God is very different from us.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 November

Humanity has many religions. Many views on God. Some figure there’s One, some figure there’s none, some figure there’s two (a good guy and a bad guy), some three or more, some figure the universe collectively is God, and some figure there may be gods out there but they’re not relevant to what we deal with as humans.

Yeah, the Unitarians and Baha’is are gonna insist all these differences are irrelevant, so let’s just focus on what we have in common and worship that Higher Power. These two religions were developed in Christian and Muslim cultures respectively, so they’ve got a lot of bias in favor of Abrahamic monotheism, but they’re flexible… and from every other religion’s point of view, too flexible. Each religion has a lot of non-negotiables. (Even Unitarians; ask ’em sometime if they’re willing to let an unrepentant Nazi join their church.) Each religion is pretty sure they understand God best. You’re not gonna see the Unitarians and Baha’is consolidate into one church anytime soon.

Why are all these religions so different? Dark Christians are gonna insist it’s because every other religion is an invention of the devil, or wannabe prophets whom the devil has managed to lead astray. All these religions are therefore the product of power-mad humans. And yeah, that’s partly true: A lot of religious founders were only trying to get themselves worshiped, or gain power, money, and sex. Any good intentions got corrupted by human depravity. Heck, that’s true of too many Christian churches as well.

But I would insist it’s because God is awfully hard to figure out.

I know; Christian claim God is really easy to get to know. All we gotta do is crack open a bible! Or have a conversation or two with him. Or something simple like that.

But if God really was just that easy to get to know, he wouldn’t need to reveal himself in so many different ways, at so many different times. And we wouldn’t have to work at getting to know him, at listening to him, at growing his fruit, at obeying Jesus. For that matter, Jesus wouldn’t’ve had to come to earth to explain him better.

God is hard to figure out, ’cause God is significantly different from us humans. Significantly. In ways which make getting to know him, not so easy. In ways which means we’re often not gonna figure him out. And we need to be okay with that and trust him. Problem is, people aren’t okay with that, because people don’t trust him… so they come up with their own explanations, and these evolve into new religions.

God has made efforts to bridge the gap between these significant differences, and us. If we make a little effort on our part (with his help; we can’t really do it unless he empowers us), we can bridge it wholly, and can get to know him. But not enough of us care to. Much easier to presume we have him figured out already—and never realize we’re wrong.

So let’s work at bridging that gap.

The spiritual gifts test.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 November

Most Christians never bother to ask, “What are spiritual gifts?” We just presume we know, and not our heads knowingly, as if we’re totally familiar with the concept. But ask your average Christian just what these spiritual gifts are, and they’ll stammer out a few odd answers. “Um… kindness? Friendliness? Encouragement?”

No, that’s fruit. Try again.

“Er… generosity? Helpfulness? Ooh, discernment!”

Still fruit, but the “discernment” answer is on the right track, even though there’s a totally non-spiritual form of discernment which detectives regularly use. And clever people. And con artists, unfortunately.

Well, I’ll stop leaving you in suspense. Spiritual gifts aren’t talents which make us more “spiritual” (which, to many Christians, means “churchy”). They’re special abilities the Holy Spirit gives us. Supernatural special abilities. Like these.

1 Corinthians 12.7-11 KJV
7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. 8 For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; 9 to another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; 10 to another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: 11 But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.

How do we know we have these special abilities? Duh; we do them. The Spirit gives us the power to do ’em. If the Spirit has empowered me with gifts of healing, I heal. There’s no question as to where my gift lies; it’s kinda obvious. I’m not sitting around wondering, “What’s my spiritual gift?”—the previously-unwell people all around me, who were cured when I prayed for them, will universally respond, “Duh, it’s healing. What, you think it’s musical theater?”

So why are there so many Christians who aren’t sure what their spiritual gifts are? Bluntly it’s because they’re not doing anything. They don’t minister. They receive and don’t give back. Sometimes because they’re immature, and can’t imagine they’re ready to give back. Too often it’s because they’re holding out for one particular spiritual gift, and until they get that one, they’re not doing anything; they’re like the bratty child on Christmas morning who didn’t the pony she asked for, so she’s throwing out all her other presents, no matter how good or valuable or generous they are.

But for all those Christians who don’t do anything, and would really like to know what they should be doing, Christians have created written aptitude tests.

No I’m not kidding. And you probably know I’m not kidding, because you’ve seen one of these tests. Sometimes your pastors or ministry leaders hand ’em out, and everybody takes one, and finds out where their gifts are. Because why find out by doing?—take a test!

Really, it’s a ludicrous idea, but it’s so commonplace Christians don’t find it ludicrous anymore. That’s a whole other problem, which I won’t go into today.

“Unspoken.”

by K.W. Leslie, 02 November

High school youth group services can vary. My previous church’s youth services looked exactly like the adult services: There’d be worship music, then the youth pastor would deliver a sermon. When I was in high school, the service was way more informal: We’d play a game for a half hour, then sit down, sing a few worship choruses while the pastor led on acoustic guitar, then he’d present a short message, pray, and then we’d hang out till our parents picked us up—at which point the kids who could drive, drove home.

Before the pastor prayed, he’d take prayer requests. Got anything to ask of God? Want a real live capital-P PASTOR to pray about it?—’cause surely Jesus hears his prayers, if anyone’s. Here’s your chance kids. Pitch him anything.

So we would.

  • Big test coming up; we want God’s help, either in improving our memory, or compensating for our rotten study habits.
  • Big game coming up; we want God’s help to do our best, and of course we’d like him to confound our opponents.
  • God help this kid I know whose dating life is a wreck (followed by some gossip about the juicy details, which the gossiper assumed is totally permissible because it’s a “prayer request”—yeah right).
  • God help this kid I know whose family life is a shambles.
  • God help me, ’cause I have stress for one of the myriad reasons kids stress.
  • “Unspoken.”

Wasn’t always the same kid every week who said “Unspoken.” Sometimes it was more than one kid. What’s it mean? It’s short for “unspoken prayer request.” We wanted to ask God for something, and wanted our pastor to include it—“God, please take care of all the unspoken needs tonight”—but we wanted it it remain solely between ourselves and God. Everybody else didn’t need to know what it was. God knows. That’s enough.

I was not the best Christian in high school. More of a giant hypocrite. But I’d invite friends from school to my church’s youth group, ’cause it was fun. Some were Christian and knew all about unspoken requests. And some wouldn’t, so I was called upon to be their tour guide to the Evangelical subculture.

One particular week, some kid—let’s call him Mervyn—had been the only one to ask for an “unspoken,” and I got the expected question from my high school friend.

HE. “What’s ‘unspoken’ mean?”
ME. “He needs God’s help for something embarrassing. My guess is he’s trying to give up porn.”
A DOZEN OTHER KIDS. [overhearing] Tremendous laughter.

’Cause Mervyn really did need to give up all the porn. But for about a year thereafter, this became the regular youth group joke about what “unspoken” really means. Whenever someone said “Unspoken,” whether it was Mervyn or not, someone in the group would say under their breath, “Porn.” Followed by giggles, and an irritated look from the youth pastor. He didn’t know what just happened, but he didn’t trust it was anything wholesome. Eventually he did find out, and read us the riot act.

But I admit to this day, whenever someone contributes “Unspoken” as a prayer request, a little voice in the back of my head pipes up, “Porn.” It amuses me. Bad Christian.

The Watchful Slaves Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 November

Luke 12.35-40, Matthew 24.42-44.

This is another parable about Jesus’s second coming, sometimes called the parable of the watchful servants. Frequently it gets mixed up with Jesus’s Wise and Stupid Slaves Story in Matthew, or the Watchful Doorman Story (found in all the synoptic gospels, and actually comes next in Luke), because some of the ideas and verses overlap. Other times people chop off verses 39-40 because they’d rather make a separate story of them.

Unlike the other gospels, this one includes the idea—consistent with Jesus’s character, as demonstrated when he washed his students’ feet—that in God’s kingdom, the master serves the students.

Jesus tells his students this right after he tells ’em to save up treasure in heaven.

Luke 12.35-40 KWL
35 “Be people dressed for work, with your lanterns burning.
36 Like you’re people waiting for your master once he leaves the wedding feast,
so when he arrives and knocks, they can immediately open the door for him.
37 Those slaves are awesome: The master will find them staying up for him.
Amen, I promise you the master will dress himself for work,
and he’ll sit them down, and help serve them.
38 If he comes in the second or third watch [9PM-3AM]
and finds them up, they’re awesome.
39 Realize this: If the homeowner knew what hour the thief shows up,
he’d never be able to break into his house.
40 Be ready!
For the Son of Man comes at the hour you don’t expect.”

Africanus and Eusebius on Jesus’s two genealogies.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 October

Eusebius Pamphili was the bishop of Caesarea, Judea, from 314 to 339. He wrote the first full-length Christian history of the church, Historia Ecclesiae/Church History, sometimes called Ecclesiastical History, in part to defend the church as well as give its background.

Today’s excerpt is from Church History 1.7, in which he explains why Jesus has two genealogies. Popularly, Christians claim one belongs to his mom, and the other to his adoptive dad. Sometimes they vary about which belongs to whom; frequently Matthew is considered Mary’s, because it appears to have the more legitimate royal claim. (Though I remind you God can anoint anyone king he pleases, as he did Saul, David, Jeroboam, and Jehu; Jesus’s only ancestral “requirement” was he be David’s descendant, and he is in both genealogies.)

To help, Eusebius borrows a big long excerpt from fellow Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus, from his letter to Aristides of Athens, now lost. (Some Christians have tried to piece it back together from the various ancient Christians who quoted it, but it’s just a bunch of big fragments; not the whole letter.) Sextus Julius’s nickname Africanus/“the African,” refers to his birthplace in Libya, though he considered himself from Jerusalem, and lived in Nicopolis (formerly Emmaeus; different Emmaeus than the one in the bible), in Palestine. We don’t know his dates. The usual guess is the early 200s, but Aristides died in 134, so either the guess is wrong or the letter to Aristides is bogus.

He did correspond with Origen of Alexandria, and wrote two other works—the the Chronographiai, his five-volume history of the world (in which he figured creation happened in 5500BC); and Kestoi, a scientific encyclopedia.

As far as we know, Africanus was the first guy to try to explain this particular bible difficulty in writing. No doubt plenty of Christians tried to explain it away with best guesses. Africanus’s explanation became the standard explanation of ancient Christians, but as you might notice, not many people today seem to know of it.

I’m not 100 percent sold on this explanation, myself. But regardless, here it is.

Heavens!

by K.W. Leslie, 28 October
HEAVEN 'hɛ.vən noun. The dwelling place of God, his angels, and debatably good humans after they die. Traditionally depicted as above the sky.
2. A euphemism for God himself. [“Sin displeases heaven.”]
3. The sky, perceived as a vault containing the sun, moon, planets, and stars.
4. A place of bliss. [“This is heaven!”]
5. Short for the kingdom of heaven, i.e. God’s kingdom.
6. The state of being in God’s presence, namely after death.
[Heavenly 'hɛv.ən.li adjective.]

As you can see, there are multiple definitions of our word “heaven.” But when Christians talk about heaven, we mean the dwelling place of God. Right?

Not really. In fact not usually.

In my experience, when Christians talk about heaven, we’re actually talking about the kingdom of heaven. In other words, God’s kingdom. Which is meant to happen here on earth. We Christians are supposed to be already living like it’s here—and when Jesus returns, he’ll fully set it up and run it. But too often Christians act like this kingdom does not happen on earth, and never will: It’ll happen in heaven. In the future. After we die. When we do stuff in heaven, “heaven” is always way later. Or we describe the stuff we’ll be doing in New Jerusalem… which is actually in New Heaven, which is not even the same heaven the scriptures typically mean.

I listed six definitions of heaven. No, I’m not gonna therefore say there are six heavens, like C.S. Lewis did when he wrote about four loves. There are likely more definitions of heaven than even that.

But there are Christians who claim there are multiple heavens. Not just the current heaven, and the New Heaven of Revelation 21. There’s the seven heavens of Dante Alighieri’s Paradisio, the 10 heavens of the Pharisees, and the three heavens which you’ll hear Evangelicals talk about ’cause they’ve neither read Paradisio nor 1 Enoch.

Confused yet? Maybe a little. Hope not. Let’s start with the bible’s descriptions of the heavens.

God can’t abide sin?

by K.W. Leslie, 27 October

“God can’t abide sin. It offends him so much, he simply can’t have it in his presence. He’s just that holy.”

It’s an idea I’ve heard repeated by many a Christian. Evangelists in particular.

It’s particularly popular among people who can’t abide sin. Certain sins offend us so much, we simply can’t have ’em in our presence. We’re just that pure. Well… okay, self-righteous.

You can see why Christians have found this concept so easy to adopt, and have been so quick to spread it around. It’s yet another instance of remaking God in our own image, then preaching our remake instead of the real God.

Don’t get me wrong. ’Cause Christians do, regularly: I talk about grace, and they think I’m talking about compromise. Or justification. Or nullification. Or compromise. Or liberalism. Whatever reason they can think of to ignore grace, skip forgiveness, disguise revenge as justice, and claim they only have these prejudices and offenses because God has ’em. You claim you practice grace? Then grant me some so I can explain.

Obviously God is anti-sin. He told us what he wants and expects of his people. Both through his Law, and through the teachings and example of Christ Jesus. (I was about to write “and he didn’t mince words,” but Jesus kinda did in some of his parables, for various reasons. Regardless, any honest, commonsense Christian—and plenty of pagans—can figure Jesus out.)

Yes, God’s offended by our willful disobedience. And he’s just as offended by the sins of people who don’t know any better: They do have consciences, after all. Ro 2.15 At one point they were taught the difference between right and wrong, and even so, they chose what’s wrong.

But the issue isn’t whether sin bugs God. It’s whether sin bugs God so much, he can no longer practice grace. Whether he can’t abide sin—and therefore he can’t abide sinners.

The rosary: Meditation… oh, and prayers to Mary.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 October

Some years ago a reader asked me about rosaries.

I gotta admit I don’t have a lot of experience with ’em. Rosaries are a Roman Catholic tradition, and I grew up Fundamentalist—and Fundies are hugely anti-Catholic, so any Catholic traditions are looked at with suspicion and fear. Many Evangelical Protestants are likewise wary of Catholic practices. Very few do rosaries.

Evangelicals assume a rosary is a string of prayer beads. Actually it’s not. The rosary is the super-long string of rote prayers you recite, and how you keep track of which prayer you’re on, and how many you have left, is with the beads. Each bead represents one prayer.

And most of these prayers are the Ave Maria/“Hail Mary.” It’s prayed from 50 to 150 times. Goes like so.

Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee. Lk 1.28
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Lk 1.42
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
Amen.

Yep, it’s not a prayer addressed to God; it’s to his mom. You’re mostly praying to his mom. Whereas very few Evangelicals pray to saints. Okay yeah, some of us talk to our dead loved ones, like a deceased parent or spouse or child, and hope God passes along those messages to that loved one, whom we hope is in paradise. But passing such messages along to anyone else feels, well, weird and wrong. Praying to Jesus is one thing; praying to his family members Mary, Joseph, James, and Jude, seems strange (do we really know these people?); as is praying to his apostles, praying to medieval saints, praying to famous dead Christians like C.S. Lewis or Martin Luther King Jr.… I mean, at least those last two guys spoke English. Pretty sure Mary of Nazareth only knew Aramaic.

But Roman Catholics believe when saints die, they go to heaven, where they’re resurrected; they’re alive. Ain’t nothing wrong with talking to living people. That’s what we do when we pray; we talk. Talking to Mary is fine. Hailing her and calling her blessed is biblical. And asking her to pray to her Son on our behalf is fine too.

But most of the reason people pray a rosary (apart from those who incorrectly think it earns ’em salvation points with God) is meditation. We don’t just recite rote prayers while our minds remain unfruitful: We think about Jesus. Think about the scriptures. Pray silently with our minds, like we do when we pray in tongues.

That’s why some Catholics won’t just pray one rosary in a stretch: They’ll pray two. Or five. They wanna spend significant time meditating on God, and to help ’em focus, they keep their bodies busy with reciting prayer after prayer after prayer, and fix their minds on Jesus. And, if they’re huge fans of his mom, Mary. But if that bothers you, you don’t have to meditate on Mary, or even pray to her. The prayers in one’s rosary are optional, as are all rote prayers.

The Five Stupid Teenagers Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 October

Matthew 25.1-13.

The Five Stupid Teenagers Story is also called the parable of the virgins, of the maidens, of the bridesmaids; of the wise and foolish virgins, or of the 10 virgins. Usually they’re called virgins ’cause that’s traditionally how people have translated παρθένοις/parthénis: A girl, or unmarried woman, and women back then used to marry mighty young. Like as soon as they attained legal adulthood, so 13 years old. Since they were unmarried, the usual assumption is in that culture they’d be virgins, which is a reasonable assumption. But parthénos was sometimes used in Greek literature to describe young women who weren’t virgins, like in the plays of Sophocles and Aristophanes.

Maiden is alternately used to describe them, but maiden historically means the same thing as virgin. And in either case I’m not sure Jesus’s point had anything to do with their virginity nor marital status. More like with their youth. You know how some kids can be wise and clever, and some kinda dense and foolish? And how some kids can sometimes be one and sometimes the other? So, that.

So my translation focuses on their age as well: These are young teenagers, old enough to be responsible for themselves, but not all of ’em were necessarily mature enough. Kinda like Jesus’s own students. Kinda like newbie Christians.

Like all Jesus’s parables, this story’s about his kingdom, and since it’s part of his Olivet Discourse he’s talking about his second coming. Unlike dark Christian interpretations which are all about doom, tribulation, death, and hellfire, Jesus’s parables are about encouragement: He’s not returning to destroy the world, but save it. Get ready to join his entourage! Otherwise you’ll miss out on the fun parts.

We don’t know when Jesus is returning, and he instructs his kids more than once to stay awake and be prepared. This is one of those times. Dark Christians insist it’s about missing the rapture and going to hell. But the stakes are nowhere near that high in Jesus’s story.

Matthew 25.1-13 KWL
1 “Then heaven’s kingdom will be like 10 teenagers
who come out to meet the husband, bringing their own lamps.
2 Five of them are morons, and five wise,
3 for the morons who bring their lamps don’t bring oil with them.
4 The wise teens bring oil in flasks, with their lamps.
5 During the husband’s delay, all the teens fall asleep, and sleep.
6 In the middle of the night, a loud voice came:
‘Look, the husband! Come to meet him!’
7 Then all those teenagers rise and get their own lamps ready—
8 and the morons tell the wise teens, ‘Give us some of your oil,
because our lamps are out.’
9 In reply the wise teens were saying, ‘Likely there’s not enough for us and you.
Instead go to the oil-sellers and buy your own!’
10 And as they went away to buy, the husband comes,
and those who were ready, enter the marriage feast with him.
He closes the door.
11 Later, the remaining teenagers also come to the door,
saying, ‘Sir, sir, open it for us.’
12 In reply the husband says, ‘Amen, I promise you, I don’t know you.’
13 So be awake—because you don’t know the day nor the hour.”

Shekhinah: Everybody’s favorite non-biblical Hebrew word.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 October
Shekhinah sɛ.xi'nɑ American ʃɛ'kaɪ.nə noun. The glory of God’s presence.
2. God’s presence.
3. God’s dwelling place.
[Shekhinic ʃɛ'kaɪ.nɪk adjective.]

The Hebrew word שכינה/šekhiná, which English-speakers tend to spell “shekhinah” or “shekinah,” isn’t found in the bible.

No, really. It comes from the Mishna. Sanhedrin 6.5, Avot 3.2, 6 It refers to God’s presence. More specifically the weight of God’s presence; not in a literal sense, but more like its importance, substantiveness, reality, the fact the Almighty showed up is a really big deal. The King James Version tends to call it his glory.

God’s everywhere, and ordinarily not visible. But sometimes he makes his presence more visible than usual. Like when he allowed Moses to see his glory Ex 33.18 —from the back, anyway; from the front might crush Moses. Or when the Hebrews saw God’s glory in his temple, 2Ch 7.3 or when Stephen had a vision of it. Ac 7.55

None of these folks were talking about seeing God himself. The apostle John is entirely sure they didn’t see God himself. Jn 1.18 But they saw something, and what they saw was what God שָׁכַן/šakhán, “dwells in.” That’s a verb we do find in the bible, as well as its noun-forms שֶׁכֶן/šekhén, “dwelling place,” and שָׁכֵן/šakhén, “dweller.”

So where’d šekhiná come from? Well, Pharisee rabbis wanted a unique word which refers to God’s particular glorious habitation, so they coined one. Hebrew words have masculine and feminine genders, like Spanish and French, so the rabbis took the masculine word šekhén and turned it into the feminine word šekhiná. Still means “dwelling,” but now it specifically means God’s dwelling.

Thing is, because šekhiná is a feminine noun, a lot of rabbis also use it as a jump-off point so they can talk about God’s feminine aspects and qualities. Because even though God goes with the pronouns “he” and “his,” he doesn’t actually have a gender. (Spirits don’t!) And God does have a motherly side.

So when you talk about God’s šekhiná with Jews, don’t be surprised when they start talking about “the female divine presence.” And every once in a while… they get weird. And no, I’m not saying this ’cause of any chauvinist hangups. Some really do get super weird.

Of course that’s not at all what we Christians mean by shekhinah. We mean revelation. The brightest light. Clouds of glory. Overwhelming God-experiences. The tremendous power of the Almighty. We mean experiences so mighty, we lose control of our bodily functions and now we gotta steam-clean the church building. We mean seeing God.

Well again, not really seeing God, ’cause “nobody’s ever seen God,” Jn 1.18 and “no one can see me and live.” Ex 33.20 We probably won’t survive the full God encounter while we’re alive, or before we’re resurrected. But meh; close enough.