Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christian View of Santa

Something Jews and Muslims are far more adept and successful at than Christians is their capacity to train their children in their respective faiths.

Any child raised in a practicing Jewish family will be able to recite sections out of the Torah, explain how Shabbat services are to go on Holy days, and recount long tales of their people’s history. They will know the theological significance and practice of most, if not all, of their twelve major religious holidays (yes, I said twelve!). And what they never do is substitute a secular alternative to their holy day (even if certain secular components are involved).

Any child raised in a practicing Muslim family will be able to recite sections of the Quran, explain in detail the theology and practices of Ramadan, and recount long tales of the Hadith and Sunnah (stories about Mohammed). They will know the theological significance and practice of most, if not all, of their fix or six major religious holidays/seasons. Although ninety percent of the world’s Muslims do not speak Arabic as their common tongue, every child raised in a religious home will be taught a rudimentary understanding of Arabic. For many children (at least here in Houston), they spend four hours every weekend learning Arabic – a language only used for the reading and study of Quran. And what they never do is substitute a secular alternative to their holy day (even if certain secular components are involved).

Compare any of this to the average, practicing Christian. It is overwhelmingly embarrassing, if you ask me. Virtually no one knows Greek (the language of our New Testament), and on top of this, consider the endeavor of learning Greek to be for elitists and “academics.” Granted, Muslims study Arabic because they believe Allah speaks Arabic (hence, a Quran in Arabic), but hopefully my critique is still valid.

Moreover, people have an infantile understanding of basic Christian theology. (A recent study from Barna demonstrates this pathetic fact Ask the average Christian what theological book they’re reading that teaches them something they didn’t already know, and you will invariably get blank stares. Ask the average senior in high-school the basics of their faith and they have nothing to say. 75% — yes, 3 out of every 4 — high school students leave the church as soon as they leave high school (see and see

This great migration away from the church is the parents’ fault. The Old and New Testament never say that “church” is the place where all the discipleship takes place. The Church is supposed to be a tool, an instrument, to help the parents raise disciples of Jesus.

Nearly every Christian family I know practices Christmas like any atheist does. They indoctrinate their kids about an imaginary character who jumps into your chimney to give you presents only if you’re good. Every single movie preaches this same message: disbelieve in Santa Claus and you’re punished – ostracized, embarrassed, or the cause of the protagonist’s downfall. Pick nearly any movie and test what I just said. See if every Christmas movie (besides the recent The Nativity Story) doesn’t preach this common theme:

The “meaning of Christmas” is up for grabs – so have a stab at it. We all know it must be about “the spirit of giving” and “being with family,” and it must include all of the mythology of Santa Claus.

I know I sound crazy right now, but this is false. I don’t expect non-Christians to know this, but I do expect Christians to know this.

Of course most Christian parents know the “true meaning of Christmas,” but my point is not that they don’t know it. My point is twofold: (1) Christian parents for too long have not taught or modeled for our children what Christmas means and what it celebrates; (2) Christian parents, often times unconsciously or with no bad intention, have changed a religious season, based upon a purely religious foundation, for a secular, mythical lie made popular by non-Christians. This isn't any mentioning the overwhelming sensation of the Gestapo Elf on the Shelf who is waiting to condemn children's behavior in order to report back to the head Judge whether or not a kid deserves gifts. (For more on this issue, go read an excellent post by Elaine W. Pendergrass,

This “change” can also be seen lucidly in Christmas music. You tell me the distinction between “O, Holy Night,” “Joy to the World,” and “O, Come, All Ye Faithful,” with “Jingle Bells,” “Silver Bells,” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” These songs could hardly be more disparate. And yet, it doesn't stop them from being played in tens of thousands of churches all over America.

I’m suggesting the exact same is true for our Christmas practices and teaching.

What am I proposing?

1)      Christian parents should stop lying to their kids. They should stop propagating secular mythology in a purely religious celebration. The exact same is true concerning Resurrection Sunday (or Easter). If your child can’t wait for the mythical “Easter bunny,” you have dropped the ball as a Christian parent and are teaching them that religious celebration and remembrance is not nearly as important as “having fun” with fictional mythology. (I saw a marketing newsletter from a huge church here in Houston that was promoting their massive Christmas production. Right on the cover was a huge hand with a white glove and a red sleeve, holding an ornament — a clear allusion to Santa! This was a church! And inside the program guide, there was a huge picture of a boy being hugged by Santa! I couldn’t believe it. I bet for Resurrection Sunday they have a Bunny hopping over some eggs talking about the benefits of the Spring.)

2)      When Santa Claus comes up – and it will in our society – you merely explain that Santa, and all the mythology surrounding him isn’t fact, or real, or true, but that the character of Santa Claus is based on a real Christian bishop who lived in the fourth century. There are great books that explain all of this with cool pictures (e.g., The Legend of St. Nicholas or Saint Nicholas: The Real story of the Christmas Legend; there are others). You don’t have to cease all talk of St. Nicolaus; you merely have to speak of the historical character and how good he was to people, etc. Then, after you speak of him, remind your children again of why we celebrate Christmas.

3)     Christian parents should say over and over and over and over again exactly why we celebrate Christmas. Explain the biblical narrative of how God made the whole world and people, and how people kept breaking his rules so much that he was very sad and upset, so God decided to come to Earth to tell us exactly what He wanted us to know and how to live, died for us, rose from the grave, and lives inside of believers to continue the work Jesus did.

4)     Before one single present is open, read (at minimum) Matthew 1:18-2:11 and Luke 2:1-21. Don’t rush through it. Read it slowly. Ask your children questions about the text. YOU ARE IN CONTROL OF THEIR DISCIPLESHIP. No one else will be with them on Christmas morning (or before or after it) to explain it like a parent can. Let them see – no matter how impatient they are – that we do not do certain things in life before remembering what God has done for us.

5)     When you watch Christmas movies, every time the movie character says, “of course, the true meaning of Christmas is . . .” pause the show or movie and say, “No. That’s not right. What is the true reason we celebrate Christmas kids?”


“David, that mythology is so fun and innocent.” It is fun; I concur. So is playing with Transformers. Yet, my son knows full well that Transformers are not based on fact. Also, “being fun” is never more important than telling the truth. Let us not evade what we’re doing when we propagate the Santa mythology of him and all his reindeer – we are lying to our kids and to make it worse, we allow something else to substitute or take prominence over a Christian holy day. Imagine how you would feel if I started an entirely fictional mythology involving decorations, songs, books, and movies that took place on your birthday every single year. Your birth would take a far distant place among all the “innocent fun” taking place because the fiction. People all around you ask every single year on your birthday – “what’s the true meaning of this day? It's about being with family. It's about enjoying the weather one day a year. It's about . . .” That would be pathetic and infuriating. Moreover, Christians are aware that we are not merely circumventing the celebration of a human birth – but the birth of the God-man, Jesus.

“But, they’ll be the kid everyone hates.” Would everyone hate your child if they didn’t believe Transformers were real? Of course not. Besides, instruct your children that it’s not their job to go around and tell everyone that “Santa’s not real.” If someone asks your child, then your child should tell the truth. But, they don’t have to be “anti-Santa” missionaries.

Let’s take back Christmas in our homes. Let’s be Christian parents who take discipleship seriously. Let’s stop allowing nearly every other faith to be the paragons of religious instruction. Let our children be raised in homes that certainly celebrate giving gifts and putting up decorations and singing – as long as they are done without secular mythology attached to everything. Why do those things? Because we’re celebrating Jesus’s birth.

Look around your house or apartment. If a stranger walked in, would they see anything or hear anything that told them you were a Christian this season (or any time, for that matter)? Or, would your season look, sound, and be performed just like any non-Christian?

Lord, help us. And please forgive us for allowing anything whatsoever for taking our focus off of you for one second.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A great overview of scholarly opinion on the rise of christology

Larry Hurtado's article

I used to be bad at worship

I used to be bad at worship. I really was. I knew how to sing. I could sing all the parts well. I knew when to stand up and when to sit down. But, I was bad at worship.

Not because I didn’t dance up and down, not because I didn’t get slain in the Spirit–but because I suffered from one crucial, devastating habit: I wouldn’t stop thinking about myself.

I’d look around at other people and see what they were doing. I’d wonder about lunch. I’d wonder about if the sermon would be good. I’d think about my problems–things that stressed me out. I’d wonder if I was singing completely in tune. I’d wonder if I was singing too loudly or too softly.

I’d wonder if I should raise my hands since people could see me — what would they think about me? What if I clapped — what would they think about me?

Of course, worship isn’t measured by my emotional response. Raising hands doesn’t automatically mean one has worshipped. Clapping or crying doesn’t automatically mean one has worshipped.

What is the chief criterion for knowing one has worshipped? If you forget about yourself altogether and adore God.

We, as Christians, CANNOT forget this crucial point: it’s not about us.

It’s simply not about you and me. There have got to be times each and every day (and once each week when we do it as a community) that we take time to forget about ourselves and recognize the greatness and goodness of God.

The second major aspect of worship that I was failing to do fully was that I didn’t always want to worship. I didn’t. I got tired of telling God all this stuff about how wonderful He was.

And then CS Lewis helped me. If a person doesn’t really like worship, it’s because that person has no idea what kind of God they worship. If you don’t grasp how much God has rescued you, loves you, provided for your bills, given you jobs, brought you through bad relationships, rescued you from stupid decisions, forgiven your sins, and countless other things, then of course you won’t want to thank God for anything.

Why thank Him and praise Him for something for which you have never given Him credit?

Then you meet people who really worship. They don’t care about who’s looking. They are fully aware that without God, they would have died, failed, be depressed, defeated, broke, and lost. They have EVERY reason to praise and thank a God who has rescued them over and over again. And they won’t let ANYONE get in their way of thanking and praising their rescuing God.

Are you good at worship? If not, why?

If you’re not good at worship for the reasons I’ve listed, then get better.

Practice self-control. Stop looking at other people. Focus. Force yourself to focus on the words in the songs. Get past the sound system. Get past the projector. Focus on the words. Focus on the God to whom you’re singing. And if you can’t sing, stop making excuses — just READ the words to God.

If you think your success, education, and joy in this life is your doing, then I need to introduce you to the gospel. If you’re a Christian and still think these things are your doing, then you need to confess to God your sin, repent, and start giving Him due credit.

Will you make a commitment with me? Will you refuse–from now on–to stop making excuses for not COMPLETELY forgetting about yourself during worship?

To stop looking around at what other people are doing? To stop wondering about things that distract you from worshiping? To stop taking credit for things that God has done?

Isn’t it time to worship? Isn’t He worthy to be worshiped?

See you Sunday morning. Let’s raise the roof . . .

Monday, December 17, 2012

A question from a friend about homosexuals

  • A question from a friend:
    I have a question... of course.
    Do you think homosexuals go to hell? I know in 1 Corinthians it lists a series of people who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. I feel like your response would be, "If it's writing so blatantly why would you need me to answer that?" But I am wondering if it's something that has a historical/cultural undertone similar to the "women shouldn't teach" in the book of Timothy situation.

    • Hey Friend,
      It's great to hear from you! I've been swamped at work. I'm sorry for the delay. I'll make a few comments and then highly recommend you read some of the links I'll send you.
      I have to first say that technically, homosexual means "one who has a sexual attraction toward the same gender." Homosexual does NOT mean, "one who acts out sexually toward the same gender." That is called homoerotic behavior. For example, I can do sexual acts with another man though I'm not attracted to him. In that case, I'm performing homoerotic acts, but I'm not a homosexual. (Now, this point is HIGHLY controversial among the gay community because that agenda conflates impulses with behavior. However, this conflation is nonsense logically, psychologically, and theologically.)
      The Bible and Church history consistently and routinely condemns homoerotic behavior. That is, the Bible does not condemn impulses or attractions of any sort (unless a person chooses to obsess about an impulse, such as lust or hatred, see Matt 5:22, 28). It's not immoral to desire pizza or have an impulse to have sex. Instead, what makes an act moral or immoral is in the behavior.
      So, again, it's the behavior, not the impulse or attraction, that is considered immoral. This means that homosexuality is not a sin no more than heterosexuality is a virtue. They are impulses and attractions. Instead, heterosexual behavior is virtuous and homosexual behavior is sinful.
      Now, I've read many, many articles and books on this issue. I genuinely want to use the Bible well. And, if this is merely a cultural issue, then we should dismiss it as applicable to us today. But I can say with confidence that homosexual behavior was always, consistently condemned in every possible situation. Contrary to popular opinion, there WERE homosexual relationships in the ancient world. Jews and Christians consistently said that homoerotic behavior is utterly opposed to the way God designed us.
      Jesus makes this quite clear in Matt 19:3-12. There are two, and only two, options for humans: heterosexual marriage or celibacy (when Jesus says "eunuch" he means a celibate). That's it. Now, that's Jesus, our Lord and King telling us what makes God happy.
      So, to answer your question, Do I think homosexuals go to hell? -- If you mean, "Do people who are attracted to the same gender go to hell?" then no. That's just an attraction and attractions are not sinful.
      If you mean, "Do people who routinely act in homoerotic behavior, regardless of their attractions, go to hell?" Possibly yes. Paul presented a typical Jewish and Christian view in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10: people who routinely practice that behavior demonstrate that they do not care about obeying Jesus. If they don't care about obeying Jesus, then they've rejected Him. If they've rejected Him, then God will not force them to live with Him forever in the age to come.
      Of course the's more to it than this, but for now, this will give you my thoughts in summary. Below are three essays that are well worth your time.
      God bless you!

    Common Arguments Against Christianity Part 2

    Sunday, December 2, 2012

    A Very Brief History of Advent and Christmas

       For most people, “Christmas Season” represents fond childhood memories, snuggling by a fireplace, singing carols, and the promise of desired presents. Non-Christians celebrate Christmas Season beginning the day after Thanksgiving (“Black Friday”) and ending on December 25. That is, for most people, “Christmas season” is over on December 26. People just look forward to New Year’s Eve after that date.
       However, the Church follows a liturgical calendar which is divided by themes which revolve around the life of Jesus (Ordinary Time, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost). Each season represents a rich heritage  of learning and reflection on the Christ event.

       Advent (from the Latin, adventus, which means “coming” or "arrival") is the season which begins the Sunday nearest November 30 until December 24. Churches use different symbols for the season of Advent, but they usually involve symbolic candles, particular Bible verses, and seasonal colors. This season, like Lent, is to be a time of preparation: full of prayer, fasting, repentance, and reflection. Advent reflects on two aspects of Jesus’s coming: (1) the first time the Son of God came in frail, human form in Bethlehem; and (2) His second coming in glory and lordship over all creation. To say it another way, Advent celebrates His first coming; it anticipates His second coming.
        The term, “Christmas,” is an Old English expression for “Mass of Christ” (Cristes Maesse). The Western and Eastern Churches disagree over the exact time of Christmas. In the Western Church, Christmas time (or “Christmastide”) begins on December 25 and ends on January 6 (the Day of Epiphany). Hence, this is the origin of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” tune.
       No one knows the precise date of Jesus’s birth. For the first few centuries of the Church, no one really cared about the birth of Jesus; only his life, death, and resurrection was reflected upon. The exact date of Jesus’ birth is debated, and before 525, there was no official date adopted by the Western church (the “Western Church” includes most Protestants and Roman Catholics around the world).  The first reference to the birth of Jesus on Dec 25th might come from Theophilus of Antioch (171-183). Some ancient authors agreed; others disagreed.

       It was not uncommon to date Jesus’s birth in association with the vernal equinox (or some other association with the Sun). The vernal equinox in modern times is dated to March 20/21, though the ancient people dated it to March 25. It marks the change from the longest night to the gradual elongation of daylight hours. In the same way, the conception or birth of the Son of God brings “light” to a dark world. For example, a Latin author argues in De Pascha computus (written ca. 243) that the first day of creation was March 25. The author assumes that Jesus must have been born on the same day as the creation of the sun, which is on the fourth day, which would mean March 28.
       Other authors believed that since the first day of the universe’s creation was March 25, it must be the case that Jesus, “God’s new creation,” must have also been conceived on March 25. This would date Jesus’s birth nine months later, on December 25.
       Other authors agreed with their Jewish counterparts that great prophets were conceived on the same day as their death. And since many Christians believed that Jesus died on March 25, then he must have been born on March 25.
       Other authors dated Jesus’s birth to various days in spring, such as April 2, 19, or May 20. To read more on this issue, see Joseph F. Kelly, The Origins of Christmas or Susan K. Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas.
       It is often argued by skeptics that Christmas is simply a pagan festival because the Roman celebration, Sol Invictus, was held on Dec. 25. It is argued that Christians simply “baptized” that pagan festival. It is true that Sol Invictus, the “Unconquered Sun” festival dedicated to the sun god on Dec. 25th by the Romans, fought for religious attention in the Empire. However, the Christian dating for Dec. 25th had already been suggested by the time the Sol Invictus was established in 274 by Emperor Aurelian.
       Finally, because there were shepherds in their fields (Luke 2:8), which could take place during the winter months, having Jesus born in mid-winter is possible.

       The roots of having a festival celebrating the birth of Jesus begins in controversy. A sect of Gnostic Christians existed in the early second century in Alexandria, Egypt, led by Basilides. This group believed that Jesus was not born divine. Instead, the divine Word united with a human Jesus at His baptism. They believed Jesus’s baptism was the first time the divine Word appeared on Earth. This festival was called “Epiphany,” since this is a Greek word for “appearance.” They celebrated this festival on Jan. 6.
       Orthodox churches argued that the divine Word first appeared on Earth at Jesus’s birth, not his baptism. So, many churches celebrated Jesus’s birth and baptism on Jan. 6. In fact, to this day, the Orthodox church celebrates Jesus’s birth and baptism on Jan. 6. The Western church would separate these events: Dec. 25 for His birth; Jan 6 for the visit of the Magi or His baptism (depending on the Church).
       In the Western church, Dec. 25, 1 AD, was not standardized until 525, when Pope John I commissioned the monk, Dionysius Exiguus, to make a standard calendar for the Western Church. Unfortunately, his calculation of years was off by nearly five years (Jesus was born between 6-4 BC), and there is no way to know what precise day Jesus was born.

       The chief figure of the secular celebration, Santa Claus, is based upon a Christian saint, St. Nicholas. Nicholas was born in the third century on the southern coast of Turkey in Patara. He was eventually made bishop of Myra, where he constantly took care of the poor, the sick, and children. He was exiled and imprisoned under Diocletian’s rule. After being released, he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. He died Dec. 6, 343, which is celebrated at St. Nicholas Day. He is buried in Demre, Turkey (ancient Myra).

    Tuesday, November 20, 2012

    Infant Christians

    I see four types of people in Church: the non-believer, the Adult Christian, the Teenager Christian, and the Infant Christian. These designations have nothing to do whatsoever with the person's actual age.

    The non-believer. Every congregation has a population of people who think they are Christian, but are not. Deep down, even if they wouldn’t articulate it this way, they believe that being a Christian means “acting like my Ideal Self around other people who also act like their Ideal Selves and we all learn to do Church.” This is what old Christians call, “good churchmen.” They are institutionalized “Christians.” They know how to behave while at Church, but have never experienced a true, real, confession and repentance to God. Why? Because they believe their Ideal Self isn’t that bad, really. Not really. They’re not nearly as bad as those prostitutes or drug dealers or murderers or homosexuals or . . . whatever. But, for the part of them that admits some wrong, they are grateful that Jesus did something for “sinners.”

    This is a far cry from being “born from above” (Jn 3). They've never "picked up their crosses" to follow Jesus. Instead, they've learned the routines of the local church and confused that with salvation and maturity.

    There is a small--very small--section of the church of Adult Christians. And they’re not all old. These are Real, confessing, growing, mercy-drenched, forgiving, serving, loving, devotional people. They love anyone who walks in the door, regardless of how they’re dressed. They immediately give up their seat in the sanctuary for anyone. They are probably leading a small group. They are active in missions and prayer meetings. They regularly pray, regularly attend Church gatherings, and regularly study their Bible. They're always reading some theological book. They're more interested in the Whole than the parts. They want the Church to succeed more than their own particular ministry to succeed. They're more interested in how they can help you than how they can be served. They are the backbone of lay leadership. These are the dream people for church leadership.

    There's also a section of Teenager Christians. These are those who have passed beyond the infancy of Christianity. They no longer have to be begged to read their Bibles or pray. They’ve recently gotten involved in a small group. They listen to sermons and read theological books just because they want to learn more. They’re hungry for more and they’re doing something about that hunger. They’re taking responsibility for their growth so they look for Adult Christians for wisdom. They've gone on a couple mission trips and are beginning to take various forms of leadership in Church.

    Then, we have the largest group of Christians in any church: the Infant. This is where we get hoodwinked, because Infant Christians can be any age. I have known, and still know, many, many, many older people who are Infant Christians. Here are some features of Infant Christians (and they might have variations of some of these):
    • They believe the absolute basic, simple truths of Christianity, and only know that. They really appreciate rehearing those simple basics as many times as they can: in sermons, books, and songs. Like little children, they love reading those simple books over and over again through the years because it’s safe and they already know it.
    • They get angry when people use “big words” about God. They’ll tell you as quickly as possible that God is simple. Jesus is simple. The Church is simple. And anyone who says anything otherwise is trying to confuse you and get you to lose your faith. They get frustrated when anyone tells them that the Christian tradition is overwhelmingly rich and full, and that there have been tens of thousands of brilliant preacher scholars.
    • They have little to no devotional habits. Most of the time, they need to be begged and begged to read their Bibles, pray, come to church regularly, or go on mission. They think that being active in a church community is “for other people.”
    • Are just “so busy.” Church attendance is usually at the bottom of their list. Anything whatsoever can be placed above church attendance on their Things-To-Do-On-Sundays List. Runny nose? Stay home. Tired? Stay home. Kids have homework? Stay home. Don’t feel like it? Stay home. Having friends over for lunch? Stay home. Big game on at noon? Stay home. Need to clean the house? Stay home. I could list a hundred more reasons I’ve heard over the years.
    In addition to these things, here are some really good signs that a person is an Infant Christian. Now, I’m not a legalist. I’m under no illusion that people can't mess up occasionally (including myself!) or that people have some “strongholds” still left to be killed. Yeah, I get it. Nevertheless, if you or someone you know holds one or all of these habits (with no real sign of contrition or change), then you’re probably an Infant Christian or have just met one.
    • Routinely Cusses. This is a no-brainer. How many mature Christians have you met that still use cuss words? Come on! I think the average Church-goer would be shocked at how often Church leaders and supposed-mature Christians talk like any-ole’ pagan. This is such a stupid habit. If you don’t talk that way in front of someone you respect, then why talk that way at all? Would you cuss with Jesus? If not, then why now? Even Paul had to tell his congregations: "Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths . . ." (Eph 4:29).
    • Watches awful shows/movies. This is also a no-brainer. How many mature Christians have you met whose favorite show is “The Real Housewives of Wherever?” This is another clear sign of Infancy. Infants make every excuse to watch shows and movies that they know they wouldn’t watch with someone they respect: “It’s just funny.” “It’s just entertaining.” “I don’t watch it that often.” Infants stay in denial that the kinds of values represented in nearly every show on TV is absolutely counter to the teachings of Jesus. How in the world can we celebrate shows that advocate marital affairs, gossip, betrayals, bad language, unnecessary drama, and on and on? If you wouldn’t watch that show with Jesus in the room, then why watch it now? News flash – He’s in the room already. :)
    • Listens to awful music. Everything I just said applies here too. Would you share your Playlist with Jesus? If not, they why in the world deliberately put that poison in your mind?
    • Has no deliberate devotional life. Reading the Bible during the week rarely if ever occurs with Infants. They feel good about having their unused Bible near them, like on their night stand. But right on top of it is a devotional book that also is never read. It sits there until Sunday morning, if they go.
    • Feels entitled. Infants deep down really think they’ve done God a favor by dressing up and going to a church building at all. Nonsense. God doesn’t owe us a daggum thing. We could spend our entire lives scrubbing the floors of a homeless shelter and we’d still be an infinity apart from what Jesus has done for us. Infants think that other people should serve them. That other people should give money and time and resources. That the preacher should be perfectly entertaining and relevant and penetrating and handsome/pretty and articulate, but still “just like me” so that I can relate. That the music minister should only choose songs that I like or make me feel better. That everyone else should realize that these are my seats and should be reserved, no matter what they occasion or time I appear. Ask an Infant if she liked the service and she’ll likely say, “Umm. It was OK. I was kinda’ bored.” – They still think the Christian life is about being entertained.
    • Easily roused. Infants love gossip. They love to talk about what they don’t like: the carpet, the speaker, the music, the smells, the air temperature, the lighting, and on and on. This goes back to being entitled. Deep down, they really do think that other people are an extension of themselves, which means other people are responsible for making them feel happy, welcomed, and entertained.
    Peter encouraged his congregation in the first century to long or yearn for “pure, spiritual milk” so that they would grow up in their faith (1 Peter 2:1-3). The emphasis is upon their yearning for spiritual maturity.

    Paul and the author of Hebrews were greatly frustrated at how utterly immature their people were. Read how the author of Hebrews fusses at them because they were so immature:

    For though you should in fact be teachers by this time, you need someone to teach you the beginning elements of God's utterances. You have gone back to needing milk, not solid food. For everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced in the message of righteousness, because he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, whose perceptions are trained by practice to discern both good and evil.” (Heb 5:12-14, NET)

    Paul also shares in the same frustration with the Christians at Corinth. Listen to what he says:

    “So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like unregenerate people?”
    (1Co 3:1-3, NET)

    In the Greek, “infant” is pejorative. Paul is ticked off and disappointed. I can see him shaking his head as he spoke this to the scribe.

    How does this blog make you feel? A little angry? “Who does he think he is?”

    If so, you’re probably an Infant.

    And it's time to grow up.

    Monday, November 12, 2012

    A Problem-Based Relationship

    There’s a ubiquitous problem that occurs in relationships. It’s most obvious in marriages, but if one looks closely, you can see it in so many other kinds of relationships.

    It’s a subtle problem; it creeps up on you before you realize it.

    The problem is manifested in our communication. For many of us, our relationships are based on problem-solving. Think about what you talk about among your co-workers the most: solving problems. Most of us spend most of the day at work solving problems. Be productive! That’s our goal. (I even often hear people ask for God to "help them be productive.") And to be productive, most of our conversations are about solving problems.

    This habit at work surreptitiously spills over into other relationships. Before we know it, spouses spend an enormous amount of their communication problem-solving. “What’s for dinner?” “Did you fix that leak?” “Have you called your parents lately?” “Who will pick up our kids from school?” “Can you take her to the Doctor’s appointment?” “How am I supposed to deal with that awful boss or co-worker?” “Why don’t you ever take me out anymore?” And on and on . . .

    Before we know it, we've spent most of our emotional energy discussing problems to be solved. Of course, having a helper in a spouse or family member is special and sweet.

    The problem is, if we talk about problems even 51% of the time, then we have a relationship built on problems. And there is no way that intimacy can be built when we’re in problem-solving mode. This is especially true if your spouse is the problem in your mind!

    For those of you who know Transactional Analysis, the Adult Ego state deals with problem solving. Well, good for you. But, the Adult Ego state can’t have intimacy. That’s for the Child Ego state. The Child enjoys passion, feels delight, and shrinks in terror. The Child experiences true vulnerability.

    You will never be intimate with a person if you stay in your Adult Ego state all the time or even most of the time. It can’t happen. It won’t happen.

    You might stay in the Adult Ego state because you’re scared to be in the Child Ego state. You’re afraid of feeling a suppressed pain or anger. If you can just keep it about the facts or the problems, then you won’t have to be vulnerable. It’s safe. It’s predictable.

    And it’s miserable.

    True intimacy means that you open yourself up to the potential of being hurt. It also means that you open yourself up to being completely loved and cherished just as you are.

    For many couples, if you take away the problems, then you have nothing left in the relationship. This happens every single Fall when parents say goodbye to their college freshman. So many parents base their relationship with the spouse on their children’s lives. They go back into a quiet, “empty” house and it’s terrifying. “Now I have to face that spouse with just myself. What in the world will we talk about? I sure hope we don’t have to talk about my grief and pain; it’s just too much to deal with right now. I know . . . I’ll just keep talking about activities. I’ll keep calling my son or daughter at school and keep that the chief topic of conversation. Yeah, that’s safe.” Many couples get divorced around high school graduation because of this common problem.

    For other couples, taking away the problems in their relationship is too scary because if they were to be healed, they wouldn't know if the relationship would last. “At least he’s yelling at me. If the fighting stops, I don’t think he’d even acknowledge I’m here. It’s all I've known for so long.”

    Relationships were designed to be so much more than problem-solving.

    Of course, and perhaps you knew this was coming, we do the same thing with God.  If you were to write down your prayers or internal dialogue toward God, how much of it would be about problems?

    If you find that you are fervent in prayer and devout in reading Scripture when things are bad, but trail off when things are going fine, then you have a “problem relationship” with God. If God only, or chiefly, hears from you when you need some problem solved, then you only need God when He can do something for you. You are one of those persons who seeks God’s hands and not His face. You are much more interested in what He can do for you or give you, rather than interested in having a loving relationship with Him just because He’s God and you are His creature. And that’s what creatures do with their Creator: have loving relationship.

    How many of your relationships on earth are problem-based? Why?

    Is your relationship with God problem-based? Why?

    The answers to these questions will reveal a whole lot about the kind of person you are.

    Wednesday, October 31, 2012

    Common Clichés and Misreadings Once More

    “Made in the Image of God”
    26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:26-27 ESV)

    Oh my goodness, has this concept caused millions of gallons of ink to be spilled. One could go through almost countless interpretations of what “image of God” (imago dei) might connote: we share in God’s morality, consciousness, personhood, in His capacity to have relationship, and on and on the suggestions come.

    These all might be true to various degrees. Yet, in context, the answer is utterly simple. To possess the “image of God” means to exercise dominion or rule over the creatures and earth that God has created. The literary context tells us this explicitly.

    But historical context helps us too. An image in the ancient world meant an idol of a god. Idols were carvings of various kinds of wood or stone. They were physical representations of the presence of the gods. That is, they were not attempting just to draw a picture of the gods. They were attempting to demonstrate that their god was present and in control.

    Mostly, what they represented, was the gods’ authority in that house or region. If someone came into a Canaanite’s house in 2500 BC, they would see a small idol of Ba’al (which means, “Lord”) or Tiamat or Marduk or Ra. It would indicate that the homeowners paid allegiance to that god. The person might rub oil on the idol, give it food, keep it shaded, amongst other things, in an effort to let the gods know that the humans were paying respect to the gods who were in control of the weather, crops, stars, childbirth, and nearly everything else that occurred.

    However, the author of Genesis is making a bold, unique claim in the ancient world. The True God doesn’t have wood or stone idols. No. He has flesh and bone idols—humans. And this is the point: when other animals or humans see humans, we are to be reminded of who is in control. Animals become aware that we are the boss; humans become aware that God is our boss.

    The image of God has to do with demonstrating who has authority to rule over the Earth. And in this very ancient Hebrew account, it is humans who rule over the earth and animals. And no other ancient creation story suggested such a concept.

    “For I Know the Plans I Have for You”                                                         
    10 "For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jer 29:10-14 ESV)

    This text is overwhelmingly popular. Yet, like 2 Chron. 7, its historical and literary context is explicit: this text is speaking to an exiled community of Jews in Babylon. Read verses 10 and 14 once more. Now read them again. J

    This was a powerful text to an exiled people. It gave them hope in a time when certainly many would have been convinced that all hope had been lost. This promise given by God was that Israel would be restored to their Promised Land. And He did.

    But that's not how this text is used today. It's used as a blanket text to mean: "God has an individual plan for your life. And this plan is for your prosperity and future and blessing. God has huge things planned for you!"

    Now, how in the world can Christians think that this text can be used this way? Because it polls well. It works. It gets people hyped up. And to some degree, that’s OK. Some people are struggling with depression and hopelessness. Texts like these, if applied to them, encourage.

    The problem is, there is no reason whatsoever to make this a blanket statement for all people at all times. How can a Christian cite such a verse—ripped out of context—and interpret it to mean that God's favor and provision are just around the corner, knowing that Jesus guaranteed that we’d have a cross to carry? How would you preach this text to Jesus as He hung on the cross? Read verse 14 again: are we to believe that Jesus's "fortunes" are to be gathered to Him again? Or that ours will be, just because God promised that to an 8th-cent. BC exiled community?

    We think that God has "big plans" for every person because of verses like these, and this is patently false. "Big plans" is universally understood as "big according to my human standards." Again, this is patently false. Most Christians who live, and who have ever lived, never get noticed, never get rich, never get famous, never cure disease, never write songs or books, and never do anything that the public would care much about. They are "nameless" heroes of our faith, just acting like Christians everyday wherever they are.  Have we even read Heb 11:35-38?

    Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated--38 of whom the world was not worthy-- wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (ESV)

    "Big plans" according to human standards is straight up evil and sinful. Jesus taught us that humility, servanthood, and standing up for victims is the way of the Kingdom. And that way is not full of prosperity and "big dreams."

    We’ve got to get our theology in check. If we can’t interpret an Old Testament text through the lens of the cross of Jesus, then it is NOT a blanket text for us today. Let’s all stop picking random verses in the Old Testament because they make us feel good, and stop telling everyone that this random verse is “clearly” God’s promise to you and me.

    Of course God has a purpose for every human. Of course. And that purpose is to be formed into the image of the Son. That purpose is not for blessing and riches and good things to happen. In fact, Jesus guaranteed that we will go through some hell on earth before the world to come. And that’s OK. Jesus overcame the hell we go through. There is a joy, peace, and purpose that only Jesus can provide. And in that case, often through suffering, God has a plan for our “future and hope.”

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012

    Common Clichés and Misreadings

    There are countless clichés and “urban church legends” promulgated by Christians. For various reasons, apparently no matter what the denomination is (or lack thereof), the average Christian layperson and leader continues to foster false readings of the text. Garnering a conglomerate list of bad theological phrases would be expansive.

    The following are some real gems. I've seen entire books and workbooks (bestselling, some of them!) on the following bad readings of the Bible. This sample manifests what it means to ignore a favorite word among scholars: context, context, context. It clears up so many things.

    “A Man After God’s Own Heart”
    13 And Samuel said to Saul, "You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you." (1Sa 13:13-14 ESV)

    Traditionally, the text "after God's own heart" means something like "David shares some moral quality that is like God." This is a possible reading, but it has its problems. (For a recent scholarly defense of the traditional reading, see Benjamin Johnson, "The Heart of YHWH's Chosen One in 1 Samuel," JBL 131, no. 3 (2012)). It seems to me that the chief problem with this reading is that there is nothing in the text that tells us what about David's heart is like God's. The story has nothing to do with David being moral. It has nothing to do with David hearing God on a regular basis, etc.

    Instead, nearly every OT scholar today reads the phrase, "after my own heart" to mean "according to my choice." See how “his own heart” is used in 1 Kings 8:38; 12:33; Isa. 57:17; and Jer. 23:17.

    Another possible reading, it seems to me, is that one would say that “after my own heart” means “will do what I tell him to do.” This seems to be how it is used in Jeremiah 3:15 and 13:10.

    But no matter what, it seems to me, what this phrase cannot mean is the traditional interpretation. Even if David’s obedience is in view, it cannot mean that God is obedient too, since God obeys no one. There is nothing in this context or language that tells us that David’s “heart” somehow mimics or is like God's “heart.”

    Instead, “after my own heart” either means “after God’s own choice,” or “will do what I tell him to do.” Either way, David’s moral character doesn’t seem to be in view at all.

    “If My People . . .”
    12 Then the LORD appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: "I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. 13 When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, 14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. 16 For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 17 And as for you, if you will walk before me as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my rules, 18 then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, 'You shall not lack a man to rule Israel.' 19 "But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, 20 then I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. (2Ch 7:12-20 ESV)

    When you read this, did you stand and salute the American flag? Is this the favorite text at your July 4th service too?

    Reading this text in context quickly lets us determine that this has nothing to do whatsoever with America or any other nation besides ancient Israel during the reign of Solomon. Solomon had just built the Temple and he prayed for God’s presence (end of 2 Chron 6). God’s glory filled the place. That night, during a dream, God made a promise to Solomon and his reign. If Solomon, not the next Republican President, keeps the covenant, leading his people to repentance and prayer, then God will guide his reign. If not, then God will “pluck [him] from my land . . . and this house [= the Temple].”

    That’s it. It’s a promise to Solomon and his reign concerning the ancient nation of Israel. I know that this is controversial to some people, but for Biblical authors, this is quite simple: there is only one nation that formed a covenant with God. And it’s not America. It’s not any other nation on the planet. Jesus wasn't an American. America is not promised anything whatsoever concerning Israel’s promises because why? America has no covenant with God. This was a powerful promise for Solomon. And sure, Christians can expect that God will hear our prayers when we pray. But, that's it. There is no promise for any other nation intended or implied in this text. Context, context, context.

    “I Can Do All Things”
    13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phi 4:13 ESV)

    This might be the most popular verse used out of context. People cite this all the time as a proof-text to support whatever it is they want to succeed. This might be one that irritates me the most because it’s so commonly quoted utterly excised from context.

    Interestingly, I just read an outstanding essay on the blog of Dr. Ben Witherington, III. Of course, he says it well. No need to re-write anything. So, here’s a segment from it:
    “We’ve all seen the T shirts, and the T-bow eye black touting Phil. 4.13. And the translation always is ‘I can do all things in Him who strengthens me’. Leap tall buildings in a single bound, overcome all odds, go boldly where no one has gone before. You get the picture.

    The problem is, that this translation absolutely makes no sense of the context, and is not a literal rendering of the verse in question at all. The verb ‘to do’ is nowhere to be found in this Greek verse. The verb ‘ischuo’ means ‘to be able, strong, healthy, valid, powerful’. That’s the only verb in this phrase. You have to fill in the helping verb, and the context absolutely doesn’t favor the translation— ‘to do’ as in ‘I am able to do all things….’ Not at all. Here is a rendering of the verse in context.

    “I know a humbled state, and I know also surplus. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of how to be satisfied, even if hungry and being able also to do without. I am able/strong enough [to endure] all things in Him who empowers me.”

    What Paul is saying is that no matter what his circumstances, God has given him the strength or ability to endure and be satisfied, even when he must do without, even when he must go hungry.

    This verse has nothing to do with ‘I can accomplish anything with a little help from the Lord’. It is a verse about perseverance in God’s will and way, not about personal success or triumph or even overcoming odds to win an individual victory of some kind. And most emphatically it is not about God helping us achieve our desires and goals. It is about Paul submitting to God’s goals and plan, and God giving him the strength to do so, even when he must endure house arrest (as he did when he wrote this), and hunger, and deprivation.

    The ‘superman’ rendering of this verse is all too typically American. It is based on an assumption that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to, perhaps with a little help from above and a little luck.”

    Not only is this verse typically mistranslated and ripped out of context, the common misreading of the text completely ignores reality. We fail at things all the time. Again I’ll say, Christians can fail. I love how Dr. William Lane Craig says it: Moreover, Christians can be incredibly discouraged, sad, and depressed. Have you read what Paul  says in 2 Cor. 4:8-9 and 2 Cor. 11:23-28? Dr. Richard Bauckham writes a good essay on this issue:

    Let’s stop acting like God “blesses” everything so that everything we attempt will succeed. That’s bad theology and has no place on the lips of Christians.

    “To Give You Life to the Full”
    10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (Joh 10:10 ESV)

    There is no conceivable way that one could interpret this to mean that Jesus wants us all to be rich. Why? Because in the context of John and the other Gospels, Jesus never said, and would never had said, that the Kingdom of God is about being rich. I once heard Joel say on T.V. that “God wants everyone to own their own house.” [long pause of incredulity]

    I don’t desire to unpack the richness of the term “life” in the Fourth Gospel. But, if you’ll look up every time it occurs, you’ll see that Jesus is using “life” to mean something like, “the quality of life governed by the reign/love of God.” In John, the opposite of “eternal life” is not death, but sin. Sin vs. eternal life. So here, Jesus is speaking of the quality of life governed by the Father. Quality, not quantity. Not wealth and prosperity.

    Context, context, context.

    Translation Issues that Scholars Know but Can’t Get Into the Public Mind

    “As a Man Thinketh”
    For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee. (Pro 23:7 KJV)

    This one seems really popular among Pentecostals for some reason. I even found an essay written in 1902 by James Allen called, As a Man Thinketh.

    This text is always used in vagueness: “You know,  . . . as the Bible says . . . ‘As a man thinketh’ . . .” I have never once heard this used in context or in proper translation.

    This is purely a translation issue. And because of the beloved King James translation, we have a common misreading. Unfortunately, this text has nothing to do whatsoever with psychology. It has nothing to do with giving an insight into the power of cognitive behavioral therapy or the power of positive Joel Osteenian thinking. Nothing.

    The truth is, this Hebrew text is a bit confusing. It means something “calculating in your mind.” The NET and ESV bring this out. For example:

    “Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; do not desire his delicacies, 7 for he is like one who is inwardly calculating. "Eat and drink!" he says to you, but his heart is not with you. 8 You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten, and waste your pleasant words.” (Pro 23:6-8 ESV)

    This text, in proper translation and context, has nothing to do with unveiling a deep psychological truth. Instead, it’s about the simple idea that a stingy person can’t be trusted. He’s scheming on the inside.

    “I’ve Got a Mansion in Glory”
    In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. (John 14:2 KJV)

    If you've grown up in church, then surely you've sung hymns that have this in the lyrics (like “Victory in Jesus”). I've heard numerous songs, sermons, and conversations about how we are all awaiting a “mansion in glory.” Unfortunately, this is mistaken reading.

    Again, because of the beloved King James translation, this one has stuck in our minds. In Greek, it’s quite clear: it’s not “mansion” but “room, dwelling place, or abode.” Also see how John 14:23 is not talking about the Father making a “mansion” with the disciples. No; a “dwelling place.” It’s the same Greek word in both passages.

    “There Was No Room in the Inn”
    7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luk 2:7 ESV)

    The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about a week or two, depending on the traveling conditions. We have every reason to believe that Mary was not in a hurry or in the final stages of the third trimester. Instead, “while she was there, the days of her pregnancy were filled” (2:6). There’s no rush, no hurry, no panic. The dramatic Hollywood scenes are all fiction.

    Instead, Mary would have stayed with Joseph’s family (don’t forget that’s the reason they came to Bethlehem in the first place). And because of the census, there would have been several other family members at the same house (notice how 2:18 assumes this: “all who heard it”).

    The bottom line: they ran out of rooms. This is the precise meaning of the Greek word in 2:7: “because there was no place for them in the place/lodging/room.” For some reason, probably because of the overarching influence of the King James Version, this verse is continually translated as “there was no place for them in the inn.” But, “inn” is certainly not a proper translation. If Luke wanted to speak of a hotel or inn, he would have used the Greek word for that (as he does in 10:34). Instead, Luke just means that the rooms where people slept were full. We know that houses in this time and place were what we would call, “tiny.”

    But where was Jesus born? Since Jesus was placed in a feeding trough for animals (though no animals are mentioned in any narrative), it is assumed that Jesus was born in a place where an animal ate. We have two probable options: (1) Many homes in this period and place were two stories. People slept upstairs (or on the roof), and the animals slept below them. Mary could have given birth in this bottom level of the house, or in something like a small courtyard. (2) Joseph’s family could have owned a small cave that acted like a stable. It seems to me that option #1 is the most likely. So much for entire pageants, skits, and songs denigrating an inn and inn keeper that never existed!

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