God’s Grand Story

Part 1:  God created everything and it is good, very good.  [“Good” here means a lot more than just beautiful or pleasing.  It means there was a purpose to it, with which The Creator is immensely satisfied.]  God made creatures “in his own image”, meaning they had “being” like God. Part of that “being” means that they have a mind and will to think and choose for themselves.

Though The Creator made every provision for the creatures, they did not fully trust their Creator and thought they were not adequate enough as He made them, as if The Creator held something back from them.

The Creator of life made life to work in a certain Way that would lead to blessedness for all his creation, living and non-living.  But when the creatures of God’s image did not trust their Maker, their life, that was intended to be blessed, quickly became muddled and difficult [putting it mildly!].  Even though it should have been obvious that life had taken a turn for the worse and wasn’t working too well, still the creatures did not return to trust their Creator. So The Creator let them have their own way but also initiated a quest to win them back to a place of trust and to restore the creation to it’s original grand purpose of blessedness for all creation, living and non-living.

Part 2:  This is how the Hebrew people became part of The Creator’s quest to bring back the creation to it’s good purpose.  In spite of the difficulties they had in trusting The Creator themselves, there arose a few voices of visionaries who reminded the people of God’s good purpose for all creation and saw that God was working to bring His world back.  They dreamed about a time when all people would enjoy the blessed life as The Creator had originally intended – no one being left out. They struggled with how they saw The Creator as One of love and justice at the same time and how the creatures could be fully restored to what the Creator intended.  They saw the Creator was inviting the people to simply return [“repent”] from where they had wandered from the Way, to again trust The Creator, and be restored by The Creator to the full grandness of their “being”. And their vision included all people everywhere, all nations and tribes, the least and the greatest, the worst and best, and even all of nature too, just as in the original creation.

Part 3:  Then Jesus steps out.  He proclaims that the day the visionaries had dreamed about has finally arrived.  He says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.”  (Mark 1:15)

Jesus goes around not only announcing that the time of God’s restoration has come but also demonstrating it by liberating people to be restored by The Creator.  He offers people another Way to live, like The Creator had originally intended, that brings about restoration to the full grandness of humanness that was intended from the beginning.  All along his journey Jesus invites others to follow him in His new Way of living – restoring the “being” back into the creatures that was lost to them when they turned away from The Source of Life.  A few people who do follow Jesus began to have faith and then “see” the message and enter into this Way and become restored. But the established “authorities” take offense, since Jesus’ message of liberation and restoration puts them on the same level as everyone else, thus canceling their place of privilege and authority over others.  And this message of God’s liberation seems so unlike the “conventional wisdom” at the time. This is not acceptable to the “authorities” and since they have power they silence Jesus and eliminate his threat to the establishment. Jesus sees this coming and chooses to trust God and to accept this suffering in the belief that God is vindicating His message and Way of living and establishing a new rule of power out of serving, self-giving love, and suffering.   And that is what happens. The Creator raises Jesus from death to validate that something truly new is entering the world – the kingdom of God, the new order of God, the dance of God, the revolution of God, the restoration of the Creator [there could be many more descriptions or analogies here].

Part 4:  The first followers of Jesus, as they are energized from within by the Spirit of The Creator, become agents of this new order of restoration.  And when facing the same hostility as their Master, continue serving and loving others and many eventually also choose suffering and death because of it.  They believe that this kingdom of God ushered in by Jesus has already arrived and yet is still to come in the future as they participate with The Creator to spread the dance.  They see themselves as participants with God in a revolution of love that brings power to restore back to what The Creator has always claimed as His own from the beginning – His people and His creation.

This message of the dance of God, the revolution of love, comes to us today.  Jesus still invites everyone to join in His Way of living by renouncing our own way of living selfishly and to trust The Creator, and be restored “beings”, and to become participants with The Creator in bringing about the kingdom of restoration.  And those who accept Jesus’ invitation in faith and follow Him in His Way of loving, serving, and suffering find themselves being restored to the fullness of life that The Creator intended as they join with The Creator in spreading that restoration to others.

[ Sadly, many of the followers of Jesus today have given up on the visionaries’ dream of the restoration of creation in the course of human history.  In this view “salvation” is offed mainly for individuals to avoid hell in the afterlife. They see the visionaries’ dream as further out beyond human reach and only as an act of The Creator (not in participation with His people) in a way that is forced on humanity.  Can this be the way? ]

Wandering Thoughts during a Long Journey

    I just returned from a four day road trip from Austin, Texas to the Kennedy Space Center to see the Space Shuttle Endeavor launch on May 16, 2011 at 8:56 am.  It was the last mission for Endeavor and the next to last Space Shuttle launch. We arrived at KSC at 1 am to claim our spot and wait ‘til dawn swatting hungry mosquitoes.  The road trip was 2,546 miles to see the shuttle blast off in a trail of fire and smoke for 15 seconds before it disappeared into the completely overcast sky. The crowd went from wild cheers to low moaning at its too sudden vanishing.  We had all come from far places and waited all night; we didn’t want to say good-bye so soon! But when the sound caught up to us, the crowd quieted again to hear the rapidly ascending volume until we could feel the impulses of the popping rockets impacting us.  The sound was amazingly strong for being about seven miles away. It rattled my shirt.

    The trip was me and two other old guys who both happened to have worked in the space shuttle program in Houston.  They provided a lot of free background stories and information and added much to my enjoyment of the trip. Thanks, Tom and Lyle.

    On the way we listened to the first three CD’s of an audio book Tom checked out from the library, Stones Into Schools; Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan  by Greg Mortenson.  My point in writing this is to recount a story from the book and from our road trip and relate them to how the followers of Jesus are to view and engage the world.

    The author tells of meeting up with a former general for the Pakistani army who had retired to watch the river flow past his village.  The general had become sick of war and disillusioned of ever finding real peace. The author was fulfilling his promise to build a school for the people of a small, remote village in northern Afghanistan who nursed him back to life after he became ill mountain climbing nearly dying.  This story is the subject of another book, Three Cups of Tea.  The general was instrumental in building the first school and the many more schools to follow.  With absolutely no building materials available in a desolate region, the villagers blasted stones loose to build the school.  Evidently, explosives were readily available. To the general, familiar with the explosions of war, it was instantly ironic how that now a horrific tool of war is being used to actually benefit mankind.

    This brought to mind what the ancient prophet Isaiah said would happen some day in the distant future when God’s rule of love would overtake his children on earth and true peace would cover the earth like a soft, warm blanket in winter.  “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Isaiah 2:4

    Now on our space shuttle road trip, going down Interstate 95 in Florida, we drove through a huge cloud of love bugs.  For people not familiar with this, imagine driving through a heavy rain where the drops are bugs instead of large raindrops.  Coming out of the bug cloud left the windshield with only a few random patches to see through. We actually drove like that for the last 50 miles.  We had to look through the dried bug guts to see where we were going. If we focused on the bug smears in front of our face, it would have been impossible to drive.

    Long boring journeys give my mind plenty of time to roam around.  So I put all this together and came out with these ideas. To me all this is a good analogy for our present world condition and how the followers of Jesus should see it.  It is easy to focus on bloody terrorist attacks and say the world is going to hell, for sure. It is natural to fear for the mess the world is in. And our fears can drive us to hate and more violence.  Whole nations can be driven this way, like my nation and many others. But the followers of Jesus can not fear like everyone else. We must see through the ugly smears of man’s violence and see where the swords are being turned into plowshares, where explosives are being used to build school buildings instead of destroy buildings.  We must not give up hope and belief in the message of Jesus who also saw the mess his world was in and still proclaimed that the ancient prophesies of peace and hope are being fulfilled. The followers of Jesus must be the ones who proclaim that same message today, not by fleeing the world some day to heaven but by participating with the work of God in the world today.  This is not the message of some Christians who think that all other religions must be crushed; it is the non-violent gospel of reconciliation of all people with God and each other where there is no longer slave and free, rich and poor, privileged and oppressed, man or woman, but every person a child of God. I hear that Greg Mortenson has come under some negative criticisms for his books and fundraising.  I don’t know much about this. And I don’t know about his religious status, but it seems to me that he is doing the work of Jesus whether he gives God credit or not.

New Kind of Survivor Show

    I propose a new kind of survivor TV show.  This show would be far more real than what is seen now.

    Take a group of 4 handsome, young men and 4 well-featured women and put them in a much larger group of about 2,000 people in central Africa.  They are political refugees fleeing for their lives from lawless gangs of angry rebels. Every day along the way there are random shootings; any food is subject to be taken at gun point.  Young women are raped and killed.

    The survivor team is to make a 90 mile journey on foot (with no shoes) with this group.  They will have to find their own food and shelter while steering clear of hostilities. And we hope they don’t get sick from the bad water they have to drink because there will be no medical help.  The women will probably not want to wear scanty clothing for fear of being raped. They will have to take their own video since no camera crew is willing to accompany them. And even if they survive the journey, I predict that few, if any, of the rest of the world will want to see their video.  It’s too real!     While many in my country of easy and plenty enjoy watching fantasy shows of concocted troubles, there are millions of people around the world forced to live in far worse conditions whose reality is so horrific that we don’t want to see them or even know about them.  Our fantasy is much more pleasant. Weep with me for my country!

Christmas Letter 2010

A couple years ago we were in what the weatherman called an “Exceptional” drought in central Texas, and our Lake Travis was 50 feet below normal.  Then it rained – off and on for a month. And the 52 mile long lake was full again! Amazing! But it all happened just one rain drop at a time; there were a LOT of drops!  (Yes, this is a Christmas letter. Keep going – you’ll see.)

When we pray “Thy Kingdom come… on earth … “, if we really mean it, how is that to happen?

It started in such an ordinary way – a baby born to a poor couple so long ago yet celebrated still today.  The baby became a carpenter walking around doing good, teaching and living a new kind of Life. He said that all the hopes and dreams of a just society for all people, true peace and the blessed Life for everyone (what God has had in mind since creation) has arrived!  Quite a claim, indeed. If we will believe, it has arrived, yet still is coming; begun and in progress.

How does God’s Kingdom come?  With great fanfare or inescapable power?  No.

God’s way takes over the world, one human will at a time, one act of love and kindness at a time, through giving and forgiving, one “drop” at a time.  Like it starts, it continues in ordinary ways. Maybe at Christmas time we can see it the best, when people think of others. And the dark world begins to light up with God’s love.  Just like filling Lake Travis, God’s blessed Life spreads throughout the earth one drop of love at a time. And when we add the drops, it becomes a flood that can fill the world, a flood that can sweep away hates and fears, wars and poverty, terrorism and illiteracy, and bring the blessed Life for all people.  It began that first Christmas. It continues today by you and me and all who will believe and pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.”


As for us, we’re about the same as last year, just a little slower and older.  We continue to take a lot of road trips, mostly to family. There were two 90th birthday parties for Elaine’s parents in Indiana.  In March we helped them move into assisted living. Joe went to his 50th Selma High School class reunion in Indiana this summer; hard to realize how 50 years have passed!  Elaine volunteers one afternoon a week at a local health clinic for the uninsured (when we’re home).  Joe led a Bible study on Mark and helps collect clothing for the homeless in Austin and takes it to them.  Our greatest joy continues to be our family and especially our 6 grandkids. God has blessed us so much we are trying our best to share and be a blessing to others, one drop at a time.  And we wish the same to all.

We look forward to hearing from our family and friends.  And we say,
Merry Christmas, Ya’ll  Joe & Elaine Vandegriff

United Methodist Church Annual Conference

United Methodist Church Annual Conference June 2-5, 2010  Corpus Christi, Texas

Going into this for the first time, I wondered if it would be a lot of boring business, theological debates and political contention.  I anticipated consuming a lot of caffeine to stay awake.  Happily, no caffeine was required and it was thoroughly enjoyable and inspirational.  The conference began and ended with worship with more worship in between.  Spanning four days there were five business sessions that were filled mostly with reports about various ministries going on in Southwest Texas and beyond.  Seeing and hearing how God is working in all these places was very interesting and inspiring.

The conference is attended by the pastors and lay delegates from about 350 churches in the Southwest Texas Conference (SWTX), about 1,500 people in all, with the bishop’s staff and others.  Bishop James Dorff seemed pretty cool and said this was the 152nd Annual Conference session.  It was all quite impressive.  And yes, I got to see our own Chuck Smith and some of his people from Victoria, St. Mark’s UMC.

Here are summaries of a few of the many ministry reports:

Methodist Mission Home (San Antonio) – Christian nurses and counselors help pregnant teens offering “a faith, a family, a future.”  They do a lot of adoption work.

ImagineNoMalaria.org – the SWTX conference is leading the whole UMC with about 2 million dollars given by the churches so far (above and beyond the conference and church budgets) to combat malaria around the world with the goal of eliminating deaths from malaria by 2015.  Our Austin District Superintendent, Rev. Bobbi Kaye Jones, is a leader in this.

New Church Development – It was very encouraging to see that throughout south Texas, especially in Austin and San Antonio, there are a lot of new congregations forming, being lead by the younger generation.  The ones who are thriving best are 1) supported by a “mother” congregation and 2) have a strong sense of mission and purpose beyond just meeting for worship.

The bishop mentioned one of the big issues in the church at large – how a mainline large church denomination that is slowly in decline can become revitalized and become a relevant influence in the country and the world.  The Council of Bishops is working on a “call to action”.  Nothing will go unexamined, like the 13 independent general church agencies that seem to be “heavy at the top” (my words) and even the sacred cow of guaranteed pastoral appointments.  The bishop quoted Mike Slaughter, a United Methodist pastor in Ohio, who said, “our mission is not to get the world into the church, but to get the church into the world.”  Further along this line, we heard a fiery sermon from Rev. Tyrone Gordon, UM pastor in Dallas, who called for our churches to be “go to” churches rather than “come to.”  A “come to” church expects the outsiders to come to them.  But a “go to” church goes out into the world to rescue the poor, help the needy, and take the message of Jesus out to the people.

The best part for me personally is to think that our Rolling Hills Community Church is part of all this.  We are not serving God by ourselves.  Not only are we part of this Southwest Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, we are especially privileged to also share in the workings and life of our three other denominations:  Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), United Church of Christ (UCC), and Christian Church/Disciples of Christ (CCDC).

Here’s a map of all the conferences in the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church:

Austin District Superintendent Rev. Bobbi Kaye Jones and Joe Vandegriff
(I’m the one with the pen in my pocket.)

Epic

Epic: A Third Reading                                                                                                   

I’ve just finished reading Epic a third time.  I wanted to make absolutely certain that I am not missing anything in Eldridge’s presentation.  Since he claims on page 100 that he is giving the “story of Christianity”, he is elevating his book to a very lofty status.   I still like the book, as far as it goes.  But I still hold that it does not go far enough and that it misses something vital at the core of the gospel of Jesus.

My thoughts along these lines are so new to me that I am struggling how to understand them, let alone express them.  They have come not only from reading post-modern Christian writers but also from the current study of Isaiah and multiple readings of the gospels themselves.  I have asked myself over and over if maybe I am not just a grumpy old man who likes to split hairs and stir things up.  But I keep believing that I am finding something significant that is worth the effort to keep pursuing in spite of how I might be perceived.  As I write this, I am trying to consider every word and be as concise as possible, with no extraneous issues thrown in.

Prior to reading Epic I read a book by the president of World Vision, Richard Sterns, titled The Hole in Our Gospel.  It was a very distressing book about poverty on a massive scale, but the worse part about it was his charge that the churches in the United States are mostly indifferent to it all.  Citing the Old Testament prophets and Jesus, Sterns explains how God’s salvation has always included the rescue of the poor from their poverty, relieving the oppressed, and such acts of kindness to all people.  This salvation is not just personal but covers all society, even nature.  His indictment is that the Christians have made salvation only a personal, spiritual matter – to the neglect of the poor and disregard of God’s message and vision for his world.  This is the hole in our gospel.

The Epic exhibits exactly this hole.  Chapter 3, called The Battle for the Heart, describes  God’s rescue plan to win back his fallen world.  But it makes no mention of the billion people on the planet living in crushing poverty.  According to Eldridge, God’s rescue plan is for sinners to repent.  Certainly, this is part of God’s plan, but it falls far short of God’s desire to lift up the downtrodden and release the captives. 

Chapter 4, The Kingdom Restored, is where God’s will is finally done – in the afterlife.  While all this is true, it neglects to account for the Lord’s Prayer – “…thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”.   According to Eldridge, God’s plan for rescuing the world is not in this life, but the next.  If this is the case, then why should we do much about poverty, disease, illiteracy, oppression, and wars?  God will fix it up later.  But this isn’t the gospel of Jesus who said that the kingdom of God is here and now and invited his followers to join him in it.  They started a new way of life that changed the world.  The gospel of the Epic is consistent with the last one to two hundred years of Western Christianity that has not only not changed the world much, but even blesses the social, economic and political systems that have lead us to the present crises of global poverty and despair.  The story of the Epic of John Eldridge is limited to the story of personal salvation and misses God’s larger vision for his lost and fallen world.

The question is whether the issues I’m raising are peripheral or optional, or foundational to the gospel of Jesus.   So what does Jesus say?  Jesus starts his work in Luke 4:16-21 quoting a passage from Isaiah about rescuing the poor and delivering the oppressed.  Again in Luke when Jesus responds to John the Baptist’s inquiry as to whether Jesus really was the Messiah, what did Jesus say?  Luke 7:18-23.  Jesus’ reply is along the same lines – reaching out to the poor, the lame and the forgotten.   From Jesus himself I take it that this is what he is all about.  And I cannot help but conclude that this is the heart of Christianity.  All else that Christians do should be centered around this – reaching out to the poor, the outcasts, the powerless, those without privilege or power, the weak, the lame, the forgotten.  Isaiah is clear that God is more interested in justice and righteousness in society than in our worship.

What kind of a “gospel” is it that does not focus on rescuing the poor and the larger issues of justice for all people?  I call it the gospel of personal salvation.  This “gospel” nicely separates spiritual matters from the more mundane issues of politics and economics and allows individuals to “get saved” without changing or saving society in which they live.  This all seems very religious and talks much about Jesus but misses the heart of Jesus.

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At the close of our last breakfast study I tried to explain why I thought the chapter in the Epic book on the rescue was inadequate and misses something important in God’s rescue and Jesus’ message.  Please, don’t think I don’t like the book.  It is an excellent way to think of God’s story and how our own story fits in.  But since I will not be able to attend the presentation of the final chapter on the restoration, and since I always seem to have trouble speaking my thoughts out, I decided to try to write them out.  So here are some lengthy thoughts and I pray for your patience and prayerful consideration.

For over 30 years I have been puzzled about what seems to me the lack of influence of Christianity on our society.

1.  My puzzlement started after reading early church history and how the first Christians against all odds overcame the cruel and mighty Roman Empire not by fighting back or political influence but by serving and loving and suffering – much suffering.

2.  Over the years sociological surveys consistently find not only a diminishing level of religious affiliation in society but also find no difference in divorce rates and other social ills among the Christians in the USA and those claiming no religion.  This has added to my puzzlement since I have always believed that following Jesus ought to make a real difference in how we live our lives.  This gave me a growing sense that we Christians must be missing something that the first Christians had in the message and spirit of Jesus, but what could it be?

3.  I retired and came to LV and found my church embroiled in the ugliest contention I’ve ever seen.  This certainly sealed any question in my mind that we Christians are missing something indeed.  But what is it?

Thinking about this over the years, it seems to me that there are 3 possible reasons for the weakness of Christianity in our modern world:

1.  The world today is much more wicked than it was for those early Christians.

2.  The ancient message of Jesus actually doesn’t relate much to this modern world. 

3.  The modern Christians are missing something in the message and spirit of Jesus.

I finally came to conclude it must be #3.

I started the Christian journey as a teenager and was befriended by an old pentecostal guy.  These were the ones who spoke in tongues.  And they were telling me that to get all that God had to offer I had to speak in tongues.  But at the same time I was reading my Bible and read I Corinthians where Paul talks about tongues and it didn’t read like that to me. It seemed pretty plain that they had it wrong.  So I slowly and quietly walked away from them.  (And no, I’ve never spoken in tongues.)  I mention this to underscore how we Christians go about figuring out what to believe and how to live.  At all times we go to the Book;  the Bible.  I suggest to everyone that whatever you hear it needs to be checked out with the Bible.  And not with just one verse, but in the spirit of the whole Bible. 

In my retirement I’m enjoying reading.  And I’m finding that others have been wondering about the same things as I have been.  And they have some answers.  One author said that Jesus didn’t go around getting people saved in the way we think of it today.  When I read that it was a shock.  But the only thing to do was turn to the Bible and read it for myself.  I read the gospels of Jesus multiple times with this in mind:  what is Jesus actually doing?  What I read shocked me.  Jesus says very little about getting saved so we can go to heaven after we die.  What I read in the gospels is Jesus going around rescuing all kinds of people from all kinds of things.  This fits right into the Epic book on rescue.  I challenge you to do the same.  Read the gospels yourself.  Jesus talks a lot about the “kingdom of God”.  It is assumed by some that “kingdom of God” refers to heaven.   But when you read the gospels, you figure it out. Is Jesus talking mostly about getting to heaven?  Or more about how to live now?

In addition to reading the gospels of Jesus, I’m studying Isaiah on Wednesday morning.  It is clear in Isaiah that God is keenly interested in rescuing society in general, not just all people as individuals but governments and business and courts and all society.  All aspects of society come under God’s judgment.  The repeated theme through Isaiah is a call for justice to all people, care for the poor and powerless, a righteous society where every person is treated fairly and no one dominates over another or takes advantage of another.  I think it is highly significant that Jesus begins his ministry by quoting from Isaiah and proclaiming that God’s time has come – NOW.  It was those followers who believed him and followed his example who were the ones who changed the world. 

So the problem with the rescue chapter in the Epic book is this:  the author has limited God’s salvation and rescue of his fallen world to a matter of personal salvation.  And this accounts for much of why the church has such little influence on society.  It’s because this version of Christianity says very little about society!  The church’s focus is on getting people into heaven after they die.  And getting “saved” means being saved from hell.  Please don’t get me wrong and think that I’m saying being saved is not important.  But what does it mean to “get saved”.  From what are we being saved?  Just from hell after we die?  Or is there more?  Do we also need to get saved from selfishness?  Greed?  Blindness?  Aimless living?  Do we need to get saved from adopting the world’s values without question?  Do we need to get saved from caring little about the poor since their condition is not our problem?  Do we need to get saved from living by the profit motive?  Of course these are all personal matters.  But can we sin as a nation?  Does God not judge the nations, including ours?  What would Jesus have to say about our nation?  How about our military budget?  How can we say “In God We Trust” when our nation has the largest military and more weapons than any other nation?  How about the poor and powerless in our society?  Is it possible for a person to “get saved” and yet not care much about the poor?  How about the billion or so people on the planet who live in crushing poverty to the point of death?  Is Jesus’ message to them to “get saved”, or is Jesus’ message to us to get going to rescue them in God’s name at all costs and in all ways?!  If the Christians can rest comfortably and smugly about being saved while such gross injustice is going on in the world, then I say there is something grossly missing and wrong in our message!  I can’t make this point strongly enough!!!  Jesus’ message is about God’s rescue of his world, not just getting our souls into heaven after we die.  God’s salvation includes society, all peoples and nations.

This brings me to the last chapter of the Epic book.  The restoration.  This has a  serious flaw as well.  According to Eldridge, God’s restoration is completely in the afterlife.  Yet Jesus taught us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The Bible has lots of promises about the afterlife, and I’m not saying that these are unimportant.  But here is another place where Christianity loses it’s influence in the world.  It’s because instead of joining with God as his agents to save his lost and fallen world, we become more like judges of the world while we await our escape to heaven.  We have been lead to believe that our getting saved is also focused on getting to heaven in the afterlife.  I see it more like switching sides – from Satan’s to Gods.  We in the church would certainly say that we are on God’s side, but how so?  What would God be doing in the world?  To know what God would be doing in the world, just look at the life of Jesus.  What was he doing?  Jesus went around healing the sick, feeding the hungry, releasing those held captive by disease (physical and spiritual), giving sight to the blind (physical and spiritual), welcoming sinners into the kingdom, going outside the systems of his day to invite those left out by society to come close to God.  This is the restoration of God’s world.  In the here and now.  Will it all get done before the end of the age?  Probably not.  So should we give up and let the devil  have the world?  Absolutely not.  This world belongs to God and God’s desire and passion for his world is great.  Certainly God’s final restoration will come at the end of the age.  But read carefully how it comes.  Not by us going UP to heaven, but St. John saw a new heaven and a new earth coming DOWN from heaven and a time when God dwells with his people.  It is heaven on earth!  This is the message of Jesus that should propel us out to be God’s agents of love and service who willingly suffer with those who suffer.

How has the church missed this for the last couple hundred years?  That’s the next puzzle.  But I have some clues.  Perhaps our nation has blinded us to God’s desire to save society.  Our nation came about by the exploitation of the native people who were already living on the continent.  It continued by the exploitation of slaves – which was legitimized from many pulpits with many Bible verses.  Even a hundred years after the abolition of slavery it took a national non-violent resistance for the rest of the nation to begin to treat blacks with full human rights and dignity.  (Which, by the way, my local church was against.)  When the industrial revolution came along, greed went into high gear such that the profit motive became supreme and legitimized exploitation of workers and all actions against the environment.  Our nation today runs on capitalism and consumerism speeding to outrageous excess.  Though we call ourselves a Christian nation, we have not done well at all in the matters of social justice for all people and righteousness.  I believe that if we could really see ourselves as God sees us as a nation, we would have plenty more repenting to do.  The message of the poor does not play well in our affluent society.  It’s safer to talk about heaven and other “spiritual” things.  Thinking about the poor makes us feel guilty, so we don’t want to go there.  We have many reasons to avoid the message of God to share with the world.

In the study of Isaiah, it is clear that God judges the nations.  The prophet did not spare his own nation from God’s judgments.  Yet I sense a great resistance among Christians on this matter when it comes to our own nation.  We are supposed to be good citizens and pledge allegiance to our country. But does that mean we have to wholeheartly, without question accept the excesses of capitalism and the profit motive?  What about our military budget?  What would Jesus have to say about a huge military?  Clearly, Isaiah gets into politics.  The safest thing for the Christians is to focus on individual salvation and leave politics to the politicians.  But then is there any wonder why Christians have such little influence on society?  Doesn’t the message of Jesus have anything to say about how a country should be run? 

If you think I’m getting carried away with all this, then I suggest you study Isaiah and his vision.  In our group we are only beginning to grasp Isaiah’s vision, but one thing is sure – it is no small vision.  It’s BIG.  It includes all of society, all the nations and people of the world, and the earth itself, and it is born out of the holiness of God who demands justice for all His children and righteous living.  Isaiah’s holy God is not fooled by lip service if a people are not doing justice and living righteous.  I’ve wondered how Isaiah was accepted by his society.  He proclaimed doom to his own nation and its leaders.  His message was not well received, just like God told him.  And he was probably not regarded as a good, loyal citizen.  Neither were the first followers of Jesus regarded as good citizens because they would not say, along with the masses, “Caesar is lord”, because they knew that “Jesus is Lord”.  And they were right, but oh how they suffered for it!  And if you don’t sense anything wrong with the way things are right now, in your life and in our country and the world, then I guess all this must seem kind of crazy to you.

Finally, the church’s focus on individual salvation and how a person believes instead of working for justice and righteousness in society leads the Christians to debating among ourselves about who is saved and who is not and which beliefs are more important than others and so on.  The world cares nothing about any of this.  Instead, when the Christians focus on the great needs of the world there is much to work together on.  This would bring about unity of purpose that would earn the attention and respect of the world.  Think of Mother Teressa. Yet she was a Catholic and some of us don’t even like Catholics.  See what I mean about being fragmented?  This makes us weak

I read the Epic like a person who sees a movie after reading the book that inspired the movie.  There is always more to the book that the movie leaves out.  I’ve read the Book that the Epic is trying to make into a story like a movie.  And I’m convinced Eldridge is leaving something out – something vitally important.

There is so much more I’d like to say.  About how we talk about salvation more like a legal settlement with an angry judge than accepting an offer of undeserving grace and love.  About eschatology gone crazy.  And other things.  But I will spare you.

I have written elsewhere at length a lot of thoughts about what it means to be a Christian.  It’s on my web page at “Are You A Christian?”  I suggest here that there is a conventional “wisdom” about Christianity that seems very religious but is not very close to the message and spirit of Jesus.  It has a long table comparing this conventional “wisdom” with the message and spirit of Jesus contained in the gospels.

Also in my web page are more thoughts on the on-going Isaiah study on the holiness of God and Isaiah’s vision.

Both of these are works in progress and are being influenced as I go along in the men’s breakfast group and the Isaiah study.  I would welcome whoever would like to enter into conversation with me on these and other topics.

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scrap thoughts………

Much of what the church does say about society is off base.  We think we are in a morally superior position to make ourselves the judge the rest of society, but even in this our focus is on the sins we don’t like, things like homosexuality, and whatever other sins we think we are not committing.  From our supposedly moral superior position we can see very clearly the speck in others’ eyes while Jesus warns us of the log in our own eye. 

  I see our modern society moving further and further away from God in a country that claims to be Christian.  I see our churches divided into competing religious camps.  Lots of TV and radio preachers throw stones at the others who don’t interpret their favorite Bible verse the same as they do.  I see my own church broken by anger. 

 All this in a time when secular society is acknowledging a spiritual life

 I guess if you are reading this and don’t see any problem or sense something missing, then maybe this will mean little to you. 

When I refer to lack of influence on society, I have to point out that there is not even agreement among Christians about what that influence should be.  Many would say it relates to low morals in society, meaning mostly sexual.  They would be for banning homosexuality, putting prayer back in school, displaying the ten commandments in public building, banning the teaching of evolution in schools, and in general forcing this kind of right-wing agenda on the rest of society.  But the influence I’m talking about has more to do with social injustices, oppression, social and economic systems that lead to growing poverty, national security based on the force of power and such matters of society. 

Am I just splitting hairs or being critical?

Focusing on individual salvation and a belief system has taken our focus off of the larger mission of God to reach ALL of his fallen world.  For proof of this I offer the rescue chapter in the Epic book where  Eldridge speaks eloquently about God’s rescue of his world yet makes no mention of God’s burning desire to alleviate the suffering of the billion or so desperately poor on our planet.  All he mentions is individuals getting saved.  Of course, people getting saved is important.  But what about society?  What about the war machines of society?  What about the obscene economic disparity between the rich countries and the poor?  What about the 16,000 children who die every day from starvation and easily treated diseases?  God is weeping over our planet!  Our world is in a mess and it’s getting worse. 

But the message of the church has been to get people saved so they won’t go to that nasty place after death and in heaven will be our final restoration.  This is the Epic story.  But the restoration according to Jesus has already begun.  It occurs not when we escape this world into the heavenly realms, but when we get saved from greed, fear, indifference, living aimlessly, selfishness and pettiness.  And in our country, our sins are many:  excessive consumption, environmental pollution, military excess,

So here is how my puzzle is coming together.  It’s actually simple.  The Christians are having such little influence on society because we have missed the part of Jesus’ message that propells us out into society to redeem it.  We focus on saving souls but don’t feel any urgency to feed the hungry, help the homeless, stand up for the powerless…

The focus of the Christians over the years has been on getting our beliefs right.  Beliefs are important, for sure, but to focus mainly on them leads us to argue with each other about things the rest of the world cares nothing about.  No wonder Christianity is so easily dismissed as ill-relevant.  Instead, if all the while we were caring for the poor and needy around the world, if we were suffering with those who suffer, that would earn the respect of even the non-believers.  If we felt an urgency to be part of God’s mission to save society, then the vast, overwhelming needs of the world would bring God’s people together to do God’s work and our different beliefs would take a back seat to focus on serving and loving and suffering.

The last chapter of Epic tells the story of God’s restoration.  But do you see what he is saying?  He has thrown all of God’s restoration into the afterlife.  I beleive this is wrong.  Jesus proclaimed that God’s kingdom is here and now.  And he taught us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven”.  We pray this every Sunday, but what does this mean?  I think we have given up on this prayer.  We have given the world to the devil and wait for our escape to heaven.  [  If there is a battle going on in the heavenly realms   ]  Is it no wonder then that Christianity has such little influence in the world.  We are all waiting to leave it!

we have made ourselves society’s judge.  but mostly against the sins we don’t like

I’ve had these thoughts churning in my head and heart for the last couple of years.  They won’t go away.  I think I’m on to something here.  I still searching and praying and reading and thinking. 

I could say a lot more in this message, but then I’d get to rambling again.

Christmas Letter 2009

2009           Merry Christmas          from Joe & Elaine Vandegriff

Another year!  Come & gone.  Already!  Amazing how fast.  And here we are still alive to live it and celebrate the life God is giving us moment by moment.  Elaine & I have been feeling so blessed this year;  it has occurred to us that it’s probably time for us to BE a blessing.  That has been our prayer this year, for God to show us how we can be a blessing to others.  One of the biggest things for us now is Elaine’s parents who are nearing 90 years old and still living at home.  Elaine calls almost every other day and goes to Indiana to visit as often as she can.  Like my mom said in her old age, “This getting old is tough.”  And we try to be attentive to the needs of others around us and hope that we can offer a smile or word of encouragement.  More than ever this year, we have become more aware of a billion or so people on our planet who are in crushing poverty on the edge of death.  Are these not God’s children, too?  We are reminded at Christmas time of Jesus coming to earth to bring peace and hope to the world.  We who call ourselves God’s people are the ones God is looking to and expecting to carry that peace and hope to the earth.  And we are asking ourselves, “What are we going to do about it?”  To do nothing is not acceptable.  We are looking for our part and hoping that others will join us somehow, someway to make a difference.  I know, this is a rather different kind of Christmas letter.  But how can we continue to participate in our country’s annual spending binge any longer while a billion people suffer?  We ask you to join us this Christmas in remembering the billion poor people who are desperately in need of help and find a way to make a difference.  (See below for how to help).  We hope you enjoy your family this Christmas as we will ours. 

Sharon        Jon              Ellie 13
Celeste 7             Lincoln 5        Johan 11
Joe & Elaine
Joan & Hubert, Cora 6 ¾, Dessie 9

Books on the global crises:

“The Hole in Our Gospel” by Richard Sterns, president of World Vision.  Better than almost anyone else, he knows the critical needs of the poor around the world.  This book is his assessment of how the church of the USA is responding; it is an indictment of missing the message of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus and neglecting God’s mission to rescue His world.     http://www.theholeinourgospel.com

“Everything Must Change” by Brian McLaren.  Subtitled, “Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope”.  The author says, “This book explores two of the shaping questions of my life.”  #1: What are the biggest problems in the world?     #2: What does Jesus have to say about these global problems?  He looks systemically (economically, politically, environmentally, spiritually) at the big problems and finds reason for hope in the message of Jesus.      http://everythingmustchange.org

Places to give:

  1.  Drop some cash in the Salvation Army bucket.  Bills, not just coins!
  2. Check out the gift catalog at  http://www.WorldVision.org/gifts
    I told my grandkids that I will be giving them chickens and ducks for Christmas this year.  And they won’t actually get them; they will go to some other kids whose family needs them to help them survive.  (We’ll see how well this goes over!)
  3. Food for the Hungry    http://www.fh.org
  4. United Methodist Committee on Relief, UMCOR.   Responds to natural disasters around the earth and helps alleviate hunger.   http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor/work/hunger/
  5. There are plenty of worthy charities.  Find one and help them!
  6. Find out about the United Nations Millennium Project:  http://www.unmillenniumproject.org
    At the Millennium Summit in September 2000 the largest gathering of world leaders in history adopted the UN Millennium Declaration, committing their nations to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and setting out a series of time-bound targets, with a deadline of 2015, that have become known as the Millennium Development Goals.

Recently, we had a nice rain here after months of exceptional drought.  My rain gauge collected two inches of rain.  Everyone was pleased and were all talking about the wonderful rain.  It occurred to me that those two inches in the rain gauge came one drop at a time.  And when the level of Lake Travis rises a few feet, that, too is the result of one drop at a time hitting the earth.  This helped me realize that my one little action may not appear to be much compared to the overwhelming needs of the desperately poor, but if it gets added to a billion other actions then there will be a flood of help to the poor that will lift them up to a life closer to what God has in mind for all his children on his earth.

There is part of the Christmas story that hardly ever gets read at Christmas.  It’s the part where King Herod kills the children in Bethlehem.  (Matthew 2:16-18)  It’s too gruesome to hear.  But did you know that the equivalent of 45 jumbo jets full of poor children crash and all are killed – EVERY DAY!  They die of starvation and easily treated diseases.  It’s too gruesome to hear even when it’s not Christmas.  But we must.