“Who are You?”

“We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth….”
Ezra 5:11 (NIV)

“Who are you? ‘Cause  I really wanna know.” The Who famously asked this question in song back in 1978.

It’s a simple enough question. A few musical responses immediately came to mind as I thought about how other songwriters answered the question. Like this one from Meredith Brooks:

I’m a bitch
I’m a lover
I’m a child
I’m a mother
I’m a sinner
I’m a saint
And I do not feel ashamed
I’m your hell
I’m your dream
I’m nothing in between

And, of course, the Beatles would reply “I am the walrus.” (goo goo g’joob).
Last night at dinner my colleague and I were talking about the conversations one has with strangers on airplanes. We carry business cards for such occasions.
“Here you go. Here’s who I am.”
I’m being trite, of course. There is, however, a much deeper and more profound question poking at me this morning. How I answer the question, “Who are you?” says a lot. There are so many options for answering:
“I’m a husband, father, and grandfather.”
“I’m a Vander Well.”
“I’m Dutch by heritage.”
“I’m a consultant.”
“I’m an Iowan.”
“I’m an American.”
“I’m a Cubs fan.”
What struck me as I read the chapter this morning was the response of the returned Jewish exiles in Jerusalem when the question was posed to them. “We are servants of the God of heaven and earth,” they replied.
For some, I’m sure faith is simply another facet of their being:
“Monday through Friday I’m a broker. Saturdays I’m a coach for my kid’s soccer team. Saturday night I’m my wife’s date. On Sunday morning I’m a Catholic, and then on Sunday afternoon I’m a Chiefs fan.”
As I ponder the exiles response, it struck a chord with me. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t a facet of who I am, because it has transformed the way I see myself in every other context. I’m a follower of Jesus when I’m with my client and it affects the way I conduct my business. I’m a  follower of Jesus when I’m responding to Wendy and it affects the way I act as a husband. I’m a follower of Jesus when I’m with friends, when I’m alone, when I’m eating out, when I’m at CrossFit, when I’m driving, when I’m on stage, and when I’m writing these posts in the morning.
This morning in the quiet of my hotel room I’m thinking about my faith and my identity. I don’t want the fact that I’m a follower of Jesus to be a piece of who I am. I want it to transform who I am in every other respect.

“…Don’t Scare Worth a Damn.”

 Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building.
Ezra 4:4 (NIV)

I’m on the road this week for business. I rarely sleep well when I’m on the road. My brain is buzzing from long days of meetings with our client and it is often hard for me to shut down my brain long enough to sleep. I have found that one of the things that help me sleep is to have something familiar playing quietly near me like a favorite audiobook or documentary. Last night, it was Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War, that accompanied me to my dreams.

As I woke this morning the nine-part documentary was still playing as it told of how Ulysses S. Grant was able to finally defeat the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. Lee had successfully defeated a long list of Union generals before Grant. Lee’s army was severely outnumbered and his resolute strategy was to discourage the Union’s resolve to wage war. It was working. When Lee won a battle, the Union’s response had always been to retreat. When Grant lost a battle, however, he refused to retreat. Grant continued to march his army forward no matter the cost or casualties. As one of his soldiers said, “Ulysses don’t scare worth a damn.”

I then read today’s chapter. The Hebrew exiles have begun construction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the repair of the walls. Their regional enemies, however, fear a rebuilt and powerful Jerusalem. So, they set out to thwart the rebuilding. Their strategy? Much like Robert E. Lee, they set out to discourage the Hebrews and break their resolve to rebuild.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that God’s Message tells me, as a follower of Jesus, I am engaged in a Level Four spiritual struggle. With the resurrection of Jesus, my enemy’s defeat is made certain, but it did not break my enemy’s resolve. Along my life journey, I have found that the enemy’s strategy is basically the same as Lee’s and the same as the Hebrews’ neighbors in today’s chapter. The enemy wants to discourage me, to diminish my faith and break my resolve to trust and obey the One I follow.

Will I retreat like a long list of Union Generals who always backed down despite overwhelming odds in their favor? Or, will I continue to march forward in the face of an enemy who continually works to discourage me from that resolve?

As I ponder this morning, I can’t help but desire that it would be said of me in the spiritual realm: “That Tom Vander Well. He don’t scare worth a damn.”

Weeping and Joy in the Valley of Infertility

No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.
Ezra 3:13 (NIV)

For the past month, our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been in a series entitled “Summer Stories.” Each week an individual has shared experiences from their own personal stories and the spiritual lessons they have learned from them.

Last Sunday, it was Wendy who chose to stand and share a piece of her personal story. When she and I married almost fourteen years ago, she was 33. She not only gained a husband but two teenage daughters. Nevertheless, having children together was something we wanted to do. We tried for many years.

Trekking together through the valley of infertility may be the most difficult stretch of life’s journey that I have experienced to date. I’ve heard experts say that tremendous stress either brings married couples closer together or it tears them apart. Looking back, I can certainly appreciate why many marriages don’t make it through the valley of infertility. It is a long, lonely and trying slog on multiple levels. We plumbed depths of grief and relational stress I didn’t think was possible during those years. Wendy’s message, however, was not about the pain as much as it was about her discovery of joy at the end of that journey.

I couldn’t help but think of her message as I read the chapter this morning. The exiles return home to Jerusalem and begin the arduous task of rebuilding God’s temple which lay in ruins after it had been destroyed decades before by the Babylonians. After laying the foundation for a new Temple, the people gathered to worship and praise God. Those who were old enough to remember the original temple wept while the others shouted their praise until “No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping.” 

Yeah. I get that. That description captures our journey through the valley of infertility pretty well.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of one of the points that Wendy made in her message: “One can’t simply ‘choose joy’ any more than you can simply choose to get up off the couch and run a marathon.” As Jeremiah observed in his lamentation (over the destruction of the same Temple the exiles are rebuilding in today’s chapter): “Weeping lasts through the night, but joy comes in the morning.” In the valley of infertility Wendy and I learned that you can’t always distinguish the sounds of weeping and the sounds of joy, because they are often the same thing.

For any interested, here is the audio of Wendy’s message, posted with her permission:

Lessons in a List of Names

These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean.
Ezra 2:62 (NIV)

The small community in which Wendy and I live was established in 1847 by a group of several hundred immigrants from the Netherlands. They followed their pastor to “the new world” to experience the freedom of religion that was found in America, along with the opportunities that the American frontier offered.

In our town’s Historical Villiage there is an entire wall that lists all of the original families who made the dangerous voyage. It was dangerous. Many died at sea or on the trek by foot across the still untamed American prairie.

There were relatively few families of any significant means among the original colonists, but for those that were there was a clear distinction between them and the poor and “common.” Today, I can look down the list. Most of the names I recognize. The families prospered and grew. They found the opportunities they were looking for. Most of them still have descendants living in the community.

I thought about that wall in the historical village as I read today’s chapter. I find that chapters like today’s are quickly dismissed and glossed over by most casual readers, but in context, they hold lessons to be learned.

In the Hebrew religion and culture, your family determined a lot about your life. They considered the land as “God’s” possession and they were merely tenants. When Moses led the people out of Egypt and they entered the “promised land” the land was divided by tribes. Religious offices were also determined by tribe and family. Only descendants of Aaron could be priests and only descendants of Levi could oversee the temple and official religious duties. Your family of origin determined much of life for the returning exiles.

A couple of things to note in the chapter. There is an entire list of men who are not numbered by family, but by their towns. They had no family distinction or genealogy to be listed among the families or tribes. They were “commoners” like many of the people who settled our community. Also, there were those who could not prove their claims as they had no family records. They were religiously excluded until a process could be set up to settle their claims. Then there’s the curious story of Barzillai who had married a daughter of Barzillai and took his wife’s family name rather than his wife becoming part of her husband’s tribe; A very uncommon situation in those days.

This morning I’m thinking about family, about history, and about the opportunities that I enjoy on this life journey that did not exist for most people in all of human history. My great-grandfather came alone to a new world. He was a young, poor, uneducated commoner with some carpentry skills. He started a hardware store and a family. How much do I owe to his daring to cross the ocean and half a continent to make a new life for himself and his descendants? How much do I owe to a country where one is not bound by a family name or trade, but free to pursue any path you desire?

One of the offerings that the ancient Hebrews would bring to the Temple that they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild, was a “Thanksgiving Offering.” This morning in the quiet of my hotel room I find my spirit offering a word, a song, a heart of gratitude to God for the incredible blessings afforded me that I daily take for granted.

 

At Some Point, One Must Return Home

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Ezra 1:5 (NIV)

When I was a young man I spent five years in pastoral ministry. Three of those years were spent in a very small town here in Iowa. During those years I officiated a lot of funerals. Not only were these funerals for members of my congregation, but the local Funeral Home Director also called me when there was a family who had no particular faith tradition or church home. As a result, I spent a generous amount of time with grieving families.

During these funerals, I began to observe families in all of their glorious dysfunctions. I noticed, in particular, that these sad occasions brought prodigal children home, and that in many cases the children had not been home for many years. This taught me a life lesson: “At some point, one has to return home.” (By the way, this became the inspiration for my play, Ham Buns and Potato Salad.)

For the past few months on this chapter-a-day journey, I’ve been going through books related to what’s known as the “exilic” period when the Hebrews were taken captive and lived in exile under the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Mede, and Persian empires. Today I begin walking through the two books (Ezra and Nehemiah) that tell the story of the exiles return to Jerusalem and their work to reconstruct Solomon’s Temple and the protective walls of the city.

For the exiled Hebrews, their return had been something they’d longed for. Right at the beginning of today’s chapter, it’s mentioned that they’d been clinging to the prophecy of Jeremiah that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (Jer 25:11-12). The time for return finally arrives. At some point, one has to return home.

Reading today’s chapter, it’s easy to assume that Cyrus felt some special affection toward the exiled Hebrews and their religion. However, the decree and subsequent provision of temple articles stolen by Nebuchadnezzar represented a shift in Empirical policy. Earlier empires had ruled with an iron hand, destroying native temples and demanding that captured peoples adopt the culture of the conquerors. Cyrus, however, realized that allowing captured peoples to return to their homes and rebuild their native temples and shrines was good policy. He did the same for other peoples, as well. The move created goodwill with the people of his empire. In the case of Judah, the move also provided him with allies and a friendly outpost between himself and the yet unconquered kingdom of Egypt.

This morning I find myself thinking about returning home. It can look so different for different individuals. It might be a joyous reunion for some. For others, it’s a necessary immersion back into messy family dysfunction. There are those for whom the return home is a long-awaited return from exile. In many cases, it’s an important and necessary step in addressing past wrongs, emotional injuries, and spiritual blocks so that one can progress in his or her life journey. In many cases, I’ve observed that one can’t move forward until he or she makes the trek and faces the past. I, myself, discovered it a necessary stretch of my own journey.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself whispering a quiet prayer for those who have yet to return, those who have returned, and those who find themselves amidst the struggle of returning home.

A Small Cog in the Works

Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews.
Esther 10:3 (NIV)

I found myself working with a small Inside Sales team that was a small cog in the works of a large business silo of a global corporate empire. The fact that we had this gig was a bit of a minor miracle. You see, the corporation they worked for didn’t care about their customers. The corporation didn’t survey their customers because they didn’t want to know. The corporation made it virtually impossible for customers to reach the right people by virtue of a labyrinthine phone system in which you could get lost for days among vague menu choices, endless loops, ignorant operators, and unempowered employees who long ago ceased to care. The corporate system was set up to serve the system itself. Customers were treated as a necessary nuisance.

So, how in the world did I end up there?

There was one front-line manager in charge of this small Inside Sales team. He couldn’t do anything about the corporate empire, the phone system, or any of the other teams, departments, divisions, or silos of the system. He determined, however, that he could control his little cog buried in the systemic works. He hired me and my team to help his little team to apply what I call Customer Service Rule #1: Do the best you can with what you have.

The sheer size and scope of the corporate system working against their efforts made it feel, at times, like we were Quixote tilting at windmills. Still, I had to admire the manager and his team for their courage to make a small difference and do their best to do the right thing for customers in a corporate environment that would never support their efforts, and would only undermine those efforts time and time again.

Over the past weeks on this chapter-a-day journey, I’ve been making my way through what’s known as the exilic books of God’s Message. It was a period of history when the ancient Israelites had been taken into captivity and were ruled by the Assyrian, Babylonian, Median, and Persian empires. Individuals like Daniel, Esther, and Mordecai were strangers in a strange land. They were despised by many and the odds were stacked against them in a myriad of ways. Yet, their stories tell of God using these small individual cogs to accomplish His work in the foreign empirical machines and the often horrific circumstances in which they found themselves.

Today’s final chapter of Esther is simply a brief epilogue that honors Mordecai for his accomplishments. It’s a literary epitaph of sorts and it leaves us with the reminder that Mordecai rose to power because concerned himself with the needs of all his people and worked tirelessly for the welfare of others.

I find myself reminded of two statements this morning. One from Peter’s letter to the believers who, like the Jewish exiles, were scattered by persecution around the Roman world:

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”
1 Peter 5:6 (NIV)

The other from the prophet Micah:

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
    what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
    be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
    take God seriously.
Micah 6:8 (MSG)

The exiles were like the Inside Sales team that I and my team worked with inside their own corporate empire. In many ways, that Inside Sales team was small, impotent, and relatively insignificant in the grand corporate scheme of things. But, they chose to humbly do the best they could each day to serve as best they could with what little power and influence they had. Sometimes, that’s the best you can do.

In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that along life’s road I will encounter many situations and circumstances that are out of my control. There are so many times when I’m really powerless to make a significant change to large problems. The exiles provide a good example to follow as they, themselves, heeded Micah’s advice. I can do the same. Humbly, quietly, mercifully, faithfully do the best I can each day, in every circumstance, with what I have.

“If You Only Knew What it was Like….”

Meanwhile, the remainder of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces also assembled to protect themselves and get relief from their enemies. They killed seventy-five thousand of them but did not lay their hands on the plunder.
Esther 9:16 (NIV)

This past weekend I attended my 35th high school reunion. It’s only the second reunion that I’ve attended and it was a lot of fun to catch up with old classmates and where their life journeys have taken them. I walked to Kindergarten with some of these people. We played Kick-the-Can, Freeze Tag, and Ding-Dong Ditchem’ as children and experienced all the awkwardness of adolescence together. It was especially sobering for me to see the table of memorials to all classmates who have already passed, and to recall moments and life events I experienced with each of them. It was strange to have such vivid memories with these amazing individuals from my childhood and to realize that so much time has passed. One of the common conversations that evening was how our children (and now grandchildren) have no concept of what everyday life was like for us.

I found myself expanding that thought to a macro-level this morning as I read the chapter. It’s been a while since this chapter-a-day journey took me into such a bloody text. It is difficult for this twenty-first century, enlightened Western mind to get my head wrapped around such bloodshed and carnage. I’ve observed along the way that we have a penchant in our modern culture to whitewash, rewrite, or simply ignore certain aspects of history, including the brutal violence which was an everyday part of the culture in ancient days. “Kill or be killed” was the way of life and survival for most tribes and people groups.

In today’s chapter, I found it fascinating that Xerxes did not seem to bat an eye at the destruction of Esther’s enemies. But, I have to remember that his father, Cyrus, established the Persian Empire and became the world’s first “superpower” by destroying a lot of people. Xerxes had a reputation for holding onto that power and his Empire by brutally suppressing any kind of rebellion against him and his kingdom. Again, it was simply the way of life during that period of history.

There are two things happening in today’s chapter that are often lost on the casual reader. The first connects to something I pointed out the other day. The face-off between Mordecai (descendant of King Saul’s tribe of Benjamin) and Haman (descendant of King Agag of the Amalekites) is a historical rematch. In the first round (see 1 Samuel 15), Saul did not complete the task of wiping out Agag and his followers. In today’s chapter, the destruction of Haman and his followers was historically perceived by the Hebrews as righting an old wrong that Saul should have completed.

Second, while Xerxes’ proclamation gave the Hebrews permission to plunder their enemies, you’ll notice the text clearly points out that they chose not to do so. Again, this is further evidence that the events of today’s chapter were perceived as righting the wrongs of Saul, who was forbidden from plundering King Agag and the Amalekites but did so anyway. The story of Esther is layered with the theme of reversals: the reversal of fortunes, the reversal of specific events, and the reversal of past wrongs.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the march of time. Based on conversations this past weekend, I and my classmates clearly wish that our children could understand what life was like for us:

  • “If you only knew what it was like without smartphones.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to write a research paper on a daisy-wheel typewriter without the internet, Google, or Wikipedia.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to walk a mile to school every day in the winter.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to be at college and communicate with your parents once a week (at most) because they didn’t want to pay for the collect call.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to be expected to get a paper route and start working as soon as you were 11 or 12 years old.”

In the same way, I imagine Mordecai and Esther inviting me to take off my modern, rose-colored glasses and to attempt to see beyond my politically correct horror at the violence of their time in history.  I imagine them beckoning me to try and imagine what it was like to live in the “kill or be killed” realities they experienced every day when there was no other choice. “If you only knew what it was like,” I hear them say, “to walk in our sandals as exiles and captives in a foreign land surrounded by enemies bent on killing us.”

I don’t think it’s fully possible, but I’ve found it worth the effort to try. The stories of history have secrets to teach me; Secrets that provide wisdom for my own life journey, and for the journeys of my children and grandchildren.

As Jesus said, “Seek, and you’ll find.

And so my “seeking” begins for another day, in another week.

I hope your own search is going well, my friend.

Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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