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.

Wisdom You Only Find Away from Home

“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians.”
Jeremiah 24:4 (NIV)

I can remember running away as a child only once. Despite a memory that recalls some of the most arcane details of my early years, I can’t for the life of me remember what made me so angry that day. I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old when I announced to my mother that I was running away. I remember that she didn’t seem particularly worried. I left without packing a bag or giving a single thought to where I was going, how I was going to get there, nor what I would do for the most basic of necessities. (Wendy will not be surprised by this.) I hadn’t gone as far as two blocks up Madison Avenue before the realities of my poor decision making caught up with me. I turned around and headed home.

I never attempted to physically run away from home again. I learned along my life journey, however, that terms of exile and running away can happen as much in the heart, mind, and spirit as they do in the body.

Today’s short chapter is a brief word picture God gave the ancient prophet Jeremiah. He writes from the rubble of Jerusalem he had long foreseen and prophesied. The best and brightest of his people had been taken captive back to Babylon. The royal family had either been killed or fled to Egypt to escape being killed. Jeremiah is given a vision of two sets of figs: one good and one rotten. The word picture was simple. The poor exiles in Babylon were good fruit that God would bless and prepare for an eventual redemptive return. The royals and politicians who propagated the mess were rotten figs who would continue to rot.

This morning I mulled over Jeremiah’s vision and the realities faced by the poor exiles facing the harsh new realities of life in Persia. I’ve come to accept along this journey that there are pieces of wisdom that are only found away from home. Abraham was led away from his home and family. Moses was sent down river in a basket and later ran to the land of Midian. Joseph was exiled in Egypt, and his father Jacob redeemed his son only when famine drove him and his family to their own exile. David the anointed boy-king would spend years of exile in the desert wasteland before finally ascending to the throne. The prodigal son only learned how good he had it back home when he found himself covered with pig slop in a distant country. The prodigal’s elder brother, meanwhile, had no idea how lost he was at home.

As a father I came to expect that my children would someday run away in one way or another whether that was a childish block-and-a-half trek up the street or a secret exile of the young adult soul. Looking back I can see that each of them did so in their own way, though they may not be completely finished. Exile and running away can be cyclical or repetitive occurrences along one’s life journey. I realized early in my experience as a father that I would be foolish to shelter, hinder, or deny them the wisdom they will only find along those stretches of their respective journeys.

This morning I’m smiling at the memory of a young boy, in full-blown childish tantrum, announcing he was running away and storming out of the house. My mother didn’t stop me. She didn’t run after me. She didn’t try to convince me of the error of my ways or my foolish lack of preparation. She wished me well and watched me walk up Madison Avenue. A short time later she silently said nothing as I returned home having gained nothing but a simple piece of wisdom that has served me well the rest of my life.

Thanks, mom.

featured photo courtesy of wespeck via flickr

Don’t Walk Out in the Middle of the Movie

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch….”
Jeremiah 23:5 (NIV)

I have a vivid memory from about the age of 13. My mother sat me down at our family’s dining room table and explained to me that, financially, things were not looking good for our family. My father was in a business  that was not doing well and my father had decided to walk away from the partnership in order for it to survive. There was a possibility, my mother explained, that we would lose our house and have to move. She wanted me to understand that things were tight and there would be no money for extras. We all had to “tighten our belts.”

As is typical with children, I’d never given much consideration to our family’s socio-economic status. Our needs were met. We had a loving family. My parents were hard workers and things were always status quo. This message of doom was a shock for me.

I do remember a few lean years as my dad switched to a couple of different jobs and ended up commuting an hour each day to work. My folks plugged away to make ends meet. It was the years of the farm crisis of the late 70s and early 80s and, while we weren’t farmers, there were plenty of people struggling. As a teenager, I learned some important life lessons in those years about perseverance, hard work and simple faith. In fact it was during those years that I found my faith in Christ.

It is common, I have found, for casual readers to wade into the ancient messages of the prophets and find only doom and gloom. And, to be honest, there’s plenty to be had. There is a lot of violence from a very violent period of history. It’s easy to get weighed down by the negativity. But, if you’re not careful you’ll miss the larger story.

In today’s chapter, amidst a terrible siege and Jeremiah’s prophecies of destruction, death and exile, the message takes an abrupt u-turn. From the royal line of David, Jeremiah predicts, God is going to raise up a “Righteous Branch” to shepherd His people. From a macro-view, it appears that God is pruning back the royal line which has been bearing bad fruit for a long time. There will be lean years. Things look pretty gloomy. That’s what happens when you prune things back. But from that royal line a new Branch will spring which  will become the Vine from which the fruit of the Spirit and new wine will be produced. Matthew and Luke were careful to record Jesus’ family tree in their respective Gospels. They wanted everyone to know that Jesus’ sprung from David’s tree. The “Righteous Branch” had bloomed.

This morning  the chapter has me thinking about the doom and gloom of the prophets. Every great story includes conflict and a period of time in which everything looks bleak. The hero is a “goner” and it’s all going to fall apart. Then comes the eucatastrophy and the climactic moment when it all comes together and works out.

I’ve discovered that giving up on the prophets in the middle of the doom and gloom is like giving up all hope because dad’s job changed and things are going to be tight financially. It’s like walking out of the movie when the hero is tied up next to a bomb and the countdown timer is at two minutes. Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet” reminds me today to “wait for it.” There is hope, light, and redemption at the end of the tunnel, but I have to press on and persevere.

The Trickle-Down Effect of Leadership

This is what the Lord says: “Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there….”
Jeremiah 22:1 (NIV)

I’ve been mulling around the idea of writing a book. For almost 25 years I’ve made a career eavesdropping on conversations between companies and their customers (e.g. “Your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes.”), and I’ve learned a number of lessons about both business and life in the process.

One of the interesting lessons I’ve learned about business is that a company’s front-line customer service operation typically reflects the personality and values of the person sitting in the CEO’s office. If the CEO values customer service as a differentiator in driving customer satisfaction, loyalty, and retention, then I will usually see a Customer Service team focused and empowered to deliver a consistently excellent service experience. If, however, the CEO views Customer Service as simply a nagging expense and drain on the bottom line, the Customer Service department usually resembles a cut-throat, bunker environment where only the strong survive.

The lesson? Leadership has a trickle-down effect on the team that often goes unrecognized, unappreciated, and unaddressed.

As I make my way through the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s anthology of prophetic messages, I as a reader have to recognize a shift in the structure of the anthology, and remember the context of today’s chapter. Up to this point, the editors who put together Jeremiah’s works had ordered things chronologically. Then in the 21st chapter we reach a climax in the story as the Babylonian army besieges Jerusalem just as Jeremiah had prophesied. Now, the editors shift to arranging Jer’s message’s topically. They begin with a series of messages addressed to the leaders whom Jeremiah holds responsible for the disastrous state of affairs. He begins at the top of the food chain: the King and royal family of Judah.

Today’s chapter is a scathing rebuke of the royal family. He lets them know that God is essentially removing them from office. Exile and captivity in Babylon will be their fate. They will never return or reign over their city, their nation, or their people again. The Chairman of the Board is cleaning house.

This morning as I embark on a long business trip, I am quietly thinking about my own leadership and responsibility for my company. The trickle-down lesson of leadership that I’ve observed in other companies is true of my own. As the old saying goes, “When I point my finger, there are three pointing back at me.”

How does my role as leader in family, in community, in church, and in business impact those who are under my organizational and systemic leadership? How do the positives and negatives of my personality impact the various systems I lead? I certainly don’t have all the answers. I have learned from experience, however, that I had better pay attention, give consideration, and make wise decisions in this regard. It’s critical both for my success as a leader, but also for the success and well-being of my company and all my teammates.

 

Death, Life, Surrender

 Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; they will escape with their lives.
Jeremiah 21:9 (NIV)

Along my life journey there have been a number of dreaded moments. Those days when the seeds of fear that have silently been cultivated in your heart and mind finally come to fruition. The unexpected phone call with tragic news of the death of a loved one. The final surrender to years of marital struggle. The company’s largest client who unexpectedly and completely walks away from a 25 year relationship, and with the departure nearly half of your income disappears. The ultrasound image of an empty womb.

In today’s chapter, the day of dread which Jeremiah has long prophesied finally comes to fruition. This is the predicted reality everyone around Jeremiah had mocked, ignored, laughed at, and denied. It finally happened. Nebuchadnezzar and the mighty Babylonian army have surrounded and laid siege to the city of Jerusalem.

Now the King of Judah and the priests of the Temple, representatives of the institutions who have long ignored Jeremiah, dismissed his warnings, threatened his life, and thrown him into the stocks, come begging the brooding prophet for help. It’s now obvious to them that Jeremiah’s hotline to God was real. Perhaps they can throw up a Hail Mary prayer through the prophet and escape the terror of a siege. After all, it worked for King Hezekiah decades earlier when the Assyrians came besieging.

Jeremiah’s response: “Not this time.” The city will be destroyed, all inside the city will suffer unspeakable horror, and likely be killed. There is only once chance a person had to keep his or her life: surrender.

This morning in the quiet of my hotel room as I ponder these things, I am struck by two thoughts;

First, God has woven the paradigm of death and life into the very fabric of creation. “If you want to really live,” Jesus said, “first you have to die.” When I really meditate on this simple teaching, I come to the conclusion that this notion is not some mystical, ethereal thought. At its core this is simple grounded reality of creation. “Ashes to ashes, Dust to dust.” Place the spiritual aside for a moment and think only of the physical and material. Our dead bodies don’t disappear. They are converted to a different kind of energy that, in turn, feed more life in the system. Death feeds life.

God’s language is metaphor, and in the very fabric of creation Jesus tell us that He has layered the material, physical ecosystem with a spiritual reality: life comes through death. Then He surrendered Himself to give us the ultimate word picture of that truth. If you want to experience resurrection, you have to take up the cross.

I’ve learned along my journey the wisdom of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes (props to the Byrds for giving it a tune). “There is a time and a season for everything. A time to be born, and a time to die.” Sometimes things need to die in order for new life to come. A lost client makes way for new ways of looking at business. The end of a relationship leads to a different chapter in life. The death of a loved one makes room in time, energy and resources to be invested in new loved ones joining the family. Yes, Jerusalem would be destroyed, Jeremiah says, but a new Jerusalem would eventually be built. In fact, God says this process will be repeated: Revelation ends with yet another new Jerusalem, and new heaven, and a new earth. Old things pass away, new things come.

The second thought I’m pondering this morning is that the lifeline Jeremiah gave to the people of Jerusalem was to surrender. And so I’ve come to believe along my journey that sometimes the harder I fight and deny death and endings the harder my journey becomes. Learning the process of surrendering to God’s natural order of death-to-life, old-to-new, passing-and-coming flow has led me to deeper, fuller, more vibrant, and more peaceful life experiences on the journey.

Finally, I have to mention that U2’s Bad (which is good!) flowed through my spirit as I pondered these things this morning:

If you twist and turn away
If you tear yourself in two again
If I could, yes I would
If I could, I would
Let it go
Surrender
Dislocate
If I could throw this lifeless lifeline to the wind
Leave this heart of clay
See you walk, walk away
Into the night
And through the rain
Into the half-light
And through the flame
If I could through myself
Set your spirit free, I’d lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
And to the day
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
To let it go
And so to fade away
To let it go
And so, fade away
Wide awake
I’m wide awake
Wide awake
I’m not sleeping
Oh, no, no, no

 

The Depressed Prophet

Cursed be the day I was born!
    May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,
    who made him very glad, saying,
    “A child is born to you—a son!”
May that man be like the towns
    the Lord overthrew without pity.
May he hear wailing in the morning,
    a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb,
    with my mother as my grave,
    her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb
    to see trouble and sorrow
    and to end my days in shame?
Jeremiah 20:13-18 (NIV)

Across the ages, the ancient prophet Jeremiah has been labeled with  the moniker “The Weeping Prophet.” In our bedroom at the lake Wendy and I have a copy of Rembrandt’s portrait of Jeremiah looking depressed and sullen as he sits amidst the ruins of Jerusalem. It reminds me that the lake is a thin place where any who are burdened can find rest for their souls. Alas, it would seem that Jeremiah had no such place.

In today’s chapter we read of a confrontation between Jeremiah and a priest named Pashur, who was “the official in charge of the Temple of the Lord.” The fact that the one “in charge” was out to get Jeremiah is a good indication of just how corrupt the system had become in Jeremiah’s day. The priest in charge of the Temple was overseeing all of the pagan rituals and cults operating out of the Temple. The Temple had become a religious corporation, a powerful money-maker for those in charge (not unlike the way Jesus’ found the Temple in His day).

While Jeremiah had been protected from the death-threats that had already been made against him, Pashur decided to at least punish the prophet for his inflammatory prophesies of doom and destruction. I’m quite sure they were bad for business. In fact, I can almost hear Pashur saying, “This isn’t personal, Jer. It’s strictly business.” Once again, this is not unlike Jesus who, after His repeated rants against their corruption and His stirring up of the people, pressured the Temple leaders to plot His death .

After his time in the stocks, Jeremiah immediately confronts Pashur with a stubborn and willful repeating of his prophetic message: Jerusalem will be destroyed and its people led into captivity at the hands of Babylon. Obviously the prophet wanted Pashur to know his punishment did not have the desired effect. In fact, it simply appears to have pissed Jeremiah off.

What comes next is fascinating. The weeping prophet goes into a depression and pens a dark poem that graphically expresses his wish that he’d never been born. Obviously, the burden of his role, his prophecies, and the steady threats and persecution were getting to him. Of course they were. It would get to me too.

This morning I’m thinking about how common it is for humans to go through periods of depression. If you were privy to my medical records you’d find that I’ve had a few bouts with the blues along my life journey, and I never faced anything like what Jeremiah was dealing with. I’m also thinking about how common it is for individuals in history (artists, musicians, writers, thinkers) who saw and expressed things no one else could see were given to depression, madness, mental illness, and even suicide. I’d certainly put Jeremiah alongside the likes of Van Gogh, Hemingway, and Parker.

I’m struck by the contrast this morning between the spit-shined image I believe we often have of a “godly” person or a “servant of God.” We demand so much, expect so much, and are so quick to scapegoat individuals for their weaknesses and shortcomings. Jeremiah reminds me this morning that God’s servants were fully human, carried human flaws and weaknesses, were susceptible to all the shortcomings known to humanity, and were even given to deep depression and suicidal thoughts. Jeremiah reminds me to cut others a break. He even reminds me to be a bit more gracious with myself.

Wendy and I were at the lake late last week opening it up for the coming summer season. Once again, I saw and pondered Jeremiah’s portrait as I lay in bed.

I’m looking forward to getting back there.

(FWIW: My latest message was added to the Messages page.)

How Little I Can Possibly Fathom

They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal….”
Jeremiah 19:5 (NIV)

Let’s be real. There’s a smorgasbord of negativity out there. Media and a 24/7/365 news cycle continually bombards us with sensational cries of things for us to fear or be anxious about. The right cries for us to fear the left. The left cries for us to fear the right. Beyond politics there is a steady stream of anxiety stirring doom we’re told to perpetually fear from nuclear war, global warming, gun violence, terror attacks, product safety, GMOs, cancer, Zika virus, flu, vaccinations, poverty, earthquakes, floods, oil spills, pollution, asteroid hits, and etc, and etc, and etc.

A month or two ago Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal by a Harvard professor. He attempted to provide some much needed perspective on our current life and times.

A few excerpts:

Globally, the 30-year scorecard also favors the present. In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440.

The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across countries and people. Within the lifetimes of most readers, the rate of extreme poverty could approach zero. Catastrophic famine, never far away in the past, has vanished from all but the most remote and war-ravaged regions, and undernourishment is in steady decline.
A century ago, the richest countries devoted 1% of their wealth to children, the poor, the sick and the aged; today they spend almost a quarter of it. Most of their poor today are fed, clothed and sheltered and have luxuries like smartphones and air conditioning that used to be unavailable to anyone, rich or poor. Poverty among racial minorities has fallen, and poverty among the elderly has plunged.
During most of the history of nations and empires, war was the natural state of affairs, and peace a mere interlude between wars. Today war between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is about a quarter of what it was in the mid-1980s, a sixth of what it was in the early 1970s, and a 16th of what it was in the early 1950s.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. There is still no lack of very real and hard work to be done to make this world a better, more peaceful, and just place. What I increasingly have come to understand, however, is that it has become harder and harder for a person like me, living in the first-world of the 21st century, to understand how absolutely brutal life was in the days of the ancient prophets like Jeremiah. Reading through the writing of the ancient prophets can feel like a long slog. It’s whole lot of doom and gloom from a time and place that is very, very different than my reality.

I struggle with the harsh images and the violence in Jeremiah’s messages. But I also have to remember that I have no clue how harsh and violent daily life was in the middle east in 500 B.C.

Amidst today’s chapter, Jeremiah hints at what was happening, even within the walls of Solomon’s Temple, in his day. The God of Abraham, Moses, and David had been almost completely forgotten. Solomon’s Temple had become an open, free-market for the worship of local gods. In the case of Baal, people would sacrifice their own children and burn them alive as a form of worship. Just let the image of that sink in for a moment.

There’s a reason that God was angry. He commanded his people to love their children, to raise them up well. God commanded his people to teach their children and grandchildren His word, and to teach them to keep His commands about being honest, pure, just, content, and faithful. Now God’s people are worshiping local fertility gods with religious prostitution and drunken sex orgies. They are burning their own children alive as a sacrifice to Baal. And, when God raises up a prophet like Jeremiah to speak out against what is happening they tell him to shut-up and threaten to kill him.

This morning in the quiet I’m mulling these things over in my head. I’m not foolish enough to believe that things are perfect in this day and age, but I also don’t want to be equally foolish by denying the fact that I live in a world that is far better off than when my parents and grandparents were my age. I live in a world in which daily life is infinitely better off than it was for humans who lived centuries and millennia before. I can’t really imagine a day in the life of Jeremiah.

These thoughts lead me to look at Jeremiah’s writing differently. Rather than trying to layer Jeremiah’s poetic prophecies with my 21st century first-world understanding I want to let go of my preconceived notions. I want to cut Jeremiah some slack and try to see his world from his perspective. As a parent I addressed my daughters differently when they were five than I do when they are twenty-five, so it seems reasonable for me to conclude that God addressed humanity differently in the days of the Jeremiah than He does today.

I feel myself increasingly led to embrace the reality of just how little I can possibly fathom. Yet that doesn’t absolve me from responsibility. My job on this spiritual journey is to keep asking, seeking, and knocking on the door of understanding what God has been saying to humanity throughout the Great Story.  Perhaps that sounds hard to do given how different my life is compared to Jeremiah, but I also happen to live in a time and place where I have almost all of the research and resources in the entire world literally at my fingertips.

And that’s a daily reality I daresay Jeremiah couldn’t possibly fathom.

Tom’s Miscellaneous Messages on Audio and YouTube

Broken Down and Built Up Again

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
Jeremiah 18:1-4 (NIV)

Life is a series of screw ups. Let’s face it. I like to project an image of having it all together. I’ve spent most of my life thinking that there’s some acceptable level of life perfection out there (that everyone else seemingly has) while I quietly haplessly flail my appendages behind a series  of nicely painted stage flats. I’ve come to the conclusion along the journey that the real illusion is thinking that any one is any different than me. God’s Message is perfectly clear (in several different places) on this count:

  • No temptation has seized you except what is common to all
  • There’s no one righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”
  • All have sinned and fall short.”
  • Whoever keeps the whole law and stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

I’ve always loved the word picture God gave Jeremiah in today’s chapter. He tells Jeremiah to throw on his sandals because he was going on field trip. They end up at the house of the local potter who was working at his wheel. If you’ve ever tried your hand at a potter’s wheel you know how tricky it is. It looks so deceptively easy, but one slight miscue and the whole pot falls apart in your hands and you’re starting again from scratch.

I had a friend one time who was walking with me through a terribly difficult stretch of my life journey. I went through a litany of all the things that had gone wrong in my life, the mistakes I’d made, the consequences I was facing, and the stresses that felt as if they were tearing me apart. My friend smiled at me warmly and quietly observed that my life was breaking down, being “deconstructed” so that God could remake it like a Potter reworking the marred mess of clay in His hands.

It’s a good thing to have wise companions walking alongside you on your journey.

I find myself so drawn to this notion of the “one-and-done” transformation, the miraculous touch leading to a perfect ending, or God suddenly drawing my number in the Life lottery and suddenly everything is as it should be.

I’ve come to observe that the truth is a lot earthier, more substantive and repetitive. The word picture of the Potter and the clay is not a “once in a lifetime” deal. Rather, I find that life is a constant process of being broken down and rebuilt. My job is to allow Living Water to make me more pliable in the Potter’s hand, to release myself to the steady flow of the wheel spinning, to allow myself to be molded at the Potter’s touch; To stop resisting, even when life breaks me down again and the process starts all over.

Have a good week, friends. Here’s to being pliable.