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Formal prayer: How to get distant with God.

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Let’s get right to it: The purpose of formality is distance. It’s to measure off a “proper,” unapproachable space between you and the person you’re being solemn with. Because decorum considers closeness and informality to be inappropriate.I know; a lot of people insist that’s not at all why they’re formal with God. They do it out of respect. Like the way you respect your boss, a judge, an important official, royalty, or even your parents: You show your respect by treating ’em formally.Well that’s rubbish. And parents are a perfect example of why it’s rubbish. I respect my mom—and I don’t treat her formally at all. If I did, she’d think I was angry with her for some reason. Because again: Formality is about distance. People who treat their parents formally are not close with them. And parents who raise their kids to treat them formally, who demand decorum from them because they feel it means respect, always wind up with emotionally distant kids. Sometimes they wonder why they aren’t cl…

Goodness, and lawless Christians.

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If you know Jesus—really and truly know Jesus, not just know of him—you’re gonna want to follow him. You’re gonna want to do as he teaches, and actually try to obey his commands instead of shrugging them off with, “Well, they’re nice ideals, but they’re not gonna be practical.” You’re gonna want to be good.Goodness is a fruit of the Spirit. A rather obvious one: God is good, so shouldn’t those who have the Holy Spirit in us be likewise good? Shouldn’t he encourage us to be good, empower us to do good deeds, be gracious to us when we drop the ball and help us return to goodness? Shouldn’t he point us in the direction of sanctification, of living holy lives, unique from the rest of the world—where goodness is a huge factor in why we’re unique?Likewise if you don’t wanna be good, not only do you lack the Spirit’s fruit: You’re probably not even Christian. And yes, bluntly saying so has a tendency to really offend people: “Goodness doesn’t make you Christian! That’s legalism. How could yo…

Jesus takes out the Law’s curse.

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Galatians 3.10-20.So the legalists among the Galatians (and legalists today) thought of the Law as how we get right with God: We obey his commands, and because we’ve racked up all that good karma, we’re righteous and God owes us heaven. Problem is, God works by grace, and if we were hoping to be justified by merit, the Law indicates we have no such merit. We’ve broken the Law repeatedly. We got nothing. We’re cursed.But we weren’t meant to be righteous by obeying the Law. Righteousness comes through faith in God. Through trusting Jesus’s self-sacrifice. Through the good news that God’s kingdom has come near.God promised Abraham he’d bless the world—both Abraham’s “seed,” his descendants; and the gentiles, all the non-Hebrews not descended from Abraham—through Abraham. Ge 12.3, 18.18, 22.18, Ga 3.8Pharisees presumed God’s 613 commandments was this blessing: If only the world would follow the Law, they could be blessed! But Paul recognized this makes no logical sense. Because Abraham wa…

God doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios.

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Back in seminary my theology professor introduced us to the concept of the tragic moral choice. Ancient Greek playwrights invented it for their tragedies: One god ordered the hero to do one thing, and another god ordered him to do the opposite. Obeying one god meant sinning against the other god. And like us, the ancient Greeks recognized sin has dire consequences… and wanna bet their plays would show the consequences?Now, we Christians don’t have multiple gods with conflicting wills. We only have the One God. Yes he’s in three persons, but all three one the same thing, so God’s not the problem. We are. We sin, and we live in a sin-plagued world.So in the Christian version of the tragic moral choice, we’re thrust into a scenario where all the possible outcomes are gonna be bad. The only choices we make are gonna be sinful ones. We can’t win. That’s just the world we live in.Fr’instance. Say it’s World War 2 and you’re hiding Jews from the Nazis. Suddenly the Nazis come knocking. What …

Courtship: Dating… but no sex.

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Years ago I worked at a Christian camp. For the summer program we’d hire college students to be counselors. Some of them grew up Christian; some of them had only been Christian a short time; some of them had only claimed to be Christian on their applications, but didn’t know Jesus from Obi-Wan Kenobi. (Actually they may have known a lot more about Obi-Wan than Jesus.)Once, while hanging out, one of the longtime Christians mentioned her brother was “courting” a certain girl. The Christian newbie in our group got a confused look on her face—she wasn’t familiar with the term.“Courting,” I explained, “is dating. But no sex.”The newbie nodded, understandingly. Some of the group grinned.The girl who introduced the term “courting” objected.SHE. “That’s not what it means.”HE. “Does he bring chaperones to the dates?”SHE. “No…”HE. “No kissing? No hand-holding? No touching of any kind?”SHE. “No.”HE. “They go off and do things together, by themselves? But not sex.” [As far as she knew.]SHE. “Yes.…

Quit praying to Satan!

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There’s an traditional African folk song called “What a Mighty God We Serve.” If you grew up Christian, maybe you heard it in Sunday school. Sometimes adults sing it too. Goes like so.What a mighty God we serveWhat a mighty God we serveAngels bow before himHeaven and earth adore himWhat a mighty God we serveYears later I found out it had some more lyrics—words my children’s and youth pastors never bothered to have us sing. Maybe you can guess why.I command you Satan in the name of the LordTo take up your weapons and fleeFor the Lord has given me authorityTo walk all over theeThere are variations. There’s “put down your weapons” in the second line (which makes way more sense); there’s “stomp all over thee” in the fourth, along with stomping movements.Anyway. Lots of churches tend to give these lines a miss, so lots of Christians aren’t aware of ’em. I particularly remember one summer youth camp: The pastor got all the kids to sing along with the first part, but when she broke into the …

Jesus is put in his sepulcher.

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Mark 15.42-47, Matthew 27.57-61, Luke 23.50-56, John 19.38-42.On the afternoon of Good Friday, after a flogging and crucifixion, Jesus died. Roman custom was to just leave the corpse on the cross for the birds to pick at, but Jewish custom was to bury people immediately. On the very same day they died, if possible. And since the next day was Sabbath—and in the year 33, also Passover—they especially needed to get everybody off the crosses and buried posthaste.Now in previous generations, “buried” means buried: Dig a hole in the ground deep enough for animals to not get at the corpse, put the body in, fill the hole back in. In Jesus’s day, Jewish custom had changed. Now what they did was wrap the body in moist linen strips, and put it on a stone slab in a sepulcher. This way the body would rot quickly—and after a year or so, there’d be nothing left but bones, which were then collected and put into an ossuary. (They figured in the resurrection, all God needed was the bones—same as in Eze…

“My God, why have you forsaken me?”

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Mark 15.33-36, Matthew 27.45-49.Before he died, Jesus shouted out something in a language his bystanders didn’t recognize. And a lot of present-day commentators don’t recognize it either. We know it was Psalm 22.1, but some of us say Jesus quoted it in Aramaic; some say Hebrew. Which was it?The reason for the confusion is that Mark and Matthew don’t match. Both of ’em recorded Jesus’s words as best they could—but they did so in the Greek alphabet, which doesn’t correspond neatly to Hebrew and Aramaic sounds. So here’s what we got. (And if your web browser reads Unicode, you might actually see the original-language characters.)VERSEORIGINALTRANSLITERATIONPs 22.1, Hebrewאֵלִ֣י אֵלִ֣י לָמָ֣העֲזַבְתָּ֑נִיElí Elí, lamá azavettáni?Ps 22.1, Aramaic (Syriac) ܐܠܗ ܐܠܗܝ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢ Elahí Elahí, lamaná šavaqtaní?Mk 15.34, Greekἐλωΐ ἐλωΐ, λεμᾶσαβαχθανί;Elo’í Elo’í, lemá savahthaní?
(or σαβακτανεί/savaktaneí in the Codex Sinaiticus.)Mt 27.46, Greekἠλί ἠλί, λεμὰ σαβαχθανί;Ilí ilí, lemá savahthaní?Just …

When Jesus made John responsible for his mother.

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John 19.25-27.Only John has this story. Which has caused no end of speculation about Jesus’s family situation.John 19.25-27 KWL25 Standing by Jesus’s cross were his mother, his mother’s sister Salomé,Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary the Magdalene.26 So Jesus, seeing his mother and the student he loved standing by,told his mother, “Ma’am, look: Your son.”27 Then Jesus told the student, “Look: Your mother.”From that hour on, Jesus’s student took her as his own.John’s list of the women who watched Jesus die is the same as the other gospels, with the addition of Jesus’s mom and himself. He never referred to Jesus’s mom as “Mary,” because he was trying to refer to as few Marys as possible, so as not to confuse everybody with how common the name “Mary” was. (Same as his own name; notice in his gospel the only “John” in it is John the baptist.)Anyway. All these people at the cross, save Mary the Magdalene, were family. Salomé was Mary the Nazarene’s sister; Mary “of Clopas” was Joseph the Nazar…

The “unbelieving” thief.

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Mark 15.27, 32, Matthew 27.38, 44, Luke 23.32-33, 39.Okay. Did the believing thief, now the unbelieving thief.The gospels state two thieves were crucified with Jesus—Mark 15.27 KWLThey crucified two thieves with Jesus: One on the right, one at his left.Matthew 27.38 KWL38 Then two thieves were crucified with Jesus, one at right and one at left.Luke 23.32-33 KWL32 They brought two others with Jesus, evildoers to be done away with.33 When they came to the place called Skull, there they crucified Jesus and the evildoers,who were at right and at left.—but they never did identify them, so Christian tradition named ’em Dismas and Gesmas. Never did say which one was on the right, and which was on the left. All we know was at first, both were railing at Jesus—Mark 15.32 KWL“Messiah, king of Israel, has to come down from the cross now, so we can see and believe him.”And those crucified with Jesus insulted him.Matthew 27.44 KWLLikewise the thieves crucified with Jesus insulted him.—and then Dis…

Jesus comforts the believing thief.

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Mark 15.27, 32, Matthew 27.38, 44, Luke 23.32-33, 39-43.Jesus was crucified at about “the third hour [after sunrise],” Mk 15.25 and died at the ninth. Mk 15.34-37 Sunrise on 3 April 33, in that latitude (and before daylight-saving time was implemented), is at 5:24 AM. But “third hour” and “ninth hour” are hardly exact times; figure roughly from 8:30 AM to 2:30 PM he was on that cross. Six hours, slowly suffocating.His cross was in between that of two evildoers Lk 23.33 or thieves. Mk 15.27 Christians like to imagine these guys were worse, like insurrectionists, or highwaymen who murdered their victims. ’Cause karma: If you’re getting crucified, it’d better be for murder or something just as awful. One of these guys implied they were getting their just desserts, Lk 23.41 so shouldn’t that make ’em murderers? Death by crucifixion sounds like way too extreme a penalty for mere thieves.But we have to remember we’re dealing with Romans here. For them, everything merited death. They didn’t