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.

Counter-Cultural

“Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
James 2:13 (NIV)

This past week, as I traversed America, I had numerous daily encounters with numerous people. Many of them were momentary interactions, but I couldn’t help but notice that people were almost universally kind, conversational, and cheerful no matter the age or the color of their skin. When I realized that I’d left my phone in the car of a friend, I was amazed at how quickly complete strangers offered to let me use their phone and immediately offered to help me above and beyond what I expected.

Early Saturday morning I was filling the car at a Shell gas station outside Memphis, Tennessee. I was engaged by the black guy in his security guard uniform at the pump next to mine. I asked if he was going to work or getting off. We talked about music. He loves jazz, just like me. He was driving away while I was still pumping gas. He pulled up, rolled down his window, and wanted to show me a pair of bluetooth speakers he uses in his car because of the quality of sound he gets out of them. We chatted some more. Nice dude. Our conversation was a pick-me-up to start the day.

There is a young lady on social media who posts a daily video teaching the language of Scotland. Only a few seconds long, she typically defines a word and then uses it in a sentence. It’s a quirky little thing that I find engaging. In the last week or so she posted a video responding to the mean-spirited and vicious comments people had made on her posts. I simply can’t understand why anyone would be so vile. She’s not being political. She’s not talking about any issues. She is simply teaching people a Scottish word. Seriously. If you don’t like it, scroll on.

I’m observing more-and-more that there is a level of anger, meanness, and vitriol that people feel comfortable expressing in the rather anonymous online world. People feel free to be snarky, rude, and downright brutal. Because online news allows for comments to any story, Wendy and I often will glance at what people have posted at the end of a news piece we’re reading each morning during breakfast. We’re often shocked at how bombastic and ugly people can be over issues that are relatively insignificant.

There’s a contrast there that struck me on my road trip last week. Maybe it was because I hardly spent any time on social media last week. At the same time, I had far more random and personal interactions with humans than normal, especially after a year of COVID quarantine. Every one of those pleasant, cheerful, and kind interactions lifted my spirit more than I would have ever expected.

In today’s chapter, James instructs followers of Jesus not to show favoritism. He particularly calls out the favoritism that is often shown to rich-and-powerful individuals at the expense of the poor-and-marginalized. One of the calling cards of the early Jesus Movement was the fact that everyone was welcome at the table regardless of gender, race, politics, or socio-economic status. James tells the followers of Jesus now scattered among the nations to continue engaging others without judgment or pre-judgement. Rather, others are to be shown mercy. In the Great Story, it is kindness that leads people to repentance, not judgment or condemnation.

In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded of the simple power that mercy, kindness, goodness, and gentleness can generate. This is especially true when they are exemplified in a time and culture in which cancelling, condemnation, contempt, and coarse discourtesy run amok.

I choose this day to be counter-cultural by choosing to show mercy others, and to be kind.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Not Without Struggle

Not Without Struggle (CaD James 1) Wayfarer

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:4 (NIV)

Just yesterday I returned home from a seven day road trip. Part work, part personal, and part sabbatical, I logged more that fifty hours behind the wheel and just shy of 3,000 miles. It felt good to arrive home yesterday, like I’d reached a kind of finish line, a journey’s end.

Journey has always been the core metaphor of this blog. A wayfarer is one who is on a journey, and in these posts I write about my life journey, my spiritual journey, and this chapter-a-day journey.

On a journey, one moves and progresses towards a destination.

On both my life journey and my spiritual journey, my progress is measured, not by distance, but by maturity, wisdom, and the yield of love produced in my spirit, intentions, thoughts, words, and actions along with love’s by-products of joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

On Wednesday of this past week, I was in Richmond, Virginia. I took the opportunity to visit the U.S. Civil War Museum located there. As is a ritual for Wendy and me, I picked up a couple of magnets to mark and memorialize the visit on the fridge back home. One of the magnets is a quote:

“Without struggle, there is no progress.”

Frederick Douglass

When reading James’ letter, I’ve found it beneficial to consider the context in which he wrote it. It was a time of intense struggle. James was not written by James, the disciple of Jesus, but by James the half-brother of Jesus who became leader of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus are facing persecution and many have fled the persecution and are living in other places. James chooses to remain and continue the work of Jesus.

James leadership position as a follower of Jesus in Jerusalem puts him in direct conflict with the same religious aristocracy that put Jesus to death, put Stephen to death, and sent Saul hunting down Jesus’ followers. Not long after penning this letter, James will be killed by them, as well. He writes this letter to encourage Jesus’ followers scattered to the four winds and fleeing persecution. He is writing to encourage followers of Jesus to persevere amidst the difficult struggles they faced as wayfarers on journeys of exile.

In the first chapter, James reminds these struggling wayfarers of the goal.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

The goal is maturity and wholeness which are produced through persevering in the struggle of many kinds of trials and tests of faith.

Without struggle, there is no progress towards maturity and completeness.

It feels good to be sitting in the quiet of my office this morning. I find myself thinking about “trials of many kinds” through which I have persevered. My mind flashes back to people I met and spent time with on my journey last week. Each one is facing their own struggles and trials on their respective journeys. Each one is making progress. I was blessed by my time with each of them.

I’m reminded this morning as I begin a new work week. This is a journey. Today I progress toward my destination, but not without struggle.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Journey’s End

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 (NIV)

I remember driving to northwest Iowa while I was still a young man to spend some time with my grandfather. He was well into his nineties, and living in a care facility. It was the last time I remember being with him. We walked the hallways together, me pushing him in his wheelchair. We sat at a table in the common room and had “coffee time.” We talked together, though it was obvious that dementia was beginning to set in. He would sharing a story with me and I would suddenly realize that he was addressing me as a stranger, an acquaintance. In the moment, I it was obvious he didn’t remember who I was. Nevertheless, he was still relatively sharp and was able to articulate his thoughts and feelings.

“I’m the only one left,” he said with sadness as he stared out the window. “Every one I knew is already gone.”

My grandfather was not known for his silence. The man could weave a tapestry of stories and talk non-stop for hours and he was happy to do so for any stranger who would listen. I’m not exaggerating. I have clear memories of tugging gently on his arm and trying to help free some poor, anonymous housewife in the baking goods aisle who was nodding vacantly as my grandfather regaled her with stories about his ice-box cookies that won a blue ribbon at the Plymouth County fair.

“The secret is getting the cookies sliced nice and thin, but they have to be evenly sliced. The best way to do that is….”

“Come on, Grandpa. We’ve got to check-out and get back home,” I’d say as I silently mouthed an “I’m sorry” to the gracious stranger.

I have many memories of feeling the non-verbal signals of impatience from family members and friends who were trapped in the torrent of grandpa’s stories.

On this final afternoon with him, however, I remember long periods of silence as we sat together. The shift in him was obvious to me. He was in the homestretch of his earthly journey.

He felt spent, and alone.

I drove home that evening meditating on many things. It was one of the first times I recall really observing the weariness of life in an elderly person whom I’d once known in the fullness of life’s vigor.

I was reminded of that afternoon as I read today’s final chapter of Ecclesiastes. The ancient Hebrew Sage concludes his treatise of wisdom by penning a poem that beautifully describes the weariness of life one experiences when the end of the earthly journey is a long, slow descent to dust.

“Remember the Creator in your youth,” the poem begins.

Remember the Creator before you find your life spent, and alone,” the poem ends.

The sage then reminds me of where his wise discourse began: this earthly journey is a fleeting fog, a flitting vapor, a transient mist.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the reality that I’m not much younger than my grandfather was when I was born. I am in the same stage of life’s vigor that I remember in my earliest memories of my grandfather.

I began this journey through Ecclesiastes stating that the Sage’s theme was not about the futility of this earthly life, but really about what’s valuable in this earthly life. Here at the end of his dissertation, I still feel it. In fact, I feel it more acutely.

I am reminded by Wisdom to live my life backwards. I find myself prodded to begin each day, to live each day, to reflect on each day with the journey’s end in mind.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Brewing Interpretation

Brewing Interpretation (CaD Ecc 11) Wayfarer

Ship your grain across the sea;
    after many days you may receive a return.
Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
    you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 (NIV)

A couple of chapters ago, I discussed the challenges and mysteries that accompany the translation of ancient Hebrew text into modern English. As I spent some time in today’s chapter, I encountered another mysterious challenge that has spawned a very interesting interpretation.

The translators of the NIV have given the interpretation of the first two verses of today’s chapter a decidedly commerce-driven slant. The Hebrew does not so much allude to shipping grain across the sea, but more simply says to throw/cast ones bread/grain on water. The interpretation of invest is also a choice for a Hebrew word that is more simply translated as give. Here are a couple of other ways other translations or paraphrases say these same verses:

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.
(KJV)

Don’t be afraid to release your bread upon the waters,
        for in due time you will find it.
    Divide your portion—put seven here, maybe eight there—
        for you can never be sure when or where disaster will strike.
(Voice)

Cast your bread upon the waters,
    for you will find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, or even eight,
    for you do not know what calamity may happen on the earth.
(CEV)

Over the past couple of decades, the craft of brewing beer has exploded into a 22 billion dollar industry with about 9,000 different breweries. I know several individuals who enjoy making their own home brews to share, and I always enjoy sampling when I’m invited to do so. Along with this heightened interest, some craft brewers have delved into investigating the ancient brewing practices of different cultures. For example, there’s an ancient Akkadian text that describes the process of brewing beer in which dates and bread are “thrown into water” as part of the mix of ingredients.

This has led a few scholars (whom I suspect might be craft beer lovers themselves) to consider that the interpretation of these verses of Ecclesiastes may mean that when you throw your bread into the water and it comes back to you in a barrel of beer, be sure to share it with seven or eight others, so that when tough times come they will share their beer with you.

As I consider these translations and interpretations in the quiet this morning, I humbly conclude that I can’t be certain either way. Both the NIV’s decidedly pointed interpretation in favor of commerce and the beer-lovers decidedly pointed interpretation in favor of sharing your beer could be what the Sage of Ecclesiastes intended.

What is clear to me is the general spiritual principle the Sage was getting at, to which all the various translations and paraphrases point: invest, produce, and generously share the profitable returns with many. In doing so, I’m insuring myself for lean times which may certainly come.

I never know where this chapter-a-day journey is going to lead me each morning, and sometimes I’m genuinely surprised at where I end up. Today, I not only have a good spiritual principle on which to meditate and apply to my life, but I also have a pleasant bit of trivia about Akkadian brewing and Hebrew wisdom to share with some unsuspecting new friend over a pint. Cheers!

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Topsy-Turvy Times

Topsy-Turvy Times (CaD Ecc 10) Wayfarer

There is an evil I have seen under the sun,
    the sort of error that arises from a ruler:
Fools are put in many high positions,
    while the rich occupy the low ones.
I have seen slaves on horseback,
    while princes go on foot like slaves.

Ecclesiastes 10:5-7 (NIV)

One of the reasons that I’ve always loved history is because it offers me context that is beneficial in observing the times in which I am living. The entire world has experienced life getting topsy-turvy and upside down for the past year-and-a-half on multiple levels from the pandemic to politics. It certainly has felt like a perfect storm, with multiple storm fronts of Covid, George Floyd, and national election converging into one strange year that’s still perpetuating.

In today’s chapter, the ancient Sage of Ecclesiastes warns of such times. In other words, what I’ve experienced in the past year and a half may be strange within the context of my lifetime, but certainly not in the context of history. I sincerely feel for those who lost loved ones from the Coronavirus, yet the death rate in the U.S. according to the CDC sits at 600,000 (I rounded up) which is .18 percent of the 330 million U.S. citizens. The “black death” pandemic of the middles ages is believed to have killed 50-60% of all Europeans. I try to imagine 165,000,000 deaths in the U.S. or half the people I know dying in short order. It doesn’t lessen the sting if losing a loved one to Covid, but it does make me grateful to have not experienced the Black Death.

Millions of people did experience the Black Death, however. Millions of people also experienced their world turning upside down when the Third Reich took over Europe in just five years. Even in the Great Story I read Jeremiah’s lamentation over the carnage and cannibalism of the siege of Jerusalem, or Daniel’s world turning upside down when he finds himself a captive in Babylon, or Joseph’s world being turned upside down when he is sold into slavery by his own brothers and ends up in an Egyptian prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The books of Judges, Chronicles, and Kings relate stories of an on-going game of thrones in which entire regimes change overnight and then change again in short order. As the Sage observes: yesterday’s ruler wakes up a slave while yesterday’s slave sits on the throne.

Instability. Chaos. Corruption. Pandemic.

It’s all happened before, and it will continue to happen. If John’s vision in Revelation are any indication, it’s going to get much worse before the end. Nevertheless, the overwhelming evidence reveals that the times I am living in are a cakewalk compared to all of human history: Less sickness, less poverty, less malnutrition, less violence, longer life spans, more political stability, more rule of law.

So what does this mean for me today? It doesn’t change my present circumstances or current events, but it does change the way I frame my thoughts and understanding of my circumstances and current events. It helps me in keeping fear and anxiety in check. In today’s chapter, the Sage explains that when a ruler rages there is wisdom in staying at your post and remaining calm. I daily observe the world raging in various ways and forms. I hear the shouts, screams, and cries coming at me from all directions across multiple media feeds.

I find myself considering the context.

I thank God I live in what is globally the safest, most stable period of all human history.

I endeavor to stay at my post, sowing love, kindness, and peace. I endeavor daily to calmly do what I can to make the world an even better place in my circles of influence.

And, so I begin another day.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

What in the “Hebel?”

What in the Hebel? (CaD Ecc 9) Wayfarer

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days.
Ecclesiastes 9:9 (NIV)

Earlier this year Wendy and I were working from the lake. Often we’ll work from a table where we can look out three large windows at the lake. It was a particularly calm, overcast day, and we watched as fog rolled into the bay and descended like a cloud. In a matter of minutes we went from a crystal clear view to impenetrable mist. It was so fascinating to watch. Then, a short time later, it faded as quickly as it. One minute it was there. Then next it was gone.

This past Saturday I was reading a book review in which the writer spoke of the difficulties of translating certain American ideas into other languages. He cited the example of a team being an “underdog” which he saw translated into French as literally the “belly of a dog.” Welcome to the challenge of translation. One of the struggles a modern reader has with the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is also that of translation. Hebrew is an ancient language and there are Hebrew words that can’t be defined with certainty. This adds a certain level of mystery on top of the challenge.

The challenge and mystery is front-and-center in Ecclesiastes because the Hebrew word translated as “meaningless” (or “vanity” in traditional translations like the King James Version) is hebel, and it’s a tough one to translate like translating “underdog” into French. The root of the word hebel is that of vapor, mist, wind, or breath. One can think of futility, insubstantial, or empty. One source I found discussing this same subject landed on the word fleeting like the fog that rolled in and out of our bay at the lake. I like it. I think it gets nearer the mark:

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this fleeting mist of a life that God has given you under the sun—all your fleeting days.

It brings me right back to the subject of numbering my days. Suddenly the Sage is not so much as saying that everything is nihilistically void, but more like reminding me to seize the day, to be fully present, and to find joy even in things redundant. Before I know it, perhaps sooner than I think, life will roll out like the fog. Enjoy the moment.

In the quiet this morning I find that to be a good thought as the weekend was a vapor. Where did it go? A new work week has rolled in.

In a few hours I will be muttering to myself, “Where did the day go?”

Today will be fleeting, gone like the mist.

Be present.

Be mindful.

En-joy each moment.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Humility and Uncertainty

…then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.
Ecclesiastes 8:17 (NIV)

This past weekend, we watched a stand-up comic waxing humorous on this past year of pandemic. He joked that 2020 is the only year in which the U.S. government could admit that there are UFOs and nobody cares. It’s funny, and it’s true.

In case you missed it, the Pentagon is going to release a report this month in which it details findings on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). I’m sure it will create quite a stir. I’m personally prepared for the dramatic conclusion of the report: “We just don’t know.”

We live in a complex universe in which there is a lot that we simply don’t know, and can’t comprehend. Wendy and I just introduced a young friend to the famous double slit experiment in physics this past weekend, as well. It’s really fascinating. Basically, it seems that atoms behave differently when they are not being observed. Really. In one of the videos I watched on the subject, Jim Al-khalili of the Royal Institution humorously explains the experiment then ends with, “If you can explain this using common sense and logic, do let me know, because there’s a Nobel Prize for you.”

In today’s chapter, the ancient Hebrew Sage of Ecclesiastes wraps up a list of life’s conundrums by coming to the conclusion that there are certain things that are beyond comprehension. Even if someone claims to know, he states, they really don’t.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that creation, life, and relationships are complex things. There are simple truths, but there are few simple answers. Nevertheless, I observe that we as human beings like to try and force issues into simple binary boxes. We do this with all sorts of issues in faith, science, politics, and society. I’m either “this” or “that.” If I’m not “that” then I’m certainly “this.” The further I progress in this journey, the more I’ve found that there’s a humility required of me in this life to admit that I don’t really know everything, while continuing to engage in asking good questions, seeking to know and be known, and knocking on the door of opportunity to grow in love and understanding.

I’ve also come to a place in which I’m always cautious whenever I find myself confronted with the proud, loud certainties of others, no matter the source or subject. Jesus said that all those who exalt themselves will be humbled. His example was that of being “humble, and gentle-hearted.”

I’m quite certain that this world could use more of that. As a disciple of Jesus, I’m also quite certain that Jesus wants me to follow that example.

UFO’s and why atoms behave differently when they’re being watched. I’m not certain.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Two Certainties

The Two Certainties (CaD Ecc 7) Wayfarer

It is better to go to a house of mourning
    than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
    the living should take this to heart.

Ecclesiastes 7:2 (NIV)

Just this last month, Wendy and I happened to run into a couple with whom we are acquainted. They are a stretch or two ahead of us on this road of Life, and we rarely get an opportunity to chat with them. We took the occasion of our running into them to ask them about their respective journeys, and what they have been doing with their lives. Their answer intrigued us. In fact, Wendy and I talked about it multiple times ever since. We’d like to hear more.

What our friends shared with us is that they have been been working together in a personal initiative to help both individuals and organizations to understand that in our current era a person can spend almost as many years in retirement as they spent in the workforce. Their desire is to see individuals realize the value of remaining engaged and productive, while helping organizations tap the value that this growing number of “retired” individuals can bring with their wisdom and experience.

This conversation came to mind this morning as I read the chapter. Last night Wendy and I spent time praying as we drove home from the lake. As I prayed about work and business, it struck me that for my entire life the thought of “retirement” has been just an idea. It has always resided well beyond the horizon. Suddenly, it’s a fixed point on the edge of the horizon.

Then I woke to read the wisdom of Ecclesiastes’ Sage, who tells me that there is wisdom in beginning each day with the end in mind. In this case, he’s talking about the permanent retirement from this earthly journey that lies ever before me. Unlike retirement from labor, which is somewhat fixed on the calendar as a planned end-date, my permanent retirement is less certain.

It might be closer than I think.

It also, to our friends’ line of thinking, might be further away than I imagine. What if I reach that waypoint of “retirement” and still have 20 or 30 years in which I am relatively healthy and capable? What am I going to do with those 7,000-11,000 days?

In the quiet this morning, I hear God’s Spirit reminding me through the words of the Sage that all my tomorrows are simply “what ifs.” There are really only two certainties. Today, thus far, is the first. My permanent retirement, that mysteriously sits “out there” on my horizon is the second. This means that from a practical perspective, “What am I going to do with this day, which is a certainty?” is one of the most important questions with which I could occupy myself, in light of the permanent retirement that certainly lies ahead.

It’s time for me to occupy myself with the first certainty.

Have a great day, my friend.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.