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.

The Critical Discernment of Criticism

Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the Lord and spread it out before the Lord.
2 Kings 19:14 (NIV)

When we left the story yesterday, the commander of the invading Assyrian army was talking smack at the gates of Jerusalem. The intent was the same then as it is today with smack talking on the athletic field, the playground, corporate offices, or elsewhere. The goal is to get inside the other person’s head, create doubt, instill fear, and win the psychological battle.

Over the past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity of working with a wonderful group of people in my local gathering of Jesus followers. These individuals are actively working to develop their gifts and abilities at communicating God’s Message in front of a large group of people. I have enjoyed the privilege of helping mentor them in their development.

Every communicator who regularly stands in front of a group of listeners must at some point confront unwarranted criticism. I encounter the occasional denier who shuns all criticism. I had someone who once told me, “the root word of ‘criticism’ is ‘critical’ which is inherently negative.” I chose not to respond, knowing that I was speaking to a person whose heart and ears were closed to the fact that “critical” is also defined as “skillful judgment” and “decisive importance.” Most individuals understand that fair, knowledgable, and objective criticism is a crucial ingredient to improvement.

I’ve come to understand, however, that some unwarranted criticism you receive is a lot like smack talking. Smack talking critics can be identified by their intent, and that’s where discernment is required. Their criticism is not an honest and loving response intended to help the recipient (as much as they will claim that it is). Their criticism is an emotional gut reaction intended to defend something that has been stirred or threatened within themselves.

In this morning’s chapter, I found King Hezekiah’s response to the Assyrian threats fascinating. He immediately took the text of the threats to the temple, to the prophet Isaiah, and “spread it out before the Lord.” What a great word picture. Hezekiah didn’t eat the words and let them sicken his thoughts. He didn’t completely and foolishly dismiss the words and the threat. His actions were a measured and calculated response. He “spread them out” with a desire to get a good, objective look, wise counsel, and divine wisdom. What is true? What is not true? What is the intent of the message? What should I take from this? What should I ignore?

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the amazing story that plays out in the rest of the chapter. The “word of the Lord” through Isaiah was that God was going to deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrians. Over night the Assyrian army was miraculously decimated and forced to withdraw. This was a historical event about which speculation and theories still abound.

This morning I’m reminded of my need of criticism, and the equal need to learn discernment with the unsolicited feedback I receive from others. I need to recognize and dismiss the misguided smack talk of people unconsciously reacting out of their own stuff. I also need to seek out and embrace the wise, honest and helpful reflections from those who love me and desire my continued, healthy development. It’s not just a good thing, it’s critical to the process of my maturity.

The Wisdom of Silence

But the people remained silent and said nothing in reply….
2 Kings 18:36 (NIV)

Wendy’s and my morning routine begins each day meeting in our dining room for breakfast. Our dining room looks east over our back yard and the field of prairie grass behind it. If the sun isn’t too bright we get to watch the sun rise up over the tree line as we drink our respective tea and coffee and catch up on the news of the morning.

Of late Wendy and I have been reading a lot about the outbursts that are happening all over the States from college campuses to the streets and parks of various cities. As most of us know, it spills over into social media where it seems one cannot share a reasoned, personal opinion without getting pummeled, insulted and threatened by strangers or people you barely know. Just a few weeks ago my friend Dr. Bob shared with me a brief glance at the vitriolic string of threatening comments and emails he’d received after his editorial appeared in the New York Times. We are living in reactive times.

During our quiet morning conversations Wendy and I have mulled over a couple of thoughts about this entire trend. First, at least in some cases the screams and conflict are meant to create a reaction and the press coverage that goes along with it. National attention is exactly what some groups desire to recruit like minded individuals and financial support. Second, we live in an unprecedented age of 24/7 news coverage from endless outlets competing for ratings and advertising dollars. These news outlets have a need for news they can report and keep audience attention. I wonder, at times, how complicit the media is in creating or sustaining the conflicts with their coverage to the point that it gets blown out of proportion compared to the reality of the situation. Finally, it has come to light that another country had agents trolling American social media during our election year stirring up reactive anger between those of opposing political views. They believed that the conflict would be destabilizing. Mission accomplished. Welcome to a new era of cyber warfare: stimulating your enemies to destroy themselves from within.

This came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter about a very ancient conflict. The Assyrian empire was blitzing its way through the region. They destroyed Israel and were now at the gates of the walled city of Jerusalem. The strategy for thousands of years of siege warfare was for the raiding army to send its best communicator to have a parley with the besieged city’s leaders. The city officials would stand on the wall and the besieging army’s mouthpiece would stand below and yell up at them. The goal was to threaten, cajole, and intimidate those in the city into giving up.

The Assyrian commander comes to wall of Jerusalem and does his best to smack talk the people of Judah into fear. He tells them not to listen to their king, not to trust their God, and to look at how things ended up for their other enemies. For added effect he throws in that a long siege would result in them being so starved for food and drink that they’d eat and drink their own excrement.

But then the scribes record that the people said nothing. They didn’t react in anger. They didn’t talk smack back. They didn’t take the bait. They remained silent.

This morning I’m reminded that the teacher of Ecclesiastes wisely reminds us “there is a time to speak, and a time to be silent.” I’m reminded that when brought before the kangaroo court of His accusers bent on state-sanctioned homicide, Jesus remained silent. There is a time for discussion and reasoned debate. There are times to raise our voices in protest. But there are also times like the people of Judah before the Assyrian parley when we need the wisdom to be silent and ignore the taunts of others.

God, grant me the wisdom to know when to speak, when to be silent, and the discernment to know the difference.

[Now, if you’ll excuse me I have a breakfast date with Wendy down in the dining room.] Have a great week everyone.]

The End of the Line

In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria.
2 Kings 17:6 (NIV)

In this life, some things end. That’s the simple truth of the matter. Along this life journey I’ve come to the realization that we human beings like to feel a sense of the eternal amidst the temporal. We like things to remain fairly stable. We are lulled into a state of accepting that what has been always will be…

  • I will always live here…
  • I will always have this job…
  • We will always be together…
  • We will always be friends…
  • My parents will always stay together…
  • My children will outlive me…

And then suddenly, things end. Relationships end, jobs go away, homes are destroyed, people move away, churches split, companies are acquired, and so on, and so on, and so on.

World rocked. Equilibrium off. Heart breaking. Mind spinning.

Life changing.

In today’s chapter, we get to the end of the line for the northern Kingdom of Israel. For 190 years they had existed through a roller coaster succession of monarchs. Hoshea would be the final king. The Assyrian empire lays siege to Israel’s capital city, Samaria. It is destroyed, plundered, and the Israelites taken back to Assyria as slaves. Using the ancient playbook of conquest, the Assyrians move a melting pot of other immigrants peoples into the neighborhood to ensure that the Israelites left behind don’t unite in rebellion against the Empire. It is the end of the Kingdom of Israel.

As I read and mull over this morning’s chapter, I’m reminded of our chapter-a-day journeys through the prophets who warned that this was coming. For those who had ears to hear, the warning signs were there. Amidst the chaos, grief and questions that arise when things end, we can often look back with 20-20 hindsight and see that the signs were all there. In our desire for the eternal amidst the temporal we simply choose to ignore them.

I’m also mulling over the lessons that I’ve learned both in my journey through God’s Message and my journey through life. Things must end for us to experience new beginnings. In order for there to be resurrection, something must die. God even wove this truth into His artistic expression of creation. The seasons teach us that the new life and recurring promises of spring don’t happen with out the long death of winter. In summer Iowa has such lush green landscape with deep blue skies that it almost creates a new color all its own. But eventually we reach the end of the line. Lush green corn turns to ugly brown stalks, and the blue skies give way to the dull gray snow clouds of winter. And then it happens again, and again, and again. Old things pass away, then new things come.

For the people of Israel, this chapter of life is ended. But the story isn’t over. The prophets predicted this, as well. A new chapter has begun. Perhaps unexpected. Perhaps unwanted. Perhaps scary and unnerving. Yet that’s why we love great stories. They take us to unexpected places and new experiences we hadn’t dreamed or imagined. But we don’t get there without journeying through the end of the previous chapter(s).

Life Between the Prevailing Wind and Hard Heart

Then King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria. He saw an altar in Damascus and sent to Uriah the priest a sketch of the altar, with detailed plans for its construction.
2 Kings 16:10 (NIV)

Last week Wendy and I found ourselves in a discussion about the hazing rituals we experienced growing up. For Wendy it was the process of pledging in a college sorority. For me it was being part of a high school swimming team. In both our cases, the hazing was the relatively minor and harmless. It was the ages old exercise of new members demonstrating allegiance and loyalty to the group and its elder members. There are nightmare stories of those who have been forced to do things against their will in order to be accepted. There are also stories of those who choose to behave against their beliefs, morals, or personal values simply to accommodate the prevailing cultural forces. And, it is ages old. These things have always been part of our human experience east of Eden.

Today’s chapter is dedicated to the reign of King Ahaz of Judah. According to the description provided us by the scribes, Ahaz appears to have had a pattern of choosing to accommodate the prevailing winds of his society’s popular culture. Ahab was a follower. Rather than being faithful to the Law of Moses and adhering exclusively to the faiths of his fathers, Ahaz seemed willing and open to worship anything anywhere. He even went so far as to sacrifice his own child which was a common practice among some of the more gruesome Canaanite cults (and explicitly forbidden by the law of Moses). Ahaz also worshiped the idolatrous gods of their northern counterpart, Israel.

When threatened by military conquest by his neighbors, Ahaz was unwilling to stand up and lead his army in defense of his nation and people. Ahaz was a follower. So, he appealed to the biggest bully in the neighborhood for protection: Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria (note: featured photo of this post is a relief showing Tiglath-Pileser standing over an enemy). The Assyrian warlord was happy to take Ahaz’ gold and defend Judah, but protection came with a higher price than just gold.

After the successful defense of Judah, Ahaz had to complete an ancient form of hazing by traveling to Assyria to pay his respects to Tiglath-Pileser and to prove his subservience. While in Assyria, he copied the plans to an altar there and sent it to be replicated and placed in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Scholars believe that this altar was likely the royal altar of Tiglath-Pileser, and its presence at the center of the Temple in Jerusalem would have been a sign that Tiglath-Pileser was to be worshipped as their protector. Ahaz, ever willing to worship anything, anywhere was only too happy to make this accommodation.

This morning I’m thinking about character, subservience, and accommodation. There is a fine line between harmless societal rituals and cruel hazing. There are some who will go along with the crowd to the point of losing themselves, and there are also some who err on the side of being so self-righteous about their beliefs that they cannot extend even an ounce of grace and mercy to those who disagree with every jot and tittle of their dogma. Once again I’m thinking about finding the truth in the tension between the extremes. I don’t want to be an Ahaz who simply “goes with the flow” and follows the prevailing winds of culture to the point that my faith is meaningless. I also don’t want to be so rigid and hard-hearted in my personal standards that love, grace, mercy and forgiveness get squeezed out of my life and relationships.

The Simple Lesson Between the Lines

[Azariah] was sixteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-two years.
2 Kings 15:2 (NIV)

Sometimes the greatest lessons that come out of the chapter are not within the text but within the context. The lesson isn’t within the lines, but between them.

The scribes who penned 2 Kings were chronicling the history of the kings of both divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. They wrote it so that I, as a reader, can get a sense of the timing of the overlapping reigns between the two kingdoms.

Today’s chapter begins with Judah’s king Azariah (aka Uzziah) who came to the throne at 16 and reigned for 52 years (FYI: He was a co-regent with his father for the first 25). A leper, he lived a relatively quiet and secluded life. The scribes point out that Azariah, while not perfect, “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.

The bulk of today’s chapter then goes on to describe a string of kings of Israel:

  • Zechariah (6 months) publicly assassinated by…
  • Shallum (1 month) assassinated by…
  • Menahem (10 years) handed the throne to his son…
  • Pekehiah (2 years) assassinated by…
  • Pekah (20 years) assassinated by…
  • Hoshea

Yikes! Talk about political chaos. In each listing of the this bloody string of successors the scribes point out the monarchs of the northern kingdom of Israel “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.”

A long my spiritual journey I’ve learned that there is a balance between embracing that some things of the Spirit are very simple while also accepting that there are no simple answers to some of life’s complexities. It’s too simplistic say that Azariah had a long and prosperous reign because he did good and the kings of Israel had comparatively short reigns marked by violent ends because they did evil. That easily leads down the dualistic, transactional mindset of “If I’m good God will like me and bless me and I will succeed, and if I do bad God will punish me and I won’t succeed.” Both life and the spiritual journey are far deeper and more mysterious.

At the same time, there is simple wisdom in understanding that I experience a certain peace and stability to life when I’m following Jesus and actively attempting to conform my life to His will and His teaching (like Azariah). There is also a certain fear, anxiety and chaos to life when I’m living only for myself and the indulgence of my self-centric appetites for power, pleasure, and personal gain (like the kings of Israel).

This morning I’m reminded that it’s easy to get sucked into our popular culture and the obsession for power, popularity, prestige and worldly success. A quiet life in pursuit of Jesus may not make an exciting movie script, but there’s a peace and continuity to the path which shields me from a lot of other problems and cares.

 

Swagger, Success & the Soul Effect

They conspired against [King Amaziah] in Jerusalem, and he fled to Lachish, but they sent men after him to Lachish and killed him there.
2 Kings 14:19 (NIV)

Football season has begun. Wendy and I listened to the wild Iowa State vs. Iowa game on our way home from the lake on Sunday. Last night we donned our Vikings regalia for the first time this year and enjoyed watching the purple people eaters win one over Saints before falling asleep to the Broncos and Chargers game.

As casual fans who don’t follow football closely during the off-season, Wendy and I spend the first couple of weeks of the fall trying to keep track of who went where to play with whom and which coach went where to coach for whom. It seems like every year is a large game of musical chairs. It was so odd last night for Wendy and me to see our long-time star, Adrian Peterson, wearing a Saints uniform.

One of the harsh realities of sports in our culture is that you’d better win or else. Coaches have very little tolerance for players who don’t perform, and teams have very little patience for coaches who don’t consistently bring home victories. If you read social media you’ll find that fans have zero patience for either coaches or players as soon as the losses begin to mount.

In this morning’s chapter King Amaziah of Judah, who seems to have been as full of himself as many prima donna athletes today, pressed for a military campaign against King Jehoash and his nation’s heated rivals to the north in Israel. King Jehoash returned Amaziah’s challenge with a message that sports culture today would call “talking smack.” Jehoash gives Amaziah the chance to back down, but Amaziah would have none of it. Game on. King Amaziah and Judah are humiliated in defeat. The wall of Jerusalem is breached and the treasures of Solomon’s Temple are stolen as plunder.

The very next thing we learn about Amaziah is that his own people conspired against him. When Amaziah skipped town (hoping to be a free agent, perhaps?) they went after him and “permanently terminated his contract.” We don’t like losers.

This morning I’m thinking about our culture’s obsession with success and with winning. I could have used business as a similar parallel. There are certainly institutional churches who have similar expectations of success from their pastors. Yet the path that Jesus prescribes for me, His follower, has a distinctly different trajectory to it:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”

I understand that having a job in sports, business, or elsewhere in our success-obsessed culture means delivering wins and exceeding expectations. I wonder, however, what effect this corporately has on our souls over time. In the ceaseless pursuit of worldly success, it’s easy to forfeit, or simply lose, our spiritual center. Amaziah had didn’t have to taunt Israel. He didn’t have to pursue expanding his kingdom. He could have focused on contentedly serving his own people to become a king they would honor and respect.

Faith to Reach Out Amidst the Shame

“Then Jehoahaz sought the Lord’s favor, and the Lord listened to him….”
2 Kings 13:4a (NIV)

One of the things that I’ve learned in my years as a corporate coach is that most people are quite aware of their own faults. When I give someone the opportunity to assess themselves I find they are usually quite accurate about the opportunities they have to do better. In fact, I find that people usually have a harder time identifying their strengths even though they can provide a laundry list of their weaknesses. They are generally harder on themselves than I would ever be.

Along life’s journey I’ve found that it’s quite common for my guilt (i.e. “I keep messing up by thinking/saying/doing [fill in the blank]”) to sink into shame (i.e. “I’m such a hopeless case that I’m sure I’m so unlovable/unforgivable/unworthy that I don’t merit anyone’s love or forgiveness“). As I’ve spoken to people along my path I’ve found it quite common for people to feel convinced that God would never love them as they are or forgive them for the things they’ve done (or not done).

In today’s chapter, it is pointed out that Jehoahaz had, throughout his reign, continued to do what he knew was wrong in the eyes of God. He committing idolatry and allowed it to continue in the nation. Yet, Jehoahaz got to the point where he was willing to approach God, despite his guilt, and pour out his heart in seeking God’s favor. Despite Jehoahaz’s awful spiritual track record God listened. God loved. God granted Jehoahaz unmerited favor (e.g. “grace”) and provided deliverance.

This morning I’m reminded that there are times when God seems distant and remote, but it’s my own actions and emotions that have created the distance. Jehoahaz is a great reminder that I must have enough faith to approach God even when my guilt and shame have convinced me that I’m unworthy of doing so.