Muhammad Ali

I’m sad to say that for most of my life I didn’t like Muhammad Ali – until I recently visited the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, KY.   In my mind, he had 3 strikes against him.
1 – He was arrogant. I still remember him shouting in the ring “I am the greatest!”  Of course, he just won the boxing world championship which made him the greatest boxer in the world. 
2. He converted to Islam. I didn’t know why anyone in their right mind would want to do that. 
3. He was a draft dodger during the Vietnam War. 
And, even sadder to say, I think behind these three reasons was racism that kept me from seeing a real person rather than just another black man.

After I found out some real information about him, I see him now as a hero.  Plus, I have changed in my heart to see my racism and put it aside.  This opens up new possibilities of seeing people and I highly recommend the same for everyone.  Please keep reading for what changed in my mind about Ali.

 1.  He came into boxing by accident about age 11 when he went to a local police station after his bicycle was stolen.  They didn’t find his bike but invited him to join a boxing club for youth.  He quickly excelled at boxing and by sheer hard work and training actually became “the greatest” boxer.  No denying that he earned his bragging rights.  And later, when his title was stripped, he won it back. Friends, that is impressive – the stuff of real heros.

2.  Here’s the reason behind Ali going to Islam.  Even though he was the greatest boxer in the world, he still couldn’t enter a cafe for lunch in his own hometown, except maybe thru the back door.  He was still just another black man in the segregated South.  It was the Christians who told him he wasn’t good enough for the front door.  When Muslims accepted him he even changed what he called his “slave name”, Cassius Clay, to complete his rejection of Christianity.  So now I see that the version of Christianity that tolerates and promotes racism, of which I was a partner, is the same version that Ali rejected and that I now reject as well.  Sadly, this corrupted version of Christianity is still alive and well in America.

3.  His draft dodging rationale was this: why should he risk his life fighting for rights somewhere else that he didn’t even have at home?   His biggest enemy was white Christians who denied his rights, not the Vietcong.  He had enough money to hire lawyers to get him cleared on this. But the boxing commission took his title away.  Instead of just getting mad, he got back into training and won the title back a second time.  

It’s no surprise that when my prejudices found real information instead of assumptions and stereotypes, they didn’t hold up. I hope when I get to heaven, if I get to meet Ali. I’ll tell him how sorry I am for the way I was and rejoice that God can bring all people together as His children.

For a good brief story on Muhammad Ali:

Jesus to the church in America

In Revelation 2 & 3 Jesus gives an individual message to 7 churches in Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

Here is my shot at what Jesus might say to the Church in America:

I know how your forefathers took the land by treachery and force from others

  and built it with injustice on the backs of kidnapped slaves,

yet I have blessed you with great resources, power, and wealth to be a blessing to the world.

But instead of serving my needy children of the world

    with medical care and clean water and education

    and freeing women and rescuing the poor and oppressed,

    you consume your blessings on yourselves and your security.

Do not think I am pleased with much worship from you who are blind to my suffering children.

Woe to those who, instead of loving sinners, go after them like the Pharisees.

Instead of unity, your thousands of divisions are deplorable to me.

Woe to those who use my name without my humble spirit and powerful love for all people.

Oh, and using my name for profit makes me sick.

Return to my good way and listen to my prophets of old:

“Learn to do good.  Rescue the oppressed.  Defend the fatherless. Plead for the widow.”

Show the world my compassion and mercy, not judgment, fear and condemnation;

then the world will know my love and come to me,

and I will heal your land and you will truly live.

Here is a version from a fundamentalist Jesus::

I see the pressure on you from the wicked, godless society

  and hear your prayers for strength

      to continue to stand up for morality and family values under attack.

So continue to defend the faith of the saints.

Stand firmly against the sinners who defile my holy word

    and those who dare to remove the 10 sacred commands.

Work to turn your society to me

    by infiltrating your political system with true believers;

then the laws will uphold and enforce my high standards

     of morality and decency; once the sinners are converted or purged, then I will bless your nation.

And do not be fooled by the false ways of other religions

    but hold up the purity of your belief system and your righteousness.

In all this, give me honor and glory,

Then you will receive your golden crown with me in heaven.

God Bless America

There is a version of Christianity in the United States that says, “God bless America,” and “God bless our troops.”

But I never hear it say, “God bless the world,” and “God bless our enemies.”*

What kind of Christianity is this?  Is this what Jesus had in mind?

Or is this more like a civil religion that baptizes our national culture rather than critique it according to the teachings and spirit of Jesus?

* I make this statement on the basis of my own observation.  Whenever I hear a prayer for our troops, it always stops there – with our troops.  “God bless our troops in Iraq”.  I’ve never heard anyone go beyond that and pray, “God bless our troops in Iraq and the people of Iraq.”  Jesus told us plainly to pray for our enemies (if you don’t even know where he said that, shame on you!) but there seems to be a great reluctance to do so.  How can that be?  Maybe we’d rather worship Jesus than actually do what he said.


America, Bless God!

I saw a billboard that said America Bless God.  I got excited.  Finally, I thought, here is someone that sees it.

But when I checked their web site, I found out that their concerns were about opposing homosexuals, fighting against teaching evolution in schools, opposing tolerance to pluralism, and fighting to keep the Ten Commandments in federal building.  Their views on how our country should “bless God” had nothing to do with the mission of Jesus – helping the poor, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, reaching out to the forgotten and downtrodden, or loving our enemies. 

here is an excerpt from my Growing Up in a Garage story.  Loving our enemies is one of the major ways for America to Bless God.

I pose the question of what would happen if a large number of people actually decided to love our enemies.  Actively love them, as in do things to help them, listen to them, try to understand them, find out what their needs are and help them – things that equate to real love.  Not just in theory or “in our hearts.”  What would happen?  These people would be met with huge resistance for the rest of society who would think it not only inappropriate but betrayal of our country and traitors.  They would be punished!  Actually loving one’s enemies would get that one in serious trouble!  Just look at Jesus.

   Here is an old Chinese proverb: when a finger points to the moon, the foolish person looks at the finger.

   This may sound crazy, but I think it is possible to “believe” the Bible so much that the result is to sometimes miss the point entirely.  A good example is what is often done with the Old Testament book of Jonah.  You know, Jonah and the whale.  Is this history or it is literature?  Some would say that if it is “just” literature, like a parable, then it isn’t “factually” true and that would be impossible since the Bible is ultimate truth.  So they go to great lengths to “prove” how a man could actually breathe and live in the belly of a fish for three days and come out alive.  If the “proofs” fall short, they also say that we should just have enough “faith” to believe this, and if I don’t believe it then I lack faith.  But with all respect and great love, I don’t see it that way at all.  The point of Jonah is not the fish story at all but how God loves even our enemies that we despise.  Jonah wants to see his enemies destroyed, and his proclamation of God’s love comes out of him as an accusation against God!  It is our choice to embrace the God who loves everyone, even our enemies, or to reject this concept of God’s love and get mad, like Jonah, because God won’t wipe out our enemies.  Sadly, over the years I’ve heard far more about the fish than how God loves everyone and that maybe we should too, enemies included.  This seems to me like focusing on the finger instead of the moon, as in the Chinese proverb.  I don’t care to debate the fish story because I wish we would focus on the real point of God’s message to us from His prophet Jonah.  If God loves our enemies, then what does that mean for us who claim to love this God and follow Jesus?  It seems to me that loving our enemies has yet to be tried on a large scale.  I wonder what might happen if…

  I hope you read Jonah.  Another great message from Jonah is this:  “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me.  From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.”  Jonah 2:2.  When Jonah found himself on the wrong path, he turned to God, and God set him back on the right path!  This is one of God’s specialties!

   3)  I want my grandchildren to know that from very early in my Christian life I had a nagging thought that something was missing in the Christianity that I knew.  There were periods where this was so strong that I doubted myself as a Christian and even if there was a God.  A large part of this was due to my analytical mind.  When I took Christianity apart in my mind and tried to put it back together with what I knew in the Bible, so many things didn’t seem to fit.  This bothered me greatly, but I didn’t know how to resolve it.  I’m sure some people would tell me to quit “thinking” about it so much and just “believe.”  But I cannot accept that what we believe should not stand the test of critical thinking.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t need faith.  But what kind of faith?

   To my grandchildren, I say don’t be too surprised or alarmed if some time in your life you find yourself having doubts.  Don’t try to fool yourself into denying them or otherwise dismiss your doubts.  They are telling you something.  Just what they mean is your quest to find out.  Even if it takes a long time, the most likely outcome will be your growth.

   I wish I could tell you here in my little story how I am resolving all this.  But it would be too much.  I have written much about this elsewhere that I hope someday we could share at length.

2/11/16.  Sodomy and God Bless America

Sodom was destroyed by God because they were so wicked.  The only sin mentioned was when some men came to Lot’s house to rape Lot’s visitors (who were really angels that had come to Lot’s rescue).  So the idea that God punishes a city for sodomy is firmly part of the Bible. Indeed, God flooded the whole earth for wickedness. So when some people make the statement, or if you want to call it a prayer, “God bless America”, the implication behind that is the idea of suppressing gay activities since God will punish our nation or at least withhold his blessing because of these wicked sinners among us.

So a large part of the work of the church is seen to be like Abraham who pleaded with God not to destroy Sodom if there were some small number of righteous people there to be spared.  This makes the church the guardians of morality who keep God’s wrath at bay by their prayers and righteousness.

This seems to make sense, since it’s right there in the Bible.  The problem with it is that it has no basis in the teachings or life of Jesus.  For starters, Jesus didn’t go around condemning sinners and guarding the morality of society. In fact, just the opposite.  He was accused by the keepers of society of being cozy with sinners. Jesus violated the rules of decency by touching lepers, treating women and children with dignity, standing up for sinners, speaking kindly of their enemies, etc.  Beyond his actions, his teachings lead us to see God more as a compassionate father than a harsh judge bent on punishing the wicked.

The Pharisees were the keepers of their society. They desired God’s blessings on their society. They saw the sinners as a hindrance to God’s blessing. When they saw Jesus freely forgiving sinners and accepting the unacceptable, they knew this was wrong.  When Jesus was moved with compassion, they were moved to wrath. I see the same thing now in popular Christianity that desires God’s blessing on our nation by condemning the sinners.

Please do not think i am opposed to a decent,  moral society. The Christian influence is a great benefit to society. But this does not mean that the job of the church is to condemn sinners with threats of hellfire. Our work is the same as Jesus – serving the needy, welcoming the outcasts rejected by society, loving our enemies, standing up for sinners against their accusers, etc.

So my prayer is for America to bless God.  And since Jesus said he came to “set captives free,  “ [Luke 4], I believe this is how to bless God – to carry on the work that Jesus began.  To lift up the poor, to serve the needy, to encourage the oppressed, to be peacemakers, to welcome the outcasts and strangers, etc.  Not to judge. Not to plead with an angry God to spare us from His wrath.

The wickedness that God sees is more than just individual sinners but a society that tolerates and perpetuates injustice by the privileged and morally superior. Popular Christianity can’t see the sins of society for focusing on individual morality issues.

Please note that these comments in no way condone the despicable actions of the men of Sodom. However,  it would also be despicable to judge all homosexuals by the actions of these few sex crazed men.

As for God destroying the whole city for wickedness, I have to question – is this really how God works? I rather think this is how a natural catastrophe was interpreted by the ancients, especially by their enemies. It’s the same now when Rev. Jerry Falwell blamed the 9-11 terrorist attacks on God’s judgment against America because of the gays among us. I call that despicable even though he later retracted his remark. The teachings of Jesus point us to a God of love for all people, including our enemies and those we might deem unworthy.

Another problem: the keepers of society can easily also become the keepers of the status quo. Think of the southern Christians opposing the civil rights movement in the 1950’s & 60s. Even their biblical claims could not conceal their hypocrisy when they turned to violence to defend their status quo. I see it the same now with the Christians opposing gay rights who seem to have no qualms about adultery. Isn’t it hypocrisy to pick out one sin that you don’t like? To deny rights to people whose life you don’t like?

If the church did the work of Jesus by serving and defending the outcasts, strangers and needy, it would be a form of condemnation against the society that neglects them. This is how the Christians should be keeping society. Not by accusations and condemnations from those who consider themselves morally superior.  This would put the Christians at odds with the majority of people who do not want to love their enemies and are very comfortable with neglecting the poor and needy and outcasts. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said the world would hate his followers.

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”

Summary of Isaiah

Summary of Isaiah:  thought questions to ponder, study, and learn from Isaiah

1.  What is Isaiah’s vision?  How would you describe the Vision?  What is the Vision about?  How does this Vision relate to you as an individual?  Our church?  Our nation?  The whole world?  What if Isaiah’s Vision were to capture our hearts?  What does this Vision have to say about how life should be lived, our lives and our church and our nation?

2.  One of Isaiah’s strong messages is that God is holy.  But what does that mean?  What does it mean for us that God is holy?  How would you describe the holiness of God?  If God is holy, what difference does that make in how we live?  What difference does that make in how our church operates and what we do as a church of the holy God? 

3.  What are we to make of the anger of God and the violence that seems to come from God?

     Why is God angry?  What are the purposes of God’s wrath? 

4.  According to Isaiah, God judges the nations and directs the actions of nations as agents to do his work.  Does that apply today?  How?

5.  It seems clear that Isaiah described the coming of Jesus.  And in Luke 4 Jesus claimed his mission as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s message.  What are we to make of that?  How would Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God and in the Sermon on the Mount,  and etc. relate to Isaiah’s vision?  Could Jesus have brought Isaiah’s vision to life?

6.   Do you think we need a new prophet Isaiah today?  What would his vision be?  What message would he be giving?   What would he tell us to do?

7.   Throughout Isaiah there is mention of justice and righteousness.  What is this about?  What does justice and righteousness have to do with us today?

8.   Idols.  Isaiah says God is against them.  What is that to us?

[10/2/2015  maybe one of the appeals of the other gods is their lack of ethical demands on the worshipers.  The God of Isaiah made strong ethical demands of the people for justice and righteousness in society. When people have material means in excess of bare necessities, Yaweh expects the excess to be shared to those in need. This still goes against our natural inclinations even today as well as then.  We prefer a god who lets us live in comfort and lets us hate our enemies so we can fight against them. ]

                                     Great Themes in Isaiah

1. The holiness of God.

2.  God judges the nations, including Israel and Judah.

3.  God oversees the actions of the nations and uses them as his agents.  God is in control of history.

4.  God demands that life and societies be lived with justice and righteousness and not lip service.  The is the strong ethical demands of God.

5.  A time of judgment is coming when all things will be made right.  Injustice will be undone; reconciliation and restoration will occur. Especially, the poor will be lifted up.

6.  God desires his people’s genuine love and wants to bless all people.




Isaiah on Justice and Righteousness

1:11-17  Faithful religious observances do not interest God if the worshipers do not promote a just society and help the needy.

5:7  Song of the Vineyard.  Israel was planted by God as a vineyard, but it yielded bad grapes.  “And he (God, the vine keeper) looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”

9:6-7  the one who will reign on David’s throne will do so “with justice and righteousness.”

10:1-2 “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees,

    to deprive the poor of their rights and rob my oppressed people of justice,

    making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”

    Such has been the history of mankind, where people of power, authority and privilege use their position of advantage selfishly instead of willingly sharing with those of no power or privilege.

11:1-9  A shoot from the stump of Jesse…  “with righteousness he will judge the needy,  with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.”

Even the animal kingdom will reflect this new society where the strong do not prey on the weak.

16:5  “In love a throne will be established;  in faithfulness a man will sit on it – one from the house of David – one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness.”

32:1-8  A king who reigns in righteousness and rules with justice is contrasted with  a foolish person who, among other things, leaves the hungry empty, and neglects the legitimate needs of the poor.

58:1-10  vv. 6-7  “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

    to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,

    to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?

    Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer

    with shelter –

    when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own

 flesh and blood?”

61:1-2  Jesus used this to describe his mission (leaving out “the day of vengeance” part).

    “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

    because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

    He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.”

Other verses:  28:17;  29:20-21;  32:16;  33:5;  56:1;  59:15b; 

God Is Holy

What does this mean for us?  Gleanings from Isaiah.

1.  God’s purposes are good.  When God created, he called it “good”.  The Hebrew word for this has the meaning of something fulfilling it’s intended purpose.  It was God’s purpose to create life and humans in God’s own likeness.  If we do not believe that God’s original intention was for his children to live a glorious life of joy and meaning and fulfillment, then none of the rest of this matters!

2.  God’s holiness puts God above his creation, including mankind.  Since God made everything, including mankind, with a purpose in mind, God is in a position to make judgments based on the fulfillment of his purposes.  Yet God being above his creation does not mean that God is not involved.  On the contrary, God is intimately involved with his creation, both living and non-living.

3.  Mankind, made in God’s image, was meant to live a certain way – in dependence on God and trust in God which would result in peace and harmony among all God’s children and the earth.  It would be a life of incredible joy for all mankind.  But having free will, mankind chooses not to depend wholly on God or trust God completely which leads to living in fear and greed, which leads to all kinds of grief as mankind seeks in vain to live other than how we were made to live.  God’s holiness enters in by not allowing life lived without dependence on God or trust in God to ultimately succeed.  Then we are foolish enough to blame God for our troubles and even accuse God of being cruel.  But was it cruel for God to make life to be lived in a certain way?  Was it cruel for God to give a free will to his creatures to decide to trust and love their Maker?

4.  Any nation, society, or person not in harmony with God’s purposes will be under God’s judgment, which is meant to bring mankind back into harmony with God and among ourselves. We tend to think of judgement as a form of punishment.  But this is not God’s intent – just to punish wrong-doers. God’s intent is to restore us into the closeness of relationship with Him and all other of His children.

5.  God will not be deceived into accepting mankind’s praise without the accompanying life that is lived in accordance with God’s way to live.  Religious traditions give us many words to use in song and prayers and creeds that can easily be spoken without much thought as to their actual meaning while giving us the illusion of true worship.  [ this explains at least to me why in part the social surveys in the US indicate that the Christians have the same amount of troubles as those who claim no religion.  The reason is that God cannot bless the lip service of shallow, thoughtless worship. ]

6.  Any person or group that puts other of God’s children down violates God’s purposes for his creatures.  This is a violation against God’s holiness, who loves all his children.  Thus the domination of one people over another is an affront to the holiness of God.  Any action by mankind that harms the earth, human or non-human, is violating God’s desire for creating and sustaining life.  This is a message of Jesus that the church chooses to ignore – ALL PEOPLE are made in God’s image and equally loved by their Creator!  The earth itself is God’s creation and must not be violated by man’s greed for profit.  Jesus shows clearly that this goes even further; to not care for or help the poor, who may be poor through no fault or action of your own, is also a violation of how life is to be lived.

Woe to the ones who contribute to causing the poor to suffer!

7.  God’s terms are non-negotiable.  We are experts at making excuses, some of them even sounding very religious.   In fact, maybe even religion is one of the best ways to avoid the ultimate demands of God with a well structured fascode.  (see N.T. Wright in some book?) 

God’s Anger versus Human Anger

1.  Our anger is meant to hurt, to vent our frustrations, to get revenge.  That’s why God’s anger is a puzzle to us – we can’t see God being as petty as we are.

2.  God’s anger is meant to end injustice and oppression, to make things right, to reverse wrongs through reconciliation.  To reverse wrongs is different than revenge.

3.  God’s anger comes from God’s holiness.

4.  Our anger comes from being hurt, a self-defense;  we fight to protect ourselves and to be in control.  We fear that if we are not in control we feel weak and fear we will get hurt.  We would rather hurt others than for ourselves to be hurt.

5.  God’s anger is not meant just to hurt but to restore what has been lost.  [ If a person is sick, we think nothing of hurting them!  They are cut open, or irradiated, or whatever, to rid them of disease.  When a person’s heart is sick with hurts, greed, selfishness, fear, or unloving, it will take some painful medicine to bring healing. ]

6.  It almost seems that the God of the Old Testament and New Testament are not the same.  But not so.

The God of Jesus is just as passionate against injustice and evil to bring righteousness and peace and joy, but the difference is that God is more like a lamb, silently suffering and absorbing the world’s suffering and evil rather than a warrior dishing out revenge and suffering on the enemy. 

Does God punish sinners for their sins, or do the sins themselves lead to their own punishment?

If God made life to be lived in a certain way, trusting God in faith, etc. then when people do not live that way life does not go well.  It is the holiness of God that does not let a life of non-trust succeed.

The punishment for our sin, a life lived less than full, etc. is just the natural consequence of living without God.  But then we blame God for our suffering!  Analogy:  if a kid takes a wheel off his wagon, it won’t pull very well or work very good.  He will complain and not enjoy his wagon, but he is the one who took it apart.

Punishment can cause a person to further rebel and harden further against making any corrections (repenting) or it can cause a person to reassess the situation and look for what is really going on and take responsibility for his part (confession) and desire to change going forward (repentance).  If God judges, it is to move us to repentance, to healing and restoration of God’s grand and glorious intentions for us.  God’s judgment will seem crushing and cruel only by those who do not see their rebellion, lack of trust, and thus will not turn from their ways against God.

The following on Isaiah’s vision was originally separate from the exploration of the meanings of God is Holy, but with further thought it now seems to all fit together.  Isaiah’s vision was based on the holiness of God and flows from that out to society and life in general.  It is significant that Isaiah began his work as a prophet after a vision of God in the temple, Isaiah 6.  (Even though this is not introduced until chapter 6 it is still regarded as his initial, formative moment.)  Above all in his vision is God and the holiness of God.  All that follows from Isaiah flows from this vision of the holiness of God.

  Isaiah’s Vision

What is Isaiah’s Vision?  How would you describe the Vision?  What is the Vision about?

How does this Vision relate to you as an individual?  Our church?  Our nation?  The whole world?

We need to think deeply about these questions otherwise the study of Isaiah will be only a matter of so much information to put in our heads.  But what if Isaiah’s Vision were to capture our hearts?  What does this Vision have to say about how life should be lived, our lives and our church and our nation?

One of Isaiah’s strong messages is that God is holy.  But what does that mean?  What does it mean for us that God is holy?

How would you describe the holiness of God?  If God is holy, what difference does that make in how we live?  What difference does that make in how our church operates and what we do as a church of the holy God? 

The vision is BIG, not small, not limited to his own clan or country or region. 

1.  Isa. 6 – In the year that the king of Judah died, Isaiah saw God seated on a throne.  Uzziah had been a good king for many (?) years, but now all that suddenly ended.  The people were in shock and grief.  What would follow?  No one had much confidence in the son of Uzziah that would rule next.  Other nations were threatening Judah from all sides.  It was a very troubling time.  But Isaiah had a vision of God seated on a throne, high above any throne on earth.  Here was the real ruler over earth.  God’s rule extends to every nation, every person.

From “People of the Covenant An Introduction to the Old Testament”, by Henry Jackson Flanders, Jr., Robert Wilson Crapps, David Anthony Smith; The Ronald Press Company, 1963:  Page 307.  “The prophet was tragically disturbed because the long and prosperous reign of Uzziah had ended.  The immediate situation was critical; the future ominous.  The life of the people of Judah centered in their king, and grief was great at the death of a good one.  How could Judah face the increasing Assyrian menace under the leadership of Uzziah’s weak and ineffectual son Jotham?  In the disheartening sorrow of such an hour Isaiah became a prophet as he saw The King Yahweh, the real ruler of Israel, seated upon his throne.  The prophet then realized that while kings on David’s throne might come and go, Yahweh was Judah’s everlasting king and upon him the security of the Davidic state depended.”

2. God is in a position to make demands. 

3.  God demands righteousness.  This means right living.  It involves fair treatment to everyone.  It means people of wealth and power use their influence to aid the poor and powerless.  God seeks justice for all people on earth. 

4.  Trusting God is the only way to live.  How many ways do we not trust God?  Political treaties with other nations.  Living selfishly, hoarding our own treasures instead of sharing with the needy, seeking revenge when wronged, not telling the truth to protect ourselves, trusting in a huge military for our security,

5.  Because God loves all of his children, he is not pleased when some of his children suffer at the hands of other of his children.  Even if suffering is not caused by others, if those others turn their back to the suffering, God is angered. 

6.  Judgment from God is always followed by compassion and a chance to turn back to God to receive mercy and find life.  But God is not fooled by insincere lip service.  He looks for changed lives by looking for a just society.  It is not enough for me to “be good” as an individual.  I must stand up for the poor or else I side with the oppressors.  A just society is God’s measuring stick for true repentance.  As long as people are being oppressed and exploited, as long as the poor are left in poverty, as long as the wealthy and powerful hold on to their advantages, God stands in judgment.

In our prayers, do we pray for the world?  Including our enemies?  We pray for our troops and rightly so.  But I don’t hear us praying for the people of Iraq or Afghanistan or our enemies.

Our country’s military spending is not only the largest of all the nations, but exceeds the military budgets of the next 30 biggest military budgets combined!  Yet we piously say “In God We Trust”.  Where is our real security?

If the USA tithed our military budget, that alone could solve over half of the world’s hunger and poverty.  Wouldn’t that buy us some credibility as a Christian nation a million times more than our military strength?

If we shared our wealth with the rest of the world, maybe we wouldn’t have to build a wall around our borders to keep out the poor riffraff.

Many voices are saying that the American way of life is not sustainable.  This is not coming from a lunatic fringe but from main stream groups like IEEE which reported in a technical journal that for the rest of the world to live as we do by the year 2100 there will be no more copper in the earth’s crust.  Texas farmers in the panhandle irrigate with massive amounts of underground water such that the water table is declining every year.  How long can that go on?

Our unsustainable lifestyle goes way beyond recycling.  The day is coming when we will be forced to scale back on the way we live. 

[ new thought on Nov. 24, 2010 – God does not demand punishment.  God demands holiness and justice.  There is a world of difference between these.  God uses judgment to bring about holiness and justice – not just for the sake of punishing evil and evil doers.  ][ however, in the theory of substitutional atonement it looks to me like God demands punishment, that the object of God’s demand is that sin must be punished.  I believe now that God’s real object is not to punish sinners but to restore sinners to sons and daughters, to bring us back who have run away from the One who loves us. ] further [ There IS punishment for our sin and evil doing.  But it does not come as a direct result from God as if God enjoys meting it out.  No, our punishment comes at our own hands, we the humans, God’s creatures, when we live life other than the way God intended.  When we don’t trust our Creator, don’t believe that we will be taken care of, chose to let fear control us, then life will not go well.  Living a life apart from God’s way leads to its own punishment.  Seven centuries of recorded human history is proof enough. ]


Isaiah has no doubt who is really in control of things.  The masses are swayed by public opinion and fearful for their future.

Albino Africans, Native Americans, Relativity & Homosexuality

I hope this title intrigues people enough to bear with me to read how these disparate things can be connected, at least in my mind, and conclude that I may not be as crazy as it might seem.

Many Africans believe that albinos possess magical powers which can be passed on by eating their flesh.  They have no understanding of a genetic disorder that results in a lack of pigmentation. All they know about albinos is here is someone very different and they are led to ascribe some magic to explain how this can be.

It seems to be a universal human trait to search for meaning in the world we see around us.  In ancient times, if a drought or bad storm occurred, it was understood that the gods must be angry and needed to be appeased.  When Jesus encountered a blind man, his disciples asked him who sinned, the blind man or his parents, that caused him to be blind.  Being blind is not normal and certainly not good; so how does this happen?  Humans look for explanations for things.  We search for meaning.  So Africans who do not know science, explain albinism as having to come from magic.  Witch doctors thrive on this belief since they can fetch a lot of money by providing someone an albino body part to eat for good luck.

So what does this have to do with homosexuals?  It seems to me that our common condemnation of LGBT people is based on no better information than what the Africans think about albinos.  How do we account for some people falling outside of the normal gender roles?  I see it highly likely that our common understanding of homosexual people is a complete misunderstanding.  It is assumed by most people that it is a sinful choice a person makes to not behave in a normal manner.  The bible has injunctions against homosexuality, so that would make it a sin.  It seems so simple.  So why not leave it at that? Homosexuals are sinners, bound for hell unless they repent.  But maybe it is not so simple.

I will save it for a later discussion that the bible also has injunctions against tattoos and body piercing and many other things that we dismiss.  So we pick and choose from the bible what seems to bother us the most.

Native Americans, who had homosexuals among them, had a better treatment of gay people (until they became Christianized).  Their explanation for how a gender role could be reversed was that sometimes the Creator put the spirit of a man into a woman’s body or the spirit of a woman in a male.  These people were not shunned or made outcasts.  They were seen as special and given the role of caring for orphaned children.

In my feeble attempt to grapple with how to explain gender reversals, my logic would lean away from calling it a choice a person makes.  Who would voluntarily chose to suffer the discrimination and persecution they face?  There are anti-social people, for sure, who take pleasure in flouting the rules and causing havoc.  But I don’t think gay people fall in that category.  There is also a group of people who desire sex from anyone available, male for female, with no intent of commitment or a lasting relationship.  I would call these morally depraved, or maybe psychologically wounded and unable to give and receive love.  Whatever the reason, I see them as separate from others who desire to show true love and commitment to another person, straight or not.

What about the theory of relativity? How does this relate?  Relativity states that the speed of light is absolute and unchanging throughout the universe.  In order for that to be so, and to account for observations of nature in astronomy and physics, space and time must be variable. This is so counter intuitive it is almost impossible to grasp.  But it has been proven with many experiments.  Likewise, homosexuality seems so unnatural that to straight people it is impossible to understand, and the only explanation is that something must have gone wrong.  So we don’t desire to eat the flesh of albinos, yet we punish LGBT people for being who they are – and call ourselves “civilized.”

 Sadly, for most of my 72 years I was among the majority who think badly of homosexuals; calling them queers, sinners, etc. I believe God is leading me to see otherwise.  And I hope I can convince others that people with different gender identities deserve better.  I think until a scientific understanding of human gender identification is researched and developed, the Native Americans have a better explanation and treatment of LGBT people than our so-called “civilized” society.  I hope that someday modern science will be able to explain how such a thing can happen, like it has done for albinos.  In the mean time, I wish the rest of society that considers ourselves “normal” could come to accept LGBT people as persons with dignity and rights and children of God.

How to Get to Heaven

Here are some simple tips on how to get to heaven.

First, let me say that this is the most important consideration that any person can make.  This has to do with your eternal destination.  So this is no trivial matter.

What I want to do with these tips is help you find that magical sweet spot of knowing just how much you have to do to get to heaven without making too much effort or missing out on some of what this earthly life has to offer.  Because, let’s face it, life has a lot to offer here now, and we all want to maximize that while not missing out on eternity in heaven in the future.  I think of it a lot like bargaining in business.  You want to close the deal without paying too much and leaving a lot of cash on the table that you didn’t have to offer.  This just makes good business sense.  And if our religion doesn’t make good sense, then, well, why would anyone want to go that way?  Now here I’m providing what you’ve always wanted to know – the minimum set of requirements for getting into heaven.  But make no mistake, you don’t want to mess up and end up in that other nasty place with fire and torment and awfulness. 

Here are my simple tips on how to get to heaven with the least effort.

1.  Don’t fret about being perfect.  Leave that up to the religious fanatics who go way overboard.  They leave so much religious collateral on the table it’s insane.  We all know that no one is perfect, except for the perfect one, so this should not even be considered at all.  We all have our flaws and weaknesses, so don’t worry about them.  Let’s get this one off the table from the start.

2.  Make yourself look good.  This goes way beyond just not robbing banks and killing people.  You have to actually do something for the benefit of mankind.  Even something small, like serving food to homeless people at Thanksgiving, will count to your credit.  If you ever actually do that, make sure you get a photo.  Also you need to consider how much you want to attend church.  It shouldn’t be ignored altogether because this doesn’t look too good.  So at least you should show up for Christmas and Easter.  But if that cramps your style, then at least pick one of those to attend.  I’d suggest Christmas because it’s a lot more fun to see little children dressed as angels and singing about Jesus being born than hearing about cruel crosses and death and dismal tombs.  Remember, the main thing here is to make yourself look good, because if you don’t even look good to others, how do you think you are going to look to God on that dreadful judgement day?

3.  Don’t spend too much time reading the Bible.  This tip will lead you away from a lot of confusion.  We all know the Bible is way too difficult for normal people to understand.   So leave it to the professionals.  Have you ever noticed that there are so many conflicting claims about religious things, and yet all the various people point to the same Bible to prove their claims?  How can this be?  I think it has to do with plain ole normal folks who read the Bible and come up with different stuff and then claim they’ve found the truth because the Bible says so.  So then how come they don’t all agree?  Why can’t they all get along together?  The answers to these kind of questions will have to wait until we pass through the pearly gates.  So for now, just take this tip and take the safest route by not even making any claims about things based on the Bible.  Otherwise, it will just lead to conflicts and confusion.  And God knows, there’s enough of that around already.

4.  Temptations.  Temptations come to everyone.  Even Jesus was tempted.  So don’t be too concerned about having temptations.  They are just a natural part of life.  I advise you not to agonize over them, like some religious fanatics, but to just do your best and go with the flow.  Enough said?

5.  Prayer – how to treat this?  My advice is to find a good one and stick with it.  Keep it simple, so you can remember it, and repeat it to yourself whenever you can think of it.  It doesn’t matter too much what it is, except that it ought to sound slightly religious, or at least self encouraging.  It is the repeating of it that counts.  More is better.  But, of course, like all things, moderation is always best, because you don’t want the prayer to interfere with your work or other important things you do.  Your mind has more important things to attend to than this simple repetitive prayer.  I hesitate to make suggestions here, because you should come up with your own version, but a phrase like “I can do it”  or  “I am good” or “I am powerful” are very good self-affirming statements to consider.  Call them prayer mantras.  These will give you a boost to help you get through a tough day.  And if anyone ever asks you about prayer, you can proudly proclaim, “I pray every day!”  They will be impressed!

6.  A plan that some people have is one I do not recommend.  It goes like this:  they will wait until their deathbed to get right with God.  On the surface, this seems logical.  Why spend your whole life worrying and fussing about getting through a door at the end of life, when you can just wait until you’re there and then do what it takes to get in?  Then you have your whole life of freedom to live without restraints and missing out on anything this earthly life has to offer.  We all know this works, because the first person that got to heaven is the thief on the cross beside Jesus.  Remember Jesus told him right before he died, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  He just barely made it, but he made it!  So it can happen.  But, and this is a really big BUT, what if you get killed in an instant in some freak accident?  Like those poor souls driving on the San Francisco freeway when it collapsed in an earthquake.  The ground shakes, you blink, and bam! you’re dead!  I don’t think they would have had even a split second to confess their sins and accept Jesus. Believe me, it’s not pleasant to think about, but that CAN happen.  And if it does, how are you going to have any time to say you’re sorry for all your sins?  So this is taking a big risk that I don’t recommend.  My advice is to take these tips now, but don’t go overboard, and live as best you can to keep yourself out of hell.  Sure, it puts a bit of a damper on life, but just consider it like an insurance policy.  That should help you feel better about losing out on a few things in life.

7.  No treatment on getting into heaven would be complete without this last consideration.  What about the possibility that there might not actually be a literal hell with all that fire and anguish and torment?  O, I know, it’s in the Bible alright.  But what if this was just made up to put fear in us to make us want to do good?  Come on, haven’t you wondered that yourself?  So here is how you should deal with this.  Since we really don’t know for sure, and can’t know for sure, then let’s play a “What if…” game.  What if it’s not true – there really is no hell.  Then we have nothing to fear in the afterlife or this one.  Having nothing to fear – now that’s what I would call some really good news.  The big question then would be how we should live with no fear of hell.  At first thought, you might assume that we are all free to live life totally as we please with no inhibitions, completely free.  But this would be a huge mistake because there seems to be a natural law of consequences for our actions.  No matter what we think about hell, living our life is like sowing seeds.  The harvest we get will be from the seeds we plant and cultivate.  For example, when an old man who can’t get out anymore complains that no one comes to visit him yet he forgets that he never visited an old shut-in when he could get around.  It’s like he expects a harvest from seeds he didn’t sow.  Another example: if I do not live with integrity and keep my promises, then others will eventually notice and not trust me which will make my life more difficult.  OK, so without a hell to fear still does not mean we can all live completely without restraints.

There are plenty of folks who I know are betting on there not being any hell.  Because if there really is a hell, that’s where they are going, for sure.  And if there is a heaven, there’s a few folks we can easily think of who are going to be there for sure, like Mother Teressa, and Billy Graham.  The rest of us, well, the jury is still out on us.  There are some folks I know who are as mean as a snake, and they say they are going to heaven.  Now, I ask you, how does that work?  It kinda makes me question the whole thing; doesn’t it you?  Someone else will have to explain this one to you, it’s beyond me.  Anyway, betting on no hell seems far too risky if the bet is wrong.  So I recommend to play it safe on this one.

8. There is one more question that you have probably wondered about that I will not treat: What if there is no heaven? What if this life is all there is? If there were no reward, would that remove all incentive for doing good?  What if doing right is it’s own reward?  In spite of many Bible promises of heaven and a few compelling near-death stories, I leave this one to you, dear seeker.

In conclusion,  all that matters on that judgement day, when your life is up there on those scales of God, you better have it tip over to the heaven side instead of the other way.  It doesn’t have to slam toward heaven with a heavy thud for you to get your pass through the pearly gate.  That’s the case where you’ve wasted too much religious collateral and went way overboard and didn’t experience all that life on earth had to offer.  In the operation of a balancing scale, even the slightest difference one way or the other will cause it to tip that way.  So being just good enough is all you need to let you slide on into heaven with the saints of God. 

The only thing these tips do not cover, and I leave this to your imagination, is once you get your soul safely in heaven, what if you end up right next to someone who did you wrong?  Or that you wronged?  And beyond that, what are you going to do up there for the rest of eternity?

Finally, dear reader, I confess I have not been totally honest with you. If none of this seemed to miss the mark or offended you, then let me offend you now by suggesting that your view of Christianity is not in line with the message of Jesus as found in the gospels and especially his sermon on the mount, Matthew chapters 5-7. Read them yourself and see!

Personal View on Homosexuality

In this paper I attempt to explain my current view on homosexuality.

As a young person, my views were derived from my family and associates and community – the people I knew and trusted. It seemed obvious to everyone I knew that there must be something wrong when a male replaces the natural human attraction to females with attraction to other men. Homosexual men were to be shunned and were labeled “queers.” As an early teenager, I had not been brought up in the church yet had a general belief in God.  In high school I began my journey with God that continues to this day.  The views of the church against homosexuality seemed well founded since there are Bible verses clearly against it and there seemed little reason to question them.  Homosexuality is a black and white issue: case closed.  Homosexuality is immoral and they are sinners.  This is what my church said, so I went along with it.  For most of my life, this is how I saw it.

I no longer ascribe to this view.  Please, let me explain why.

This seems to me to be a case where we find something in the Bible that confirms our prejudices or fears or some view that we hold dear and use a verse or two as “proof” of what we know is “truth”.  For example, slavery.  The southern pre-civil war slave owners claimed their case correctly that the Bible never condemns slavery.  Yet what they couldn’t see was that the God of the Bible is the God who freed slaves from Egypt and is always on the side of the poor and oppressed.  Slavery was to their  economic advantage such that they were blind to the God of love and justice for all people.

In the case of homosexuality, there are specific admonitions against it that seem clear enough.  So why not leave it there, call it an abomination that God detests and let the chips fall?  Yet there are many verses in the Bible on other matters that seem as clear as black is from white that in reality are not so simple when considering the whole Bible in the spirit of Jesus. Here are some examples:

I Timothy 2:12 – “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man: she must be silent.”  In spite of how clear this seems, a large number of Bible-believing Christians do not adhere to this.  This is justified by pointing to other verses that indicate equality of the sexes and especially the life of Jesus who elevated the status of women.  In spite of how reasonable it seems to many who do not adhere to this, there are many other good folks who maintain Paul’s injunction against women and claim higher ground above others that “do not believe the Bible.”

There are many things mentioned in the Bible that are not adhered to: handling poisonous snakes in worship, cutting off our hand if it offends, stoning those who do not honor their parents, and many more.  These are obviously not to be taken in a dead literal way.  So it should not be a surprise that a proper approach to understanding the Bible also involves at least a little thinking rather than simply looking at the words to blindly follow them.  In fact, a dim view is given to those who adhere to these literal things.  Such is the case in what Jesus said during his last supper, that the cup is his blood and the bread his body.  So Roman Catholics claim to adhere to this and say the communion elements really do become the literal blood and body of Jesus, just as Jesus said.  Is that believing the Bible more than others?

Coming closer to sexual issues, consider Jesus on adultery.

Matthew 5:32. “…anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to commit adultery, and anyone who marries a woman so divorced commits adultery.”

Mark 10:11-12. “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Luke 16:18. “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

What has been done with Jesus’ teaching on divorce and adultery?  Taken together, these verses leave a few questions about some details, but there can be no doubt that Jesus is against divorce and those who divorce and remarry commit adultery.  In spite of this clear teaching the sad practice is widespread and accepted among most Christians.  However, persons who fall in this category are not routinely labeled “divorcees” or “adulterers” and are not barred from full participation in the church.  There may be a few Christian groups where adultery is still considered a sin which renders the sinners ineligible for full participation in the church.  But for the vast majority of Christian groups who do not hold to this hard line, is it a sign they dismiss the Bible when they disagree with it, or plainly do not believe the Bible?  Or is it a sign of grace being extended and love that “does not keep records of wrong”?

Since Jesus makes no mention of homosexuality it can only be inferred from his other actions how he might treat a gay person. Consider John 8:3-11, the woman caught in adultery.  At great personal risk, Jesus stood between the powerful accusers primed to hurl stones and a defenseless, sinful woman.  In her defense Jesus surely enraged those who tried to trap him – adding another nail to his coffin.  Yes, he told her to “sin no more” – AFTER he risked his life and reputation for her.  Jesus was definitely not one of her accusers.  In fact, he was the only one qualified to “cast the first stone” but didn’t.  Jesus was able to walk the fine line between moral purity and offering genuine love.  The thin cliche “hate the sin and love the sinner” does not equate to genuine love when mixed with a heavy dose of condemnation.

The gospels show Jesus consistently reaching out to the poor, the outcasts and sinners – those whom the religious crowd have shunned.  In my view of Jesus, I can see him standing up in defense of prostitutes and homosexuals against the condemnation of religious people who consider themselves morally superior and fit to judge.  I am convinced that Jesus would not condone the long, sad history of discrimination and persecution towards homosexuals.  What if, instead of joining in society’s misunderstanding and contempt, the people of God stood up for homosexuals against the rejection, condemnation, discrimination and persecution of the rest of our society?  It would surely incur the same hostility faced by homosexuals. It would also send a powerful message that the Way of Jesus is a different way to live that does not accept the status quo of stereotypes nor use labels to put other people down.  The Way of Jesus is to include all people into God’s kingdom who will follow Jesus.  The way of the Pharisees is to exclude all who are judged unworthy.  It pains me greatly to see my fellow Christians standing with the accusers to cast their stones!

Our society in general does not understand homosexuality and refuses to accept homosexuals as people with dignity.  So we readily snatch some Bible verses that validate this prejudice and assume this is license to tag gays with various derogatory labels, which is the first step in treating any group badly.  The people of God should do better than this.  Bible verses against homosexuality do not give permission for disrespect and hostility.  No wonder it is hard to convince non-believers about Jesus when they see us as not much different than they are.

I’m not just ignoring what the Bible says because I don’t like it.  Nor am I on a slippery slope that leads to perdition.  I claim that I believe the Bible as strongly as any Christian.  I believe the whole Bible that tells me that a whole class of people should not be lumped in a common bucket and condemned outright with no consideration of the individuals involved.

As to how psychology and/or biology may explain homosexuality, I am not qualified to comment. The general lack of understanding of homosexuality leaves the door wide open to make up one’s own explanation on how a person can not be “normal”.  So it is generally assumed there must be something “wrong” when a person does not conform to the generally accepted idealization of maleness or femaleness.  Thus follows  prejudice and fear and discrimination against them.  Even with my recent move away from condemnation of homosexuals, I still admit I can’t explain it.  Maybe it’s the same as when a child grows up to be tall or short.  I cannot help but believe there are valid reasons behind it far beyond a simple matter of a sinful choice.  

On gay marriage: I think gay couples who wish to commit their lives to each other should be able to have a legal status as a couple with the same benefits as married couples.  But it should be called something other than marriage.  It’s too late for that now, of course, since society has not willingly given them that status.  But I do not see a great damage they are doing to traditional marriage.  I see the damage to marriage already being done by heterosexuals who have long forsaken the idea of one man being married to one woman – unless this means, one at a time.  I wish gay unions were not called “marriage”, but condemning gay marriage seems hypocritical to me.

I believe the issue is really larger than homosexuality.  The whole area of human sexuality needs to be re-examined.  What does it mean to be made in God’s image as sexual beings?  And further, what is our image of God?  Is God the eager smiter for our abominations or more like a father who has compassion on his children and remembers that we are made of dust?  And what is the good news of Jesus?  Is it only that he is the way for sinners who deserve hell to get to heaven after we die?  Or isn’t it also the invitation to follow Jesus into God’s peaceable kingdom of love for all people?

I have only recently come to this view and feel I am a feeble spokesperson for it.  I do not claim this to be very profound nor eloquent. There are others much more qualified to represent this.*  But I pray for the day when homosexuals are treated in all our churches with dignity and love and allowed full participation as children of God – right along side of adulterers and the rest of us sinners.

                                                                                             Joe Vandegriff   April 23, 2015


Christmas Letter 2014

Merry Christmas                 2014                   from Joe & Elaine Vandegriff  

Oh how we want to brag on our 6 wonderful grandkids. 2 in Texas. 4 in Maryland.

But first, it’s Christmas. And that’s what matters the most. Christmas is when we focus on others instead of ourselves; when we long for peace on earth with the goodness of God blanketing the earth and covering all people; when we sing about love and joy; when we think of Jesus and the hope that comes from living the Way he shows us, the Way of grace and love even for enemies, the Way of humble and courageous leadership that doesn’t follow the crowd, the Way of goodness and justice to all people including the poor, the forgotten, the outcasts and even sinners and enemies.

Merry Christmas. And may God bless us, every one.

OK. Now, the grandkids.

Ellie: 18, 3rd generation freshman at Taylor University studying film and media. Wants to make movies and be The Director.

Johan: 16, home school sophomore, excellent computer and robot geek, working on Eagle Scout and driving license.

Dessie: 14, 9th grader in the 8th best high school in the USA, tennis team, learning guitar and piano, very artistic.

Celeste: 13, home school 7th grade, reads everything, creative in sewing and cooking, big heart, wants to be a nurse.

Cora: 12 (almost 13), 7th grade, national junior honor society officer, volleyball A team, Miss Popularity at her school.

Lincoln: 10, 5th grade home school, geek in the making, new boy scout, swim team, learning piano, very happy guy.

And, oh  yes, they have parents.

Jon & Sharon in Maryland –  both heavily involved in doing a fine job of home schooling their kids. Jon works on software that handles scientific satellite data at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and coaches a robot competition team including Johan. Sharon is a very busy stay-at-home mom running the schooling.

Hubert & Joan in Austin – two working parents who also provide Dad & Mom’s Taxi Service for their daughters and friends. Hubert works on network equipment planning and deployment for Verizon and is our patient smart-phone consultant. Joan works in corporate communication for GM in Austin and gets to drive a new car every 6 months.

As for us Old Folks, road trip warriors we are. Went on 6 extended road trips for over 25,000 miles, mostly visiting family around the country: California, Wyoming, Colorado, Indiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Maryland, vacation in Maine and in Arizona (4 corners area).

If we haven’t see you this year, please fill out the Old Folks Visit Request Form to be put in our 2015 itinerary, but beware–we just might come by. Joe always travels with his electrical tool box. So have your chore list ready.

Besides seeing Cora’s volleyball games (district champs!) and Dessie’s tennis matches in Texas, we attended performances of the Home School Theater in Maryland which involved all of Jon & Sharon’s family and watched Johan’s winning robotic team compete.  Obviously, we are proud of our family and enjoy sharing in all these activities.

We have been SO BLESSED by God that now our daily prayer is to BE A BLESSING to others.        Merry Christmas


Vandegriff and Tien Family Photos