes, “that I make a mistake in explaining. ‘Omne ignotum pro magnifico,’ you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid.”

So you saw what Holmes did there; he does it in most of his stories, and it’s kinda what he’s known for. He looked the guy over, noticed details, made deductions—and the fellow reacted as if Holmes was a mind-reader. Or a prophet.

This form of deduction is called cold reading: An analyst comes into a situation cold, with no prior knowledge of the situation or the people. (If the analyst already knows a few facts, it’d be a hot reading.) The analyst reads the clues, makes the deductions, and surprises everyone who hadn’t noticed the same clues. Detectives, like Holmes, do this all the time. So do doctors, psychologists; anyone who’s learned to notice these details.

Psychics too. If you’ve seen the TV shows Psych or The Mentalist, that’s precisely what the protagonists do. One’s pretending to be a psychic, but was trained by his dad to observe everything like a detective; the other quit pretending to be psychic in order to help detectives. (You’d think the detectives on these shows would know what’s going on better than they do, but the show writers have more fun in making ’em a little bit dumb.)

And fake prophets do it too.