Tag Archives: America

“Jesus People Very Nice”

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You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 23:9 (NIV)

My Vander Well family in America is here because of one ancestor, Walter Vander Well (born Wouter van der Wel) who came to the States from South Holland and settled in northwest Iowa in the 1880s. He was part of multiple waves of Dutch immigrants who settled across Michigan and Iowa, founding rural towns like the one Wendy and I call home today. Five generations later there’s a small army of Walter’s descendants spread across the continent from Michigan to Iowa, Canada, and all the way to the west coast.

Immigration is a fascinating thing. Wendy and I were privileged to see a play at London’s National Theatre back in 2009. It was called England People Very Nice by Richard Bean. The setting of the play is a poor tenement building in London and a neighborhood pub. It humorously chronicles the multiple waves of immigrants to flood into Britain over time from French, to Irish, to Jewish, and Bangladeshi. Each wave lands in the low-rent tenement building and raises the ire of the locals in the pub. The previous wave who was hated by the locals, now find themselves being the locals hating the next wave of immigrants. It continues to stir conversation for Wendy and me in light of the immigration issues of our day.

I have observed this same pattern in the experience of my Dutch ancestors who initially struggled to acclimate to life in America. The Dutch huddled together in small communities and clung to their Dutch neighbors, language, and way of life. This often fueled local resentment towards them. My grandparents were both the first generation born in the States and they both spoke Dutch fluently. They refused to teach my father and his brother because of prejudice against the Germanic sounding language during World War II. Our little town, both steeped in its Dutch heritage and proud of its successful American experience, is now sometimes criticized (a la England People Very Nice) of being closed to aliens moving in.

In today’s chapter, God continues to provide the ancient Hebrews with specific rules for life. God repeats the rule mentioned in yesterday’s chapter about treating foreigners living among them with deference. Fascinating that it’s mentioned twice in such proximity to one another in the text. It leads me to wonder if the repetition speaks to the importance God places on it, or the knowledge that it will a tough one to obey given human nature. I personally conclude that it’s a case of “both, and.”

As I mulled this over in the quiet this morning I couldn’t help but think, once again, beyond the letter of the law in the text, to the Spirit of the law to which Jesus pointed time and time again. Far from being obedient to the command, Jesus’ people separated themselves from the aliens living among them. They treated foreigners and those of mixed-race, like the Samaritan people, as inferior. They created systemic social and religious barriers much like the ones we are addressing in our own culture today.

When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, when He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, and when He commanded His followers to take His message to Samaria, He was addressing systemic racial prejudice. Jesus was pointing His own people back to the heart of God that motivated the law repeated twice in yesterday’s chapter and today’s. He was, essentially, pointing to His own law of love: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Isn’t that what God says in the text? “You’ve been an alien in a foreign land. You know what it’s like. You’ve been the victim of prejudice and hate. So treat the aliens living among you with loving-kindness the way you wished you’d been treated in Egypt.”

Jesus’ followers did just that and “turned the world upside-down.

I’m reminded this morning that Jesus was not about adherence to textual rules. Jesus was about following God’s Spirit to speak, act, and relate to others in accordance with God’s heart. As a follower of Jesus, I’m called to do just that in my own world and my own culture. That’s what I want to do. That’s who I want to be, increasingly, this day and each day of this earthly journey.

Of course, that requires me to act differently than human nature has led people to behave in ancient Judea, in London tenement houses, and in Dutch-settlements in America, along with almost every other people group on the earth. May I speak and behave in such a way, with anyone with whom I interact, regardless of what they look like or where they are from, that it would be said of me: “Jesus’ people very nice.”

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

Into the Water

I’m trying something new. Would you rather listen to today’s post?

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back…
But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.”

Exodus 14:10, 13, 15 (NRSVCE)

In case you missed it, I reblogged our daughter’s blog post yesterday. It’s worth a read. She referenced my love of genealogy, which I mention from time-to-time in these posts, along with my love of history.

One of the themes I’ve noticed along this Life journey is that everyone has a choice to get stuck looking back, get stuck in place, or keep moving forward. I’ve come to believe that this is a facet of what theologians call “free will,” and it manifests itself in different ways on life’s journey.

I’ve observed individuals for whom life already happened. The “glory days,” as Bruce Springsteen sings it, happened in the past and spiritually the individual is stuck looking back at what was.

I’ve observed individuals for whom life stalls spiritually. Somewhere along the road they decided to spiritually settled down long the road. They’ve found a comfortable spot for their soul. Spiritually, they stake out the ground, build a comfy little shelter, and defend it for the rest of their lives.

I’ve observed individuals who never stop spiritually moving forward. They may walk backwards for a stretch to remember and to let the past inform their route. They may stop and rest along the way, because Sabbath isn’t just for our physical bodies. Our souls need it too. They don’t stay for too long, however, because they are always pressing on further up and further in. As Paul wrote the believers in Phillipi:

I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.
Phil 3:13-16 (MSG)

In today’s chapter, I found it so clearly hiding in plain sight. Moses and the escaping Hebrews find themselves stuck at the shore of the Red Sea as the Egyptian army advances on them. In escaping their chains of slavery and oppression the Hebrews looked back at what was and found themselves mired in fear. Moses was focused on standing firm, but that leaves the situation between the proverbial rock and a hard place. God wants them to move forward.

“Move forward Lord? Into the water?”

Yes. Move forward into the water because that’s one of the grand themes of this Great Story I’m authoring. Through the deep creation begins. Through the water Noah and his family lead a new beginning. Through the water, God will deliver Moses and the people. Through the water of the Jordan River, the Hebrews will enter the Promised Land. Through the same water of the Jordan River and John’s baptism, Jesus begins His earthly ministry. Through the water of baptism, we are buried in the likeness of His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. Through the Living Water of Christ, we discover a Life-giving wellspring that never runs dry even in the seeming drought of our current circumstances. In his Revelation, the Angel reveals to John the end of the Great Story which is actually a new beginning with a “Water-of-Life River, crystal bright that flowed from the Throne of God and the Lamb, right down the middle of the street. The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations. Never again will anything be cursed.” (see Rev 22)

So yes, Moses, move forward through the water.

Leap, and the net will appear.

In the quiet this morning I find myself looking at our current events through this lens. Perhaps individuals can get stuck looking back. Perhaps we’ve become stagnant, comfortable, and complacent in our politics, our narratives, our comfortable plot of world-view which we feel we need to defend. Perhaps at this moment in the Great Story God is calling all of His children to move forward.

Down into the water, children. All of you.

Leap, and the net will appear.

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

Lessons in a List of Names

These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean.
Ezra 2:62 (NIV)

The small community in which Wendy and I live was established in 1847 by a group of several hundred immigrants from the Netherlands. They followed their pastor to “the new world” to experience the freedom of religion that was found in America, along with the opportunities that the American frontier offered.

In our town’s Historical Villiage there is an entire wall that lists all of the original families who made the dangerous voyage. It was dangerous. Many died at sea or on the trek by foot across the still untamed American prairie.

There were relatively few families of any significant means among the original colonists, but for those that were there was a clear distinction between them and the poor and “common.” Today, I can look down the list. Most of the names I recognize. The families prospered and grew. They found the opportunities they were looking for. Most of them still have descendants living in the community.

I thought about that wall in the historical village as I read today’s chapter. I find that chapters like today’s are quickly dismissed and glossed over by most casual readers, but in context, they hold lessons to be learned.

In the Hebrew religion and culture, your family determined a lot about your life. They considered the land as “God’s” possession and they were merely tenants. When Moses led the people out of Egypt and they entered the “promised land” the land was divided by tribes. Religious offices were also determined by tribe and family. Only descendants of Aaron could be priests and only descendants of Levi could oversee the temple and official religious duties. Your family of origin determined much of life for the returning exiles.

A couple of things to note in the chapter. There is an entire list of men who are not numbered by family, but by their towns. They had no family distinction or genealogy to be listed among the families or tribes. They were “commoners” like many of the people who settled our community. Also, there were those who could not prove their claims as they had no family records. They were religiously excluded until a process could be set up to settle their claims. Then there’s the curious story of Barzillai who had married a daughter of Barzillai and took his wife’s family name rather than his wife becoming part of her husband’s tribe; A very uncommon situation in those days.

This morning I’m thinking about family, about history, and about the opportunities that I enjoy on this life journey that did not exist for most people in all of human history. My great-grandfather came alone to a new world. He was a young, poor, uneducated commoner with some carpentry skills. He started a hardware store and a family. How much do I owe to his daring to cross the ocean and half a continent to make a new life for himself and his descendants? How much do I owe to a country where one is not bound by a family name or trade, but free to pursue any path you desire?

One of the offerings that the ancient Hebrews would bring to the Temple that they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild, was a “Thanksgiving Offering.” This morning in the quiet of my hotel room I find my spirit offering a word, a song, a heart of gratitude to God for the incredible blessings afforded me that I daily take for granted.

 

Freedom and Sacrifice

“But even if he does not [save us from the fire], we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Daniel 3:18 (NIV)

Tomorrow is Independence Day here in the States. Wendy and I will be celebrating from the lake. Fireworks are legal here in the state of Missouri and it is always a night of loud and bright celebration as people light fireworks off of the end of their docks and over the cove. It’s a lot of fun right up to the time you’re ready to sleep.

I’ve lived my entire life in a nation where freedoms of speech and religion are protected and where life and liberty are held sacred. Despite this fact, I’ve observed along my life journey that there are subtle forms of social, political, religious, and cultural pressure to conform. I find it fascinating that I came of age at a time when religious conservatives wanted to dictate their particular morals and standards on the nation. Now, I find that it’s the other side who appear to want to demand wholesale adherence to a host of social, cultural, and political beliefs they hold sacred.

These examples notwithstanding, I have always found it a bit hard to fully understand or appreciate the predicament that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego find themselves in today’s chapter. They are exiles in a foreign land. They are minorities holding a very different set of beliefs than their captors. They have likely had to learn to live among society and culture that was very foreign to them while trying to maintain a  sense of their identity and faith.

King Nebuchadnezzar’s demand that all bow down to the statue he had erected was somewhat of a common practice in that ancient culture. It was a litmus test of obedience. Interestingly, as I read some commentary on today’s chapter, I found that scholars are split on whether the Hebrew trio would have been breaking the Law of Moses if they had chosen to bow down. This makes it an even more fascinating episode for me. If it wasn’t a black and white matter of religious law, but a gray area of their personal conscience before God, then their refusal to bow become even more meaningful.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about my own personal beliefs. Where’s the line(s) that my conscience and my faith would not allow me to cross? I even find myself silently asking “For what am I willing to sacrifice my life?” On one hand, this feels like an overly dramatic and exaggerated question given the fact that I live in a land of freedom and I don’t anticipate ever having to face such a trial. On the other hand, I am fully aware that around the world people are facing this very real question on a daily basis. There continue to be dictators, tyrants, and regimes perfectly willing to execute those unwilling to bow to their political, cultural, social, and/or religious demands.

For what am I willing to sacrifice my life?

Today, I find myself whispering a prayer of gratitude for those men and women from every culture, ethnicity, religion, and political persuasion who sacrificed their lives across the centuries that I might walk my entire life journey on this earth without seriously having to answer that question.

Just Like Yesterday

“What troubles you now,
    that you have all gone up on the roofs….”
Isaiah 22:1 (NIV)

I have a very clear memory of an episode of Happy Days, the iconic sitcom about American life in the 1950’s. Ron Howard’s character, Richie, along with his friends go all-in campaigning for Adlai Stevenson. Richie even falls for a girl in the campaign office. At the end of the episode Richie comes home heartbroken when his new girlfriend says she can’t see him anymore because he’ll only remind her of Stevenson’s defeat. He returns home and his parents inform him that Eisenhower was declared the winner. It was one of my first lessons in the roller coaster of American politics.

I grew up in the angst of the Watergate scandal. I remember in high school and college the heated anger toward Reagan from the left and assurances that he would lead to America’s demise. I remember the same predictions on the right, and conservatives threatening to leave the country if Bill Clinton won. The same things are now being said on the left these days.

As a student of history I have learned that the political pendulum is constantly swinging back and forth. One of the amazing things about the way the American Founding Fathers designed our system was the opportunity we have every four years to go a different direction, and how often we do exactly that.

Isaiah’s prophetic word this morning was for a generation of people in Jerusalem who were experiencing political upheaval much greater and more dire than anything we are experiencing this morning. The siege of Jerusalem would end in mass death, starvation leading to cannibalism, and the enslavement and captivity of an entire generation of people (read Lamentations for Jeremiah’s poetic take on those terrible events).

As I wake in my hotel this morning my day is starting pretty much the way it did yesterday, the way it did when I started this job in the Clinton years, the way it did after 9-11, the way it did during the eight years of the Bush administration, and the way it did for eight years under President Obama.

America, in its relatively short history, has proven to be incredibly flexible and resilient. I don’t see that changing. Richie Cunningham may have suffered the defeat of Stevenson, but the election of JFK was just around the corner as America left the stodgy Eisenhower to embrace a new political generation. Happy Days ended long before it could tell that story, just as Isaiah’s prophecy would end long before he would witness the restoration of Jerusalem whose destruction he prophesied. No matter how you feel about the election results this morning, you can be assured that the story will continue.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to work. Just like yesterday.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

Then my God put it into my mind to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy.
Nehemiah 7:5 (NRSV)

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Astronaut, athlete, soldier, doctor, teacher, fire fighter, actor, engineer…

I sometimes think that many take for granted what freedom, rugged individualism, and the American experience have meant for those of us who’ve been blessed to grow up here, whose families have been here for generations.

My great-grandfather came by himself from the Netherlands as a teenager. He started as a carpenter, helped found the Co-op in Boyden, Iowa. He then started his own hardware store. My grandfather went to college and became an educator. His sons worked in meat packing and accounting. My dad’s children have worked in restoration and architectural arts, education, ministry and business. My children are finding their way into art and event management along with cosmetic sales.

What do you want to do with your life?

For the ancients in Nehemiah’s day, your family of birth often determined what you would do as an occupation. To quote Fiddler on the Roof, it was tradition. Only descendants of Aaron could be priests. Only descendants of Levi could work in the temple of God. If you were a “son of Korah” you were a musician. The genealogical record that Nehemiah referenced was critical to their society. Your family told who you were, and what you would be when you grew up.

The destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman in 70 A.D. was a momentous event in Jewish history because all of the extensive genealogical records of the Jewish people were destroyed. In the global diaspora of the Jewish people over the centuries the Jewish people lost track of which family and tribe they belonged to. Those orthodox believers in Israel today who wish to see, and are actively working towards, the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem face a legal dilemma in the law of Moses. If only sons of Aaron can be priest and only Levites can serve in such a temple according to God’s law, how do we know who the descendants of Aaron and Levites are? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are DNA experts in Israel working on an answer.

Today, I’m thinking about how awful it would be if I was stuck in the original family business of my great-grandfather. I’d be a terrible carpenter, and a very depressed adult. The same goes for being an accountant like my father. Both of those men were good at what they did, but my passion, gifts, and abilities lie elsewhere. I wonder how the ancients did it.

I’m grateful for the unique passions, gifts, talents and abilities God gives to each of us. I’m equally thankful to live in a land of freedom where I can choose to pursue those passions … or not.

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I Have a Dream: The Love Party

Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Romans 13:10 (NIV)

For those of you reading this who live outside of the state of Iowa, please understand that our entire state population is near the point of going postal. Every local ad on television and radio is a political ad for President or a PAC ad taking shots at this or that candidate. Our phones ring countless times a day. We are surveyed to death or treated to recorded messages from the candidates. The Iowa caucuses are this week and we are ready for them to be over.

It’s impossible to escape the political conversation in Iowa every four years in January. My friends and acquaintances are representative of the entire spectrum of political ideology from staunch conservatives to progressive liberals. The one thing that I hear everyone along the ideological continuum agreeing on is that 1) not one of the candidates is particularly great and 2) our election process and political system is in need of reform.

I have been day dreaming of late. It’s a pipe dream, really. I’ve been dreaming of a political party called the Love Party. The Love Party would operate under the umbrella of the law of love. Political ads of the Love Party would never be negative or attack others. Love Party candidates would seek to unite and not divide. Our platform would seek good for subsequent generations and not quick profit for ourselves with no thought of the long term consequences. We would seek our citizens genuine welfare; Not giving free handouts and subsidies in exchange for votes (into perpetuity) but requiring that those who receive assistance, in turn, must assist themselves and their community. Love Party candidates would model self imposed term limits, refusing to lord over others and line their personal fortunes and rigging rules for their own benefit.

Today, I’m dreaming. But, it’s a good dream on which to start a Monday. There may never be a national Love Party, but maybe I can be a Party of one. This is America. I am free to be the Love Party.

 

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Hangin’ with the Homeys

“But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: ‘The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.’”
Ezra 9:10-12 (NIV)

I grew up in a great neighborhood on the northwest side of Des Moines. The neighborhood was packed full of young families, not only on our block but on the surrounding streets. There were a lot of kids running around the area, but you tended to hang with your homeys on the street you lived. You’d stick close to the kids on your own block. They were the nearest to you, you knew them well, and more importantly your parents knew their parents.

On occasion, kids from another street would migrate over to play and hang out. I can remember the rare occasion when my mom would tell me that certain kids were “bad news” and she didn’t want me hanging out with them. In fact, I was to steer clear of that kid altogether. Looking back, I know exactly why mom gave me the order and it was a wise thing to do. Some of those kids were, in fact, bad news.

In the melting pot of modern America, reading a chapter like today’s regarding the strict commands the Hebrews had not to intermarry with neighboring peoples can feel strange and prejudiced. “Pureblood” wasn’t an idea J.K. Rowling dreamed up for the Harry Potter series. The truth of the matter is that history is full of examples of peoples and socio-economic groups desperately trying to remain homogeneous; Sometimes rabidly so.

Ancient Egyptian royalty, who believed themselves divine, would sometimes only marry their own immediate family members to keep the bloodline pure. European royalty, who would only marry their children to other royals, became so intertwined that to this day the royal families of Europe are all related to one another. Living in a small Iowa town settled by a handful of Dutch families, I experience the same thing at any community social event as people constantly play a game we call “Dutch Bingo” discovering how community members are related to one another (and, they usually are).

I found it interesting, however, that as I read today’s chapter Ezra pointed to the motivation God had for telling them not to intermarry. Just like my mother back in the ‘hood, Father God knew that some of these other tribes were bad news. In many cases, the area religions were glorified excuses for sexual indulgence and got into some really nasty stuff including child sacrifice. The command not to intermarry was not some elitist attempt to keep bloodlines pure but about cultural and spiritual self-protection.

This morning I am once again reminded that reading ancient sections of the Great Story is often difficult in light of the immense changes of culture and civilization over time. As an adult, my parents would never tell me who I can and can’t hang out with, but as a child they knew that hanging with the homeys from our block was a wise thing and that I needed help in discerning that some kids were bad news. So it is that I believe God’s relationship with humanity changes as civilization matures and as the relationship itself has changed between God and humanity through the person and work of Jesus.

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featured photo: adwriter via Flickr

Tom’s 30 Day Blogging Challenge Day 4

If you could own one painting from any collection in the world but were not allowed to sell it, which work of art would you select?

So many great works to choose from. There are so many works by Degas, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Vermeer I would love to have, but my heart always comes back to Grant Wood. Like midwest America itself, Wood is underappreciated. I have always thought that he was able to capture the beauty of the Iowa landscape better than anyone else and I feel an emotional connection to his work because it reminds me of my own connection to this land. Not to mention, his paintings would look great hanging in our home. This particular painting, Fall Plowing, captures one of my favorite times of year when the landscape is alive with everchanging colors and textures.