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11 July 2019

The fruit of holiness: Let’s get weird.

Paul’s list of the Spirit’s fruit in Galatians 5 isn’t comprehensive, and isn’t really meant to be.

I gotta point that out every time I talk about a fruit which isn’t on Paul’s list, ’cause there’s always some numbnut who says, “That’s not in Galatians 5.” Usually someone who doesn’t like the fruit I’m talking about, so here’s their loophole. Yeah, well, there are other apostles who wrote bible, and some of ’em talked about other fruit. Like Simon Peter:

1 Peter 1.13-16 KWL
13 So, “girding the loins” of your thinking, being sober,
hope till the end for the grace which Christ Jesus’s revelation brought you.
14 Do it like obedient children, not conforming to the same old patterns of your ignorant desires,
15 but like the holy one who called you.
Become holy yourselves, in your whole lifestyle.
16 For it’s written, “You’ll be holy, because I’m holy.” Lv 19.2

God expects us to be holy, which we misinterpret as “good” or “clean,” but really means separate: God wants us to stand out from the rest of the world. Be unique. Be weird. Be better. Don’t conform to a culture that doesn’t know what it’s doing or where it’s going. Be like God.

But if we’re to be holy, we need God’s power. We can’t achieve holiness on our own. (Much as some of us might like to imagine we can.) Trying to stand out without God’s fruit, especially his love and goodness, is gonna wind up arrogant and proud… and not so good. We need help!—and the Holy Spirit provides it. ’Cause our relationship with God should produce goodness, rightness, fairness, love, joy, and other such fruit.

So yeah: God calls us to be unique. What’s that look like?

Well, looking at the ancient Hebrews, there were certain oddball things God expected of ’em. A few commands in the Law which instructed the Hebrews to be, well, weird. They had to wear certain fabrics, or decorate themselves and their buildings a certain way. They had to eat certain animals, and not others. They had to celebrate certain festivals, or worship God in certain ways. God gives no explanation for many of these behaviors except to say,

Leviticus 20.23-24 KWL
23 “Don’t walk in the grooves of the nations I sent away from you.
For they did all those things—and I loathe them.
24 I told you, ‘You possess their ground. I give it to you to inherit—land flowing with milk and honey.’
I’m your LORD God, who separates you from the peoples.”

That’s the very context of the statement Peter quoted:

Leviticus 20.26 KWL
“Be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy.
I separated you from the peoples for myself.”

So does the Hebrews’ odd behavior mean Christians are meant to have likewise odd behaviors? Well, if you ask your average pagan, mission accomplished! Some of us are downright weird. We have our own subculture, our own popular culture within the subculture (i.e. favorite Christian musicians, authors, artists, movies, etc.), our own lingo, our own political movements (which are just as willing as the other political movements to compromise everything we hold dear), and all sorts of uniquely Christian or Christianist traits which make us stand out from everyone else.

Does God want his people to be weirdos? Obviously yes. We’re not to conform to the patterns of this world; Ro 12.2 we’re to follow Jesus. If the rest of the world goes one way, and Jesus another, we follow Jesus. Sometimes because the world is wrong… and sometimes simply because the behavior may not be evil in itself, but conformity is thoughtless, brain-dead behavior, and Jesus wants his followers to think. Holiness means we don’t simply go along with every benign fad there is, just to fit in.

Because “fitting in” is one of the faster ways to derail our relationship with Jesus.

10 July 2019

Cults: When churches go very, very wrong.

CULT kəlt noun. A religion centered on one particular individual or figurehead.
2. A group (usually small) whose religious beliefs and practices are outside the norm: Too controlling, too strange, too devilish.
3. A misplaced devotion to a particular person or thing.
4. A heretic Christian church.
[Cultic 'kəl.tɪk adjective, cultish 'kəl.tɪʃ adjective, cultism 'kəl.tiz.əm noun.]

I throw this word “cult” around a lot, so I’d better define it. First, what other folks mean by “cult,” all of which are included in the above definition:

  • Sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists whose job descriptions end in -ist, tend to use definition #1: A cult is any religion with a guru in charge. And technically Christianity falls under this definition, ’cause we got Jesus.
  • Popular culture leans towards definition #2: A cult is a creepy religion. If it weirds them out in any way, they call it a cult. Even if it’s Christianity. If we trust Jesus a little too much for their comfort, they’ll call us cultish.
  • And popular Christian culture leans towards definition #4: A cult is a heretic church.

The popular Christian definition originated when Charles S. Braden used it, in his 1949 book These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements to mean

any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture. Braden xii

And that’s the definition Walter R. Martin went with in his popular book The Kingdom of the Cults. It’s a book I oughta plug, since it’s mighty useful: It explains how certain churches deviate from orthodox Christianity.

But thanks to these guys, when an Evangelical Christian says “cult,” they mean “heretic.”

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses and Oneness Pentecostals don’t believe in the trinity: Cults.
  • Latter-Day Saints say Jesus (and for that matter the Father) is a created being: Cult.
  • Christian Scientists claim death is an illusion, and therefore Jesus didn’t literally die: Cult.
  • Muslims and Buddhists don’t believe Jesus is God: Cults.

Yep, doesn’t even matter if these groups don’t consider themselves Christian. Evangelicals will freely stick that label “cult” on any religion they consider heretic. Depending on how Fundamentalist they get—by which I mean how narrowly they define orthodoxy—everything can be a cult but their group. I grew up in such churches: If they strongly believe women shouldn’t wear makeup, yet your church lets ’em, they’ll call you a cult. Because their religion is so strict, makeup is orthodoxy, and you aren’t orthodox. Today it’s foundation, eyeshadow, blush, and lipstick; tomorrow you’re denouncing God and kissing Satan with tongue.

Of course if your church is that strict and controlling, the cult is sorta on the other foot. (If you don’t mind me mixing a few metaphors there.)

09 July 2019

The “prayer warrior.”

PRAYER WARRIOR 'prɛr wɔr.i.ər noun. A prayer intercessor who believes this form of prayer is spiritual warfare.
[Prayer warfare 'prɛr wɔr.fɛr noun.]

As I’ve written before, spiritual warfare is resisting temptation. It’s not just that our own urges and habits get in the way of a growing relationship with God: Devils use these things to trip us up. So we resist temptation, resist our selfish nature, and in so doing, resist the devil. Jm 4.7 It’s not a complicated idea. It’s just not easy to do. We enjoy the things which tempt us; they wouldn’t tempt us otherwise! But we gotta resist.

But because actual spiritual warfare isn’t easy, it’s way easier to pick something else—something we like to do, something way easier to do—and claim that’s spiritual warfare. And one of the more common claims you’ll find among Christians across the board—it’s not just a Evangelical thing—is prayer is spiritual warfare. Prayer, intercession in particular, is how we resist the devil. Not obedience, not self-control, not repentance, not submission to God’s will. Just praying for others—really hard.

Christians who pray a lot, love to imagine they’re engaging in “warfare.” After all, they’re asking God for stuff, and surely Satan doesn’t want this stuff done, right? Surely the devil’s fighting this stuff, trying its damnedest to repel God’s kingdom and Christianity’s growth and the salvation of more people.

Hence “prayer warriors” claim whenever they pray for other people, or for God to do things, it’s doing battle with the devil. ’Cause the devil doesn’t want them to pray. ’Cause then God’ll do things, and as far as Satan’s concerned, God intervenes far too much for its comfort.

I grew up in a church which was big on prayer-warrior teachings and beliefs. Very few of them were informed by the bible. In fact a lot of ’em were heavily influenced by a popular book, This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti. Published in 1986, it’s a horror novel about a New Age cult taking over a small college town, and the invisible demons that were really behind the cult. (In many ways it feels like Peretti read C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength and decided to give his own spin on it.) The good guys are of course praying Christians, and the angels whom their prayers empower.

Peretti didn’t invent these ideas. They’re found all over Christian mythology. The battle of Satan’s fall really fascinated them, and they imagined battles like that are still going on in the heavens: Demons and evil spirits which wanna destroy humanity, angels which wanna defend us, going at it with swords and shields like the ancients. Or, depending on the whims of the artist, with medieval armor, Elvish armor, or even buck naked. (Some of those artists, you gotta wonder about.) These battles have been non-stop ever since Satan was toppled. And every time they pray, it provides support to the angels on God’s side.

Problem is, there are a lot of dark Christian teachings about how “prayer warriors” affect that battle. They imagine every time they pray, God grants his warrior angels some extra energy or support, enabling them to beat back the devils. Thing is, this also implies when we don’t pray, God doesn’t grant his angels any support, and the result is the devils get to defeat them. And y’know, there are some prayer warriors who teach precisely this: When Christians don’t pray, God lets his loyal angelic followers get defeated. And God’ll even let his loyal human followers get defeated the very same way—so don’t forget to pray for one another!

In this way, prayer warriors imagine themselves the most important Christians in the church. It’s because of them Christianity advances. The rest of Christendom? Meh; they do some stuff; it’s not nothing. But the prayer warriors really contribute. They’re on the front lines of the spiritual war. (Well, the supply lines; the angels are more like the front lines. But they’re mighty close.) They’re keeping the front from receding, giving the rest of us a safe space to do our thing. Don’t forget to appreciate and thank them, same as you would for any soldier or veteran.

Okay. Any of these ideas based on bible? Loosely. Really loosely.

08 July 2019

Jesus cures a man… in stages.

Mark 8.22-26.

People are fascinated by healing stories where Jesus cures people with spit. ’Cause he didn’t just do it the one time. Twice he cured blind men with it; here, and in John 9. Previously in Mark he cured a deafmute, and spat in the course of doing it—and while I don‘t believe he spat on the guy, or touched the guy with his saliva, plenty of Christians believe otherwise.

What mainly gets us is the ick factor. Our culture doesn’t think of saliva as sanitary. Even though people spit-shine things all the time—glasses, phones, jewelry, shoes, their children—a number of people cringe at such behavior, because spit has germs in it. And yeah, human saliva has bacteria in it. But it also has a lot of digestive enzymes and white blood cells in it. Saliva protects us from a lot more than we realize.

Whenever Jesus cured people with spit, it was reflective of the ancients’ attitudes about spit. Like us, they cleaned with spit. And when Jesus cured people with spit, it represented cleaning. The Hebrews thought of sickness as a form of uncleanness. It made you ritually unclean for worship, obviously; and if you suffered leprosy you were expected to warn people away with the shout, “Unclean!” and stay away from people and the local well, lest you infect anyone. ’Cause the ancients figured uncleanliness, or unclean living (i.e. sin) caused your illness.

Blindness too. ’Cause let’s face it, sometimes people get stuff in their eyes, and it blinds them. Happens to me every allergy season. In the apocrypha we read where this happened to Tobit:

Tobit 2.9-10 KWL
9 That night I sat shiva, and slept by the courtyard wall because I was unclean. My face was uncovered.
10 I didn’t know there were sparrows on the wall.
My eyes were open, and the sparrows emptied their bowels into my eyes.
My eyes became white as tablets. I went to “physicians,” and they didn’t help me.

Tobit spent the next four years blind, till an angel instructed his son Tobias to cure him by anointing his eyes with fish-gall salve. And while this story isn’t in the Hebrew bible, it wasn’t unfamiliar to people of Jesus’s day: Blindness was related to uncleanness. People had stuff in their eyes. Tobit had bird poop, Paul had scales, Ac 9.18 and everyone Jesus cured had something which needed to be washed away. So, spit.

Yeah, I’ve heard theories the ancients thought spit had magical properties. Did not. People cleaned with it. So did Jesus. When he felt it necessary, he spat.

Nowadays when people ask for prayer ’cause they want God to heal them, sometimes they ask for certain things. They want us to put our hands on their head, or on the affected area. They might want to be daubed with oil. They might want a certain prayer. They don’t actually need any of these things, y’know. They only need Jesus. And sometimes they know they don’t… but it comforts them, and there’s nothing wrong with comforting people. Jesus didn’t need to cure anyone with spit, but he recognized his patients needed it, so he provided, because he’s kind. Let’s follow his example—although I’m pretty sure nobody’s gonna ever ask us to spit on ’em. But you never know.

Oh yeah, the story:

Mark 8.22-26 KWL
22 Jesus and his students went to Beit Chayda.
People brought him a blind man, and encouraged Jesus to touch him.
23 Grabbing the blind man’s hand, Jesus took him outside the village.
Spitting in the man’s eyes, placing his hands on the man, Jesus asked him, “Can you see anything?”
24 Recovering his vision, the man said, “I see people—like trees. I see them walking around.”
25 Then Jesus placed his hands on the man’s eyes again.
He saw clearly, his vision restored. He gazed at everything clearly.
26 Jesus sent him to his house, telling him, “You ought not enter the village, nor say anything in the village.”

05 July 2019

Politics, Christians, and our democracy.

POLITICS 'pɑl.ə.tɪks plural noun. Activities associated with the achievement of power, position, and status. Especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to gain it; often considered to be divisive or devious.
[Politic 'pɑl.ə.tɪk adjective, political pə'lɪd.ə.kəl adjective, politician pɑl.ə'tɪ.ʃən noun, politico pə'lɪd.ɪ.koʊ noun.]

God’s kingdom is entirely about surrendering our power, authority, will, even our identity, to God.

We kinda have to do this. Humans, y’see, are selfish to our core. Total depravity, theologians call it: Everything we do, even everything good we do, has a self-centered ulterior motive. Makes us feel good about ourselves. Makes us feel self-justified. Yeah, some good deeds might feel self-sacrificial and miserable, but somewhere in our psyche is some “greater principle” which feels really good to make great sacrifices for. We’re just that carnal. It’s why God needs to save us, ’cause we’ll never be good enough to save ourselves. And why the Holy Spirit needs to give our consciences a total overhaul.

In contrast politics is about wielding power. And for politically-minded folks, it’s also about gaining more. Sometimes for noble reasons: To do good deeds. More often, for not-so-noble reasons: To keep it out of the hands of others, lest they do something we dislike with it. Not that we’re necessarily doing anything with it, including anything good. Note the United States Congress: Too often it’s all about doing nothing, for many a politician figures nothing is better than anything.

So yeah, there are antithetical ideas at play whenever we talk about God’s kingdom and politics. One’s about surrender, because we can’t be trusted with power. The other’s not; it’s about gaining or taking or stealing power, because we imagine we’re the right-minded exceptions who can be trusted with power—and the others can’t. The opposition party surely can’t.

How do Christians juggle these ideas? Same way we’ve always justified our possession of power. Same as we’ve always justified not surrendering all our power to God. In brief: “I’m gonna do good things with it! The power’s not gonna corrupt me. My heart is pure.”

In other words, we lie to ourselves. And our fellow Christians. And God.