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.

Not an Application, an Invitation

I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.” I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge.
2 Corinthians 11:5-6 (NIV)

In the pantheon of faith, I find that Paul is revered as much as any other person in the history of Christianity. As I’ve journeyed repeatedly through that Great Story I find it fascinating how people selectively diminish the humanity of the “pillars of the faith” and selectively choose to focus on perceived strengths that might even be overstated through the lens of history and religiosity.

Paul was not universally loved and respected in his own day. While I have no doubt that Paul’s personality and mind were a force to be reckoned with, evidence reveals that the physical package was not in the least bit impressive. Some historical evidence suggests a homely looking man who was bow-legged and had a large nose. After repeated scourging, beatings, and stoning attempts his body probably had been unalterably scarred and he likely moved and carried himself as one permanently injured from suffering those repeated traumas. He famously had poor eye-sight in a day before eyeglasses had been invented, so he was probably ceaselessly squinting. And Paul he freely admits that he wasn’t a great public speaker.

Paul had rivals. He was not universally loved. Other believers, teachers, and apostles belittled him, sought to marginalize him, and tried to lead other believers (like the believers in Corinth) to shy away and even dismiss him. Paul’s authority was questioned because he wasn’t around when Jesus was on earth, publicly doing his ministry. His claim of being an apostle was constantly disputed as people clearly questioned the validity and voracity of his Damascus Road experience while not letting him forget his record as a prosecutor of believers and the head of the conspiracy to execute the beloved Stephen. And, there were other teachers and leaders, like Apollos, who were clearly better looking, more likable, and much better preachers.

As I make my way through Paul’s second surviving letter to the believers in Corinth (there’s at least one other letter referenced and there are probably two or more that didn’t survive antiquity) it reads like a man desperately making a case for himself, for his reputation, and his authority as a teacher and leader of the Jesus Movement.

In my faith journey I’ve observed that this is the real story that modern believers don’t know, or choose not to see. The Great Story is full of very flawed, every day human beings who God used in amazing ways, but they have been dehumanized, canonized, and lionized by religion and history. The result, I’ve observed, is that we both exaggerate our own human flaws so as to believe God would never use us, and we place the “heroes of the faith” like Paul on a pedestal we believe we could never, ever reach.

One of the meta-themes I’ve found in the Great Story is God using very human, very flawed people. Moses disqualified himself as a poor public speaker (God told him to let Aaron do the talking) and had a bad temper. Jacob, later called Israel, was a terribly deceptive liar. David may have been called “a man after God’s own heart” but he was also an adulterer and guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Solomon may be hallowed for his wisdom, but he also enslaved and conscripted the labor of tens of thousands of people (while annually celebrating Passover and God’s deliverance of his own people from slavery in Egypt) to the point that his son had to reap the political consequences of their violent rebellion.

And then there is Paul, the big nosed, bow-legged, scarred, unlikable and forceful little man who was such a boring, long-winded preacher that a boy once fell asleep during his sermon and fell out of a third-story window to his death.  And, I still don’t question his induction to the faith Hall of Fame while quickly and shamefully dismissing my own worthiness or hastily judging the worthiness of other human beings just as flawed as myself.

This morning in the quiet of my hotel room I’m reminded that in all my reading of the Great Story I have not once come across an application for being a follower of Jesus with an accompanying list of requisites for the job. Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and feel the weight of your flawed humanity drowning your soul. I’d like to give you some rest.” This brings to mind another thing I’ve observed, and have found easily forgotten. Being a follower of Jesus is not a position I apply for, it’s simply an invitation I accept (or don’t).

 

Lunch with the CEO

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.
2 Corinthians 10:3 (NIV)

A number of years ago my company served a midwest client. We were providing them with on-going customer satisfaction research, conducting Quality Assessments in their contact center, as well as coaching their sales and customer service teams. Then we learned that the company had been sold to a much larger conglomerate with global reach.

As always happens in a corporate buy-out, there was a subsequent shift in the executive ranks as the new owners brought in their own executives to run their new asset. I know that when this happens there is a very good possibility that we will lose our contract. New executives tend to come in having already formed their own strategic partnerships and alliances along their career journey. They use their new authority and this initial season of massive change to bring in the friends and colleagues they already know and trust.

In this case, the new CEO decided to let us finish our contract year as he observed the work we were doing and allowed us to present our data and explain the continuous improvement model we’d implemented which was successfully making positive changes to the customer experience. We were fortunate. As the year progressed he not only allowed us to continue our project, but he actually gave me additional projects to work on with him. At the end of the year he agreed to keep our projects moving.

During one of my visits I had lunch with the CEO. “Do you know why I keep you around?” he asked. He was a type 8 challenger so I had to be ready for him to ask almost any kind of arcane, direct question at any moment.

I hope we’re providing you with value,” or some such generic guess was my answer.

It’s your expense reports,” he answered just as directly as he’d asked the question.

Excuse me? My expense reports?

I deal with all sorts of outside vendors and consultants,” he went on to explain. “You wouldn’t believe what people try to charge me and get away with. First Class airfare, magazines they buy to read on the plane, luxury hotel suites, and the most expensive meals. One guy tried to expense a $200 bottle of wine with his lunch. Then they even try to charge margin on top of their expenses.”

You and your team,” he said, “are different. You only expense what is necessary and reasonable. In fact, I can tell you actually try to help me contain costs. It tells me a lot about who you are and how you operate. It tells me I can trust you.

It was a nice thing to hear, because our company has always tried to operate with integrity in all of our dealings and relationships. If you happen to have been in our gathering of Jesus’ followers a couple of days ago and heard the message, then you’ll understand when I say that I try to bring “Level 4” principles into our “Level 3” business dealings.

In today’s chapter, Paul expresses the same vein of thinking. He’s operating in the world but trying to bring a different level of operational principles in his relationships and dealings. He’s trying to bring the Kingdom into everything that he’s doing from his ministry to all of the fledgling gatherings in the Jesus Movement to the tent-making and repair business he ran wherever he went to provide for his daily needs so as not to be a financial burden on the believers he was serving.

This morning I’m preparing for a business trip. Once again I’m thinking about how I can serve well, love well, bring measurable value to my client, and be an example in all of my dealings. My memories of lunch with that CEO are a good reminder for me as I embark on my journey. I want my stated principles to be evident in my daily words and actions.

People are watching, and they notice.

 

The Miser and the Psalm 112 Man

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.
2 Corinthians 9:6

Many years ago I was traveling with a colleague who, inadvertently made a comment that stung. Being a right-brained creative, I’m always searching for new and better ways to organize myself. Also, being a right-brained creative I tend to get bored quickly and move on to try new things. So it was that I had been experimenting with making a custom, daily to-do list on a 3×5 card that I kept on a leather blotter in my pocket. I like things small and compact.

I realized why you write so small and put everything on a tiny card,” my colleague said.

I took the bait. “Oh yeah? Why is that?” I answered.

Because you’re such a miser. You’re miserly about everything.”

Wow. Granted, I come from a Dutch heritage famous for thrift, but I’d never in my life been told that I was a “miser.” The conversation ended and the subject never came up again, but the comment stuck with me like a soul wound. Am I a miser?

Sometime later I read Psalm 112, and as I read it I realized that it described the kind of man I wanted to be. So I memorized it. I still whisper it to myself all the time. I even had the reference tattooed on my right bicep. Interestingly, the lyrics of the psalm twice mentions generosity:

Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely,
    who conduct their affairs with justice.

They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor,
    their righteousness endures forever;
    their horn will be lifted high in honor.

Looking back in 20-20 hindsight, I believe my colleague’s comment was a misguided perception based on other factors that need not be mentioned here. I’ve long since forgiven and let it go. It did, however, create a beneficial period of honest introspection, and it motivated me to increasingly live out Psalm 112 in my daily life. I know I have further to go in that journey, but Wendy and I desire to be consciously and tangibly generous with all of the blessings God has given us.

In today’s chapter, Paul is appealing to the generosity of Jesus’ followers in Corinth as he takes up an offering for the believers starving amidst the famine in Judea and Samaria. Interestingly, he quotes Psalm 112, and of course it leapt off the page at me.

In the quiet this morning I am thankful for my old colleague who caused me to pause and take a hard, introspective look inward. I am once again whispering through Psalm 112. As along week of work begins that will take me to the west coast and back, I’m thinking about the opportunities I will have to be a generous person in different ways with many different people I don’t even know. We can use more generosity in this world, don’t you think?

Have a good week, my friend.

Drilling Down to Spring Generosity

In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.
2 Corinthians 8:2 (NIV)

About 12 years ago Wendy and I made the decision to purchase my parents property at the lake. At the time the property had a  70 foot single-wide from the early 1970s which I used to refer to as “The Love Shack.” At the end of a gravel road, the property requires a well for water and a septic system for waste management. After agreeing to make the purchase my dad walked me through the process they went through each year to have their water supply tested and treated against the nasty things that can get into a natural water supply. It was pretty gross just thinking about it.

A year or so later we had a new well dug on the property. I’d never experienced this before, and I was fascinated by the process. The young man who owned the drilling service loved his work and I’ll never forget the passion and enthusiasm with which he went about his drilling a well. By the end of the day he’d explained to me that the old well on the property had been way too shallow which was why the water was prone to some of the nastiness that had to be tested and treated. The driller had to go much deeper than planned and get through some tough stretches of rock to reach the aquifer which would pump clean water to our house. I’ll never forget the guy grinning from ear-to-ear. “You’re pumping ‘crystal clear’ now, dude!

That little experience really got me thinking just how much I take for granted the luxury of a clean water supply that I don’t have to think or worry about. That got me digging a little deeper for information about water in the world. The good news is that since 1990 great progress has been made. In just 25 years a staggering 2.5 Billion people have gained access to an improved water supply free from fear of contamination. I love it! That’s huge progress that we can feel good about. [cue: We are the World]. Nevertheless, there’s still 665 million people in the world who don’t have access to a simple, clean water supply. Most of them are in Africa. For many years Wendy and I have been supporters of Blood:Water Mission, a group actively working to improve access to clean water across Africa.

Along life’s journey I’ve had to confess that it sometimes takes an  experience for me to wake up to the needs of others, and the opportunity I have to make a difference.

In today’s chapter, we discover one of the major reasons Paul was writing his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth. There was a severe famine in area of Syria and Israel. Historical records confirm that a massive famine broke out in that region in 47 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Claudius. People were literally starving to death, and Paul had been taking up an offering among the believers in Greece and Asia Minor to take much needed supplies to the believers back in Jerusalem.

There was kind of a cool spiritual principle at work. Back when Jesus was tempted to turn stones to bread He quoted a verse from Deuteronomy to the enemy: “You shall not live on bread alone, but on every word the comes from the mouth of God.” The believers in Jerusalem had blessed Greece and Asia Minor by sending the Word and spreading Jesus’ Message through Paul and others. Now those believers in Greece and Asia Minor had the opportunity, in turn, to save the believers in Jerusalem from starvation by providing for their physical needs.

Yesterday I wrote about Paul finding joy in “all his troubles.” He uses that same same spiritual principle again, and takes it a step further, as he describes the believers in Macedonia who found joy amidst their trials and generosity amidst their poverty.

This morning in the quiet I find myself counting my blessings. Our hot water issue was fixed yesterday. It was a pesky annoyance caused by build up of ice that choked the flow of air to the system. Ultimately, it was a small problem. Such a luxury, and what an opportunity I continually have to make a difference in the lives of others through the abundance with which I’ve been blessed. The Macedonians, Paul wrote, had been generous despite their poverty. How much more generous can I be out of the wealth with which I’ve been blessed?

Featured photo courtesy of Seeds of Hope International Partnerships: http://sohip.org

It’s Colder than the Arctic. Oh, the Joy!

I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.
2 Corinthians 7:4b

Note to subscribers: I had a technical glitch publishing this post this morning with some nasty HTML coding issues. My apologies. I trashed the original post and am reposting, so you may have gotten two emails. Sorry. Maybe it’s the cold 😉

I write this post from the depths of winter in Iowa. It’s -13 as I tap out these words, which is a bit warmer than it was yesterday. This morning I woke up to find our hot water heater isn’t working. Lovely.

Just a week or so ago I was sitting in O’Hare airport in Chicago chatting with a wonderfully gregarious transplant from New Zealand. He was complaining about the weather extremes he’s learned to live with here in the midwest of North America. It reminded me of an observation Garrison Keillor once made: Living in the midwest is like spending your summers in Death Valley and your winters in the Arctic. Indeed. Here’s the headline from the Des Moines Register on Tuesday:

 

Article Headline from Des Moines Register, January 29, 2019.

Along the journey we face all kinds of different challenges. While it’s human to grumble and complain, I often find it personally necessary to make myself put things in context. This morning’s chapter provided it for me.

In writing to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul references “all our troubles.” Later in the letter he provides specifics. Let me jump ahead for the sake of today’s thought. Paul writes:

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received the forty lashes minus one.(Note: 39 lashes with a scourge was the ancient prescription to bring the punished to the point of death without letting them actually slip into the comfort of death). Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones (Note: Paul’s would be executioners actually believed they had successfully stoned him to death. His body was carried and dumped outside the city of Lystra and left for dead.), three times I was shipwrecked (Note: He doesn’t mention the venomous snake bite that should have killed him.), I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move (Note: Scholars say that Paul logged some 10,000 miles during his journeys. That’s roughly 21,120,000 steps without a FitBit) . I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

As I said: Context can be a good antidote for self-centered misery. It’s cold this morning and my water heater is broken. I am, however, in a warm house, with warm clothes, and a warm wife. The water heater guy will be by in a few hours to deal with the hot water problem. Boo-hoo for me.

What I found even more fascinating as I read Paul’s words today was that while he endured torture, stoning, shipwrecks, snakebites, imprisonment and the rest, he states that his “joy knows no bounds.”

Along this journey Wendy and I have learned a lot about joy (though I will freely confess that I know far less than Paul). Joy always jumps off the page at me, because it is one of those words that holds a lot of meaning for Wendy and me. We’ve learned from our journey together that joy is something deeper than a momentary feeling such as happiness which flits in and out with the ever shifting winds of circumstance. Joy comes from a deep spring. It’s not a surface, run-off emotion. You have to drill through bedrock of suffering to experience the flow of joy. It is a spiritual by-product of the three things that remain when all else is stripped away: faith, hope, and love.

In the quiet (and a blessedly warm home office) I am thankful this morning for the flow of joy that Wendy and I have come to experience, independent of whatever momentary personal circumstances we may be experiencing.

By the way, temperatures here in picturesque Pella, Iowa are forecast to be 57 degrees (above zero) on Sunday.

Context.

Stay warm, my friend. Have a great day.

(No Need to) “Wait for It”

 For [God] says,

“In the time of my favor I heard you,
    and in the day of salvation I helped you.”

I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.
2 Corinthians 6:2 (NIV)

I  hate waiting. I especially abhor needless and unnecessary waiting.

I confess. I’m convinced this particular disdain and impatience is rooted in being the youngest of four. Growing up I spent years watching my older siblings get to do things before I did. In most cases I can look back from a place of maturity and understand requisite age and size restrictions. Still, there were times when I rightfully argued that capability should have outweighed arbitrary age limits for certain activities. I’m sure of it. At least, that’s the whine of my inner child.

It never ceases to amaze me just how much our childhoods continue to subconsciously affect us in our adult years. Just this past year Wendy came to a sudden revelation about some inner thoughts she had, and their subsequent emotional reactions they created within. She realized that her thoughts weren’t actually her thoughts, but the voice of her mother playing on an endless loop in her brain. Fascinating.

I digress. Back to waiting.

As our local gathering of Jesus followers has been journeying through the book of Acts this year I have been reminded of two major paradigm shifts that happened when God moved humanity from the religious legalism of the Judaic system to the outpouring of Holy Spirit in the first century.

The first paradigm shift was the decentralization of power. Gone was a rigid system in which a human high priest and other humans, simply on the basis of their heredity, have spiritual power and irrevocable spiritual authority over everyone else. By the middle of the story of Acts we’re reading about common, everyday individuals we’ve never heard of, three or four social circles away from the twelve apostles, who God is using to move the Great Story forward. “Wait a minute. Who is this lady, Tabitha? Who is she and where did she come from?”

The second paradigm shift is the lifting of restrictions to experience salvation through Christ and participate fully in the organism Paul refers to as “the body of Christ.” Any and all who choose to follow Jesus have immediate and full spiritual access to all that God has to offer regardless of background, previous record, heredity, socio-economic status, race, gender, politics, education, or age. Any and all who follow Christ receive the indwelling of Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and a calling to use those gifts, in love, for Jesus’ good will and purpose.

This is a radical, transformative spiritual shift (that human organizations and institutions have continually found ways to reverse for two millennia).

In today’s chapter Paul quotes a verse from Isaiah 49. It’s a great messianic prophecy. I get why it would have been one of Paul’s favorite references. All of Paul’s readers who were raised in Judaism would have been raised waiting for the Messiah. It had been 400 years since the last prophet, Malachi, and since then they’d been waiting for what God was going to do. Paul writes to those in Corinth that there is no longer any need to wait for God. All that God has to offer is immediately available to anyone, anywhere, in this very moment.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about my level of patience. I’ve gotten better at waiting along my journey. “Patience” is a fruit of the Spirit that gets developed over time, and I can see how it has developed in me along the way. I’ve also come to embrace that while all that God has to offer is immediately available, this is still a journey. There’s still a story being revealed. I still have to wait for some things to be fully revealed and realized in this finite, time-laden existence. I’m reminded, once again, of the words of the wise Teacher of Ecclesiastes:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

As for following Jesus, Paul writes to the Corinthians, there’s no time like the present moment.

Creation and Re-Creation

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)

I got my first tattoo in the fall of 2005. It was an incredibly tumultuous time in my journey. It was the most tumultuous stretch of the journey I’ve yet experienced, in fact. I was recently divorced, a reality I’d never imagined for myself, with two teenage daughters trying to make sense of their own shattered realities. Wendy had also entered my life. This was another unexpected and unlooked for reality that I knew in my heart was of God’s doing, but it made the whole picture a hot mess.

So, why not get a tattoo?

The tat is a celtic cross on my back. In the circle at the crux of the cross is a reference to Revelation 21:5:

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Wendy also got a tat that day. A butterfly with the same reference. It was a permanent reminder amidst temporary circumstances of the hope we had in Jesus. Wendy and I both knew by the faith that Paul writes about in today’s chapter that Jesus, the Creator, was in the process of picking up the shattered pieces of life and the mess that had been wrought by our respective human flaws and failings, and together was making something new out of it.

It was months later that I went to a weekend retreat for teens that our daughter Taylor was attending. She was going to speak to her peers and I had been invited to listen. It was hard. She spoke about her own pain amidst the divorce and remarriage and the tumultuous changes in her own experience and realities. “One of my dad’s favorite verses is Revelation 21:5,” she said before adding, “I don’t like that verse.” Ugh.

Our human failings create so much pain for the ones we love most.

Mea culpa.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve learned that God expresses themselves over and over and over again through the theme of creation and re-creation. It’s an integral theme in the divine dance. Old things pass, new things come. On the macro level consider the first chapter, Genesis 1, in which God creates the heavens and the earth. In the final two chapters of Revelation God creates a new heaven and a new Earth (Rev 21:1). On the cosmic level it happens at the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus refers to this creation and re-creation theme over and over again. “Unless a kernel dies and is buried in the ground,” He said, “It can’t spring to new life.”

I’ve also observed that many of my fellow followers of Jesus like to gloss over this theme with broad religious brush strokes of propriety. They like “old things pass away and new things come” to look pretty and proper with an emotionally moving musical score underneath. It’s so much easier to swallow when it’s neat and easy.

Maybe it is that way for some. I haven’t found it to be that way. Resurrection is proceeded by crucifixion. Crucifixion is a raw, naked, shameful, bloody mess. Just like my life back in 2005 when I got my first tat.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that when Jesus called followers, He made it clear that things would change. Old things would pass away. New things would come. And, not necessarily in comfortable ways.