Behind the Scenes with Old Saint Nick

 Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas

The person known as Santa to us has developed over many years, coming through a merger/acquisition between Sinterklass and Father Christmas inc. in western Europe after Sinterklass’ fame surged as a result of a book highlighting his exploits in the 19th century.  

There was of course the dark period when Sinterklaas was outlawed in the 16th and 17th century mainly because Martin Luther didn’t like his Catholic heritage. Luther encouraged people to celebrate ChristKindle (the Christ Child) instead, but his new term ironically morphed over time into Chris Kringle.  

It all started with a holiday named Saint Nicholas Day (December 6) that celebrated a pretty cool guy named Saint Nicholas. Before Nicholas was “saint,” he was born to a wealthy family on the coast of what is modern day turkey.  He spent his early life in school and church waking up to celebrate communion before dawn with his family each Sunday.  

Unfortunately, his life was not to be all candy canes and wrapping paper.  When Nicholas was only eighteen years old his mother and father passed away.  Though the young Nicholas took it well, he wanted to spend some time contemplating the direction of his life.  He now had a huge inheritance and total independence.  After much prayer, he decided to spend his life and money in the same way: however God wanted.  

It was at that point that the young man Nicholas began to work in the church.  As he was preparing for the ministry, he became aware of a family in his town that was in a precarious position.  There was a father who had three daughters who was desperately poor and was not going to be able to provide a dowry for the daughters when they came of age.

This may not seem like the end of the world to us, but in the world of Nicholas in the late 200s this meant a life of prostitution for the man’s daughters.  Nicholas would not allow that to happen.  So, on the eve of the eldest daughter’s coming of age, Nicholas went out in the middle of the night and tossed a bag filled with a portion of his inheritance through the window to save the life of the eldest daughter.  The next morning the family awoke to salvation in the form of a small purse filled with money.  

Nicholas repeated the act of kindness with the second daughter.  When it came time for the third daughter to receive this extravagant gift, the father decided he would wait up all night to see if he could catch a glimpse of this generous saint.  Like clockwork Saint Nicholas walked up to the house and tossed the purse through the window.  The father leapt to his feet and ran outside thanking Nicholas profusely.  Nicholas gave a simple response.  He asked that the man not tell anyone that the gifts came from him.

The rest of his life was a roller coaster that saw him ordained bishop around 35 years of age, imprisoned for being a church leader shortly thereafter, released by Constantine and being one of the bishops in attendance at the Council of Nicea.  In spite of his success and eventual fame, he followed the same pattern of generosity throughout his life.  

In that area, people would often leave their shoes outside at night.  When Saint Nicholas heard of a need in a community he was serving, he would go out under the cover of darkness, take a portion of his own funds, and leave it in the shoes of the family in need.  

No wonder within a short amount of time after his death Nicholas was one of the most popular names in the region. No wonder he was one of the most painted saints (second only to the Virgin Mary). No wonder his powerful memory has pushed through the centuries making it all the way to today.

It’s funny though that we have taken this model of selfless, anonymous giving and made him the justification for a particular sort of selfishness that surfaces this time of year.  I am hoping to be different this year.  I am going to try my best to honor the memory of Saint Nicholas and make this Christmas about reaching out to those in need and helping them without any credit.  Imagine the power of Christmas if we all followed Nicholas’ example.  Here’s hoping for a happier holiday!

If you are interested in more Saint Nicholas Background, you can get a full chapter of it in Investigating Christmas!


Curing Religious Hypocrisy

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I know it is rare to find religious hypocrisy today, but that was far from the case in the first century. Hypocrisy was rampant, and Jesus spent much of his time teaching people the cure.

In the first century, the church was divided. As odd as it may sound, though they worshipped the same God, they allowed theological distinctives to divide them. Some believed in an afterlife, some didn’t, and others said it really wasn’t an important discussion.

But the crazy thing is that these groups acted as if they were not worshipping the same God. They met in different places, had different leaders, and some refused to talk to the others!

Each group even had its own ceremonial bath outside the temple and would charge a fee to use it. When you did, it not only fulfilled your ritual requirement, but meant you were signing up for their sub-group. Which did Jesus choose? Was he pro-afterlife, pro-mortality, or pro-this-doesn’t-matter?

How about none of the above? Instead of giving into the isolating sub-groupings, Jesus went out to a river. He opted out of the whole system altogether.

If only theological division were the end of it. The hypocrisy went on to compromise one of the most important pieces of their faith: personal holiness. Holiness was important because God’s people were supposed to live as an example to the world. It was a blessing to seek to try to live more and more like God. But they completely missed the point.

God’s people were using their personal holiness to inflict pain on the rest of their world. Some were so consumed with self-righteousness that they actually thought they had stopped sinning!

What was Jesus’ cure? How did he respond? In a confrontation with some of these self-righteous religious leaders, Jesus pointed out that he had only come for the “sick” people.

Jesus didn’t yell or get into a theology debate. He let their self-righteousness do what it does so well: paralyze their growth and alienate them from those who need help.

Jesus didn’t stop there. Jesus took it upon himself to rescue the victims of self-righteous attacks. Jesus stepped in between the hate-fueled rocks and the shamed soul about to be stoned because of her sin. Jesus reminded those wielding holiness as a weapon that if sin required death, then everyone should be executed.

The pinnacle of the first-century hypocrisy was hung on the wall of their church building. God’s people were supposed to be the means by which God blessed all the nations. Yet, on the wall of their church was a sign that read “the foreigner who passes this wall will bear the responsibility for their resulting death.”

How did Jesus react? What was his remedy for the height of religious hypocrisy? He turned over the tables that were in front of this wall. He used their own scriptures to remind them that this place was to be a place of prayer for all the nations. He reminded them that God had destroyed their church walls before and would do it again.

I know it’s hard to imagine 2,000 years later a world where church people separate themselves from non-churchgoers, where people of faith become self-righteous, and where those who are worshipping the same God fight amongst themselves over theological nuance.

If we ever did find ourselves in a place filled with this sort of religious hypocrisy, we could take heart to know that Jesus showed us the cure.

Jesus showed us the way to focus on our God rather than the unimportant theological minutiae.

He showed us that holiness is a gift, not a weapon.

Most of all, Jesus showed us that no religious idea or structure can separate us from his love and grace. It is available to everyone everywhere. All we have to do is ask.

via AL.com

>>>Read More: The Little Sin that Went Mainstream

5 Simple Ways to Keep Skeptics Out of Church

The Bible clearly says in Mark 2:17 that Jesus came for those who know they are righteous (ok, it says the opposite, but we all know he didn't mean it). This all means that we must be careful to keep skeptics, atheists and the like out of the church.  After much research and even having to talk to some of these godless heathens, I have some simple tips to help you keep them far away from the church and even farther from God.  

  1. Talk as if there is one, unanimous Christian viewpoint on controversial issues. There is only one way to think as a Christian.  There is only one right viewpoint on controversial issues, and it just so happens that the one correct viewpoint is your own.  After all, if you were incorrect, you would change your mind.  When a skeptic points out that there are other Christians who disagree with you make sure to remind them that those people have been led astray and probably aren’t real Christians anyway.
  2. Make sure they know how horrible they are.  The “image of God” stuff is in like only a handful of verses in the Bible and is totally overplayed (and far too attractive to these contagious little-faithers).  You need to concentrate on how horrible, depraved and broken they are.  Make sure before you end any conversation with someone who is skeptical or non-believing that they know they are a sinner and will burn forever in a literal fire.
  3. Don’t actually listen or respond to them.  If you respond to them, that just validates that they have something to contribute to the world. Sure, they may make a credible point that should be considered, but that danger is precisely why you should do your best to look interested while ignoring them by thinking about what you are going to say next.
  4. Remember APSAR (Always Pit Science Against Religion).  This probably should have been number one.  Modern science is possibly the worst thing that has happened to humanity.  Not only has it cured many of the ways God used to smite people, but it has tried to help us understand how everything works.  That is bad.  These people are usually highly logical with a mind for data, and acting as if science might have something to contribute to the world or that you might be able to believe science and Jesus could break through and make them consider faith once again.  If they give you data, respond to it with Biblical poetry or see #3.
  5. Whatever you do, never trust the Holy Spirit to save them. Sure, the Bible says that it is the role of the Spirit to call them back to God and unleash the sanctifying grace of God in their hearts, but we all know he generally takes his precious time.  No matter if you met them for the first time a moment ago, do not finish any conversation without reviewing the plan of salvation with them.  Do not take time to build a relationship.  Do not take time to earn their respect because those things make it more likely for them to respond in a positive way.  Cut to the chase and make the move for salvation.

I hope this helps you.  If we are able to do this, we could possibly keep all these weirdos out of the church.  Since society is moving more in this direction it may mean the church is gone in thirty years, but that will give us plenty of time to rearrange the chairs on the Titanic.  After all, you know how important straight rows of chairs are to God. 

Disclaimer: Please note the use of sarcasm in tips 1-5.

Question for Comment: What Tips did I Miss?

>>>Read More: Why Science Causes People to Leave the Faith (and how to fix it)

Forbidden Stories about Jesus You Have to Read

“Did you know that when Jesus was a kid, he made birds out of clay and brought them to life?”

I remember asking something just like that in college to a minister I knew. The answer was simple, he said, "You mean the Gospels that aren't in the Bible? T hose Gospels are not true and you should spend your time on something productive.” Of course, I immediately ran back to the dorm to read every word.  What about these words were so so scandalous? Why did this pastor feel threatened? Why was the church trying to suppress these stories about Jesus?

As it turns out, these accounts of Jesus’ life are as interesting and engaging as they are unreliable.  Somewhere  between their taboo-ness and their sensational and/or philosophical content is something which makes them fascinating to many people.  These stories of Jesus teach us about who we are, who God has called us to be, and how we should live in the world.  They have the power to teach us but not in the way we may expect when we first sit down with a copy.

First off, these works make the history of how the Bible was formed sexy and fascinating in a way that nothing else does.  There is nothing else that makes people beg me to tell them the history and theology around the formation of the Bible like these Gospels that aren’t in the Bible. 

Many assume that Dan Brown is right when he says that Constantine made the call. When there is a document called the Muratorian fragment that dates from the 200s and has almost every book of the new Testament listed.  That is just one of the pieces of  the early consensus that formed around which books were considered scripture, and knowing that history not only engenders confidence in the Bible, but it shows the curious the importance of Church history in their everyday relationship with Jesus.

Though the history is interesting, the power of these texts resides in the origins of these stories of Jesus that weren’t included in the Bible. When Jesus ascended and then sent the Holy Spirit, the disciples fanned out taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.  Those stories were passed on from person to person and sometimes lost or forgotten.  In the regions where specific disciples went, later stories would arise and were attributed the disciples who first brought the story of Jesus to that region.  Everyone came with what they remembered of Jesus and shared it with whoever would listen.  Was it all correct? Did it all come down perfectly? No.  That’s why we will randomly find these crazy stories about Jesus’ life.

That is where the power resides. You see, these gospels teach us something far beyond their actual content.  Every Christian doesn’t have to be a brilliant theologian.  We don’t have to have everything right.  We don’t even need to know the whole story before we share the Gospel with our friends and family.  We share what we know.  As incomplete and incorrect as it may be, we share what we know of Jesus and let the Holy Spirit use our words to woo those around us closer to him.  And, that is powerful.

Now it is time for you to go read some of these gospels that aren’t in the Bible (There's a summary of their content and several quotes in my book), and let them cause you to figure out where they diverge and converge with scripture, letting their clarion call spread wide in your heart, filling you with the confidence to share the story you know.  After all, there’s no way you could be as wrong as the story where Jesus smites a kid for making fun of him!  Go tell what you know. 

via UMR

>>>Read More: The Forbidden Gospels (Not in the Bible)

Which Magic Words Get me Into Heaven?

“Dude, you have to come to this play my church is doing.  Everyone is getting saved there!”  I can still remember the fervor in my friend’s voice as he invited me to go with him after youth group to a play about heaven and hell.  Ok, it was mostly about hell, but heaven was in there at the end.

The Basic plot of the show was a series of sin depictions that began with the stereotypical sex and drugs and then got less and less severe ending with people telling white lies.

Each scene began with sin, then showed demons tearing at the person growling instructions to them.  At some point each of the persons died and were transported to the gates of heaven where they were told they could not enter and were dragged away to hell erupting with the most horrifying screams my teen ears had ever heard.

It all ended with a person witnessing to one of the sinners.  After hearing about hell and heaven, the sinner prayed the sinner’s prayer, died, and was accepted into heaven.

I will be honest, this show was worse than any horror movie I had seen to that point, the lighting, screams, and growling-special-effects voice of Satan made my heart stop.  When the altar call was given, you better believe I ran down with everyone else and got saved again just to make sure.

The real problem that I have with these kinds of shows is not the fact that they talk about heaven and hell, but that they take such a low view of salvation and the teachings of Jesus.  Instead of lifting Jesus up and calling everyone in the room to follow him, they boil it down to a set of magic words that we can say to get into heaven. That makes those who are skeptical about Christianity think we’re a bunch of slimy tricksters playing on people’s fears without offering anything of substance.

Which is, of course, exactly what Jesus said would happen.  In the Sermon on the Mount he talks about people who use his name and even perform miracles, but are really wolves in sheep’s clothing.  Rather than calling people to live out the teachings of Jesus, they offer them a cheap version that does not bear fruit in their life, and ultimately does not grant them entrance into heaven.

Salvation is bigger than some trick phrase (like Lord, Lord), and Wesley was careful to offer a different perspective on salvation. He understood salvation as a “way” rather than a moment or a decision.  Don’t get me wrong, Wesley was all about getting more people into heaven, but he saw that as the same thing as getting people to follow Jesus now. Doing that required much more than a thirty minute play and a thirty-second prayer.

When Wesley preached, his altar call was much more likely to be about getting involved in small groups that were struggling to do good, stop doing bad, and connecting with God.  Research done by Thomas Albin suggests that many more conversions (75%) happened in these groups than in the preaching time, and that often these conversions would require more than two years of involvement.

But isn’t there a quicker way or a simple prayer we could say instead? The idea that there is a “sinner’s prayer” that grants you access to heaven is difficult to match with scripture that encourages us to continue to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phillipians 2:12)  Not only that, but it makes our faith look cheap and insignificant.  Take a second and read or watch the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus calls us to far more than a prayer! Salvation is a way — a path that we walk towards Jesus.  It is a life of sacrifice and surrender; a life that begins wherever we are and takes a narrow road towards Jesus.

You cannot be scared into heaven, nor can you accidentally say the wrong words and go to hell.   The “eternal life” Jesus offers doesn’t start when you die, but right now, right where you are.  It seeks to transform you into his image and takes a lifetime.  It grows from the tiniest seeds of faith into being used by God as a member of his body.  That is the Gospel. That is heaven. Anything less is a cheap knockoff.

From United Methodist Reporter

Merry X-Mas! Untangling Confusion with Information

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Christmas is fast approaching, and it is full of tiny intellectual land mines like this one.  For some people, seeing Christmas written as "X-Mas"  gets them upset because it "takes the Christ out of Christmas."  Now, I'm all about a soapbox about the co-opting of our sacred holidays by marketers selling junk, but about X-mas?  I love it!  

I love it because it gives me an opportunity to teach.  As it turns out, writing X-mas is just as faithful as writing Christmas.

Of course, most of the people you know are fluent in the particular dialect called Koine Greek that the New Testament is written in, but in case you missed that class in high school, let me refresh your memory.  The greek word for Christ that is pronounced Christos begins with the greek letter Chi. That first letter eventually came to be used as a common abbreviation for the word and ultimately inspire a host of Christian number stickers and t-shirts when it was added to several other abbreviated titles for Jesus and formed into an anagram that spelled the word fish.  

That word, pronounced “ichthus,”  is the one that is often written inside that silver fish emblem that Christians put on the back of their cars.  Yes, it is kind of odd, and a little redundant, to have the word fish inside a fish symbol, but when you realize that it means more most people overlook the design faux pas. What does it mean?  I thought you’d never ask!  The letters in the anagram stand for Jesus, Christ, Son of God, Savior with our stout little Chi standing in for “Christ” as usual.  What does all of that have to do with X-mas?  Everything!

If you had to memorize the greek alphabet you may already be a step ahead of me.  The letter Chi in greek looks like the English letter “X.” Which means that you can abbreviate the word Christ by putting the letter “X” in your sermon notes.  It also means that the people who began using X-mas were being very responsible as X-mas doesn’t “take the Christ out of Christmas” at all.  It just abbreviates Christ with an abbreviation that many of the people complaining about the use of X-mas have stuck to the back of their car.

Lest you think this is a recent development by our secular society to compromise the focus on Christ, the first use of this abbreviation, according to the OED was in 1755.  The term continued being used by Lord Byron, Samuel Coleridge and Lewis Carroll.  

All of that is to say that Christmas is full of opportunities to question and learn more about faith, and as far as I'm concerned, the only thing that "takes Christ out of Christmas" is when Christians allow themselves to forsake growing closer to God in order to get a 3% discount on all their gifts and hand address all 150 Christmas cards.

To help you out with that, I have written a new ebook that explores the history, science, and archaeology of angels, Santa, the manger, wise men, and those pesky pagan roots of our holy season.  It's short enough to finish by Christmas if you just read in the checkout lines.  It's called Investigating Christmas.  I hope it helps you grow closer to God this Christmas.  It's available on Kindle and in Print on Amazon.

Why Science Causes People to Leave the Faith (and how to fix it)

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“I Just don’t know if I can believe anymore.”  It’s a phrase I have heard in my office far too many times.  And when it is a person who has not recently experienced a tragedy, the source of their lack of confidence in their beliefs is often Science.  

Whether they had a teacher contradict something they believed to be a key tenant of Christianity, or just watched some Discovery or History channel special, somehow the discoveries of Science has challenged (or ruled out the possibility altogether of) their belief in God.

Some will tell you the solution is to wage an all out war against Science.  Pull your kids out of school, make them teach religious principles in the classroom, and disprove (using things very close to science) anything that even hints at disputing a religious belief. This response will not only exacerbate the problem, it totally misunderstands the REAL issue here.

On the surface, you might think that the problem is that Science is challenging the truths of Scripture when serious Science never seeks to interact with the spiritual at all. It seeks to collect data, analyze it and make conclusions from it.  Disproving God is an aftereffect of offering another option (based on the data collected) of how something occurred.

Which forces a choice: either our Biblical explanation of an event is correct and God is real or Science is correct and God is not real right?  Wrong.  There is a third option: we have poor theology.  I think that is, more often than not, the case.

For too long, we have explained our faith’s relationship to science using a HORRIBLE method known as the God of the gaps.  Basically, wherever Science comes up with nothing, we interject God.  

Before we understood how our immune system fought a common virus, every time a person recovered from one it was attributed to God.

Before we understood the gravitational force that holds our solar system together, the answer was: God held it together.

Before we understood how plate tectonics worked, earthquakes and tidal waves were God’s judgement.

The problem with all of this is that when science fills in one of the gaps and explains something that was attributed to God, God seems less credible and less powerful.

Fast forward to when I was a child.  The Scientific idea that was rocking our spiritual world was the idea of the Big Bang.  Up until that point, even those who ascribed to evolution had no real explanation for how the universe was created, and God was the answer.  

I remember talking to a pastor about the Big Bang and saying, “If the universe was created by the Big Bang, where was God?”  One of my gaps had been filled in thus making God seem a little less.  His reply?  “Well, maybe the universe was created by the Big Bang, but what made the Big Bang?”  Another Gap, and another place for God to live.  Until…

You’ve guessed it.  There is a plausible explanation now for how the Big Bang happened, and our bad theology has once again allowed God to be unseated by Science.

What’s the solution?  Pretty simple:  stop using the God of the gaps and start using science.  Start using science?  That’s right.  Check out Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

God created the universe and created it to tell us about who he is.  That means when we (Scientists) study the world and come to a greater understanding of it, we are further clarifying God’s message about who he is. That means Science is an intensely spiritual undertaking for those who believe in Jesus.

When the findings of Science become another tool for us to better understand God, we can take God out of the gaps and place him where he belongs: as ruler over all.  We stop making enemies out of the geniuses that are studying God’s creation, and we allow our people to believe without feeing they have to reject Science.

>>>Read More: 5 Simple Ways to Keep Skeptics out of the Church

If Jesus Came Back, Would There be a Scandal?

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I’m not sure that many churches would like Jesus if he came back right now, especially if he acted the same way he did in the Bible.  I know that may not be something I’m supposed to say as a pastor, but I know that I would struggle with some of what went down.

Can you imagine what people would say if the events in the New Testament repeated themselves today?  

You know the moments I’m talking about.  There is the time when Jesus was at a party where people were getting drunk and instead of guilting the host for asking for more wine, he made the best wine anyone had ever tasted out of water.

Then there’s another time when Jesus goes to the heathen area just on the other side of the border and tells a lady with a sketchy past that even her people who worshipped in the wrong way at the wrong place were allowed to follow him.

And don’t get me started on the incident at the church potluck. Right there in the middle of everything a prostitute walks in, as if it was the most normal thing in the world for a prostitute to be there, and pours perfume on Jesus feet.  If that wasn’t bad enough, she dries his feet with her hair!

But the thing that takes the cake is the moment when Jesus made a scene in the middle of church.  

Now, granted, they had a wall in the church that said any non-member who passed it would be responsible for their resulting death.  And there may have been one or two formerly upstanding church members that had made a nice living out of overcharging for sacrificial lambs, but what Jesus did would uncurl even the most hairspraied church lady’s Sunday morning do.

Jesus busts in there like he owns the place and starts quoting scripture about God’s house being a house of prayer for all nations and dropping allusions to a time when God destroyed a church like theirs.  Then, he picks up a whip and drives the less-than-honest church treasurers out of the church!

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know may churches who would be ok with a minister who gave wine to drunk people, hung out with with people of other religions, aired the church secrets of the rich members in the middle of worship, and brought prostitutes to the potluck.

But the scandal of all scandals was the reason behind these beautifully offensive actions. Jesus honestly wanted everyone to follow God: rich and poor, Jews and gentiles, priests and prostitutes.

I wish I knew more churches and church people who acted like Jesus, and by that I mean that I wish that I acted more like Jesus. Far too often I act like one of the religious leaders Jesus criticizes.

I guess what I’m saying is that despite having “Reverend” in front of my name I am broken and off-track.  Which is good news because Jesus loves broken and off-track people.  

He looks at us and says, “Come just as you are” because Jesus really, truly wants everyone.  Even me.  Even you.

 From: Al.com

>>> Read More: Forbidden Stories about Jesus You have to Read

Nostradamus vs. Revelation

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One of the repeating sensational topics for “histotainment” channels like the History Channel to air are programs about prophecy and the end of the world.  Among those who are non-religious or nominally religious, the prophecies of Nostradamus and how they stack up to the Bible are interesting to say the least.  So, how do they stack up?  What do they say?

Nostradamus was an intelligent man born into a world that was shifting dramatically due to the discovery and colonization of the new world. The protestant reformation was in full swing.  Throughout this period of change there was a surge of interest in divination and prophecy.  Nostradamus was also interested in these things, and so he included some extra prophetic bits in an almanac he wrote which ended up being a run-away best seller. With this success under his belt he then began to compose a book of poetic prophecy.  After composing his first hundred (he called them a century) stanzas (called quatrains, because they had four lines each), he assembled them in a book, adding an introduction in which he explained that it is his goal to make his predictions a little murky so that they could only be understood after he was gone because he was afraid of what people would do once they interpreted them.

When he published Les Propheties (The Prophecies), it was like he published Harry Potter. It was an amazing hit that propelled him to star-author status.  He was eventually brought into the court of Catherine DeMedici, the wife of Henry II, as one of the seers in her divination court.

Nostradamus 101

Before we get into the famous ones, we are going to look at a typical quatrain to discover the common features.  Keep in mind that these were originally written in French and have been translated into English by people far more intelligent than I.

Venus Neptune will pursue the undertaking.
You will be thoughtful (masculine) trouble the opponents.
A tumult [trumpet blast] in Adrie a city near the Thames,
The quarter noise wounds the night of the sleeping ones.
(1555 Almanac)

Obvious, right?  I hardly can believe anyone would have to explain such clarity!  At first glance, you might assume that the first two terms refer to the Roman gods or even the two planets, but the verb that follows the two terms confounds that assumption.  That is because the verb is singular.  The singular verb implies that there is a singular person, place, or thing that is named Venus Neptune.  There is no record of anyone named Venus Neptune which brings us to a dead end with the first line.

The trouble in the second line is not the verb, but that there is something missing.  Not just any something, a key something.  It could be anything really.  The opponents are just as likely to be troubling you as you are them.

The next line speaks of a tumult (think trumpet blast) in a place called Adrie.  Some will take Adrie, and say it means Hadrian, and then change Hadrian to Hitler or make it a city or not.

The last line is probably one of the most well written lines. It suggests that at some point someone will be awoken by a loud noise in the night while they are sleeping.  That is definitely what happened.  In fact, it has happened to me last night when my son slammed the door after getting some water at 2 a.m.

Though it can be fun to be skeptical about this, the trouble here is clear. There are words missing.  Word references are unclear.  It is, to use Nostradamus word, murky.

Nostradamus and 9/11

Now to a more famous bit.  Some say that Nostradamus predicted 9/11.  Here are the two quatrains that are said to have predicted this horrific event:

 At forty-five degrees shall burn the sky,
Fire to approach the new grand city thence;
Instantly great scattered flames will arise,
When one shall seek the Normans’ evidence.
Garden of the world near the new city,
In the pathway of cavernous mountains,
Seized and plunged into a cauldron shall be,
Forced to drink water that’s sulfur-poisoned.
(VI:97 and X:49)

 As you hopefully remember from junior high geography, latitude is measured in degrees.  If you get on the web and look up the latitude for ground zero you get 40.7116°, or about 41°.  There are many who count this as a miss, but in my book, if Nostradamus was channeling latitudinal coordinates for a world crisis at the distance of several centuries, 4.2884° off seems like as close to a dead on hit as one could hope for.

Moving to the second line, you would have to look hard to find someone who could not imagine “grand” as in the realm of accurate adjectives to describe New York.

The third line could be the most troubling of them all because of the horrific images it brings to the minds of anyone who witnessed the event.  I have no idea how a person who had never seen a skyscraper, ridden in an airplane, or traveled to this grand city would describe the image of the planes colliding into the towers, but as a person who has done all of the above, “scattered flames” seems pretty accurate.

The fourth line is totally unclear in regards to this historic event which brings us to line five. There was a large open area in front of the World Trade Center.  It’s not necessarily a garden, but one of the most unique aspects of Manhattan is its huge garden.

Those who try and explain the next line about cavernous mountains, suggest that  the only thing of this size in Nostradamus’ time were mountains.  Unlike mountains, these structures are not solid; rather, they are hollow so that people can work inside them.  One might even call them cavernous.

One of the most disturbing images after the disaster was the giant hole that was left when the debris was clear.  The World Trade Center was sitting atop a huge parking deck that was carved out of the ground below.  In a sense it plunged into that hole which provides the link for “plunged into a cauldron shall be” in line seven.  The quatrains end with a bit of a disappointment as no plausible connections have been suggested for the final line.

You can take take these quatrains, and with a little creativity and effort create a pretty “wow” moment.  However, before 911 there were a variety of equally plausible interpretations of this passage like it referring to a tidal wave of water infected by chemical warfare.

Prophetic Problems and Biblical Solutions

That brings us to the two main problems with Nostradamus’ prophecies.  First, they are unclear. It goes beyond the missing words.  There is no real story or narrative that seems to connect the fragments and phrases.

The second problem is that nothing that he has written has ever been proven predictive before an event has actually happened.  It is always in the rear-view mirror that people are able to make connections with his quatrains.

It is in this second critique that the connection exists between Revelation and Nostradamus.  Revelation has never been shown (beforehand) to predict an event that would happen in the future.  There is a whole method of understanding the book of Revelation that shows how all of its prophecies were fulfilled by 70 CE, but even that method of understanding the prophecies was not developed until a couple centuries later.

The most popular way to look at the book of Revelation today says that the majority of the prophecies in the book of Revelation are talking about events that are in the future.  This does not, of course, fix our problem as the claims of this interpretive scheme are currently can’t be proved since they haven’t yet happened.

Where Nostradamus and Revelation begin to diverge is when you look at their composition.  The book of Revelation has complete sentences and correct grammar.  More than that, Revelation has a story.  It has a narrative, however odd it may be, that you can follow as the prophet and beast conspire to have the world worship the dragon.

In fact, there is a whole school of thought that believes that the book of Revelation is a work meant to be instructive to the believer now. The unified message of Revelation when seen through this lens of being an instructive epic is one which says that those people who follow after God will be triumphant in the end and will get to spend eternity connecting with God

So What?

Now we get to the biggest question of all: Why does this matter when I wake up tomorrow morning?   There is a common message across apocalyptic literature. Nostradamus, the book of Revelation and all of the apocalyptic tales told since our brains were at the point that they could think about the future tell us one story: there will be an end. Just like everything else has its end, there will be an end to the world.

The message (or at least the application) that I think the book of Revelation and Nostradamus share is: The end will come… who do you want to be when it gets here?  You can spend your life, money, time, and resources on whatever you choose.  You can spend all of your years on something, and one day the end will come for you.  Maybe it won’t be at the hands of the antichrist, but it will come as it does for all humanity.  Who do you want to be?  What do you want to have spent your life on?

The Rev. Jeremy Steele is the Next Generation pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, AL and a regular columnist for The United Methodist Reporter

Sources for Nostradamus translation and interpretation:
The Skeptical Inquireer: http://www.csicop.org/si/show/nostradamus_a_new_look_at_an_old_seer/

Newman, Sharan (2010-04-02). The Real History of the End of the World Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

 

Please Don't Take the Whole Bible Literally

Whatever you do, do not take everything the Bible says as literal truth and/or direction. Don't get me wrong, the Bible is a beautiful, complex, brilliantly-composed collection of profound scripture. It is the very breath of God (2 Tim 3:16). It holds the keys to living a full, meaningful life, but that is not what you will get if you read every word as if it should be literally applied to your life.

Let me explain.  There are clearly passages in the Bible that make no sense if taken literally like this vivid example from Revelation:  

"But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth." (Rev. 12:16)

Dragons?  Really?  No.  Of course not.  It is talking about something deeper, it is using symbol and metaphor.  The author obviously didn't intend for us to take it literally. But, what about the passages that WERE intended to be taken literally, but don't seem to work now?  Leviticus is full of them:  

“‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.’” (Lv 19:27-28)

Likewise, Deuteronomy has some excellent advice on parenting teens:  

"If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death." (Dt 28:18-21a)

Those were definitely meant to be taken literally by the author but would devastate the Schick company and land just about every american parent of a teen in prison. 

That's not even mentioning the whole books that confuse even the most brilliant scholar as to how to interpret.  Take, for example, this insight from Ecclesiastes:

"A feast is made for laughter, wine makes life merry, and money is the answer for everything. " (Ecc 10:19)

What makes that verse even harder is that the whole book of Ecclesiastes is like that.  It claims to be insight from a sagely king, but puts forth very strange advice... What do you do with that?   

The first step is letting go of the guilt you may feel when you realize you cannot take a passage as literal.  After that, there are some simple questions: 

  1. Did the author intend it to be taken literally?  If so, it may be an indication that you are to follow their wishes as long as you think through question 2.
  2. Are you the intended audience? Some of those are: Jews, Believers in Jesus, religious leaders, and the whole world.  If you were not the intended audience, then it is likely that you will have to take the words somewhat figuratively to allow them to speak into your life.
  3.  Is it part of a diet and purity code?  If you are not Jewish, then these laws should not be taken literally, but still can offer insight into your life if you spend time thinking of how they can speak to your situation in more broad ways.
  4. Is it universally true, or has it changed with culture?  Some things were not aimed at you, but are true no matter where you go or who you are for example, “You shall not murder” Ex 20:13.  Other things have changed over time with culture like the way we understand slavery.
  5.  Has it changed as a result of clearer discernment or a drfit from God?  This is subjective and must be discerned in community with other believers who have different perspectives from you, but it is how you answer the literal/figurative question when things change over time in relation to culture.

In a very un-me style, I made a little decision tree to help bring these questions into a visual form.  If you would like to check it out, you can click here to see the pdf.  If you'd like to see a teaching on this, it is live right now on the "Questioning God" series page .

 

 

 

Did God Choose the Winner of the Super Bowl?

 Michelangelo 

Michelangelo 

There I was in a musty church fellowship hall holding hands with a team of High School football players.  The coach was the spiritual leader appointed to offer their hearts to God before they rode to the stadium for the playoff game.

“God, we trust in your word, and we have written it on our hearts.  We claim your promise in Phillipians that ‘we can do all things through him who gives us strength.’  As your chosen people we claim that promise.  You know where we are going tonight, and we ask for your blessing on this game.  We ask that you help us to lean on your strength because we know that through the power of your spirit we can do all things.  We can preach in your name, we can withstand temptation, and tonight we can beat our opponents.  Give us your strength tonight.  Lead us to victory, and we will give you the Glory.  Amen.”

That was pretty much it.  They were all wrapped up in the emotion of the coming game, and gave many murmurs and ‘Amen’s to the rousing prayer.  But something didn’t feel quite right to me.  Did God want my friends on the football team to win?  Would he help them?  What if the other team had more Christians?  

In the same way, I am sure that God hears a lot about the super bowl every year.  I know that each side asks him to give a victory. The question is, does God make that call?  And more to the point, how hands-on is God?

What bothers me about prayers like these it that it makes God seem like a grand puppet-master directing every detail of world events to fit his or his followers’ wishes.  Though that simple explanation (that God controls every detail of every moment) is tidy and easy to understand, the reality is far more messy.

What causes the mess is the fact that God has given us the gift of free will. That means that we can choose to follow God’s plan or not.  If that weren’t enough, when Jesus left the earth after the resurrection he takes the whole plan and places it in the hands of the disciples.  This is not a flowchart-friendly, actionable plan.  This is to be enacted by empowering people to choose to do what God has called them to do.

If they don’t?  Well, they don’t.  That part of the plan fails.  That can make it seem like God is hands off, but the opposite is the case. When you look at the scriptures, you get the sense of a masterful playwright/director who is constantly coaching the actors, rewriting scripts while he is working on bringing the whole thing around to the ending in his mind.  

God is constantly calling, constantly empowering, constantly convicting, constantly working through us to both understand and follow his will.  

What does all of this say about the outcome of the big game?  It’s a messy answer.  The things we know for sure about God’s will are that he seeks justice, love, compassion, honesty, integrity, etc.  We know that he wants to make earth look more like heaven.  All of these things are much more massive goals and directions than a football game.  And, even if this game was a key piece of his grand design, he chooses to work through his people who can ultimately choose to follow themselves instead of him.

Why even talk about this?  Because if we can stop thinking of God as a genie in a bottle and think of him as the organizer of a massive movement to change the world, maybe we will be more conscious of how our actions follow his plan.  Maybe we will use our prayers to help us discern his direction, and maybe will will live a life that seeks to be used to do his will rather that use him to do our own.

 

Why are there so Many Religions?

 Symbols of the major world religions

Symbols of the major world religions

I recently spoke about "Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus?" (You can get the video here).  One of the things I mentioned was the idea that if we truly believe that there is only one God, that person is the only being that a human can be attempting to worship.  

The monotheistic belief says that people can not worship other Gods because those other Gods do not exist.  Which is how we ended up resolving our primary question.  If there is only one being, then contradictory statements about that being cannot both be true.

However, this concept is the beginning to an answer of why there are world religions in general.  In Romans the Bible says that since the beginning of the world God has been revealing himself to us through what has been made so that we have no excuse (Romans 1:19).  That idea, called general revelation if you are ever on jeopardy, is saying that through sunsets, roses, and giraffes, God has been calling to us telling us about who he is.  

That is why when we look up to the stars, all of humanity has begun to long for connection with the God who made those stars.  When we have looked at a sunset we have longed to connected to the artist who painted it in the first place.  That is where the religious impulse coes from.  That is why there are so many religions.

I think general revelation is also the reason that so many peoples, especially in the ancient world, developed polytheistic or animistic religions.  Because God was calling out to them through creation, the mistook the voice for the person and began to worship the creation for the person.

That is our primary task as believers.  Not to argue theological minutiae, but to live out the revelation of the one God all humanity has longed for since the first time they gazed upon the night sky.

If you would like to read more about the Islam and Christianity piece, I recommend the chapter of the same title as my sermon in the book: Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology

The Forbidden Gospels (Not in the Bible)

 Gospel of Thomas Fragment

Gospel of Thomas Fragment

When I spoke on this subject (you can find the video here), our main focus was on the content of the gospels that are not in the Bible and their reliability as scripture.  Though I believe it is clear that they cannot be relied upon in the same way as the Biblical gospels, the question remains, how should we use them?

I mentione that some are more like a novelization of scripture.  The passion of Peter is a particularly good example.  It takes the story of the passion from the Bible and adds all sorts of details that may or may not be true (and a little of outright contradiction).  Just as it would be fun to read a print novelization of the Bible (there is a great recent one here), it can be interesting to look at these to help bring the story to life in our imagination.

The main thing that is helpful about these texts is to reveal to scholars the theological development of the church.  By dating these ideas and looking at their prevalence, it can give insight into how different people in different parts of the world were discerning what was truly scripture.  

The average believer who reads them should be careful, but can benefit greatly.  By reading things you know are a bit off (or even way off), it forces you to clarify why.  When you read about Jesus zapping some kid down who bumped into him in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, you know it's not right, but why?  Where in scripture do you find your support for that?  If you are willing to wrestle with those kinds of advanced research and discernment issues, you can purchase a copy of all the existing translations of all the existing and hypothetical gospels here.

Or, just watch the video.

Peace.

Skeptical Confessions

Transient

I have a confession to make: I am a skeptic, and always have been. However, the church is not always welcoming to people who question.

Instead of saying “I don’t know” or “I have never thought about that before,” when someone asks one of the off-limits questions, people in the small group or Sunday School often tend to shut them down. It is usually an honest, difficult question that challenges a fundamental belief. Those kinds of questions can be quite uncomfortable to consider.

It is out of that place of discomfort that people reply with “There are some things you just have to accept on faith” or worse by ignoring the questioner all together and switching the subject. If the questioner presses their case, the shut down continues with “I just believe what the Bible says” or “That’s just not something you can question as a believer.”

These sorts of responses say to the skeptic that the Christian faith is not strong enough to withstand scrutiny. It says that their type of curious personality is not welcome in church and causes many to unplug from the community of faith. 

Not only can God withstand any level of scrutiny, but it is in scrutinizing that we come to a better understanding of the person of God and our Christian faith. Though it may be uncomfortable to question why we believe one thing or another, if we seek God, study the scriptures, search out wise counsel and use our own logical brain, we will come out with a faith that is stronger and more well defined.

Yet because it is such an uncomfortable task for the non-skeptic, we tend to shy away from asking the tough questions. That is why we need skeptics in our midst. Unhindered or unconcerned with the typical discomfort of questioning, they raise the questions that we dismiss or ignore. They help push us to establish firm foundations and clear understanding. We need skeptics.

Because God loves skeptics and because we have all been curious about taboo topics, we are going to spend some time in our 5:00 evening service honestly engaging with significant questions and discovering how they help us to live a life of obedience to God and grow closer as the Body of Christ. I look forward to seeing you and your skeptical friends and colleagues there!