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29 November 2018

Our ancient foe, the devil.

What’s its deal? Why’s it so dead-set against humanity?

Yes, Satan exists.

However, in both popular and Christian culture, Satan has been profoundly misrepresented. Kinda by design. Like Sunzi said, all warfare is based on deception, so the devil gets a leg up on us humans by making us believe all sorts of disinformation.

Like how it used to be the mightiest angel in heaven, and is still kind of a big deal. Like how pretty it is, 2Co 11.14 or how it rules the world. Lk 4.5-6 Like how it’s everywhere, same as God; or how it might not be almighty but it’s pretty darned mighty. And other things which might intimidate Christians against resisting or fighting it—or make us so wary of it, we never refer to it by name. Various Christians will only call it “the enemy,” lest calling it by name might conjure it up, like Voldemort from the Harry Potter novels.

Or on the opposite extreme, we’ll consider Satan laughable: It’s a red creature with horns, goat legs, a tail, and a trident. It sits on your shoulder, opposite an angel on your other shoulder, and goads you into doing what’s fun while the shoulder angel convinces you to do what’s right. It tortures people in the underworld, and sometimes ventures to the surface to tempt rock musicians. It’s an imaginary being, like fairies and gnomes and Smurfs and mermaids. It’s a representation of evil, but it’s not a literal being. It’s silly.

We Christians believe there’s a devil, because Jesus taught us it exists. Lk 8.12 But contrary to the paranoid fantasies of dark Christians, it’s not a mighty being, but a defeated foe. Jesus conquered it, 1Jn 3.8 and someday will destroy it. Rv 20.10 Meanwhile he gave us, his followers, power over it. Lk 10.19 If we submit to God and resist it, it’ll flee. Jm 4.7

Yeah, that’s correct: Flee. It can’t withstand us. The only reason we think it can, is because we don’t submit to God; we submit to it. We capitulate. We fold like a table lamp.

Our situation is like a trained elephant on a leash. Why don’t elephants snap the leash, or take off and drag their handlers wherever they want? Because they’ve been trained to obey humans. Frighten an elephant badly enough and then you’ll see ’em snap leashes, drag people behind them, even maul people. The devil has humans on a very similar leash, hoping we never notice how very easy it is to fight back. Especially with the weapons the Holy Spirit offers us.

Various new Christians wanna know why God doesn’t just put a stop to the devil. He doesn’t have to! We can. When Christians get off our apathetic backsides, or quit being scared for no good reason, we can easily resist. Satan is so quickly defeated, people get surprised: “You mean the fight’s over?” Yep. Satan flees like a cockroach when the lights turn on. Humans (and our fears) are way harder to fight off.

28 November 2018

Hypocrites. They’re everywhere.

The reason pagans assume Christians are phonies is ’cause we are. So let’s stop that.

HYPOCRISY hə'pɑk.rə.si noun Pretense: Practice of claiming beliefs or moral standards which one doesn’t truly have.
2. Inconsistency: Practice of claiming beliefs or moral standards, but one’s own behavior demonstrates otherwise.
[Hypocrite 'hɪp.ə.krɪt noun, hypocritical |hɪp.ə'krɪd.ə.kəl| adjective.]

The Greek word ypókrisis literally means “over [the] face.” In the ancient Greek religion, whenever someone claimed they spoke for the gods, they’d put on a bit of a show. When a man claimed Zeus spoke through him, he’d assume a deep voice, exaggerated gestures, and perform a sorta impersonation of Zeus. (Since we’re talking about fake gods, it was totally an act.)


Comic and tragic masks. Wikimedia

This “prophetic” acting evolved into Greek drama. Certain “gifted” poets, whom the Greeks believed had some divinely-inspired prophetic ability, would have actors memorize their “revelations” and present them to audiences. So you’d know who was playing whom, actors would wear masks; so the folks in the back of the theater knew whether the actors were happy or sad (’cause the actors weren’t always good at their jobs), masks might have exaggerated features. You know those happy and sad masks, associated with drama and the theater? Don’t worry; I included a picture. Anyway, ypókrisis turned into the word for “actor.”

Don’t get the wrong idea: There’s nothing wrong with acting. Well, so long that people know it’s an act. When they don’t, it’s fraud.

So when Jesus borrowed the term to describe certain Pharisees, he meant they were acting. But hiding it; therefore fraud. And Jesus wasn’t happy about the fraud. Pissed him off more than anything.

Matthew 23.1-7 KWL
1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his students, 2 saying,
“In Moses’s judgment seat sit the scribes and Pharisees.
3 So you must do, and revere, everything Pharisees might say.
But don’t do according to their works—for Pharisees say, and don’t do.
4 Pharisees tie up heavy, hard-to-carry burdens and place them on people’s shoulders.
And they don’t want to move them with their fingers.
5 Pharisees do all their works for people to see:
They widen their prayer-straps and lengthen their tassels.
6 Pharisees love the first couch at dinner and the first seat in synagogue,
7 and to be greeted in market and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by people.”

Every so often it’s a good idea for us Christians to swap the word “Pharisee” with “Christian” and see whether it still fits. Annoyingly, it still largely does.

27 November 2018

Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Not the chorus; the rote prayer. (And a bit about proper pronunciation of “excelsis.”

Before I discuss the rote prayer itself, lemme rant a bit about how everybody mispronounces excelsis.

When I was a kid, most folks I knew mispronounced it |ɪk'sɛl.sɪs|, ’cause it’s spelled like our English word “excel,” so people assumed of course that’s how you say it. Around high school one of the music pastors decided to correct everyone: “It’s pronounced |ɛks'tʃɛl.sɪs|; the C makes a |tʃ| sound like the word ‘cello,’ not |s| like ‘cellar.’ ” And everyone responded, “Ah of course,” and learned to say it that way.

Both are wrong.

The |tʃ| sound comes from Italian, which worked its way backwards into present-day Latin. (Which you thought was a dead language, didn’tcha? Nope. It’s still the official language of Vatican City, which means people there actually do speak it… when they’re not speaking Italian or English, or the pope’s native Spanish.) As for Roman Empire and early medieval Latin—in other words proper Latin—the C made a |k| sound, like “cardinal.” When an X came before it, that sound turned into an |s|. (Oh, and the vowels in Latin sound like the vowels in Spanish and French.) Hence the proper pronunciation of excelsis is |eɪs'kɛl.sis|.

Gloria in excelsis Deo |'ɡloʊ.ri.ɑ 'in eɪs'kɛl.sis 'deɪ.oʊ|, whether we mean the prayer, or the line we use for various Christmas-song choruses, is Latin for “glory in the highest to God.” It’s what angels said (not sang; read your bible again) when they appeared to the Bethlehem sheep-herders, and comes from the original dóxa en ypsístois Theó. Lk 2.14 But it comes from a more ancient Latin translation, ’cause St. Jerome rendered it gloria in altissimis Deo for the Vulgate.

When we’re speaking of the rote prayer—“the Gloria,” for short—we mean what Orthodox churches call “the Great Doxology.” There are eastern and western versions of it. The eastern version was written first, so let’s go with it first.

PRIEST. “Glory to you who has shown us the light.”
CONGREGATION. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to all people.
We praise you, we bless you, we worship you,
we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory.
Lord, King, heavenly God, Father, almighty;
Lord, the only‑begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit.
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father who take away the sin of the world,
have mercy on us, you who take away the sins of the world.
Receive our prayer, you who sit at the right hand of the Father,
and have mercy on us.
For you only are holy, only you are Lord,
Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.
Each day we bless you,
and we praise your name forever and to the ages of ages.
Lord, grant that we may be kept this day without sin.
Blessed are you, Lord, God of our fathers.
Your name is praised and glorified throughout all ages. Amen.

26 November 2018

Jesus came from heaven? And you gotta eat him?

The level of commitment Jesus expects of his followers: You gotta eat the bread of life.

John 6.41-60.

Jesus pointed out he, not the stuff he and his students fed the 5,000, not the manna the LORD fed the Hebrews, is bread from heaven. Living bread. Stuff you eat and live forever. Don’t seek temporal, earthly bread. Seek him.

It’s a metaphor, of course, for a relationship with Jesus. One the Galileans and Judeans, steeped in a culture (and a bible) full of metaphors, shoulda understood. One we should understand too… but of course not all of us do, and I’m gonna get into that a bit today.

But at this point in the story, the Galieans appeared to be tracking with Jesus so far. Their objection—the reason they eghóngyzon/“grumbled” (KJV “murmured”) about Jesus teaching this—wasn’t because they misunderstood what he meant; they totally understood what he meant. Their problem was he was talking about himself. Who, they were agreed, was probably a big deal; probably the End Times prophet. But “comes from heaven”? Waitaminnit.

John 6.41-42 KWL
41 So the Galileans grumbled at Jesus because he said “I’m the bread who comes from heaven,”
42 and said, “Isn’t this Jesus bar Joseph? Don’t we know his father and mother?
So how does he say he’s come from heaven?”

If somebody claims, “I came from heaven,” our knee-jerk reaction is naturally, “No you didn’t.” Doesn’t matter how much you know them, how much you like them, how much anything—the only people in the highest heaven are God, the angelic beings round his throne, and those few people he raptured before the resurrection, like Elijah. (We presume a few people because only three get a mention in the bible. For all we know God might’ve raptured way more. But that’s pure speculation.) Nobody can come from heaven but those beings—and we’re quite sure our claimant isn’t among them. Likewise the Galileans and Jesus: Of course he didn’t come from heaven. He was born. He has parents! They knew his parents.

Yeah, Christians are fully aware Jesus existed before his conception, ’cause he’s God. We get how he came from heaven, yet was born. We tend to take that belief for granted. But that was a wholly foreign idea to the Galileans, who presumed God would never do such a thing. He’s almighty, he’s sovereign, he’s dignified… he’s not a man, like Moses said, Nu 23.19 and they figured he’d never stoop so low as to become one.

So the Galileans had to wrap their brains around that one. But Jesus doubled down.

John 6.43-46 KWL
43 In reply Jesus also told them, “Don’t grumble among yourselves:
44 Nobody can come to me unless the Father, my Sender, draws them,
and I will resurrect them on the Last Day.
45 In the Prophets it’s written, ‘And they’ll all be taught by God’: Is 54.13
All who hear and learn from the Father, come to me.
46 Not that they saw the Father—
except the one from God; this man has seen the Father.”

So not only is Jesus claiming he’s from heaven, but he’s gonna resurrect everybody. Which wasn’t at all what the Pharisees taught about the End Times prophet, nor Messiah, nor anyone. Jesus is making some mighty cosmic claims for himself.

And this, folks, is why they couldn’t believe in Jesus. Not because they mixed up his bread metaphors.

21 November 2018

Purgatory: When our works are tested with fire.

Some Christians believe there’s no such thing. Here’s why the others believe it exists—in whatever form they imagine it.

Many Christians figure they’re C.S. Lewis fans ’cause they read his Narnia books, as I did in fifth grade. In high school I read his Mere Christianity, and in college I took advantage of its much-larger Lewis collection to read everything I could find. Including, it turned out, his academic stuff… which leads to another story I’ll tell another time.

One of his books was The Great Divorce, Lewis’s attempt to tell a Divine Comedy-style tour of purgatory, with George MacDonald as his guide instead of Virgil. It’s interesting because it gives examples of the sort of people who aren’t ready for heaven. But the book is a big hurdle for various Christians—in particular Fundamentalists—because they don’t believe in purgatory. Depending on how gracious they are (or aren’t), they’d assign Lewis’s case studies to either heaven or hell, and that’s that.

I’ve since found a number of self-described “Lewis fans” have never read The Great Divorce, and those who have, don’t entirely know what to do with it. Lewis was an Anglican, and since the Church of England believes in purgatory, so did he. My acquaintances were largely Assemblies, Baptists, or unaffiliated Fundies, and really didn’t like how their favorite author believed in something they consider “too Catholic” for their tastes. I get that, ’cause I used to be in the same boat: I dismissed purgatory as a ridiculous, non-biblical Catholic invention, invented as a loophole for good pagans who didn’t embrace Jesus, but might if they had one more chance in the afterlife.

Except that’s not what Catholics teach about purgatory. It’s what they teach about limbo. By which I don’t mean the game where you lean backwards under a bar without touching it; I mean the belief there’s a place in the afterlife which isn’t paradise, but isn’t torment either (well, unless the fact you’re never going to heaven is torment), where good pagans and unbaptized Christians go. (Although nowadays most of ’em teach unbaptized Christians go to purgatory.)

What is purgatory then? Purgatory is where you go before you go to paradise or heaven. Because when we die, we still have some sins on our souls, and these sins need to be removed before we can go onward and upward. Purgatory’s where we get those sins removed. That done, we’re clean, and can now enter God’s presence unhindered.

Is purgatory in the bible? Well, kinda. But the very little which suggests the existence of purgatory, has been pulled and stretched like taffy. Those who don’t believe in purgatory rightly point out far too much has been extrapolated from far too little. You know, like the Left Behind novels.