Tag Archives: Abram

Santa God

Santa God (CaD Gen 15) Wayfarer

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Genesis 15:6 (NIV)

This is the problem: It’s too easy to mix-up God and Santa Claus.

Life is a meritocracy from a young age. In my earliest cognitive memory around ages 3 to 4, I find myself under the authority of parents who make it quite clear that if I’m obedient and do what they say, then I’m golden, but if I’m disobedient, then I’m going to be punished.

By the time I’m five, the biggest gift giving holiday of the year solidifies this meritocracy in my brain with Santa Claus as the omniscient authority figure determining if the annual balance of my goodness and badness warrants me receiving a stocking full of candy and socks and a bunch of presents under the tree. If the scale tips to the badness spectrum, it’s coal for me.

Within just two years, I become involved in scouting program which rewards my good deeds and behavior with awards, badges, and medals. I continue to develop an understanding of meritocracy. There is a reward for ambition and good behavior, those who excel are on display for the whole world to see with their medals, badges, and awards. If I have less, shame enters the equation. I’m not as good. I don’t have as many badges. I am less than.

And, each year Santa drives home the “naughty or nice” lesson.

At the same time, my earliest experiences in organized sports adds yet another object lesson in meritocracy. The kids who are naturally coordinated, developed, and have knowledge of the game are successful. Meanwhile, I increasingly ride the bench and watch the coach’s wife score the game. (For the record, my little league baseball career lasted two years, but to this day I like scoring games.)

And, Santa, my stocking, and gift haul remind me annually that gifts are a reward for good behavior.

I’m twelve by the time I have my first serious discussions about God. Yes, I grew up attending Sunday School most Sundays and Vacation Bible School each summer, but it wasn’t very exciting and seemed to be a lot about stories that support the good behavior business. In my journey, it was confirmation class in 7th grade that was a year-long primer on the Bible and God.

In retrospect, I had already a well-developed sense of how God worked based on my life experiences. And, it looked a lot like the Santa. If I’m good, then God will answer my prayers, my life will go well, and I’ll end up in heaven. If I’m bad or fall short then my prayers will not be answered, bad things will happen, and I’ll end up in the fires of hell (burning with Santa’s coal, no doubt). As a child, I was pretty darn sure that all four of the Minnesota Vikings Super Bowl losses were my fault, God’s punishment for something I’d done.

I’m sure that Mrs. Washington’s confirmation class attempted to teach me about God’s grace and love, but my brain and soul were already branded by the Santa principle.

In today’s chapter lies a simple verse that is almost never talked about among Jesus’ followers even though it is foundational to understanding Jesus’ core message. Paul uses it to argue that Jesus’ message was God’s message from the beginning. The author of Hebrews does so, as well. For followers of Jesus, this verse is crucial to know, digest, and cling to:

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

No meritocracy.

No addendum talking about being good, pure, and holy.

No mention of achieving, doing unto others, going to church, or giving money.

Just believe. That’s what faith is. To believe.

“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” John 1:12

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Act 16:31

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 8:9-10

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve observed that it is so hard to get out of the God as Santa mindset. God says “My ways are not your ways” and this applies to perhaps the most important question of all: How can I be saved?

Humanity’s way:

“Be good, work hard at it, keep all the rules, and maybe you’ll earn salvation like a present under the tree.”

God’s way:

“Just believe. Ask me to come in. Receive my love and forgiveness. That’s it. You see, once you’ve truly experienced My unmerited love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy, I trust you’ll be inspired and motivated to choose and practice obedience out of your own freedom and gratitude. That’s how I roll. That’s how I’ve always rolled, like I did with Abram.”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about all the ways I still wrestle with “Santa God” after 40 years. It still creeps in to haunt me. Meritocracy is a hard habit to break, both in the way I see God and myself, but also in the way I see, approach, and treat others.

I’m also reminded that I can’t do anything about previous days. I’ve only got this day that lies before me. I’ve got this day to just believe Jesus, to receive His love and grace, and then to let that love and my gratitude flow in goodness.

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

“Greener” Grass

"Greener" Grass (CaD Gen 13) Wayfarer

Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom.
Genesis 13:10-13 (NIV)

Wendy and I were invited to join dear friends at the celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary last night. They asked me to lead those gathered in a time of praying a blessing over them. It was so beautiful to lay hands on them, to hear the prayers of love, to hear their laughter, and to see their tears. It’s one of the coolest things about giving a blessing; I always end up being blessed in return.

As we socialized into the evening I was asked by one guest if I was a pastor. This is always an interesting question to answer because culture tends to be mired in the 1800 year old paradigm of the institutional church in which being a “minister” or “pastor” is defined as professional, institutional vocation tied to a specific denomination and/or local church. Technically, I am businessman leading the research and assessment firm I’ve been a part of for almost 30 years. God led me to this job and this role, and I consider it a ministry. That said, I am also blessed to enjoy the opportunity given me by my local gathering of Jesus followers to serve in a pastoral role though I am not a member of the staff. No one wants to hear this long answer, so when asked if I’m a pastor I usually simply answer “No.”

Today’s chapter is a study in contrast between ol’ Abram and his young nephew, Lot. They’ve both prospered and have vast flocks and herds, so many that it was causing conflict among their respective herdsmen who were fighting over provision for their herds. Seeing this, Abram makes the call to separate and settle in different areas. While Abram was the elder and could have demanded the right to choose the land he wanted, he generously relinquishes his rights and allows Lot to choose his land for himself.

Abram’s relinquishing of rights and generosity are quickly contrasted by the younger Lot who sees that the plains to the east of the Jordan River were lush, green, and well-watered. There are also cities nearby for provisions and supplies. He selfishly chooses the “best” land for himself and settles near the city of Sodom.

After Lot’s departure, God tells Abram to look at the land God “is giving you and your offspring forever.” This is yet another contrast. Lot looked himself and chose what appeared to be the best. Abram waited for God to tell him where this land was. Abram is still believing the promise God made at the very beginning of this story in yesterday’s chapter. Abram and his family end up back at Hebron where he had previously built an altar to God.

Their respective destinations are yet a third contrast. Lot, having made his own choice, ends up near Sodom which already has a reputation of being Sin City and dwells in proximity to its temptations. Abram ends up back at the altar he’d once made to God and returns to a monument of his persistent faith that the childless Abram and Sarah will, indeed, experience God’s promise of descendants who will fill the earth like stars fill the sky.

I find myself back at the theme of contrast between humanity’s ways, and God’s ways. Lot made a perfectly reasonable human choice: “Hey, the grass is greener over there!” Abram chose to trust and have faith that God was going to fulfill His promise to lead Abram to “a land that I will show you.”

This brings me back in the quiet this morning to my own vocational choices. Early in my life I struck out on the path toward professional, institutional “ministry.” Then God made clear to me (it’s a long story) that He had a different path for me to follow. It was a path that led me to a more expansive understanding of God’s definition of ministry, and abundant blessing I’m still experiencing. Like the blessing of last night.

Over the years, my mother occasionally would ask me, “Are you ever going to go back into the ministry?” God love her. Her eyes were fixed myopically on what she perceived to be the lush, green grass of the old institutional paradigm. I get it. Old habits die hard.

My answer to her was always roughly the same: “Mom, I never left the ministry. Its boundary markers simply got expanded to include a land to which God wanted to lead me.”

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

The Journey

The Journey (CaD Gen 12) Wayfarer

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”
Genesis 12:1-2 (NIV)

In early 1889, a young man from the small town of Piershil, in South Holland, boarded the ship P. Caland of the Holland America Line (featured photo on today’s post) sailed across the Atlantic, arriving in New York on April 20th. He made his way to a Dutch settlement in northwest Iowa. His name was Wouter van der Wel, and he was 22 years old. He promptly found employment and Americanized his name to Walter Vander Well. Four years later he married a daughter of the owner of the local furniture store and funeral parlor.

Walter came to America alone. Family speculation is that he was angry about his widowed mother marrying an older man who had once been her teacher when she was a girl. Walter’s daughter, Kate, told me that later in life Walter wrote his mother and expressed a desire to return home to see her. “If you’re not coming back to stay,” she replied, “then don’t come. I’ve lost my son once in my life. I’m not going to go through that again.” He never made the trip.

Walter was my great-grandfather, and for the rather small, widely spread-out Vander Well clan in America he is our patriarch. He’s the one who made the journey and crossed an ocean and half a continent to start a new life, and the family from which we sprang.

Today’s chapter marks an important shift in the Great Story. The first eleven chapters lay the foundation in establishing humanity’s bent toward disobedience (Adam and Eve), violence (Cain), chaos (the time of Noah), and pride (Tower of Babel). Today’s chapter is an inflection point. The narrative shifts from humanity’s continuous and repetitive descent toward a promise and hope of redemption. It begins with one man named Abram, who will be known throughout history as Abraham.

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve found followers of Jesus to be largely ignorant of the larger narrative of the Great Story and of the importance of Abraham, the patriarch, from whom the redemptive work of Jesus and the hope of eternity ultimately springs. Abraham was a historical person who is still playing a role in history some 4,000 years after the events of today’s chapter. In August of 2020 the state of Israel and the United Arab Emirates agreed to a peace accord along with the United States. It was called the Abraham Accords. Abraham, we will learn, is patriarch of both the Jewish and Arab peoples.

Like Walter, Abram’s story begins with a faith journey. God calls him to leave his tribe and follow towards a destination defined loosely as “the land I will show you.” God then makes the first of three covenants with Abram. It is a seven-fold covenant of blessing which begins with God telling Abram that he will be the father of a great nation and ends with the promise that “all peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.”

God’s blessing from one person to “all peoples.” Abram is the patriarch.

What is odd about God’s choice of Abram is that his wife, Sarah, was barren and in her sixties. This is yet another instance of God going against the grain of human inclination; Another reminder that “My ways are not your ways.

Abram sets out on his faith journey following God to who knows where based simply on belief in the promise God had given him.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think about Walter and what it must have been like to leave everything and everyone behind, to board a ship, and to head west toward a land he didn’t know. I can’t help but think of my own life journey and places to which I have been led. I can’t help but think of the journey of being a follower of Jesus who says to each and every follower, “If you would come after me, then lay down your life, take up your cross, and follow.” Like Abraham, the destination of the faith journey following Jesus is not identified or defined in the call other than the rather audacious clue of bearing the instrument of your own execution.

Which brings me back to being a wayfarer. I am a wayfaring stranger traveling through this world of woe and simply believing a promise. Just like Abram. Just like Walter. Just like our daughters and sons and our grandson, Milo, who can’t even comprehend it as of yet. We spring from wayfarers who stepped out on a journey in faith. We make our own respective journeys on this earth. We carry the Story forward as we press on one unpromised day at a time.

May the road rise up to greet you today, my friend. Enjoy the journey.

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

“Bless You”

Never retaliate when someone treats you wrongly, nor insult those who insult you, but instead, respond by speaking a blessing over them—because a blessing is what God promised to give you.
1 Peter 3:9 (TPT)

In over 50 years of this life journey, I have enjoyed relationships with many friends. Especially among my male friends, I have regularly encountered those individuals with what I will describe as a particular soul wound. They never received a blessing from their father.

In ancient days, a father’s blessing was a cultural ritual. The blessing was the spoken favor of the father given, typically, to his son. The first recorded blessing in the Great Story is God’s blessing to Abram:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12:1-3 (NIV)

In Genesis 49, Jacob calls all of his sons and speaks to each one of them “the blessing appropriate for him.” It was a rite of passage, often spoken before death in those days.

Along my journey, I’ve come to realize that our culture has largely forgotten the importance of children receiving a blessing from their parents. I have come to believe that it’s important for a child to hear a blessing from both parents. I have observed, however, that a son receiving a blessing from his father has a major spiritual and emotional impact on a man’s life. I have known men who received nothing but curses from their fathers, and I have known men who received nothing but silence from their fathers. The soul wound is often hidden behind a male ego and masculine bravado, but I’ve seen how it can cut deep and create all sorts of spiritual, emotional, and relational handicaps.

Speaking a blessing doesn’t have to be a formal ritual, though it certainly can be a very meaningful rite of passage when it’s done that way. The most simple blessings are simply words of love and affirmation:

  • “I love you.”
  • “You’ve got this. I believe in you.”
  • “You’re going to be okay. I know it.”
  • “I’m proud of you.”
  • “That was great. Well done.”
  • “You are loveable, valuable, and capable.”
  • “I have no doubt that you will succeed at whatever you’re led to do in this life.”

In today’s chapter, it struck me that Peter instructed believers to specifically speak a blessing over those who wrong you. I find myself wondering if we even know how to do that anymore, even with those we love, let alone doing it with our enemies. Given what I see on social media, cursing appears to be de rigueur.

In the quiet this morning, I’m discovering my renewed desire to bring blessings back. There’s a reason why I speak a blessing at the end of my podcast. I would love for blessings to become fashionable again, but I suppose that means I’ve got to start being more intentional about it. So, here you go, my friend. Receive an old Celtic blessing from this wayfaring stranger (I spoke it as I posted it):

May the blessings of the Light be upon you,
Light without and Light within,
And in all your comings and goings,
May you ever have a kindly greeting
From those you meet along the road.

Have a great day. Press on. You’ve got this.

Mysteries Within Mysteries

Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Hebrews 5:8-10 (NIV)

The further I have progressed on this life journey the more I have come to understand that I must embrace mystery if I am going to progress spiritually in certain places. This flies in the face of a system of reason in which I was raised and educated. Our culture is one that places what I have come to understand as an undue premium on knowing. Theories are stated as certainties quite frequently whether they come from the institutions of religion, education, politics, or science. I find that our culture has lost sight of the value of embracing the knowledge of knowing that we do not know or cannot know.

I have found that the desire to try to replace mystery with false certainty is a fool’s errand. I see this repeated over and over again in history. It leads down all sorts of silly and hurtful paths. Minor issues become major battlegrounds, honest exploration is sacrificed on the altar of exclusionary social litmus tests, and institutions make all sorts of embarrassing mistakes (sometimes with deadly consequences). Embracing mystery, on the other hand, has pushed my heart and mind to new avenues of possibility, exploration, discovery and faith. I love how Catholic mystic Richard Rohr puts it: “Mystery is not something we can not understand. Mystery is something we can endlessly understand.”

The letter to Hebrew believers has always been shrouded in mystery, not the least of which is the identity of the author. Two centuries after it was penned we are still not certain who wrote the letter. My fundamentalist Bible professors taught me that I must believe it was Paul who wrote it. Textual critics in education laugh at such a claim, telling me it certainly couldn’t be Paul. Arguments have been made for a host of first century figures (i.e. Luke, Apollos, Barnabas). More recently, some scholars have argued that it was most certainly a woman, Priscilla, who was among Jesus larger circle of 70 disciples and travelled with Paul. I find this possibility fascinating and stimulating. It has led me to discover more about this amazing woman through whom God did amazing things. I know, however, at least one of my fundamentalist professors would have said it most certainly wasn’t Priscilla and would certainly have marginalized and subtly punished me educationally had I steadfastly held to the possibility in his class.

I do not know who wrote the letter to the Hebrew believers, and that’s perfectly fine for me. It is a mystery that has much for me to discover in its exploration of possibility.

In today’s chapter we encounter yet another mystery in the revelation of Christ as eternal High Priest. The Hebrew believers who first received this letter would have intimate knowledge about how the Hebrew priestly system worked as prescribed by the Law of Moses. Only descendants of Aaron (Moses’ right-hand man) were to be priests, and the High Priest could only come from those genetic ranks. According to the prophets, however, the Messiah was to come from the tribe of Judah and the house of David as Jesus did. Remember Christmas? Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the “City of David.” Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem for the census because they were both descendants of David in the tribe of Judah.

But now the mysterious author of Hebrews lays out a claim that Christ is our eternal “High Priest,” the cosmic conduit between God and man. But the Hebrew readers would know that Jesus was not from the line of Aaron, so how could He be High Priest? The author reveals Jesus as High Priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” In Genesis 14:18 Abram (who would soon be known as Abraham) meets a mysterious King of Salem named Melchizedek who was “priest of God Most High.” He serves Abram bread and wine (remind you of anything?) and blesses Abram. Abram in return presents the priest Melchizedek an offering of a tenth of everything.

That’s all we know about Melchizedek. This mysterious person was “priest of God Most High” before Abram was Abraham, before Israel was a people, before the Law of Moses was given, before the Hebrew priesthood was defined as descendants of Aaron. It’s a mystery, and the author of Hebrews attaches the mystery of Christ the cosmic High Priest to the lineage to the mysterious Melchizedek who appears within the Hebrew tradition but outside the system of Moses.

This morning I’m once again perplexed, stimulated, and inspired by the mystery of Melchizedek, of Jesus, and of Hebrews. As I humbly embrace the mystery I push deeper into that which can be endlessly understood and so take another step forward on the path of faith and Spirit.

Strong Through the Home Stretch

English: 2007 Dublin City Marathon (Ireland) 中...
English: 2007 Dublin City Marathon (Ireland) 中文: 2007年爱尔兰都柏林城马拉松 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter-a-Day Genesis 17

Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” Genesis 17:17 (NIV)

When I was a young man, I memorized and clung to this line from Paul’s letter to his young protege Timothy:

Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity.

I figured that if God had given me spiritual gifts like everyone else, then I was totally going to use those gifts and be of service. I wanted to make a difference. I tried to instill that same spirit in my daughters in their youth, and continue to get jazzed when I see young people with a passion for God actively living out their faith.

Today, I’m at a different place in the journey. If averages and genetics hold sway, you could say that I’m still in mid-life. Nevertheless, I can’t deny the fact that I’m likely on the downhill side. Instead of not letting others think less of me because I’m young, I sometimes feel the need not to let others think less of me because I’m old. As technology advances at breakneck speeds, I wonder if the gulf between generations is expanding and making it easier for in the back stretch and making the final turn to feel irrelevant and lost.

I think that it’s awesome that God made such a huge play in Abram’s life right when Abram was turning 100 and Sarai was in her nineties. God willing, I want the last half of my life to be more productive than the first. I want to live with purpose and witness God doing big things in and through my life when I’m old. I don’t want to stagger and limp to the finish. God grant that I finish strong. I want to be kicking it in to a full sprint when I hit the home stretch and find myself heading for the tape.

You go, Abe.

I Get it Now

pregnancy test - negative
pregnancy test – negative (Photo credit: Konstantin Lazorkin)

Chapter-a-Day Genesis 16

So Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord  has prevented me from having children. Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” And Abram agreed with Sarai’s proposal. Genesis 16:2 (NLT)

My sojourn through God’s Message does not end. God’s Book is not a one-and-done proposition. I go back to it again and again and it has something new for me. This is not because the Message has changed, but because I have changed and am at a different place on life’s road.

I have read the story of Abram and Sarai countless times in the past 30 years. I have heard it shared, I’ve listened to any number of sermons and lectures on this chapter. I’m sure I’ve even given a few messages of my own from this text along the way. This time, however, the story is different. After several long years of Wendy and me trying and failing to bring a child into the world,  I’m reading it, seeing it, feeling it as if for the first time. The waiting. The questioning. The endless monthly roller coaster of expectation and despair. The alone-ness and isolation. The desperation. The grief. The depression. The hopelessness. The grasping with futility for something, anything to hasten the realization of some kind of positive resolution.

Sarai shouldn’t have…. Abram should have…. Why on earth didn’t they just…?

They did what they did. It doesn’t make it right, but I get it now.

Why is the answer always “no?”

And still, God is good.

A Very Different Economy

paycheck
paycheck (Photo credit: owaief89)

Chapter-a-Day Genesis 15

And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith. Genesis 15:6 (NLT)

We live in a world where credit is earned. We work. We put in our time. We show up. We do the job. We are then credited for what we’ve earned. There is usually a direct line connecting our effort to our paycheck. If we do this job we earn this much money. Most of us are even given credit to receive an advance of money we haven’t earned if we want to purchase something for which we don’t have the money right now. If we handle that advance correctly, we earn a higher credit score and the ability to borrow even more money. It is a simple concept. You work to earn an income. You are merited for what you do.

No wonder it is so hard for us to grasp the very different economic system of God’s Kingdom. The verse above is one of the cornerstones of Kingdom Economics. Righteousness in God’s economy is not earned by what we do, but credited for our faith and trust in the Provider [read the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans for more explanation]. It’s called grace. It is being given favor that is unearned or unmerited in any way. Our lives and good works are not to be motivated in an effort to earn God’s favor. In Kingdom Economics, our motivation to do good things is out of a sense of gratitude for God’s favor which we have already received and didn’t do anything to earn.

Today, I’m thinking about my life. I don’t want to just understand the concept of grace, but embrace it and live it out in my daily thoughts, words, and actions.