There is something mystical that can happen on stage for an actor. It’s a rare thing, and I can only claim to have, perhaps, touched it maybe once or twice. I’ve read others’ accounts of the rare occurrence and have corresponded with those who’ve experienced it. It happens when one gets so lost in the reality of the characters and the scene in the world of the play you’ve created that you lose your rational knowledge that you are an actor, pretending to be a character on a stage with other actors. It’s like slipping into a different reality and briefly letting go of the one you’re actually in. I know it sounds weird, but it happens and it is both wild and disconcerting when it does.
This past weekend I was introduced in my quiet time to the writings of an anonymous medieval mystic entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s a bit of a slog to wade through given the vocabulary and middle english language of the 14th century. Nevertheless, I found myself in the quiet of the wee hours inspired by the author’s message.
Mystics also call themselves “contemplatives.” The concept is that we can learn, and even experience, much in disciplined contemplation. Kind of like the mystery of losing one’s sense of rational presence on stage, The Cloud of Unknowing is a state of being that the author describes as a place where one knows nothing but the feeling of a “naked intent unto God“:
“Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list. For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection.”
In Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, he touches on this concept of knowing and unknowing as part of the spiritual mystery of being a follower of Jesus. He tells the believers that he resolved “to know nothing” while he was with them “except Christ and Him crucified.” It sounds a lot like he intended to exist in a cloud of unknowing. He goes on to speak of the reality of a relationship with Christ in terms of a mysterious wisdom that is hidden from those who are wise in the rational realities of this world.
Jesus also touched on this mysterious wisdom:
At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Matthew 11:25 (NIV)
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over itand said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side.They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” Luke 19:41-44 (NIV)
This morning in the quiet I find myself mulling over both the rational and the mystery. I find myself a player on Life’s stage, as Shakespeare aptly put it, making my routine daily entrances and exits. The further I proceed in my journey the more called I feel toward a wisdom that lies, not in the nailing of my lines and hitting my cues, but in finding that rare place that can only be found somewhere in the mystery of unknowing.
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,so that no one may boast before him. 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 (NIV)
Wendy and I have a guest room that we’ve been decorating with a UK theme. We’ve loved our trips to the UK and thought it would be kind of fun (“cheeky,” even) to channel that into our home. On one of the walls we’ve hung portraits of royalty as well as some of our favorite British writers and actors. Of course, we felt the need to separate the portraits with the royals (and a couple of Prime Ministers) on one side and the those low-life, “commoner” artist types on the other 😉
Having grown up in a representative republic like America, the notion of royalty is a bit of romantic idea and the stuff of nostalgia for us. For most of human history, however, the idea of people being better than others simply because of the blood in their veins and the family into which they were born was part of the fabric of every day life. And, going all the way back to ancient rulers, it was commonly believed that there was some sort of divinity that marked the distinction. Rulers often claimed to be gods themselves. The idea of monarchs ruling by “divine right” was popularly held (mostly by the royals themselves) until recently.
Even in the times of Jesus and the early Jesus Movement, the notion of “divine” rulers was popular. One of the reasons the early believers were executed or thrown into the Roman circus to be eaten by lions for the sake of entertainment was that they refused to swear that Caesar was god.
In today’s chapter Paul is quick to reference that the believers in Corinth were not people of wealth and influence. For the most part they had little status in the eyes of the world. He reminds them, however, that they are highly esteemed by God.
We easily forget that one of the things that made the early Jesus Movement so radical was that everyone could freely accept the gift of salvation offered by Jesus. Everyone was equally a member of the body of Christ. Spiritual gifts were bestowed on every believer by Holy Spirit, and when the Spirit came upon a group of believers everyone manifested the experience regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, or social standing. When believers met together for a love feast and to share in the ritual of the Lord’s supper everyone was welcome at the table. If a slave and the slave’s master were both believers, they had equal status at the table of Jesus’ followers.
This morning I find myself meditating on the reality that as the Jesus Movement became the institutional church and gained both power and influence, it quickly abandoned its egalitarian roots and developed rigid systems of hierarchy and status that exist to this day. In personal practice and in my, admittedly small, circles of influence I am consciously trying to lead us back to the egalitarian spiritual roots of the Jesus Movement where everyone is of equal status in the body of Christ and where everyone is welcome at the table. We’ll let the ancient notion of “divine” rulers or those of higher or more noble “status” be simply a bit of nostalgia on our guest room wall.
Speaking of that. One of the decorative touches we want to make to our guest room is a collage of postcards from the UK. If I have any readers from across the pond who would like to contribute, we would be both humbled and blessed to have you send us a postcard (or two, or three!). Simply drop it in the mail it to:
Tom & Wendy Vander Well
801 Franklin St. #526
Pella, IA 50219 U.S.A.
Tomorrow begins the Thanksgiving holiday here in the U.S. Please know that I am truly thankful for you who faithfully, or occasionally, (or even rarely) read my posts. Cheers!
We were not idle when we were with you,nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 2 Thessalonians 3:7b-9 (NIV)
As I’ve mentioned in recent weeks, my local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been digging deep into the book of Acts and the history of the Jesus Movement’s early years. As part of that, I have been reading and studying the life of Paul, the brilliant maverick who was transformed from the Jesus Movement’s staunchest enemy into its most powerful and productive advocate and member.
In my study of Paul’s life I’ve come to an appreciation of how Paul lived and labored. My whole life l’ve always pictured Paul as spending most of his time, day-after-day, teaching, preaching, writing letters, and preaching the gospel. I’ve come to learn that nothing could be further from the truth. Most of Paul’s time, day-after-day, was spent making tents.
As most people of his day, Paul was apprenticed into the family business which was the making and repairing of tents (and presumably awnings and other textiles used to block the sun). It was a trade that could be plied anywhere, and Paul carried his tools to ply his trade wherever his missions took him. In today’s chapter, Paul reminds the believers in Thessalonica that he and his companions labored “night and day” to provide for themselves.
Paul reminds the believers of his example because the followers of Jesus were proponents of generosity and giving to those in need, especially the poor and widows. Now, there were individuals who were happy to keep taking from the believers’ fledgling system of charity with no intention of contributing.
I was raised in a family with a strong work ethic. I also come from Dutch heritage, a culture historically known for its work ethic. I’ll spare you the litany of my labor history, which date back to my pre-teenage years. Suffice it to say that I appreciate Paul’s attitude. Other leaders of the Jesus movement had begun to work solely on the contributions of other believers. Paul accepted that this was an appropriate practice. He even helped collect money and deliver it to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he steadfastly chose to work to pay his own way. Today, he states clearly his intent. He wanted to live as an example to others. His message to the Thessalonian believers was consistent through both of his letters: Work hard. Be productive. Contribute to good of the whole. Be content.
In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday that we Americans will celebrate on Thursday. I recognize the blessing of living and laboring in the richest part of the world. I’m grateful. I’m also mindful and thankful for my father whom I watched struggle through multiple vocational setbacks, yet he always worked hard at whatever job he may have needed until he could get to a job that was more of what he wanted. I think of my great-grandfather risking everything to come to America, by himself, to eek out a living for he and his family as an immigrant. I think of one grandparent striving to make his way through college, the first member of his family to do so, and then working into his 90s. “The day I stop working,” he was fond of repeating to anyone who would listen, “will be the day I die!” I’m also remembering another grandparent (that’s him, first from the right in the featured photo of this post) taking the only work he could find in the Great Depression and laboring at that job for 40 years. Daily, he went about the simple task life selling and servicing tires. Not once did I hear him complain.
We live in a rapidly changing, complex world. Yet, along the journey I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity of some things that never change: Work hard. Be productive. Contribute to the good of the whole. Be content.
It has been a while since I’ve posted anything but my chapter-a-day. Forgive me. I’m feeling good just to get that done most days. Nevertheless, I’m well overdue to, at the very least, post a brief synopsis of all the events of autumn.
Summer ended and our fall began with what has become an annual adult weekend at the lake with the VLs and JPs. It’s so much fun with this crew and there is never a dull moment when the six of us get together, which we did again a few weeks later with dinner in Ankeny for JP’s birthday.
A quick update on the girls. Madison continues living and working in Columbia, South Carolina as an area sales and training coordinator for Laura Geller cosmetics. She loves it there and we don’t foresee getting her back to the midwest without an act of God. She’ll also be home for a week at the holidays, which we’re ecstatic about. She and her boyfriend, Garrett, made quite a turn as “The Incredibles” for Halloween this year.
Taylor, Clayton and Milo moved to Edinburgh, Scotland early this fall. Clayton is finishing up his Doctorate from the University there. Taylor was hired part-time by Storii, a fabulous company helping senior care centers tell, and utilize, the stories of their residents who are struggling with dementia. They’ve had a busy few months with travels to Sweden, Denmark, London and the Scottish highlands. Thankfully they will be home for a few weeks in December for the holidays, and we can’t wait to have them here.
Sadly, the kids weren’t the only ones we had to say good-bye to this fall. Wendy’s sister, Suzanna, left for Mazatlan, Mexico where she is attending Discipleship Training School with YWAM (Youth With a Mission).
We also bid farewell to our dear friends Kevin and Linda as they moved to Palm Springs, California. While the snowbirds promise to come back and spend summer in Iowa, it was hard to watch them pack up all their belongings and head west (though we are headed there to visit them soon!). I was also glad I was able to enjoy Kevin’s turn as host of the Pella Opera House’s first-ever Scotch and Cigar night. Almost 50 men attended, and Kevin did a fabulous job.
Farewell lunch with Suzanna. We’re so much fun, our server wanted to get in on the photo!
Scotch & Cigar night at Pella Opera House. Greeted by a piper.
Kevin hosting Scotch tasting.
I have been kept busy in leadership of my company including a major rebranding from C Wenger Group to Intelligentics. There will be more responsibility transferred my way with the start of 2019. I’m excited to see where it all leads.
Wendy and I stepped down completely from leadership in our community theatre after nearly a decade and a half. We’re taking an indefinite hiatus from community theatre with all the other things going on in life. That said, Wendy was honored by Union Street Players for her years of service by being inducted to their Walk of Fame during the group’s annual Awards Night on October 6th. Here’s a little clip I put together of some of my fave photos of Wendy over the years at USP. I’ve also, for posterity sake, posted a video of my introduction and her acceptance speech.
We were scheduled to be part of an independent production of Freud’s Last Session in October at Central College with our friends Kevin and Linda. We were forced to pull the plug on the production at the last-minute because of unforeseen and ultimately insurmountable scheduling obstacles placed in our way. It’s a long story both sad and frustrating. Not only for us, but also for the Central theatre students and professors who were looking forward to being involved in the show and with whom we were excited to work on the production. We are discussing an attempt to resurrect the project next year.
Autumn at the lake with Kev n Beck.
Me and the ladies, out for Chad’s birthday.
You know what fall means? Vikings football!! SKOL!
Pella Opera House Gala
Or Pella. It’s a regional thing.
Chocolate always makes her smile. Celebrating Chad’s birthday at Malo.
The fall included some annual events such as a fall weekend at the lake with our friends, Kev and Beck. Fall means you’ll find Wendy and me in purple and gold every Sunday afternoon cheering on the Vikings. We also enjoyed the annual fundraising gala for the Pella Opera House. And then there was an evening out with the VLs and JPs to celebrate Chad’s birthday. A wonderful dinner at Malo and nightcap in Des Moines.
Our support of Pella Historical Society included a couple of new experiences this fall. Wendy and I once again found ourselves portraying our town’s founding couple, H.P. and Maria Scholte, in a cemetery walk. There were a number of costumed actors stationed around the local cemetery portraying historic individuals from our town’s past. As visitors approached we delivered a short monologue. It was a cold, blustery fall day, but at least the sun was shining to provide a little warmth.
Just this past weekend I had the honor of being Master of Ceremonies for the annual Tulip Queen Announcement Party. Twelve young ladies were finalists in the annual festivities that select a Tulip Queen and four members of the Tulip Court who will preside at Pella’s annual Tulip Time festival in May. As M.C. I spent Friday evening and Saturday morning in rehearsals, then got to join the candidates at a special luncheon on Saturday. At the Saturday evening event I introduced and interviewed all of the candidates before a packed audience in the high school auditorium. Each candidate did a three-minute presentation and were interviewed by a panel of over 30 judges representing a diverse cross-section of our community. It was a tough decision as all twelve of the young ladies were exceptional and would have been great representatives of the best our community has to offer. Then I got to make the big announcement at the end of the evening. It was a lot of fun, and I’ve already been asked to M.C. next year’s event, so I guess I did okay.
Wendy and I have also been focusing on getting some projects done around the house this fall. We finally completed a DIY project that’s been in the works for a couple of years. We made a console table out of old dock wood from the lake to sit behind the couch downstairs in the Pub. We also designed a sign for the pub and actually had one made by the local sign company.
A house full of Vander Harts.
No one starves at a Vander Hart gathering.
With the world progressing at breakneck speed, it’s nice to know some things never change 😉
The Vander Hart name lives on!
Wendy and I also enjoyed playing host to her mom’s family this past weekend. The Vander Hart clan descended on us Sunday afternoon. There were 20+ of them for a potluck lunch and hanging out. Wendy’s cousin, Ethan, and his wife, Kim, recently gave birth to the only Vander Hart male to carry the family name into the next generation, so it was fun to meet him and celebrate.
Of course, then there’s the regular activities of both physical and spiritual exercise. I’m more involved than ever as a teaching leader. Wendy and I were asked to present at a fall retreat on our experience with the enneagram, which prompted another opportunity coming up in December. Wendy has been faithfully doing yoga and I continue to show up at CrossFit.
Wow. Writing this post reminds me just how busy we’ve been. But, life is good and we are blessed. Next week the holidays begin, and Wendy and I both have hearts full of gratitude ready to give Thanks.
[The man of lawlessness] will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. 2 Thessalonians 2:4 (NIV)
Yesterday, as I was getting ready, I had the Cohen brothers’ classic movie, The Big Lebowski, playing in the background. It’s become one of my all time favorites movies. What most people don’t realize is that The Big Lebowski is basically a classic 1940s film noir detective story set in the early 1980s with an unlikely stoner named The Dude unwittingly placed in the role of the protagonist detective.
I grew up watching a lot classic films and the hard-boiled detective movies (e.g. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade) of the film noir genre were among my favorites. In The Big Lebowski you have all the classic detective movie motifs: the old millionaire, the millionaire’s daughter with whom the protagonist falls in love, blackmail, rabbit trails, crime lords, a secondary detective, and the protagonist detective getting “slipped a Mickey” (drugged with a drink).
I’ve observed that most people watch films in a vacuum, as though each film sort of stands alone. The reality is that all good stories and films borrow themes and motifs from one another. All of my favorite epics, for examples, have the overarching theme of good versus evil. Usually an epic story is about an ancient struggle coming to a climax. There’s always a prophecy woven into the storyline, as well. In Harry Potter there is the prophecy Harry retrieves from the Ministry of Magic. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe there is the prophecy and deep magic of the stone table. In The Lord of the Rings Aragorn is led to take the Paths of the Dead because of the “words of Malbeth the Seer.”
I say it fairly regularly: “All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story.” Our stories reflect our own humanity. Deeper still, I believe that human history is a Great Story being told across the ages. I believe that evil exists and there is a very real struggle between good versus evil. I believe in the prophetic.
Along my life journey I’ve experienced the prophetic. I have found it to be both mysterious and messy and therefore quickly dismissed by many. I have come to believe that tragedy lies on either side of the tension between two possible errors: Dismissing the prophetic altogether or drowning too deeply in the mystery. I’ve always tried to hold the tension between the two.
In the early years of the Jesus movement there were many prophecies given concerning where the plot line of the Great Story was going. This led to many arguments and mistaken assumptions. In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing some mistaken assumptions in today’s chapter. Without drowning too deeply in the specifics, I find myself being reminded of two things.
First, there is evil, and evil opposes good. Jesus was very aware of the evil opposing Him. He knew that His coming was prophesied (He proclaimed Isaiah’s prophetic word in His first sermon). He cast out demons throughout His ministry. He knew He was being tempted by the evil one to abandon His sacrificial mission. We don’t like to think too much about the reality of evil, but it exists.
Second, evil cannot create but, instead, it always counterfeits. Tolkien clearly picked up this theme in his epic stories. Orcs were counterfeits made in opposition to elves. Trolls were counterfeits made in opposition to ents. Paul says there is prophesied a counterfeit messiah to come whom he calls the Man of Lawlessness. The Greek term he uses is anthropos (man, mankind, humanity; as in anthropology the study of humanity) anamos (opposition, lawless, wicked; from which we get the English word animosity). Paul explains that it has been prophesied that this counterfeit messiah will come before Jesus’ return in a climax to this Great Story.
In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering all of these mysteries. I don’t want to get lost in them, but neither do I want to dismiss them. Again, I find myself trying to hold the tension. I believe my life journey is part of the Great Story. How it fits and weaves into the larger plot lines is a mystery to me. I’m just trying to stick to the path appointed for me, to follow the steps I’m led, to do the good God calls me to do, and to be shrewd as a serpent and gentle as a dove, aware of both the evil and the good around me.
Or, as Jeffrey Lebowski would put it: “The Dude Abides.”
We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. 2 Thessalonians 1:3 (NIV)
When I began working out regularly this past June, one of my instructors asked me if I had any specific goals in mind. Without hesitation I answered, “To keep showing up!”
I’ve continued to show up for five months now, and in the past few weeks I’ve received a handful of unsolicited comments from people saying they’ve noticed a difference in me. It’s always nice to hear an unexpected “attaboy,” and it gives a little extra psychological push to keep going.
Some mornings I spend time in the quiet meditating and pondering for some time what the Spirit has to say to me through the morning’s chapter. This morning the Spirit confronted me directly with this question: “Is my spiritual progress as evident as my physical progress?”
Certainly there is an ebb and flow to progress in this journey. Progress is always more evident in the early stages of a journey. The further I progress, the big, self-evident improvements give way to small tweaks in maturity. The small tweaks make a huge difference though they are not as evident to others as the early gains. And, along this journey I’ve discovered that progress does not happen at the same rate. I hit “set points” along the way in which I don’t feel as if I’m making any progress at all. I have to press on and persevere in order to experience the next breakthrough and realize further growth.
Nevertheless, the Spirit’s question is a worthwhile one. Late in his own life journey, Paul writes to his protegé, Timothy: “Exercise daily in God—no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever.” (1 Tim 4:8 MSG)
And so, this morning I’m taking a little inventory. Where am I physically? Where am I spiritually? Where am I mentally, emotionally, and relationally? Am I making progress? Am I slogging through a set-point? Am I resting in anticipation for the next push? Am I regressing?
All good questions for me to mull over as I head to work out this morning.
Thanks for “showing up” this morning, my friend. Have a great day.
Note to my regular readers:Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers is spending most of an entire year (Sep ’18 through Jul ’19) studying the book of Acts. In conjunction with this study, I’ve decided to blog our way through all of Paul’s letters in chronological order. The exact chronology is a matter of scholarly debate. We began with Paul’s letter to the believers in the Asia Minor region of Galatia, then proceeded to his first letter to the believers in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Today we’re moving on to his second letter to the followers of Jesus there. Many scholars think these two letters preceded his letter to the Galatians. ==============
It’s fascinating to study the progression of Pablo Picasso’s artwork. He attended art school at an early age and his prodigious talent immediately revealed itself. He could paint with the beautiful realistic style that his teachers instructed as they copied masters like Raphael. The further he progressed in his life journey, however, and the more he produced, Picasso found himself having breakthroughs that would change both art and culture forever. Instead of becoming more realistic, his art became less so. Rather than following the art world’s prescribed path of the artistic beauty of realism, Picasso embarked on a very different journey.
Wendy and I both have our “God stories.” We each have moments in our journey when God did something rather amazing, and I would in some cases call miraculous, to direct us on our respective and mutual paths, to encourage us in our journeys, or to give us a glimpse of what was to come.
Just last week Wendy was looking through some old journals and ran across a prophetic word that had been given to her during her long, depressing slog through singleness (she was 33 when we wed). She was struggling through a time when all of her other friends were getting engaged and married. It was a brief sentence, and she can’t even remember who gave it to her, but it encouraged her that marriage was, indeed, in her future. It also described me, and our situation, rather aptly. She showed it to me and we both just shook our heads with amazement.
I have other, similar stories. I was raised in Mainline tradition and with believers of conservative theological persuasions who dismiss the signs and wonders experienced by the early church as extinguished realities from a another time. I was taught to value knowledge of scripture and conservative theology above the experiential and often mystical work of the Spirit. As one teacher in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers described it, we were raised in a tradition in which the Holy Trinity was “Father, Son, and Holy Bible.” The further I get in my journey, the more I’ve come to confess this as “quenching the Spirit” that Paul tells the Thessalonians to avoid.
And, then there are all these God stories that I’ve experienced along my journey. I had a vision the day after I made my decision to follow Jesus, and that vision changed my life forever. So, I’ve always known it could happen. It did happen. Yet I was taught to dismiss, or at the very least to diminish, such experiences by my early instructors and get back to focusing on proper doctrine. I have a different view of things from my current waypoint on my Spiritual journey. The further I have progressed the less beholden I am to the iron-clad “that was for then, not now” theology I was taught in my youth. The willing I am to explore the mysteries of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The more open I have become to the power of the Spirit in the here and now.
Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you’ll never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” I think this is at the heart of the place I find myself in this journey. Which brings me back to Pablo Picasso.
How many people have looked at his later works and said, “My child could paint that!” Exactly. Picasso himself said that when he was young he could paint like a master, but it took him a lifetime to learn to paint like a child.
That’s exactly what I feel about the things of the Spirit. When I was young I memorized scripture and learned theology, both of which are important. Yet, now as I’m getting older I find myself following Jesus down this path marked with the bread crumbs of our God stories in all their mess and mystery. I find myself increasingly pushing into childlike wonder and openness to the power and presence of the Spirit in every moment.
When I was young man people said that I had the wisdom and spiritual maturity of an adult. It’s taken a lifetime for me to learn how to seek the faith and Spirit wonder of a child.