All posts by Tom Vander Well

Wayfarer, husband, father, consultant, thespian, writer, thinker, and back porch musician. Pressing on through the journey one step at a time.

Answering Accusation (or Not)

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?
1 Corinthians 6:7 (NIV)

When the first phone call came from a co-worker, I was taken completely by surprise. My head was still spinning when the phone rang again. This second call came from my closest friend.

Dude,” he said immediately when I picked up, “I’ve got your back.”

That was the beginning of a particularly dark stretch of my life journey. Accusations had been broadcast among family, friends, and colleagues. Things were about to get really ugly, and I was faced with many decisions of how to respond.

Almost immediately I received, unexpectedly, some wise counsel from a person who’d traversed a similar stretch of rocky terrain earlier in their own life journey. I will never forget that bit of advice. Let me paraphrase: “Don’t fight back,” said the sage. “Make like a turtle. Pull into your shell at need and let the words, insults, accusations, and suspicions bounce off your shell. Just be true to yourself, and keep pressing on one step at a time. Make like a turtle. Slow and steady wins the race.”

In today’s chapter Paul, in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, is addressing similar sticky situations. Accusations are flying among the small group of believers. People are pointing fingers. Sides are being taken. Private arguments are turning into public lawsuits. In all the hubbub, the local gathering is suffering a black-eye.

Paul asks the believers an interesting question: “Might it be better for everyone to just allow yourself to be wronged?” In a nutshell (or, more aptly, a tortoise shell), Paul is echoing the sage advice I received many years ago. Don’t escalate an already bad situation by publicly answering insult for insult, accusation for accusation. Rather, do as Jesus proposed:

“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.” Matthew 5:38-42 (MSG)

It’s not easy. Step-by-step, day-by-day I simply endeavored to be true to myself and to be a follower of Jesus to the best of my ability. Slow and steady I pressed forward letting the public suspicions, accusations, and tossed rocks bounce off the shell. “Don’t answer,” I had to keep telling myself as I protectively pulled inward. “Keep moving.”

In the quiet this morning I’m privately enjoying a tremendous compliment I recently received from an individual who, during those dark days, wouldn’t speak to me or give me the time of day, as the saying goes.

Slow and steady wins the race.

(Note to my regular readers: I expect my posts to be a bit erratic through the holidays. our kids and one-year-old grandson are visiting from the UK until New Year’s. Grandpa’s daily schedule might be appropriately messed up on a regular basis.)

Life, and Light, Under the Bucket

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people, not at all meaning the people of this world...
1 Corinthians 5:10 (NIV)

There once was a Christian man, raised in a Christian family. From his infancy he attended a Christian church and then was placed in Christian school where he had many Christian friends. He listened exclusively to Christian music on the Christian music station and read Christian novels from the Christian publisher that he purchased from the Christian book store. During high school he involved himself with Christian athletes and in his senior year he attended the Christian prom with his Christian girlfriend. After graduating from Christian high school, the young man attended a Christian college. He went on several Christian missions to the third world and interned at two different Christian organizations. He met a good Christian girl from a Christian family, and he married her. After graduating from the Christian college, the man returned to his hometown to start a Christian business, listed in the local Christian business directory, and joined a Christian men’s group to help him raise his Christian family. And, it started all over again.

Jesus said,

“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”

If I was the enemy of Light, and I wanted to keep the Light from penetrating the darkness, I would simply convince the Light bearers that “holiness” was totally dependent on keeping their Light hidden under an overturned bucket of social, cultural, and familial exclusivity. Then, I would sprinkle in the notion that those in darkness will either be  1) somehow attracted to their little circle of exclusivity under the bucket or 2) deserving of the hopeless, eternal darkness outside.

What the hell?

A Quick Trip to “The Springs”

Wendy and I have greatly missed our friends, Kevin and Linda, who packed up their possessions in Pella and moved out to Palm Springs, California a few months ago. So, when Wendy happened to see that our airline had some super-saver deals we jumped at the chance to fly out to spend a few days with the snowbirds this past week. And, as the weather has been unseasonably cold, windy, and snowy in Iowa, it came at a great time.

 

We were supposed to arrive mid-day on Tuesday, but travel delays meant we got rerouted and spent much more time in airports than planned. Nevertheless, we arrived at 7:45 pm and enjoyed dinner with Kevin and Linda. We enjoyed playing with Linda’s dog, Ginsberg, and talking way too late into the evening, or wee hours of the morning as was the reality for our midwest bodies.

It was a gorgeous day on Wednesday. So much fun to sit in on the deck and look out at the sun on the mountains as I got a little work done. Once everyone was up and going we walked the mile from their condo to the main strip in Palm Springs, taking time to browse through some shops. The chorizo queso at Maracas has become a favorite of ours, so we had lunch there. Kevin and I picked up cigars to enjoy after dinner that evening. We walked back and napped in the afternoon. Dinner was on the patio at another Palm Springs favorite, Tropicale. We enjoyed cigars around the pool in the evening and even dipped our feet in the hot tub.

This is NOT an example of mid-century modern architecture.

Thursday was unseasonably cold and rainy for Palm Springs, but we didn’t let it dampen our day. Our friends gave us a tour of mid-century modern architecture around Palm Springs and we grabbed a burger at a local grill. The afternoon was spent visiting, napping, and reading. We took in the Palm Spring Art Museum in the evening for dining at Kaiser Grill.

Wendy taking in an exhibit at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Somehow, Wendy in a halo of red is just fitting.

The trip was all too quick. It felt like we blinked and it was over. We enjoyed brunch together at Pinocchio’s along with Kevin and Linda’s friend, Michael, who had flown in for a visit late the previous evening. Then, it was back to reality. We met snow in our layover in Denver. Ugh.

Blessed to have gotten a few days of r&r with our friends, however. Can’t wait for the next time.

“Imitate Me”

 Therefore I urge you to imitate me.
1 Corinthians 4:16 (NIV)

The past few weeks Wendy and I have been getting videos of our grandson, Milo, that Taylor has been sending from their home in Scotland. Milo is almost a year old and the videos reveal that young Milo has hit the stage of development in which he “imitates” what his parents do. When we had a FaceTime conversation a week or so ago I had some fun making up distinct little laugh noises and coughs and then was overjoyed to watch and listen as Milo smiled and tried to imitate them. It was a fun game, and it warmed my heart.

In today’s chapter Paul makes a very simple and direct request of the believers in Corinth: “Imitate me.” Not just a game of mimicking voice or gesture, Paul was inviting his friends in Corinth to imitate his way of life, his actions, his words, his hard work, his way of treating others.

It’s such a simple command, and yet it is such a bold statement. In the quiet this morning I have been trying to imagine telling a fledgling believer to imitate me. Yes, okay, I have developed some good habits and disciplines in life, but I can also immediately bring to mind things I wouldn’t want anyone imitating. I confess to having an overdeveloped sense of shame, but I’m still intimidated by the thought of telling someone, “Just watch me and do what I do.”

As I meditate on it, I’ve come to think that perhaps this is actually a good exercise. I picture myself telling a young person “Imitate me.” What would I be afraid of them seeing, hearing and repeating? What thoughts, words, actions, and habits would have me quickly adding an addendum and making caveats to the imitation command? “Well, wait a minute. Don’t imitate that part. If you catch me doing this, just ignore me, please. Only imitate what you saw me doing earlier when everyone was looking.” It seems a pretty good methodology for revealing those areas of my life where I still have significant growth and improvement potential.

The kids and Milo are coming home in a few days. Milo will be with us through the holidays. This morning I’m reminded that children watch their parents and their grandparents. They listen. They observe. They take it all in. Then they imitate. Not just the silly FaceTime game of mocking a laugh or a cough. Our children and grandchildren observe and imitate our very lives.

My desire is for my life to be a good example to imitate.

Cooperation, not Competition

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
1 Corinthians 3:5 (NIV)

Our local gathering of Jesus followers has two venues for worship, and each Sunday there are worship services that run in both rooms at the same time. For the past few years I have had the honor of working with a team of individuals who are developing their gifts and skills in teaching. Every season there is a rotating team of people who take turns teaching on Sundays and then meeting mid-week to discuss their experience and improve their skills. It’s a diverse group of both men and women of different ages, educational backgrounds, and vocational experiences. It’s been a fascinating experience for me to lead and participate. I’ve learned a lot.

One of the things I’ve tried to impress on our team of teachers is the reality that each week I get up to teach there will be those who are excited to see me up there, and those who who are not. As we represent a diverse cross-section of humanity, we each will appeal to different individuals within our gathering. Those who are gifted teachers and develop those gifts will naturally develop broader appeal, but no teacher enjoys universal appeal (not even Jesus). It just is what it is. I think that’s why Jesus’ followers are called a “body” and the spiritual gift of teaching is given to a diverse number of individuals across all parts of the body.

As I’ve been studying the early history of the Jesus Movement, I am repeatedly struck at how quickly the story shifts from the original twelve apostles to a host of other characters. In many cases, these almost anonymous individuals, such as Ananias (Acts 9:10-19), pop onto the scene like a bit player with a walk-on role, then make their exit never to be heard from again. Others characters are only referenced or mentioned, but nonetheless they played a large off-stage role. Apollos was one of these.

Apollos was from the city of Alexandria in Egypt, a city of great influence in the ancient world. Apollos was from the upper crust of society in those days. He was highly educated and trained in oratory, the art of speech and debate, which was arguably the most esteemed skill at that time of history. We don’t know how Apollos became a believer, but he arrives on the scene using his speaking and debate skills arguing that Jesus was the Messiah. He was such a powerful teacher and speaker, in fact, that he naturally developed broad appeal within the Jesus Movement, especially with many of the believers of Corinth. Division sprouted among the Corinthians believers as some in the local gathering there began to treat it as if it was a “The Voice” type of competition. Some were on “Team Paul” and other were on “Team Apollos.”

Paul immediately shuts down these notions of competition between the two. It’s not a competition, Paul argues, but a cooperation. Both Paul and Apollos had a role to play in the Corinthian believers faith and spiritual growth. Each brought his own unique personality, style, background, experience, and appeal. Every believer in Corinth had something to learn from both Paul and Apollos. This wasn’t “either, or” it was “both, and.”

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of the diverse team of individuals with whom I partner to teach among my local gathering of believers. It’s been a blast for me to watch each of them develop their own voice, speak from their own unique experiences, and watch our gathering grow and learn from such a broad range of voices. It’s a weekly and constant reminder that “the church” was never to be a monument to a particular, persuasive teacher or leader. Every local gathering has both a Paul and an Apollos (and an Ananias, and a Priscilla, and an Aquila, and a Chloe and….).

It’s not competition. It’s cooperation. Or else, we’re doing it wrong.

The Cloud of Unknowing

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
1 Corinthians 2:2 (NIV)

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 it and 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.

 

The “Divine Right” (to Be Equal)

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
c/o Intelligentics
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!