Problematic worship music.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 July

The stuff I listen to. And don’t.

We sang a song in my church last Sunday, “Set a Fire” by Will Reagan & United Pursuit. It’s hardly the first time; we’ve worshiped with it dozens of times before. It was a popular song on the radio for a while, ’cause it’s catchy. We like the “I want more of you God” bit, and how there’s no place we’d rather be than in God’s love and presence.

But, to paraphrase Jesus, Rv 2.4 I have this against it. Here’s the relevant portion:

(So) set a fire down in my soul
That I can’t contain and I can’t control
I want more of you God
I want more of you God

What’s wrong with it? Well, that fire we can’t contain and can’t control.

The idea runs contrary to the Holy Spirit’s fruit of self-control. There should be nothing in our lives which we can’t take hold of. Yes, even things of the Spirit. For

1 Corinthians 14.32-33 KWL
32 Prophets’ spirits are in submission to the prophets,
33A for God doesn’t do disorder, but peace.

The prayer, “God, would you please just take me over and make me do [thing we lack the self-control to do],” is a really popular one. But it’s not one God wants to say yes to. He’s trying to develop self-control in us; he shouldn’t have to take such matters into his hands. (And y’might notice whenever he does, people really don’t like it as much as we imagined we would.)

So Christians might like the idea of more zeal. More “fire down in my soul” which we claim is beyond our ability to contain. Problem is, zealous Christians have consistently used that zeal as an excuse for unkind, unchristian, fruitless, godless behavior. An out-of-control Christian is always a harmful Christian. When have you ever seen someone who loves others (following the proper definition of love, of course) out of control? Well you don’t, ’cause love behaves itself.

Problem is, in many a church Christians are more familiar with the worship song than the bible. True of most worship songs. We quote them. We follow them. Less so Jesus.

I guarantee you this song’s fans, as soon as they hear this critique, will immediately swoop in to defend the song. “Oh that’s not what the songwriter meant to say.” Fair enough; it may not be what he meant. But it is what he said, and is how Christians are gonna interpret it. Good intentions don’t redeem a song. Better lyrics, better aligned with the scriptures, do.

But people don’t determine our favorite songs by the lyrics. We like the music.

“Before I formed you in the womb…”

by K.W. Leslie, 12 July

Jeremiah 1.5.

May as well state my biases up front: I’m prolife.

In the United States we use this term to describe a person who doesn’t approve of aborting a pregnancy. Depending on the person, we either want the practice discouraged, banned outright, made a crime, or even made a capital crime with death penalties all around. Which goes way too far for me, because I’m prolife in the proper sense of the word: I don’t want anybody to die. Not just fetuses.

The real problem with abortion is a society which claims they care about women and motherhood, but they only care about self-supporting women and mothers. When women get pregnant, hadn’t planned on it, and don‘t know how they’re gonna have the time or money to raise a child, society’s response isn’t, “How can I help? Whatever you need, just ask; I’m there.” It’s usually condemnation: “You should’ve expected this.”

No moral support, no financial support, no personal support; God forbid we suggest government support. So the pregnancy is turned into a massive burden… and the easiest way out of the burden appears to be abortion. Social Darwinism turns into actual Darwinism.

You honestly want abortion to be gone, or at least rare? Start supporting women. Start caring for the needy. Love your neighbor. Don’t be one of those hypocrites who only care about fetuses, but not about women struggling to raise kids. Rant over.

So. In conservative Evangelical churches, it’s kinda taken for granted we’re prolife. Most of us are. But not all; you can kinda tell who’s not, by how much they squirm in their seats whenever the speaker starts to condemn abortion.

Me, I start to squirm whenever they misquote bible in support of their cause. I’m pretty sure “Thou shalt not kill” Ex 20.13, Dt 5.17, Mt 5.21 does the job just fine. But prolifers feel we gotta quote other verses to defend our worldview. Any verses which suggest “a person’s a person, no matter how small” Horton Hears a Who! and actually references a fetus, is trotted out as “proof” God considers them people.

This bit from the first chapter of Jeremiah in particular. For some reason, I hear people quote it in the NIV more so than the KJV. I suspect it’s because the KJV uses the word “belly,” which isn’t clinical enough for ’em.

Jeremiah 1.5 NIV
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

“See?” prolifers will point out, “God knew us before we were born.”

Um yes, but y’all need to read that verse again. It says Beterem echorkha vebeten/“At [a time] before I formed you in [the] womb.” Not when God formed Jeremiah in the womb; before.

The verse is about foreknowledge, not fetuses. God knew Jeremiah before God created Jeremiah.

“The bible says…” and people who have their doubts about the bible.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 July

The written word is not authoritative.

I realize that’s an ironic thing to write. S’true though. People don’t believe everything they read. There’s this myth they did once; centuries ago, when the only stuff committed to print was important stuff, and therefore everybody figured people should believe everything they read. But of course it’s not true, because writers back then felt entirely free to challenge, critique, or refute the written word. Always have.

For the most part it’s non-readers, or people who only read their bibles, who think the written word has some sort of special value. The rest of us read the internet, and know full well there’s a lot of rubbish out there.

And when it comes to sharing Jesus, Christian apologists will regularly make the mistake of forgetting: We consider the bible authoritative. Pagans do not. To them it’s another religious book among thousands. To them it’s another centuries-old book written by dead white men. (Certain liberals are slightly more impressed when I inform ’em it was written by dead brown men… but not by much. They don’t respect the Bhagavad-Gita either.)

This is why apologists feel it’s very important to establish the bible’s credentials as an authoritative book. This way when anybody responds, “Oh ‘the bible says’—well who cares what the bible says?” we have an arsenal of arguments as to why the naysayer has to take the scriptures seriously.

Personally I’ve found I don’t need an arsenal. Whenever a former pastor of mine was challenged with “What’s the big deal with the bible?” he’d respond with, “Have you ever read the bible?” Few to none have. “Well perhaps you oughta read it before you dismiss it.” So either they’d read it, and the Holy Spirit would work on ’em thataway; or they were never gonna read it, but rather than say so, they just quit trying to put down the bible.

I just presume pagans have their doubts about the bible, and how valid it is. So I don’t bother to point to it. I point to Jesus.

Wait, but where’d I get all my Jesus stuff from? Oh I fully admit for the most part it comes from the bible. But pagans never really ask where I got my Jesus stuff from. They assume I learned it in church. (I kinda did.) If they want to know where in the bible I got this stuff from, I can point ’em to the book and chapter, and sometimes the specific verse. They don‘t ask, though. They just take my word for it… until they don‘t wanna take my word for it anymore. Same as they would with the bible.

Referring to the book and chapter only impresses Christians, anyway. Doesn’t impress a single pagan. In fact, peppering my conversation with bible addresses leads them to believe I’m not really speaking from the heart; I’m quoting a script, ’cause only somebody who wrote all this stuff out as a lecture would include footnotes. And they don’t wanna hear a canned spiel. They want something “more real” than that. Or what feels more real.

So ditch the bible references.

I know; it outrages certain Christians when I recommend this. And not just the bibliolaters. They assume I’m telling people to ditch bible. I am not. By all means, base every declaration you make on the scriptures. But do you need to regularly interrupt your speech with “John 3.16” and “Romans 3.23” and “Ephesians 2.8” and all the addresses which they’re never gonna remember to look up later anyway? Like I said, this only impresses Christians, and they’re the only people we do this for. But they don’t need to hear the gospel; pagans do. So quit pandering to them and consider your audience. The references aren’t actually helping. Ditch ’em.

Convincing people they’re not all that good.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 July

Ray Comfort likes this particular evangelism trick apologetics argument. He didn’t invent it though; I’ve heard it from lots of people. Whenever he’s talking Christianity with someone, he’ll ask them, “Do you consider yourself a good person?”

In my experience, a number of people will actually answer no. Sometimes because they actually don’t consider themselves good people; their karmic balance leans way too far on the bad side of the scale. Sometimes because they’re just being contrary; they don’t know what’s coming next, but they anticipate you want ’em to say yes, so they’re preemptively throwing a monkey wrench into things. And sometimes they do know what‘s coming next, and definitely wanna sabotage it. But in order to keep this article moving, let’s say they answered yes.

PAGAN. “Yeah, I’m a pretty good person.”
APOLOGIST. [stifling that grin you get when they take the bait] “So if you stand before God on Judgment Day, he’ll be okay with you and let you in?”
PAGAN. “Probably.”
APOLOGIST. “You don’t have anything he still needs to forgive you for?”
PAGAN. “Like what?”
APOLOGIST. “Like sins. Have you ever sinned?”
PAGAN. “Well I haven’t murdered anyone.”
APOLOGIST. “That’s the only sin you can think of?”
PAGAN. “Well okay, there’s lying, cheating, stealing, stuff like that.”
APOLOGIST. “Right. God lists commandments about that in the bible, like the Ten Commandments. The bible says when you break one, it’s like you broke all of them. Jm 2.10-11 So have you ever lied?”
PAGAN. “Yeah.”
APOLOGIST. “Ever cheated on your taxes?”
PAGAN. “No.”
APOLOGIST. “So you paid your taxes when you bought something out-of-state over the internet?”
PAGAN. “Okay maybe I cheated on my taxes.”
APOLOGIST. “Ever stolen anything, like downloading a movie off the internet, or a paperclip from work?”
PAGAN. “Probably.”
APOLOGIST. “Ever lusted for somebody? The bible says that’s the same as adultery. Mt 5.27 That’s a sin.”
PAGAN. “Seriously? The bible’s strict.”
APOLOGIST. “Yes it is. It says if you hate someone that’s the same as murder. Mt 5.21-22 So, ever fantasized about murdering anyone?”
PAGAN. “Yeah, but that’s not really murder.”
APOLOGIST. “The bible says it’s just as bad, and still a sin. Like you said, the bible’s really strict. Ever taken the Lord’s name in vain?—that actually doesn’t mean cursing, but you swore to God you’d do something, and didn’t?”
PAGAN. “Yeah, I did.”
APOLOGIST. “Ever been envious of your neighbor’s house or car or wife? That‘s coveting; that’s a sin too.”
PAGAN.That’s a sin?”
APOLOGIST. “That’s a sin. God considers all these things sins, all of them violations of commands where he told people to never do them. So, do you have anything God still needs to forgive you for?”
PAGAN. “Guess so.”
APOLOGIST. “Well he wants to forgive you. But you have to ask for forgiveness.”

And from there, a brief explanation about how God made it so everyone can be forgiven and saved, a bit of the sinner’s prayer, and you’ve won another soul for God’s kingdom. And all the angels in heaven rejoiced. Lk 15.10

Trying to get away from it all… and failing.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 July

Sometimes we need to take a break from ministry… if people will let us.

Mark 6.30-34 • Matthew 14.12-14 • Luke 9.10-11 • John 6.1-4.

The bit where Jesus sent out his students to proclaim God’s kingdom and cure the sick, and where Jesus had them feed an audience of 5,000, were placed right next to one another in two of the synoptic gospels. Namely Mark and Luke.

Mark 6.30-31 KWL
30 Jesus’s students were gathered together to see him,
and reported everything to him—whatever they did, whatever they taught.
31 Jesus told them, “Come, by yourselves, to a place in the wilds. Stop for a little bit.”
For many people were coming and going, and they hadn’t time to even eat.
Luke 9.10 KWL
Returning, the apostles detailed for Jesus all they did.
Taking them, he withdrew with them to a town called Beit Sayid.

The reason they’re right next to one another? Because Jesus was training his students to be his apostles and minister on his behalf. With that came how to minister. And when he sends us to minister apostle-style, feeding the 5,000 is one of the ways in which he wants us to do so: Feed the hungry!

There are those Christians who figure our only job is to tell people about the kingdom—not demonstrate the kingdom by doing good deeds in Jesus’s name. Tell, not show. It’s a warped mindset, but I grew up among people of this mindset: They don’t actually love their neighbors, and this is how they weasel out of doing anything for ’em, contrary to Jesus’s teachings. Yeah, they need to get saved.

But after you’ve spent a bit of time intensively ministering to people, you do need to take a break. Get your Sabbath rest. Too many ministers work all week long: Saturday night services, Sunday morning services, and then it’s back to the usual workday ministries. They take no days off, then burn out. Jesus is the LORD who commanded Israel to take a break every week; he understands the value of rest. Don’t work yourself to death, even if your works are good works. Take a day!

Christians don’t always catch how Jesus sending his kids on a mission, is immediately followed by feeding 5,000. Because most of us aren’t in the habit of sitting down to read gospels all the way through. We break ’em up into daily readings, separate the stories from one another, read them without the previous story fresh in our minds, and don’t catch any of the context. Then people like me point out these fairly obvious facts, and Christians go, “Wow, I never realized that.” Yeah, well, stop reading it the way you’ve been reading it. You’re missing more than you realize.

Mini-rant aside: So, three gospels emphasize how Jesus took his students away for a brief rest. Problem is, they couldn’t catch a break. The crowds found out where Jesus had gone and went to see him. They had sick people and wanted ’em cured. Or they heard rumors Jesus might be Messiah, and wanted to see for themselves, and had a few days free ’cause they were getting ready to go to Jerusalem for Passover (no that’s not speculation; it’s bible Jn 6.4), so they took a detour to check him out.

So much for rest time.

Reusing the bottle.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 July

The perils of being a heavy drinker.

Whenever I buy a bottled drink—water, Gatorade, Powerade, iced tea, fizzy water, etc.—I nearly always reuse the bottle. I refill it with water and use it as my regular drinking bottle for about a month. Or until I buy another bottled drink; then I reuse that bottle. The other bottle goes into the recycling bin.

I’ve been warned by more than one person I shouldn’t do this. ’Cause bacteria. Supposedly it’ll build up somewhere within the bottle, infect me, and give me MRSA or something.

“So I take it you don’t wash your bottles,” I respond.

Wash a disposable plastic bottle? Sure. A little dish soap and water; sometimes I even run it through the sanitizer. ’Cause they’re right: If you don’t clean your bottle, you will get bacteria, mold, or some other icky thing growing in there. It’s just it never occurred to them to wash disposable bottles. After all, they’re disposable.

There is the worry that if I expose the bottle to heat, plastic molecules will come off, get into the drink, and who knows what that’ll do to me. Cancer, usually. This isn’t my worry; it’s more like paranoid friends who read some website somewhere and now they’re convinced all our plastic containers are killing us, so they’ve switched to glass. Until someone else figures out how glass will kill us. Then it’s back to waxed paper and earthenware, I guess. Or stainless steel. Or whatever the new fad will be.

Merited favor.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 July

One of the more popular definitions of grace is “unmerited favor.” Which is one of grace’s definitions; I tend to go with “God’s generous, forgiving, kind, favorable attitude towards his people.” The unmerited-favor idea isn’t bad though.

Problem is, we humans very, very seldom practice unmerited favor. We always demand some form of merit.

I used to watch a home-makeover TV show. The producers probably got thousands of applications from people who’d love a free home makeover. But it’s clear they always preferred to grant ’em to needy families. And not just any needy families; not just any family who couldn’t possibly afford home improvements. They singled out deserving needy families.

What made them “deserving”? The family had gone through some exceptional hardship, like dead relatives, disease, a disabled kid, a tornado, something that made ’em suffer. Or the family had done something heroic or honorable, like parents who seriously contributed to their community. Something that’d make viewers say, “The universe owes them something grand. Like maybe a home makeover.”

Because karma.

Karma is deeply ingrained in human nature. It’s what makes all the difference between the needy, and the deserving needy. The undeserving needy would be people who are needy, but kinda should be needy—they refuse to work for a living, or they’re dishonest or criminal and kinda deserve a little hardship in their lives. Or maybe they were deserving at one time, but after receiving 10 home makeovers it’s about time someone else got one.

That’s the mindset humans bring with us whenever we help the needy: We don’t wanna help just any needy person. The laws of karma should apply: Some people deserve to be needy, and we’re perfectly happy to leave them where they are, unhelped. They don’t just receive our favor, indiscriminately: They gotta deserve it. In other words, merited favor.

So, not grace.

In fact you’ll see a certain amount of outrage whenever somebody does practice grace. I’ve written about my tendency to overtip. I regularly get crap from certain people about it. To them, tipping is an obvious case of merited favor, and by showing my waiters unmerited favor, I’ve missed the point. Or so they claim; the real issue is how my generosity exposes their stinginess, and they rightly feel bad about it, and don’t wanna. Mammon forbid generosity catch on, and more people tip like I do; their tight-fisted behavior will be all the less justifiable.

When these same people contribute to charity—not really out of compassion, but because they’re trying to restore the karmic balance in their lives, and make sure they have more good deeds on the books than evil—again, their generosity has its limits. They only wanna give so much, and the way they justify their limits is by demanding those they help be deserving. If you work less than 40 hours a week, it’s your own fault you’re poor; get a second job! If you get government assistance, why do you need their assistance? And so on.

Whereas God, when he’s gracious to people, doesn’t differentiate between the “deserving” needy… or people who actually don’t have any needs whatsoever. He’s gracious to all.

Grow your faith!

by K.W. Leslie, 04 July

As I’ve written multiple times, authentic faith is not the magic power to believe ridiculous things. It’s “the proof of actions we’ve not seen,” He 11.1 KWL stuff we believe even though we haven’t seen it for ourselves, because we trust those who told us this stuff. Because they’re trustworthy. (And they’d better be trustworthy.)

More than that: It’s when we act on this stuff. Fr’instance your friend told you a certain movie was good. You heard it wasn’t, but you have faith in your friend—specifically, his judgment about movies—so you ignore what everyone else told you, and go see the movie for yourself. And either your faith in your friend is proven, ’cause the movie was good… or it was broken, ’cause it sucked. Either way, you acted on faith.

Yes, that’s faith. I know; the way people commonly define faith, it sounds more like you go to see a movie regardless of what anyone tells you, because you want so badly for it to be good, and are hoping it’ll be good if you wished hard enough. Again, that’s not faith. That’s self-delusion, and those who try to swap self-delusion for faith have either been tricked by con artists, or are seriously trying to delude themselves. Faith is based on something or someone solid. Like Jesus.

So when you want to grow in faith, you don’t have to believe so hard something snaps in your brain. That’s how you lose your grip on reality; how you lose your mind. That’s not at all what Jesus calls us to do when he wants us to grow in faith. You know how you really grow in faith? You take leaps of faith: You trust God enough to actually do as he tells us.

See, Christians who lack faith, haven’t trusted God this far. They claim they believe, but they’ve never done anything. Never put themselves in situations where they had to; they deliberately avoided such things. They never tested their own faith. That’s why, the moment something shows up which does test their faith, they break.

You wanna break at the first sign of stress? Be like them. But if you wanna grow as a Christian, and develop faith that doesn’t shake as easily as grass in the wind, start testing your own faith. Get off your duff and act on what you claim to believe. Find out, once and for all, whether you really do believe it.

Pagans and theology.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 July

People who aren’t Christian regularly critique Christianity: What we believe, what our churches teach, how we practice. I regularly lump ’em into three categories:

  1. Antichrists who offer no constructive criticism, and don’t care whether their complaints are valid or not: They just wanna bash Christians.
  2. The clueless, who overheard the antichrists’ complaints and think they’re valid. They honestly don’t know any better.
  3. Those with valid complaints, who take us to task when we truly are inconsistent or hypocritical.

There’s not a lot we can do with the antichrists, much as Christian apologists might foolishly try. (Pearls before pigs, guys. Mt 7.6) The clueless can be reasoned with, but when they’re not merely clueless but downright anti-Christianity, shake the dust off and leave them be.

But the valid critics must be taken seriously. Because they’re right. We Christians do teach one thing and do another. We preach forgiveness and grace and mercy when it comes to evangelism… then we turn round and preach eye-for-eye karma when it comes to our criminal justice system. We preach we’re to love everyone, including enemies, but as soon as a person in our churches commits a sin we consider beyond the pale (like vote for the opposition party) we ostracize them like they’re leprous. We preach against nonmarital sexual activity, but our stats on cohabitation, unwed pregnancy, and abortion are the same or greater than the national average. We’re all kinds of inconsistent—and I haven’t even touched on hypocrisy yet. Probably don’t need to; we know better.

When the valid critics are right, don’t defend our bad behavior. Agree with them. We’re sinners too. But please don’t use that rubbish line, “We’re not perfect; just forgiven.” We’re supposed to work on being perfect. We’re expected to stop sinning, stop being hypocrites, stop taking God’s grace for granted, and be good. We don’t; we aren’t; we suck. Admit it and repent.

However. Sometimes we’re gonna come across the complaint, “Y’know what your real problem is: Your religion needs to be updated. You need to get with the times and get rid of those out-of-date beliefs.” They suggest we stop believing certain things are sins, or quit believing in miracles, or stop believing in mysterious hard-to-fathom stuff. They want us to change our theology—and can’t understand why it’s not as easy as all that.

It’s a particular sort of cluelessness.

John the baptist’s death.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 July

Because despots care more about power than people’s lives.

Mark 6.21-29 • Matthew 14.6-12.

As I mentioned previously “Herodias,” as she’s called in the King James Version, is Herodia Salome (or as I’ve westernized it, Salome Herod), granddaughter of Antipater Herod, the first “King Herod.” She’s the daughter of Aristobulus Herod, the wife of Aristobulus’s half-brother Philip, and later the wife of Aristobulus and Philip’s half-brother Antipater, or “Antipas,” as he’s usually called. Yeah, that’s how it was in the Herod family.

You might recall Salome held a grudge against John the baptist, who at this point in the gospels was in Antipas’s prison. She wanted John dead for publicly criticizing her marriage. In those days before anyone thought to protect free speech, criticizing the Roman governor was considered sedition, and treason, and got the death penalty. So as the Roman governor of the Galilee, Antipas could’ve executed John whenever he pleased. But he didn’t, either because he feared the crowds Mt 14.5 or because he liked to talk religion with John. Mk 6.20 Pick your favorite explanation; the bible’ll back you up.

Salome’s chance came on Antipas’s birthday, when Antipas—who held the hereditary title of king, though not really the job—was feeling particularly royal. Probably fortified by drink. He decided to offer a royal grant to Salome’s daughter, his stepdaughter—who, following Roman custom, was also named Herodia Salome. I’ll just refer to the mom as Senior and the daughter as Junior.

Mark 6.21-23 KWL
21 An critical day came, because Antipas Herod threw a dinner party for his birthday
for his magistrates and generals, and the princes of the Galilee.
22 His daughter, Salome Herod, came in and danced.
She pleased Antipas Herod and his guests.
The king told the girl, “Ask me whatever you want and I’ll give it to you.”
23 Antipas promised Salome, “Whatever you ask me. I’ll give you up to half my kingdom!”
Matthew 14.6-7 KWL
6 When Antipas Herod’s birthday came, Salome Herod’s daughter danced in the middle.
It pleased Herod, 7 so with an oath he promised to give her whatever she wanted.

Salome Jr. was born in the year 14. Jesus’s ministry started round the time he turned 30, Lk 3.23 which would probably be the year 22, when Salome Jr. was eight. Both gospels call her a korásion/“girl,” which means younger than the age of adulthood, 13 years old. So that helps pin down the date for this story: Between the years 22 and 27.

But a lot of Christians imagine Jesus’s ministry was only three years long. Based on what? Well they imagine Jesus died at age 33 (mixing up the year 33 with his age), and if he started at 30, that gave him only three years for all the events of the gospels to take place. Plus the gospel of John only mentions three Passovers Jesus attended, which jibes with their theory. So if Salome Jr. did her birthday dance in, say, the year 32, that’d make her an 18-year-old woman.

And then people start to leap to all sorts of unsavory speculations about what sort of dance this was—as if a Judean princess is gonna cavort in front of every civic leader of a very religious region. (And their wives, y’know.) Or they imagine what sort of relationship Antipas had with his grandniece/stepdaughter—which considering how the Herods had that reputation for inbreeding, ain’t that far of a stretch for the imagination to go. So they like to imagine a lustful Antipas leering at the girl, offering her absolutely anything she wanted, with naughty thoughts about what he wanted running through his mind.

Not that unsavory speculations don’t run through their minds even if they realize Salome Jr. was still a little girl. Me, I figure this says way more about the speculators than Antipas. And they’ve been speculating for centuries. With all sorts of inappropriate art to go along with it.