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Villains, Justice, Wrestling

Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again.
Exodus 11:5-6 (NRSVCE)

The past few months of COVID shut-downs have been strange on a number of levels. For being non-athletic, creative types, Wendy and I both enjoy watching and avidly following certain sports and teams. We also have the shows we avidly watch. It’s been strange to have so little to watch. Not necessarily bad, mind you. I confess we’ve gotten a lot of things done that have been on the task list for way too long. I’m just recognizing how often we look forward to certain games or new episodes of a certain series.

Game of Thrones was a series to which I was late to the party. Wendy had no interest and I didn’t want to pay for HBO or for each year’s series on DVD. It was a ridiculous Black Friday deal for all but the last season on DVD that gave me many wonderful months of binging while on the road for work.

One of the hallmarks of the Game of Thrones series was the quality of the villains. I can’t think of another series with more despicable characters whom I wanted to get their just desserts and (I confess) die in despicable ways. The writers knew how to create characters I loved to hate, and how to keep me as an audience member passionately desiring a villain’s demise so for so long that when the climax finally arrived it was oddly satisfying in somewhat creepy ways.

Today’s chapter is a climactic point in the Exodus story, though I find it easy to lose sight of this fact. I think that it’s a combination of breaking up the narrative in small daily chunks, translating it into English from an ancient language, and the fact that the ancients weren’t exactly George Martin or Stephen King when it comes to crafting the narrative.

The final plague on Pharaoh and Egypt is the death of every Egyptian first-born, which feels rather heinous on the surface of things as we read with the eyes of 21st-century mindset. There are a couple of important parallels in this story which, I can’t allow myself to forget this, is at its heart about an enslaved, oppressed people being freed from their chains.

Pharaoh and the Egyptians have all the earthly power. They have the absolute authority, socio-economic status, and a system completely rigged in their favor. The Hebrews have one respected leader (Moses, who was raised an Egyptian member of Pharaoh’s household) and this mysterious God who has come out of a burning bush to reveal Himself as the One underdog champion of the oppressed Hebrews against over 1500 Egyptian deities.

[cue: Rocky’s Theme]

Pharaoh has just threatened Moses with death, but Moses informs his nemesis that it is his first-born son (always the favored-one in ancient Patriarchal systems) who will die. I believe most parents would say that losing a child is worse than dying yourself. Pharaoh and the God of Moses have already gone nine exhausting rounds. This plague is the knockout punch. At the very beginning of the story, it was established that the Hebrew slaves cried out in their suffering, and God heard their cries. Now, God proclaims through Moses, it will be Pharaoh and the Egyptian oppressors who will “cry out” in their suffering.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think about my African-American brothers and sisters. Historically, it’s easy to see why the Exodus story has always resonated with African-Americans. Wendy and I just watched the movie Harriett a few weeks ago. “Grandma Moses” led her people to freedom. The heinous videos of Ahmed Aubrey and George Floyd (a brother in Christ) haunt me. The Moses story will always be relevant in a fallen world where broken earthly systems favor some people and not others.

As I meditate on these things, Jesus’ first recorded message echoes in my spirit:

[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
 

Some mornings my soul is overwhelmed with questions. Like Jacob, I find myself wrestling with God.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Satisfying the Crowd

Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Mark 15:15 (NIV)

Much of our earthly journey is spent satisfying different crowds. We learn to satisfy our parents and family systems when we’re young, and quite commonly find that we’re still unconsciously playing the same familial roles as adults to keep that system satisfied. We modify our behavior as adolescents and young adults to satisfy our peer group(s). The truth is that it’s quite common for us to unwittingly continue the process in our social systems, work systems, and religious systems. We satisfy the crowd in order to fit in, be accepted, and successfully navigate our social world.

My company is all about helping our client companies identify what satisfies and dissatisfies “the crowd” known as their customer base or their market. In order to succeed, businesses need to increase satisfaction and diminish dissatisfaction in the right places. We help our clients’ team members learn how to manage their communication with customers to increase their satisfaction.

Politics (of every persuasion and on both sides of the aisle) is all about satisfying the crowd. In fact, it’s about satisfying different crowds at different times. Politicians regularly modify their words and behavior to satisfy the “base” crowd necessary just to get nominated. Then they alter their words and behavior to satisfy a larger crowd that includes “swing voters” in order to get elected. Once elected, politicians alter their words and behavior constantly and on-the-fly to manage satisfaction across multiple crowds including constituents, their political party, a variety of lobbies, big donors, the press, as well as broader public opinion.

It struck me in today’s chapter that Mark states Pilate’s conviction and judgment of Jesus was made “wanting to satisfy the crowd.” Pilate was a politician, and the region he governed a political powder keg waiting to go off (and it did just 40 years later). Above all else, the Roman Empire valued peace and order in their colonies along with a steady stream of money or “tribute.” While the Roman Empire was not known for valuing individual human life, Pilate’s multiple appeals to “the crowd” seem to indicate his desire not to execute a man who had committed no crimes. In the end, however, the decision was quite easy for a politician to make. Pilate had to maintain peace and order, and it was especially true during that week of the Passover festival when the population of Jerusalem swelled five times its normal size. Pilate could ill afford the tactical political mistake of pissing off the Jewish temple leaders. They had obviously incited the crowd against Jesus, they could equally incite a riot against Rome.

I couldn’t help but remember John’s observation from an earlier visit Jesus made with His followers to Jerusalem for the Passover:

Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.

John 2:23-24

Jesus stood silent before the kangaroo court and political circus around Him, because the ways of His Kingdom run opposite those of this world.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself contemplating the ways in which I “satisfy the crowd.” Certainly, there are ways in which I do so that are normal, natural, and benign. It’s how we do life and live in community with our fellow human beings. The real question is, “Where do I find myself speaking, thinking, and acting to ‘satisfy’ the crowd when it is leading me away from the path of Christ?”

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Note: Featured photo Pilate Washing His Hands by Rembrandt. Public Domain. From the Met Collection.

Papa’s Got the Blues

As our daughters grew up, I wanted them to appreciate all kinds of art and music. My own musical tastes run the gamut and I’ve found that every genre has a place in the soundtrack of my life journey, if even for a moment. I wanted that for them, as well.

As the girls grew I started making compilation CDs for them. I wanted to pass on a few of the things I learned and appreciated about my favorite genres of music, expose them to a few of the classic artists and songs, as well as share with them a few of my favorite tunes and how they connect to my life. It’s still an unfinished project. I have two or three CDs still on my task list to compile for them.

Most of the time I simply wrote out some liner notes for the CD in which I shared a paragraph or two about every cut on the CD. When it came to my Blues compilation, I had been playing around with learning an eBook publishing app, so I thought it would be fun to experiment and turn my liner notes for the CD into a graphic eBook.

A few weeks ago Wendy and I were in Mexico for the wedding of her sister, Suzanna. Suzanna lived with Wendy and me for a few years as she finished high school. During her time with us, I had shared my blues compilation, Papa’s Got the Blues with her, as well. The night before her wedding she went out of her way to tell me she still had the CD and loved it.

So, that got me thinking that it might be a fun thing to post that others might also enjoy. So, Merry Christmas! Here you go. Be sure to download the eBook and follow along. If you have Spotify, you should be able to find the playlist and add it to your own set of playlists, if you so desire.

Happy listening! Cheers!

Fail, Rinse, and Repeat

Now when all this was finished, all Israel who were present went out to the cities of Judah and broke down the pillars, hewed down the sacred poles, and pulled down the high places and the altars throughout all Judah and Benjamin, and in Ephraim and Manasseh, until they had destroyed them all.
2 Chronicles 31:1 (NRSVCE)

I decided to become a follower of Jesus when I was a young man. As I began to walk this new journey there were a number of behavioral patterns in my life that I knew I needed to change. There were thoughts, words, and behaviors that were incongruent with the teachings of Jesus. Just like last week’s post I felt a certain internal conviction that I needed to “carry out the filth from the holy place.”

Some of these behavioral patterns were easy to remedy. I simply willed myself to behave differently and it happened. Other behavioral patterns weren’t so easily changed. For years I had fed certain natural appetites in unhealthy ways. These behaviors gave certain levels of comfort, pleasure, and masked some deep soul wounds in ways I didn’t even fathom. With the best of intentions I committed myself to changing the behavior only to find myself, in short order, back doing the same thing I vowed I wouldn’t do anymore.

In today’s chapter we read about the aftermath of King Hezekiah’s homecoming Passover festival. He’d invited all the Hebrew people scattered in the region to return to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast which commemorated God delivering the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. It was a huge success. Revival broke out. The people were humbled and recommitted themselves to the Lord. They repented of their idolatry and went out to tear down their pagan idols. They were going to change their ways!

But wait a minute. Haven’t we read this somewhere before? The people repented of their idolatry during the reign of Asa back in chapter 15. And again during the reign of Jehoshaphat in chapter 19. And again during the reign of Joash in chapter 24. Each time they repented, vowed to give up their idols and follow God. Then they find themselves right back in their idolatrous ways.

Conviction. Repentance. Commitment. Obedience. Temptation. Disobedience.

Rinse, and repeat.

Oh man, do I get that. Along my journey I’ve battled my own demons in the form of appetites out of control. I’ve found myself cycling around and around and around with these unhealthy thoughts, words, actions, and relationships. I feel like a total failure. Here I am again. Ugh.

Looking back now from almost 40 years in the journey here’s what I’ve learned:

  • The cycle is a natural part of the journey. There are lessons to be learned in it. There are lessons that can only be learned in the on-going struggle against our own out-of-control appetites.
  • The cyclical journey and on-going struggle led me on a long slog to dig deeper (multiple counselors and mentors), search farther (reading, studying, friends, accountability, support groups), and to become more brutally honest with myself about my own weaknesses.
  • Plumbing the depths of my depravity led to a deeper understanding of, and experience with, God’s grace and mercy.
  • Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you’re truly ready to change.
  • With each failure, each renewed commitment, and each return to the path of repentance it was hard to see that I was getting anywhere at all but in hindsight I can see that this wayfaring pilgrim was making slow progress towards addressing the core issues that lay beneath my surface behaviors.

This morning I’m recognizing that the people of ancient Judah were a macrocosm of the human struggle against our human weaknesses and out-of-control appetites. Another call to repentance, another revival, another turn away from what was tripping them up. Somehow I don’t think this is the last time. The cycle of struggle was pointing them and me to a very important truth. I can’t do it on my own.

I need a Savior.

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Time is Not My Enemy. She’s My Dance Partner.

In the seventh year Jehoiada showed his strength.
2 Chronicles 23:1 (NIV)

When I was a young man, Time was my constant enemy. I’m sure that being the youngest of four spurred the animosity with both clock and calendar. Being “too young” and “not old enough” drove me to quiet madness. I envied my older siblings and was convinced that I was perfectly capable of doing the same things they could do, but I was constantly rebuffed by being told “you’re not old enough.”  I became increasingly anxious to press whatever fast forward buttons life afforded me, take whatever shortcuts were available (or I could create) to quickly reach whatever life’s road held for me over the next horizon. I attacked and advanced on my enemy, Time, whenever and wherever could.

Looking back across my life journey I see ways in which my eagerness to speed up Time afforded both blessing and tragedy into my story. However, it took a tremendous amount of tragedy before I began to appreciate the alliance between Time and Providence that God wove into the DNA of creation. I discovered that Time was not my enemy. Time is a fellow participant in the divine dance. Once I was given the grace to embrace this truth, I experienced a certain new flow in life.

Yesterday’s chapter ended in a dark, bloody period of political chaos, spiritual defeat, and national despair for the people of ancient Judah. As mentioned, there was a foreshadowing of hope in a child, a lone heir to David’s throne, being hidden away within Solomon’s Temple while his murderous grandmother solidified her hold on power. In today’s chapter we fast forward seven years. Seven years of Athaliah’s evil reign. Seven years of the ascendance of Baal worship in God’s city. Seven years of despair for God’s faithful followers.

In the Great Story, seven is the number of completion.

I’ve come to embrace that even dark chapters of life must work themselves out to completion. Time must be afforded room to perform her dance and move the appropriate people and events and circumstances into place for eucatastrophe to occur.

It takes seven years before “the time is right.” The priest Jehoiada seizes the opportunity. He organizes a coup, ensures the protection and safety of the young heir, Joash, and plots the end of Athaliah’s reign. It works.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about my enemy turned dance partner: Time. I confess that I’ve not become perfect in my contentment. I still have a tendency to step on her toes when I want her to move things along, but I’ve definitely learned a step or two. There is a choreographed flow and Time’s dance requires that certain chapters of the journey must work themselves out to completion no matter how badly I want to skip to the end. The harder I fight against that fact the more my life’s dance resembles the drunk, idiot cousin at a wedding reception.

Slow down,” I’ve learned to tell myself. “Listen to the music. Feel the flow. This is not a race. It’s a dance.”

One-two-three. One-two-three. One-two-three.

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Time to Grow Up

“…so that you may not be mixed with these nations left here among you, or make mention of the names of their gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or bow yourselves down to them, but hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have done to this day.”
Joshua 22:7-8 (NRSV)

There are different stages in life. What may be good and appropriate for one stage of life may change and evolve as we grow and mature. This is natural. It is a part of the journey. It is how God designed it.

When I was a child there were boys that my parents did not want me hanging out with. My parents saw that they had different values. They were older. There was every possibility that they would have drawn me into trouble. My parents didn’t say these were “bad” kids. They simply told me to steer clear.

As I got older my parents stopped warning me about people. They sent me off to work, to college, to the mission field, and to the broader world. They wanted me to explore, to meet people, to learn, to grow, and to influence the world around me. They trusted me to be wise and discerning regarding my relationships.

I have come to believe that the relationship between God and man in history parallels the stages of human life. In today’s chapter, humanity is in its early childhood years. The people of God have become aware of their place in the world. They are learning about interacting with others. Their heavenly father warns them to steer clear of those who might have an unhealthy influence on them. Just like my parents did at that age.

Along life’s road I’ve known many followers of Jesus who still cling to this early childhood attitude of fear and suspicion towards others. They insulate themselves from their neighbors. They fear contact with others who are not like them and who don’t believe the same ways. It is as if they fear contamination should they associate with anyone who is not a part of their insular church family. They might even use Joshua’s words in today’s chapter to justify it.

Jesus’ death and resurrection was a rite of passage in the relationship between God and man. It was relational graduation into adulthood of sorts. Holy Spirit was poured out into the hearts and lives of those who believe. Jesus now sent His followers out into the world. No more hanging with the homeys behind locked doors. No more keeping to yourself. Jesus said, “Go….” Heavenly Father was kicking His children out of the nest. You’re old enough. You’re wise enough. I’ve prepared you and equipped you and it’s time for you to get out there an influence your world.

Today, I’m thinking about stages of life. There was a time when I was a child and I needed to be wary of others influencing me. Now I’m a man, and if I still live with that fear then there’s something that has short circuited in the maturation process. As Paul wrote to the followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

At some point, it’s time for every one of us to grow up, go out into the world into strange places among people who are new to us and influence those we meet with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.

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featured image: shenamt via Flickr

City of Refuge

“Say to the Israelites, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses….'”
Joshua 20:2 (NRSV)

“City of refuge” was an ancient legal concept in which those accused of manslaughter could flee and find refuge from the family of the deceased who might seek revenge for the death. The “city of refuge” had a legal obligation to hear out the person fleeing and, if they decided that the person’s story was honest and worthy, to protect that person until an official hearing could be established.

Over the centuries, the term “city of refuge” expanded in meaning. Many who fled persecution of various kinds would call their new home a “city of refuge.”

Wendy and I live in a small Iowa town that was settled by a few hundred Dutch immigrants in 1847. They were led by their pastor, H.P. Scholte, who was an amazing mix of theologian, businessman, lawyer, artist, and visionary. He and his followers fled Holland because the state church of the Netherlands had imprisoned Scholte for not towing their doctrinal line. Scholte and a group of his faithful followers pooled their resources, purchased land from the United States in the new state of Iowa, and created a town from Scholte’s vision. He had the town completely mapped out and zoned before the group even arrived. Scholte gave his new town the name Pella, after a “city of refuge” in the country of Jordan where early followers of Jesus fled Jewish and Roman persecution. Pella, Scholte said, would be a “city of refuge” for the fleeing Hollanders.

To this day, our little town of Pella continues to hang on to the “city of refuge” moniker that was given to us by our town’s founder. Long ago the residents of Pella forgave native Holland for its persecution.  We now embrace our Dutch heritage to a fault. Scholte’s resentment towards the Netherlands also tempered later in life. He even sought to return to his native land as an ambassador of the U.S. (it never came to be). Still, residents of Pella find refuge of a sort in our little town. It is common for children raised in Pella to return and raise their families here. Life in Pella is relatively quiet. The pace is slow compared to most places, and the residents still cling to values that other places seem to have abandoned. And, we have great food and a Tulip Time Festival every May (Join us May 5-7!).

Today I’m thinking about the concept of refuge. Today’s chapter speaks of refuge from revenge in ancient legal terms. Still, the broader concept has equal merit. We all need a place, or places, where we can find refuge. We all need shelter from life’s storms.

It’s Simple

So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them.
John 4:40a (NRSV)

Sometimes we make things way too complicated, when Jesus’ example was always to make things very simple.

Salvation is simply this: Hearing Jesus, and inviting Him to stay.

 

chapter a day banner 2015Featured image by Michael Belk

Perseverance

It’s Thursday. Do you feel like the week will never end? Here are a few posts on perseverance to help get you through the week!

  1. Be Like a Tree
  2. Rain or Shine, It’s How We Respond
  3. When a Hallmark Card Just Won’t Do
  4. Refuge Amidst Rough Stretches in Life’s Path
  5. Built to Last
  6. Chapter-a-Day Numbers 27
  7. Chapter-a-Day Matthew 24
  8. Chapter-a-Day 1 Chronicles 28
  9. Chapter-a-Day Isaiah 21
  10. Chapter-a-Day 2 Kings 19
  11. Chapter-a-Day 2 Kings 18
  12. Chapter-a-Day Micah 7
  13. Chapter-a-Day Exodus 2
  14. Chapter-a-Day Psalm 129
  15. Chapter-a-Day Esther 9
  16. Chapter-a-Day Acts 14
  17. Chapter-a-Day Ezekiel 24

 

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