Christmas Letter 2015

Once again we want to send you Christmas greetings of love and joy. We recall many happy encounters/experiences this year:

✦ Wedding of Elaine’s nephew Jonathan in Illinois (like a Shugart family reunion),

✦ Grandparents’ Day with Ellie at Taylor University (now a sophomore)

✦ Joe’s 50 year college class reunion at Taylor U.  (now officially an Old Fart)

✦ We traveled in several states to visit family & friends: Colorado in May & August, Wyoming in July, Wisconsin in October, Florida in November, Indiana and Maryland several times.

Some of these trips included experiences not always fun and easy. Elaine’s parents are 95; both now require nursing home care. We’ve been with family & friends during or after surgeries and chemotherapy, shared the grief of loss of relatives & friends.

We are grateful and thank God for His faithfulness  – for our good health and the energy to work and travel. When home, Joe often joins the electrical crew of Habitat for Humanity wiring houses; helps collect and deliver clothing to the street people in Austin; runs around taking photos of almost everything.

Elaine volunteers as a nurse for a health clinic for people without insurance; participates in a Knit-A-Square group that makes blankets for aids orphans in Africa; is a Stephen Minister in our church.

For us the Christmas message is that God flips the table on life-as-normal by “scattering the proud… bringing down rulers… lifting up the humble… filling the hungry with good things but sending the rich away empty.” (Mary’s song in Luke 1:51-53)  Christmas is so much more than decorations, parties, and such trivia.  Jesus came to bring righteousness and justice (Isaiah 9:7) that restore the goodness of life to all people as God intended at creation.  To follow Jesus means not only to receive salvation but to sign up to live for the common good that extends to all people. This is the hope offered to us from God every Christmas – that as we live less selfishly and more for the common good, peace on earth will flourish.

Joe & Elaine, the Old Folks
Ellie – 19      Celeste – 14     Johan – 17   Lincoln – 11, The Maryland Gang
Sharon had a ¾” cartilage chip removed from her ankle
the day before Thanksgiving. Yikes!
Jon & Johan with their Robot Team (before the robot was built)
Hubert & Joan    Cora – 13  &  Dessie – 15  The Texas Crew
at Jonathan’s wedding in July
This photo was released by NASA when the New Horizons spacecraft reached Pluto on July 14, 2015
and it appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal papers
 Note our son, Dr. Jon Vandegriff, in the back row!
Dessie   Lincoln    Cora           Celeste        on Lake Travis
Lincoln – Tenderfoot Scout
Ellie (with the pink hair),  Elaine’s Mother, Miriam, in Indiana,  Johan
One Proud Grandpa with Dessie & Cora  (aren’t they PRETTY!)
Cora, 8th grade, tubing with one of her Many Friends
Dessie, 10th grade, in San Francisco with a Friend
Joan with Quinn at Jonathan’s wedding
Hubert piloting our new boat (at least new to us)
Johan raising funds for his Eagle Scout project
Elaine with her sister, Edie, and their father, Maurice Shugart
3 old  Brothers –   Budd,  Dave,  Joe

Return to Joe’s Not-So-Famous Web Site

Are You a Christian?

Are You a Christian?   4.6.09  11/18/09 2.20.10  3/3/14 6/25/14 12/21/15

“Of course, I’m a Christian”, I say.  “I’m not a Jew, or a Muslim, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or an atheist.  I believe in God and Jesus, so I am a Christian.”  This seems pretty straightforward and logical.  Most folks in the US would say the same thing.  We are Christians.  That would make us a Christian nation.  But I propose a further distinction in the realm of what it means to be a Christian.  I believe that this good term has been tarnished and perhaps even damaged beyond repair.  The damage has been done by us Christians ourselves.  When I look at the church in the United States I see a fractured bunch of competing religious groups with little resemblance to my ideal of a society of Jesus’ disciples.  Our churches are more like religious clubs where we use membership to divide ourselves into our little like-minded groups.  We entertain ourselves with religious stuff….

For another example of missing the mark, I offer media religion and preachers as an example.  I gave up listening to them long ago.  They are all over the religious map; contradicting each other, focusing on some side issues, condemning those not like them, shooting Bible verses like bullets.  Sure, most are sincere, but what about Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, Jimmy Swaggert?  They didn’t make Christians look good.  A lot of preachers present a message that does not relate to me or most of society.  A lot of religious broadcasting looks like religious entertainment to me.  And some appear even shoddy, amateurish.  Is this the gospel of Jesus?  Do I have to embrace all this to be a good, fundamental Christian?

In our congregations across the land, in far too many cases, church members are doing their part to tarnish the Christian image.  Instead of being a society of love, submission, and servant-hood, most congregations are hard-pressed to forgive and love each other in unity, let alone reach out in love and service to a hurting world.  Most churches operate more like a religious club than a society of followers of Jesus.   The focus seems to be mostly on worship while reaching the poor and outcasts an optional sideline.  In my church, the mere suggestion that since Jesus reached out to prostitutes then we ought to do likewise caused an explosion of righteous indignation among some of the members.

In my church, we recently had a gut-wrenching split where a third of the congregation left in a mad huff.  Maybe some of their beefs were legitimate, but I don’t know because the anger and hostility on both sides was enough to keep the truth and any resolution at bay.  And the amazing thing is that some on both sides accused the others of not being very “Christian”.  Both groups claimed they were the “true” Christians.  I wish I could at least say that the differences were over deep theological issues, but it seemed to me to be more about styles of leadership and personalities and who’s in control than anything else.  Personal issues will always be with us and there should be enough love from God in our hearts to cover all differences.  But the same struggles happen over and over in many congregations.  If anyone on the outside, looking in on us, would try to discern the Christian way from all this, it would surely be very confusing.  The sad fact is that there are plenty of people on the outside looking in with confusion and disgust.  So just who are the “true” Christians here?  It’s really hard to tell.  Maybe none!

The troubles must not be just limited to the congregations that I know about.  In the March 2009 report of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the number of people who call themselves some type of Christian dropped more than 11% in a generation.  The largest growing group since the last huge survey in 1990 is the “none” group – those who claim no religious identification at all – from 8% to 15%. 

mention the first Christians –

statistics from Europe?

How is it that Christianity has come to a place of stagnation and decline?  Can it be that the message of Jesus is no longer relevant to our modern world?  Or maybe the modern people are more evil and unbelieving than people of prior generations?  I don’t accept either of these possible explanations.  I propose a third reason for the struggles of Christianity – the Christians themselves!  For many years I have been nagged by a sense of something missing in what I see being proclaimed as Christianity.  

I think the heart of the issue has to do with the message of Jesus, since the message of Jesus is the very heart of Christianity.  What was the message of Jesus that transformed the world in it’s first 300 years?   

What is becoming clearer to me is that there is a “common wisdom” about the message of Jesus that is actually a common misunderstanding.

Jesus didn’t go around trying to get people saved – not in the way we think of it.  Jesus went around rescuing people from all kinds of situations;  illnesses (mental and otherwise), blindness (spiritual and physical), freeing captives (the outcasts of society and the leaders of society who would hear him that were bound to their narrow thinking).  For sure, He preached repentance, turning from darkness to light, and invited people to enter into the kingdom of God.  Jesus proclaimed that he was on God’s mission to reach the earth that had turned against God and ruined all the glory and beauty of creation and the life that God had intended for his children.  And his invitation was to join him in this mission from God.  His invitation was to establish a new society where everyone was eligible to become a child of God; he threw open the doors to God for everyone, especially the outcasts and sinners.  Sure, he expected to see a new life in his followers, but all were invited.  New life came to his followers not from appeals to guilt or fear of hell but from seeing Jesus’ life and opening up to God.  He criticized and condemned the religious establishment of his day because they had the keys to the kingdom and kept it locked tight.  After he ascended, Jesus’ followers were transformed by God’s Holy Spirit and changed their world, even the mighty Roman Empire, not by fighting and arguing, but by proclaiming the resurrected Jesus, serving others and suffering for it.

We only think of Jesus in a spiritual light, but Jesus was a dangerous political rebel.  He challenged the domination and violence of the Roman Empire.  He challenged the status quo of his day, especially the Pharisees. 

Modern Christians are obsessed with certainty.

Over-confidence – leads to arrogance that is completely out of the Spirit of Jesus.  Makes Christians pushy, intolerant, arrogant, inconsiderate, … 

If we think that going to heaven is the most important thing about Christianity, then once a person gets “saved” from hell then they are done.  They are ready to meet God.  They will be spared from the wrath and judgment of God in the final Judgment Day.  But the message of Jesus was vastly more about leading a new life than dying and going to heaven. 

what are the main issues of the modern Christians?  fighting against homosexuality, fighting against the teaching of evolution, arrogant disrespect for other religions, 

we gladly accept our free gift of salvation by Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins, a vital message of Christianity, but we do not take seriously the teachings of Jesus about how to live our lives.  We don’t see Jesus’ life as an example of how a Christian should live.  Rather, we have elevated Jesus to be God, as per scripture, to the complete neglect of Jesus as a man, against scripture.  This exempts us from living the humble life of Jesus, from suffering as he did and said that we would if we followed him. 

Here is how I see our present use of the term “Christian”.  A Christian is one who holds some loosely defined and widely varying beliefs and opinions about God and Jesus and is often associated with some form of Christian church.  But I offer a further distinction and propose another term to use instead of “Christian”.  I would rather use the term “follower of Jesus” instead.  A follower of Jesus would be like a disciple of Jesus.  A follower of Jesus is one who intentionally studies the teachings of Jesus and attempts to put them into practice in every area of his or her own life.  To be a follower of Jesus implies there is a leader and that together they are traveling somewhere.

Seeing the Christian life as following Jesus and being on a journey with Jesus gives us new ways to think about what we are doing with our religion.  Following Jesus may start with a flash of light and emotion, but it puts a person on a journey that lasts a lifetime.  The first thing to do is to determine the direction as well as the destination of this journey.  If you think that, obviously, it goes to heaven, you’re right, but you’re also way ahead of yourself.  On setting out on a journey to follow Jesus, the worse thing one can do is to think that you already know the way.  I guarantee that you do NOT know the way.  I say this because the way of Jesus is not a natural way to live.  The way of Jesus goes contrary to our natural human tendencies;  such as wanting to get our own way, to be our own boss, to go through life with little or no suffering, especially suffering just for the sake of others.  We want a sense of being in control, at least of our own life.  We like to call our own shots, not someone else calling them for us.  No one, not even the greatest saint who ever lived, can flip a switch and go from being self-centered to fully selfless, from loving a little to loving much, from petty pride and jealousy to living large, from the wish to be served to serving others in humility, from being puffed up with pride to emptying oneself, from only loving those who love you back to loving the good, the bad, and the ugly.  There are 101 ways, no 1,000 ways, no, a million ways! that our selfishness can not only lead us off the path of Jesus, but at the same time lead us to believe that we are still on the path.  If anyone thinks you have yourself all sorted out and are completely ok, with no need to examine anything else, that person is in grave danger!  If a follower of Jesus thinks, “Since I repented years ago, I’m still good”, I say they are actually lost and just don’t know it.  They may have started out on the path of Jesus, but now they have become misguided.  To remain on the path of following Jesus, his followers are continually repenting as they uncover their own sinfulness, layer by layer, and the oh-so-many ways they are not following Jesus completely.  What a joy it is in following Jesus to take another step closer to the Leader.  But soon the Leader says,  “That’s good, my son, my daughter, but now you need to take another step.”  The path is not always clear.  A great part of following Jesus is seeking the way and then living it.  This is the life-long quest of followers of Jesus.  Continually seeking and following in the way of Jesus and staying true to the mission of Jesus.  This is why we study the Bible; not for more “information” to stuff in our heads, but to seek the way of God to more closely follow it.

I believe there is a “conventional wisdom” about what it means to be a Christian.  This leads to something that looks very religious but does not necessarily follow much in the path of Jesus.  Rather than lead a person onto a path of following Jesus, it is offered more as a ticket to heaven.  Does it really make sense that a person can accept the terms for getting into heaven and dismiss the teachings of Jesus about how we are to live life now in our everyday affairs?  Conventional wisdom about Christianity is badly contaminated with ideas and issues that are incompatible with actually following the Jesus of the Gospels.  I believe this is the major cause of trouble in churches and the pitiful weakness the church in general has in our culture.  This leads Christians to act not much different than folks outside church.  In polls and surveys about social behaviors in the US, there is very little difference between people who call themselves Christians and those who don’t.  Since I have always believed that the teachings of Christianity should make a difference in how a person lives his or her life, this has always puzzled me.  It has made me suspect serious flaws in our understanding of Christianity or, more likely, our living out of Christianity.  Surely we are missing something.  I think I may have an explanation.

Jesus overturned the conventional wisdom of his time and challenged people to trust him and live like the kingdom of God was at hand; because the kingdom of God, Jesus said was, in fact, at hand!  This is the good news he proclaimed.  And life in the kingdom of God was open to all who would repent and accept the love of God and open themselves to a new life of servanthood.  Jesus had flagrant disregard for anything or anyone who would discount any human being or put one person over and above another.  It was the conventional wisdom folks of his day who rejected him and his message and had him killed.  But His followers carried on his message about the kingdom of God and eventually conquered the world without lifting a sword but rather with much serving and suffering.  Because Jesus was not like the rest of the society of his time, and especially unlike the religious types of his times, I would expect the modern followers of Jesus to be somewhat similar.  Modern day followers of Jesus will probably not fit very well into their society any more than Jesus and his followers did in his.

Perhaps, operative questions we should be asking ourselves are not “Who is a Christian and who is not.  Who are the ‘true’ Christians and who are not?”  Neither is it as helpful to ask who is a “true” follower of Jesus.  I would rather ask everyone, “What kind of a follower of Jesus are we and how closely are we following?”  Following Jesus leads one down a certain path defined by Jesus himself.  Here are some better questions to ask ourselves:  “Have we let Jesus define the path for us or do we ourselves decide what it is?  Is it possible to consider myself a Christian and yet not follow the teachings of Jesus very closely?  How far down the path am I?  How far down the path do I want to go?  The path that Jesus took led to a cross.  Do I have to go that far?  Am I seeking an easier path than this?  Is it possible to start on the path and stay near the beginning?  Is it possible to start on the path and subsequently stray from the path?  Where am I on the path of following Jesus?”

Jesus spoke of spreading seeds that fell on different kinds of soil where some seeds didn’t grow very well and some did.  Followers of Jesus are ones who examine their lives as the soil in Jesus’ parable to see how well God’s seed is growing in their lives.  Therefore, I challenge everyone who calls himself or herself a Christian to look into ourselves and to look into the teachings of Jesus for a reality check.  How is the “soil” of my life?  How well is God’s seed growing in me?  Where am I in following Jesus?  In what areas am I not following Jesus?  Do I have flaws and weaknesses in my understanding of the path of Jesus?  Am I holding back from following Jesus all the way?

In the following table I offer some contrasts in ways of thinking about Christianity.  One way reflects the “conventional wisdom” view of Christianity and the other is the way of following Jesus.

“conventional wisdom Christianity”Following Jesus

include bible verses on this side???
sees Christianity mainly as a set of beliefs about God and Jesus – CREEDS.“Believing” the right way is more important that LIVING the right way.sees Christianity as a way of living in the path of Jesus – DEEDS.Believing right is important but balanced with living right – in the spirit & love of Jesus
“believing” the Bible means taking it as literally as possibleBible is inspired by God, authoritative, yet full of poetry and other kinds of writing with meaning well beyond a literal reading
Bible is viewed as a legal constitution where any one verse is as “good” as any otherBible is viewed as a library from many authors and views, all inspired by God.
studies Bible mainly for information and “truths”studies Bible to find the path of Jesus and align self with God’s mission
venerates Bible and takes it in the most literal sense possiblecelebrates the Bible and sees it as the story of God reaching his children in which we are still a part.  Holds the Bible as authoritative. 
faith is mostly about believing things in the Bible that seem to defy nature and are otherwise hard to believefaith is about trusting completely in God in all matters of life and depending totally on God and obeying God
makes a big deal about the Old Testament prophets predicting future eventsmakes a bigger deal about the OT prophets calling society towards justice and righteousness as the Creator originally intended
personal and societies’ prejudices easily legitimized by Bible verses rather than challengedall personal and societal attitudes are judged by Jesus’ teachings and spirit
prayer is mostly telling God what to do or asking for thingsprayer is more seeking what God wants and submitting self to it and seeking union with God
getting saved and going to heaven after death is a main focusdaily being transformed by God is a constant prayer
salvation is like a legal transaction between a sinner and God, the judgeor a business deal where a huge debt is paid by Jesussalvation is more like a marriage where love is given and received and promises made in covenant with God
a “salvation experience” in the past makes me OK todayI am being saved and renewed every day
when a person is saved and ready to go to heaven, he’s done.spiritual formation and growth continue as long as one lives
preoccupation with my own salvation and goodnessliberation from self-preoccupation to freely live and love
salvation is limited to an individual “getting right with God”God’s salvation includes all society and nature, not just individuals
salvation is being saved from God’s wrath and judgmentsalvation is being saved from a life without purpose, from living in fear, selfishness, greed, and hostility; saved from living small and loving little, and a whole lot more than just a judgment to come!
repentance is saying a very heartfelt “I’m sorry”repentance is accepting God’s offer of grace and continues by turning from sin
judgmental of others, especially those not like us or as good as us, since we aremorally superior to sinners
judging no one, but accepting all people in love as children of God
unwilling to freely forgive others, or very selective with forgivenessfreely forgives others, not without struggle and pain or trivializing offenses
unwilling to suffer for others, especially if wounded by themabsorbs the suffering of others, like Jesus did, even with no thanks
unwilling to submit to others and shuns receiving from otherswillingly submits to others in humility to serve them and be served
uses and/or manipulates other people to my own liking “for their own good”accepts and respects all people as children of God, even enemies
exaggerates differences and disregards unity as importantseeks unity for the common good of all followers of Jesus
personally serving God is optional or at least minimized in importanceserving God is a natural response to God’s love and forgiveness
Christian work is doing things for GodChristian work is participating in what God is doing in His world
doing things for God makes me feel good about myselfbeing a child of God makes me feel good about myself
asks “What reward do I get for doing good”?not concerned with any personal rewards, only that God’s will be done
showing up at church on Sunday fulfills a major portion of religious dutyworship, service, study and practice are all equally important
religious practice loosely related or unrelated to how I treat otherstreats all people with dignity as children of God whether they even accept God or not
Christian living means giving up certain “fun” thingsfollowing Jesus leads to the fullest joy of living completely
most “rewards” for believing in God will be in heaventhe “reward” is being renewed daily and living a full life now and in heaven
seeks to avoid a corrupt and evil world and go to heavenseeks to transform the corrupt and evil world in the present; prays for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.
having all the answers or at least squelching doubts and questionsseeks answers while honestly acknowledging doubts and questions; listening to other opinions
meeting God’s requirements is a main focusliving by grace;  grace is received from God and given to all others
proud of my own goodness; prone to self-righteousnessclaims no personal goodness, only forgiveness from God
seeing God as up in heaven, remote, distantseeing God as transcendent yet very near and in me.  Mystery!
focusing on insiders and excluding outsiders, especially sinnersignoring boundaries to include all people as God’s children
focuses more on sins of commission, like obvious outward sins, while neglecting sins of omission, like ignoring injustice and neglecting the poorfocuses on God’s reign over all life who requires justice for all, serving the needy, and helping the suffering in the spirit of Jesus and living for the common good of all
no hesitation in fighting evil and violence with violence and evilfollows Jesus’ example of non-violent resistance to evil and accepting the resultant suffering
satisfied with “conventional wisdom” about Christianitystudies the Bible to determine the path of Jesus in all areas of life and takes it
comparing myself with others lets me rest comfortably where I amcomparing myself to Jesus pulls me forward, closer to Him
seeks to categorize issues in black and white for easy assessment. Ambiguity is bad.sees multiple perspectives and lives with dynamic tensions in beliefs and ambiguities
seeking God is a casual affair done at personal convenienceseeking God is a daily quest involving the whole being
personal arrogance and other faults goes unchallengedshuns pride and seeks humility towards all people; seek to grow as a person
since Jesus is returning soon to take the Christians to heaven and the world is going to hell, let it go to hellsince we don’t know when Jesus will return, we join in God’s mission to reach his lost world as agents for God’s kingdom on earth.
homosexuals are clearly sinners and should be barred from church, especially as leadersdoes not pick out any particular sin as worse than others but prays for all mankind to be reconciled with God and all others.  Does not make issues of sexual identity a simple black and white issue.
all other religions are inferior to ours and they should accept ours because Jesus said if they don’t they are going to hell.other religions are treated with respect; followers of Jesus are not arrogant
the threat of hell is readily invoked as the “ultimate weapon” against sinners, enemies and those not agreeing with meseeks to judge or condemn no one and tolerates others with different opinions.  Judges self and all society with God’s heart – the spirit of Jesus.
satisfied that my version of the “Truth” is all there is and condemns any who disagreesees “truth” as bigger than anyone can contain and easily abused by the self-righteous.
makes complex social and personal issues “black and white” – abortion, homosexuality, illegal immigrants, poverty, AIDS, homelessnessavoids labeling people or making quick judgments about others without first listening and understanding.  Tolerates ambiguity and not having all the answers

quick to focus on the speck in someone else’s eyelooks to self for a log in my own eye before considering a speck in someone else
evangelism focuses on behaviors of outsiders for them to conform to proper morals (the “speck in their eye”) and gets received as a put-down.evangelism focuses on my own behavior (the “log in my eye”) to serve others like Jesus – offering the love of Jesus to them and is received as a lift-up.
saving the nation focuses on correcting unacceptable moral behaviors; “take this country for Jesus!”  “God bless America”saving the nation also includes working for justice, helping the poor, ending discrimination, saving the environment;  “America Bless God”
the judgment of God is something to be avoided.  It is meant for the sinners, not the saints.accepts God’s judgment as God’s means of purifying self from sin. Even saints are judged by God.
patriotism gets mixed into religion so much that it blunts God’s demands for justice and righteousness in societythe ways of Jesus are regarded higher than even loyalty to my nation.

When I look in the table above in the “following Jesus” column, I have to admit that as much as I consider myself a Christian, I don’t live up to this list very well.  I find myself contaminated by selfishness, lack of love, and old habits not consistent with following Jesus’ way.  I would rather shy away from taking on the burdens of others if it encroaches too much on my life.  I can still judge others too quickly.  I can still feel self righteous sometimes.  I am enjoying the good life in my country and haven’t concerned myself much with the plight of the billion poor people on my planet.  And I am surely falling short in other ways that I have yet to see.  Then am I not a Christian?  I would say that I am, but also that I am not fully there yet.  If we are honest, isn’t this where we all are?  Somewhere in the middle.  Somewhere along the way of Jesus.  Some of us farther along than others.  Maybe there should be a wide middle column in the above table where we could slide an indicator right or left as we grow in the ways of Jesus.  In my contaminated state, I can even fool myself in many ways into thinking that I am just fine when, in fact, I am covering up my sins, or calling them something else, or even blessing them.  If I want to grow as a follower of Jesus and follow him closer, then I must continually submit myself to examination by the Spirit of Jesus to root out hindrances and wanderings.  This is not to be “good” or “perfect”, but to be more open, honest with myself, and others, and God; to be more loving; to get rid of destructive, harmful habits and thoughts and selfishness; to seek further integrity as a person; to join more fully in God’s vision for His world.  When does this stop?  When have I followed far enough?  Does it last a lifetime?  When am I “done”?

Using the term “follower of Jesus” in this way gives us some handles in evaluating our experience with God in ways that we can see.  It opens up new avenues of awareness and growth.  If we only think in terms of “I am a Christian”, the implication in this is that my experience with God is all set since I’m going to heaven.  No further action is required.  But thinking about being a follower of Jesus leads us onward down the Jesus path of life.  Being a follower implies there is a leader and the leader is going somewhere.  Are the followers going with their leader?  Are the followers keeping up with their leader or are they falling behind?  Being a follower of Jesus implies some motion, a journey, a direction, going toward a destination.  Just standing on the path gets me nowhere.  This would mean that the measure of Christian maturity is not how many years has a person been a Christian, but rather how far down the path have we gone in following Jesus. 

There is a “conventional wisdom” about Christianity that says it’s about being good and going to heaven after we die.  And what many people are looking for is the minimum set of requirements to meet to not get sent to that other nasty place, because, just in case there really is a hell, you don’t want to go there!  But if Jesus is the way to heaven, then is he not also the way to life?  Jesus actually had far more to say about how to live life than he did about getting to heaven.  His focus was much more about our daily living than going to heaven when we die.  The conventional wisdom about Christianity leads us to think that if we just have some religious experience some time in our life, we “get saved”, then we are all set to go to heaven.  But if a person fails to get on the path of following Jesus, what does happen to the person who “gets saved?”  Can we still go to heaven even if we don’t follow Jesus very much?  How close do we have to follow Jesus to make it to heaven?  When I am once saved, am I always saved?  Can a person be “saved” and not go to church?  These are the questions asked by conventional wisdom about Christianity.  But the salvation that Jesus describes is like a person who found a hidden treasure of great price and went and sold all he had to acquire it.  Or like a bad son who came to his senses and returned home to his father; which, by the way, made his “conventional wisdom” brother very mad.

Not only in my congregation, but generally, there is widespread confusion about what it means to be a “Christian.”  Chuck Colson, in his book, Born Again, tells of his parent’s reaction after the news went out about their son’s religious conversion.  They were shocked and felt offended because they had raised him up as a Christian and here he was saying that all that time before he had not been a Christian.  A friend tells of a time when she was in a Bible study and all of a sudden realized that for the past 20 years she had been attending and working in church she had not been a Christian until that day when the light dawned in her as to what it all really meant.  Another friend tells of her “born again” experience in a time of great personal and family struggles sitting in church realizing that until that time she had heard a thousand sermons and never had a clue about what it really meant.  Even clergy experience the same awakening.  John Wesley was more religious than any of us and yet it was only after about 10 years that one evening in a Bible study his “heart felt strangely warmed” and that he was loved by God in a very personal way.  The Bible is full of the same stories, how religious people can go through the motions of their religion without being genuinely touched by God.  See Isaiah 1, where it says that God hates prayers and Amos 5:22-24.

As bad as it may be for me, being a somewhat contaminated “conventional wisdom” Christian, there is something even worse.  That would be a person who is a contaminated Christian and is not aware of it.  This would be the most common church member who has enough religion to make him or her happy and content and not too concerned about personal growth into the character of Jesus.  This would account for the source of many struggles in our churches as these unwittingly contaminated Christians attempt to perform their religious duties and function together.  This would account for the lack of unity in churches since contaminated Christianity is full of “selfs” not unlike any other group of people.

I believe that much of what we have in our churches is closer to contaminated Christianity rather than to following Jesus.  How can I make this charge?  By looking at our fruit.  I see us doing poorly at spreading the kingdom of God to all people like Jesus commanded.  I see us spending much more time serving ourselves than others.  I see us focusing more on what we do on Sunday morning than we do on reaching out to people far from God.  I don’t see our society being transformed by the church.  I don’t see any weeping over a billion poor people starving to death on the earth.  I hear a lot of noise from Christians against homosexuals and right wing issues and “God bless America” and little calling for America to bless God.  I don’t see much of a challenge to our consumer-oriented society to care for the poor and needy.  I see a widening gap between the rich and poor and a middle class complaining about not having enough and wanting to build a wall around our borders to keep out the poor riffraff immigrants.  I see us living a lifestyle that the earth cannot support on a global basis if everyone lived like us.  These and many, many more issues indicate to me that the church-at-large in the United States is not living up to the calling of Jesus to live like they are in the kingdom of God and live transformed lives that transforms our society.  We are struggling because of contaminated “conventional wisdom” Christianity.

I challenge everyone who calls himself or herself a Christian to consider where you are in following Jesus.  I issue the challenge to everyone;  folks who split from their church and folks who stay, folks who have been in church a long time and newcomers, folks who have lots of answers and those who don’t.  Take time to go over the table above and take an inventory of your experience with God.  Ask yourself some questions:  What kind of follower of Jesus am I?  How is my “soil”?  Am I following the real Jesus or have I bought into the conventional wisdom about Jesus?  Have I tamed Jesus to my own liking?  How do I understand the path of Jesus?  Can I just get my ticket to heaven then comfortably wait until I die to use it?  What kind of a follower of Jesus are you?  I urge everyone to join me in following Jesus.  Let’s go further down the path.  Let’s not follow at a distance but get closer to him.  Let’s invite others to join us in following Jesus, too. 

4/15/2008  Joe Vandegriff   7/23/2009  7/19/2011

A few further thoughts:

Being “born again” and “getting saved” are ways to describe a person’s entry into a life of following Jesus.  For some people, being “born again” is that mysterious moment of clarity when God seems near and we see ourselves as naked before him and yet loved and accepted.  For others, it is a long process of growth until one day a person looks back and sees that something happened, something wonderful and mysterious.  However it occurs, being “born again” and “getting saved” are only the beginning of a life of following Jesus; this is the beginning of a journey and definitely not the end!

A loyal church member said that a former pastor angered him one day when he asked him if he was a Christian.  “Of course,” he said, “I’m a Christian.  I’ve been coming to this church for 40 years and giving my money.  What kind of a question is that?!”   That pretty much ended the conversation.  But do you see the flaw in his reply?  (Dear reader, if you don’t see any flaw here, then you are missing a great deal.)  Further, do you see the flaw in the question that was put to him?  It’s a black and white question allowing for a simplistic Yes or No answer.  The question would have been better asked like this: “I would like to know about your religious experience.  Can you tell me about it?”   And the answer, if he were insightful and honest, could have been like this:  “Well, I got saved 40 years ago and I’ve been coming to this church and giving to it for 40 years, so that must count for something, doesn’t it?  Why do you ask?”  From there the conversation could take off into paths of discovery and mutual benefit and encouragement.  But if we can only think in terms of black and white, being a Christian or not being a Christian, then we are treating the test for Christianity as only an entry examination.  If I am “saved” then I’m ok.  I pass the entrance exam.  But there are many “exams” along the way when Jesus beacones us to let him have more of us and love more and more until it hurts.  We are tested in every relationship and situation to take the path of Jesus or just go our own way.  Getting “saved” is like getting in a car to take a journey.  Sure, you are in the car, but now where do you go?  Does it matter where you go or is there a map for this journey?  If I just sit in the car in the driveway, that is no journey!  And just cruising for fun and pleasure is not the journey of following Jesus.  When well intentioned clergy, or anyone, says, “All you have to do to be a Christian is say this little prayer…”  it is only partly true.  But what about the rest of life after that little prayer?  Is that really “all you have to do?”

While there is a wide interest among people in going to heaven after they die and avoiding that other, nasty place, there is not such a wide interest in following Jesus.  There are plenty of people who seek the comfort of believing they are headed for heaven after they die but not having any interest in living life now in the way of Jesus.  Are these people to be called Christians?  They would no doubt consider themselves as Christians.  They most likely go to church.  They are serving on church boards and doing lots of good work for their churches.  Even preaching in pulpits.  But what about following Jesus?  Isn’t that what it’s all about? 

Discovering the path of Jesus.  If we are to consider ourselves followers of Jesus, how do we know the path of Jesus?  Just accepting without question the conventional wisdom about Christianity will not put one on the path of Jesus.  The only way to know the path is to read and study and re-read and re-study the gospels of Jesus.  Here we see the life of Jesus and hear the teachings of Jesus.  And, of course, the rest of the Bible, too.  But we must keep coming back to the gospels.  Every generation must discover Jesus anew for their generation.  If the followers of Jesus do not focus on Jesus, their leader, then what kind of followers are they?  Can there be recreational followers who are in it mainly for the fun and fellowship?  Can there be casual followers who follow only the paths they like?  Can there be convenient followers who go only so far until it costs too much?  Can there be part-time followers who pick and choose how and when they want to follow Jesus? 

Not only does admitting that I am a contaminated Christian allow me to own up to my shortcomings with honesty but it actually serves to keep me moving closer to Jesus.  If a person never admits to any “contamination” at all in their lives, aren’t they just fooling themselves?  How can that person grow?  To be off the path and know it allows a person to seek the path and get back on it.  But to be off the path and not know it will leave a person off the path for a long time and not even knowing he is lost and wandering around, getting farther away.  When Jeus would have us continue straight on the path and we turn, how do we ever get back on the path without recognizing our turn, repenting, and returning again to follow Him?  When straying from the path, do I cease to be a Christian anymore?  Does it mean I will miss heaven?  I don’t know.  But it does mean I will miss out on the fullness of life that God has for me right now.  Which is worse?  To miss the full life of God now or to miss heaven?  It seems that to miss heaven would be worse, but this line of thinking seems more related to conventional wisdom than the message of Jesus who said that the kingdom of heaven is here and now!

So I call upon all who call ourselves “Christian” to examine our understanding of the path of Jesus and where we are in following Jesus on His path.  In addition to pondering the table above, I urge us to consider our religious life with the following probing questions*:

  •  Is the religious life focused on this life or the next (and if both, then in what proportion)?
  •  Is it about meeting God’s requirements, whether they are many or few? Or about living by grace in a place beyond the dynamic of requirements?
  •  Does it lead to a preoccupation with our own salvation and goodness (or lack thereof)?  Or to liberation from self-preoccupation?
  •  Does it result in an emphasis on righteousness and boundary drawing?  Or is the emphasis on compassion and an inclusive social (and even ecological) vision?
  •  Is it about believing in a supernatural being “out there” or about being in relationship with a sacred reality “right here”?

* from The God We Never Knew by Marcus J. Borg, pp. 4-5.

Joe Vandegriff,  January 28, 2008

I would rather not choose the term “believer” to describe Christians.  Believing is more of a mental process for us that is often not related to what we actually do.  There are a lot of “beliefs” about Christianity, but only a few are essential and I see them as being very broad rather than specific details about many things.  For example, the virgin birth of Jesus.  I see it as a very detailed “belief” that the early church used to convey that somehow in Jesus God has entered our world and it has never been the same since.  It is possible for a person to hold dearly to a belief in the virgin birth of Jesus and still act as if God has not entered into human history to alter our whole way of life.  I could believe in a virgin birth and still miss the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus.  I am convinced that we treat many of our religious beliefs more like idols.  They are like sacred things that we bow down to then get up and live with no regard to them.  The Ten Commandments are a good example of this.  There is a lot of heated debate about displaying this religious text in government building, but where is the heated debate about actually running our society by what they say?  It seems to me that idol worship is still in full force today – among us Christians.  Even further, I believe we treat the Bible itself more like an idol.  I know this statement will bring me much wrath and condemnation.  But our treatment and regard for the Bible appears like it is being worshipped along with God.  I hold the Bible very highly in my regard.  But when we call it inerrant, infallible, and take it only in the most literal sense, this has led us to serious flaws in our thinking.  Among our greatest damage is the literal seven days of creation.  Much effort is done by some to force a mountain of scientific observation into a view of holding to what the Bible “says” is a young universe of only 10,000 years at most and certainly not billions.  My view is that perhaps what we should learn is that God actually uses natural processes to accomplish his purposes and, if this is true, we should re-examine all of our thinking to see how this might alter our views.

Could there be such a thing as “recreational Christianity”?  Another term for contaminated Christianity might be called “casual Christianity”.  Or maybe “convenient Christianity”.  How about “comfortable Christianity”?  “Part-time Christianity”.  “Effort-less Christianity”.  “cross-less Christianity” “non-suffering Christianity” “Christianity for the rich”