Tag Archives: Baptism

In the Flow of Life

They are like trees
    planted by streams of water

Psalm 1:3 (NRSVCE)

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I have never been much of a plant guy. I can’t tell you the number of times in my life I’ve told myself I need plants in my office, only end up weeks later with an office that’s an homage to botanical mortality. It’s really strange that the past few years have witnessed the development of a bit of a green thumb in me.

The change began a few years ago with the landscaping of our yard and the planting of several rose bushes in the back yard. I grew up with my mom tending rose bushes and it’s a bit of a sentimental soft spot for me. I like cutting fresh roses and having them around the house. The nice thing about roses is that, once established, they’re a pretty hardy perennial. Even for someone as experienced in “botanicide” like myself, there’s not much you can do to keep them from blooming.

With this summer of COVID, in which we’re at home more than ever before, Wendy and I kicked things up a notch by adding several patio pots, a handful of potted herbs, and a jalapeño plant. I’m happy to say that every thing is alive and well. I’ve already harvested jalapeño peppers and we have fresh herbs drying in the pantry.

One of the things that has fascinated me as I tend our little garden is learning the water requirements for the different plants. Which have an insatiable need for water, and which seem to do pretty well even when we’ve been at the lake for a long holiday weekend.

I’m kicking off a journey into the Psalms this morning, which most people know is an anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics that were collected and compiled in antiquity. The first psalm is a simple instructional psalm. In six lines it contrasts those who are “blessed” with those who are “wicked.” Three lines are given to each. I was struck by the metaphor of a “blessed” person being like a tree along the river.

In Egypt, where the Hebrews were enslaved, and in the land of Canaan where they settled, there’s a lot of desert. The most fertile soil is along rivers like the Nile, and in many cases it’s the only place where things will grow. Rivers are a consistent theme throughout the great story. There was a river that flowed out of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:10) and John described eternity where “The River of Life” flowing from God’s throne (Rev 22).

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve experienced and have read about there being a “flow” to God’s Spirit. Artists talk about being in “the flow” and athletes describe being in “the zone.” Gospel songs are rife with references to “take me to the river” where God’s Spirit flows. Jesus used the metaphor when He told the Samaritan woman at the well that He offered “Living Water,” an artesian spring of gushing out fountains of eternal life. The metaphor of baptism is all about being plunged, buried, immersed in the flow of that artesian spring.

The contrast to that solid, established, fruitful tree planted by the flow of Living Water, is chaff. The fine, dry, scaly dead plant material that gets blown about in the air. It’s Dust in the Wind to quote they lyric of Kansas’ modern psalm. Living in Iowa most of my entire life, I can’t help but see in my mind’s eye autumn evenings during harvest when the air is thick with the dusty chaff of harvested corn and beans.

The intention of today’s psalm is simple. What do I want my life to be? Established, fruitful, rooted, alive, continually nourished in the flow of living water? Or, dusty, dry, void of life, blown about chaotically by every gust of circumstance and trending fear? And, how do I become the former rather than the latter?

The first verse answers the question and the direct translation from Hebrew to English says that the “blessed” are those:

…who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;

I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrased the verse in The Message:

…you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon,
    you don’t slink along Dead-End Road,
    you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.

The further I get on life’s road, the more I just want to be in the flow of God’s Spirit.

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

An Ancient Ritual; A Fresh Perspective

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.
Luke 3:21 (NIV)

Last week when our family was in South Carolina to celebrate the marriage of our daughter Madison to our new son-in-law, Garrett, we attended their local gathering of Jesus’ followers on Sunday morning. It was a celebration Sunday and several believers were baptized by immersion in a large baptismal pool that had been set up in the middle of the auditorium. It was fun to hear their stories about faith, following, and how Jesus had transformed their lives. The baptisms took place right in the middle of a loud, raucous, worshipping crowd singing and praising at dangerous decibel levels. There were so many people it was standing room only. Inspiring to say the least. Madison said it’s her favorite Sunday of the year, and I’m glad we experienced it.

My visit to the Holy Land many years ago changed the way I understood and experienced the Great Story. One of the things that changed drastically on that trip was my understanding of baptism. In Jesus’ day, ritual baptism was widely practiced by the Jewish people. In the wilderness around the Dead Sea there lived a colony of the monk-like ascetic priests, a Jewish sect called the Essenes. They believed in poverty, simplicity, benevolence, and daily ritual baptism. In the caves where they lived, you can still see the intricate system of baptismal pools in which their daily baptism was practiced.

Scholars believe that the Essene priests were celibate, and it is believed that they took orphans into their community to be raised in their ways and to grow their community. In yesterday’s chapter, Dr. Luke shares the story of John the Baptist’s miraculous conception to the elderly priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. In today’s chapter, the good Doctor fast-forwards to an adult John the Baptist living simply like a hermit in his camel-hair robe in the wilderness around the Dead Sea, preaching repentance, contentment, and baptism. He sounds exactly like an Essene. Born to elderly parents, it doesn’t take a huge mental leap to envision John being orphaned at a young age and his priestly family sending him to be raised by the Essenes, or perhaps a young John choosing to join the sect.

Being raised in the institutional protestant tradition of the Western church, baptism is considered one of the significant sacraments. Babies are sprinkled or adults are immersed. Most Christian theological traditions hold to baptism being a once-in-a-lifetime event. There are very strong feelings about the theology of baptism. Along my life journey, I’ve come to a very different conclusion than the tradition in which I was raised, especially after my visit to Israel and my exposure to the ancient tradition of ritual baptism that preceded and informed the Christian sacrament.

Baptism is a ritual of metaphor just like the sacrament of communion. It’s a sign and a visible word picture. Jesus said, “I am the water of life.” When a believer is plunged into the water it signifies dying to self and being buried in the likeness of Jesus’ death. When the believer rises up out of the water it signifies being raised to a new life in the likeness of Jesus’ resurrection, their sins washed away. It’s a ritualistic way-point on one’s spiritual journey, a fresh start, a new beginning, and an external, public proclamation of an inner-spiritual transformation.

Along my own spiritual journey, I can tell you that my spiritual path has wound itself through some pretty dark places. I’ve experienced my own periods of wilderness wandering. I have found myself the prodigal in far-away lands. I’ve discovered that my own spiritual journey is not a linear, straight-and-narrow interstate but a cyclical, meandering footpath. There are spiritual fits and starts. There are periods of stagnation, moments of repentance, and periodic commitment renewals. I think a ritual cleansing is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for important way-points along the journey. Just as the bread and cup can be a regular reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice, baptism can be a personal statement amidst a supportive community that marks an important shift in one’s spiritual trek.

In my spirit this morning I am still hearing the shouts of celebration, the screams of joy, and the ear-splitting worship that I witnessed with Madison and Garrett’s faith community in South Carolina. I had the opportunity to watch as some of those who were baptized walking out of the auditorium, dripping wet, wrapped in towels as they went to change into dry clothes. Every one of them was smiling, laughing, and visibly ecstatic. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “that’s the metaphor of baptism!” Washed clean, made new, old things passing away, and a fresh start on the right path in a good direction.

Who couldn’t occasionally benefit from that along a long spiritual journey?

Take me to the river.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Outside the Systems

Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. Revers...
Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
Luke 2:1-2;19-20 (NIV)

In yesterday’s chapter, Luke related the story of Simeon who told Jesus’ mother that Jesus would cause the “rising and falling of many.” Now he lays out the political landscape of the day. The land at that time was under Roman occupation, so the Roman emperor (Tiberius Caesar) ultimately ruled along with the Roman governor in charge of the occupational force (Pilate). Then there was the local civic leaders, the sons of Herod the Great who operated the region as a client-state of Rome. For the people of Israel, they also answered to the religious authorities led by the high-priest Annas and his son-in-law, Caiaphas. Talk about a political mess.

Into this midst of this mess strides John, the cousin of Jesus. Luke introduced us to John’s story in the first chapter. John is out in the wilderness. While visiting Israel years ago I visited an archaeological site in the wilderness of southern Israel. At the time of Jesus, there was a community residing there who lived frugal, hermitic lives very similar to the monks in medieval monasteries. This community preached and practiced baptism and archaeologists had unearthed baptismal pools. Because the men were celibate in this community, they took in orphans as both a community service (orphans were a huge societal problem in that day) and to perpetuate their ranks.

Luke does not delve into the particulars of John’s life, but we know that his parents were old when he was born. It is quite possible that they died while he was young and he was sent to this community to be raised. There, he would have been taught to live off of the land, would have been educated in the scriptures, and they would have instilled in him the importance of ritual baptism.

I find it interesting that Luke lays out the landscape of political power, then introduces us to John who suddenly appears on the landscape like an ancient prophet out of the desert.  John is not from inside any of the political or religious systems of that day. He is an outsider, preaching against the corruption and greed which the political systems bred. It would land him in prison.

Today I am thinking about the systems in which I live and work. Political systems, corporate systems, religious systems, and family systems. It’s amazing how we live within these systems and are influenced by them constantly without giving them much thought. I find it fascinating that both John and Jesus were outsiders. The Kingdom of God, which Jesus would preach to the world, is not an earthly Kingdom or system. Despite humanity’s constant effort to institutionalize it (which always leads to corruption), it remains a calling for those who are willing to follow a path outside of earthly systems.

Chapter-a-Day Numbers 19

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Image via Wikipedia

“Anything the ritually unclean man touches becomes unclean, and the person who touches what he touched is unclean until evening.” Numbers 19:22 (MSG)

“Wash your hands,” we are told incessantly from the time we are young children. We are told to do it before we eat, after being outside, when we’ve been around someone who is sick, and when we are preparing food. It’s a matter of hygiene, but even the most menial of daily tasks carries with it a spiritual word picture.

Things that make us sick, both physically and spiritually, have a tendency to spread their ill effects. We can either become fanatical about avoiding anything that might make us dirty, or we can learn the self-discipline of washing ourselves of those things which may make us sick.

Throughout God’s message, water is used a physical word picture of spiritual cleansing.

  • God cleansed the earth with a flood.
  • Israel walked through the water of the Red Sea when escaping Egypt, and then those who enslaved them were washed away in the waters.
  • Ritual cleansing and washing was prescribed in the laws of Moses for anything that made people “unclean” both physically and spiritually.
  • Jonah tried to rebel by escaping God’s call over water, then was carried through the deep to the place of obedience.
  • Baptism, literally defined as plunging forcefully, is prescribed as a public sign of their spiritual transformation for anyone who has cleansed their hearts by placing their faith in Him.

Jesus washed His followers’ feet, then told them to do the same for one another. The word picture is clear. We are expected to follow Jesus’ example. We are to walk through this world and actively love others in tangible ways. The journey carries us through some dark and dirty places. It is important that we are regularly cleansed and refreshed by one another. Otherwise, the dirt may pile up and have gravely ill effects.

Today, as I wash my hands, I’m reminded of the deeper meaning of being cleansed.

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Chapter-a-Day Jeremiah 41

Ishmael’s reason for dumping the bodies into a cistern was to cover up the earlier murder of Gedaliah. Jeremiah 41:9a (MSG)

In my study group, we’ve been utilizing an exercise called Morning Pages. It’s really simple. First thing, when you get up in the morning, write three pages long hand. Just write whatever comes to your mind. Keep the pen on the paper and keep writing. Don’t think. Don’t filter. Don’t stop. Just write.

One of the men in my group commented that the first time he’d done this study, when he first used this exercise, he was shocked at what came out in his Morning Pages. I understood. In my own experience of doing Morning Pages over the years, I’ve experienced the same thing. We are often unaware of what we have stuffed in the cracks and corners of our soul.

Our souls are deep cisterns. Over time, like Ishmael, we throw a lot of nasty stuff in. Then we pile stuff on top to hide the stench and cover it up. Eventually, it gets piled so deep that the flow of living water gets stopped up. Maybe there’s something seeping to the surface, but there’s definitely not a steady flow from the source. Sometimes our well clogs completely. It dries up. Morning Pages is an exercise that purges the soul and helps return the flow.

Jesus said “repent and be baptized.” What a great word picture. Purge yourself of the rotting, dead stuff in your soul, then plunge yourself into living water so that your well is filled. It’s not a momentary event, but a life long process.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and crazyfarmer

Chapter-a-Day Exodus 13

Hands clasped in prayer. "Redeem every firstborn child among your sons. When the time comes and your son asks you, 'What does this mean?' you tell him, 'God brought us out of Egypt, out of a house of slavery, with a powerful hand. Exodus 13:13 (MSG)

When I was a child, our family had a few rituals. At dinner, we held hands and my father prayed for the meal. We, as children, then said a Dutch prayer our grandparents taught us. As I grew, I began to understand the depth of the simple, daily act. Holding hands not only served to keep young children from grabbing at the food, but created a unified circle of family holding each other hands. Touching. Clasping. The individual was part of a whole that was greater than himself/herself. Our father praying silently established his spiritual leadership and his prayer was a humble reminder that even dad recognized he was under a higher authority. The Dutch prayer spoke of history, of family, of the reality that our daily journey is part of a larger story.

God is a God of metaphor. The Passover meal represented the story of deliverance from Egypt. The Passover meal became Communion which represents the sacrifice of Jesus. Baptism metaphorically speaks of a person being buried in the likeness of Jesus' death, raised in the likeness of Jesus' resurrection, our sins washed away. Ritual, on a grand scale and on a daily basis, teaches us Truth with a depth of meaning that mere lecture or conversation can't reach.

I sit today and think about our daughters. One is getting married in a few weeks. The other is going to be graduating from high school in a few months. Have I instilled metaphors and simple ritual that will still resonate in their hearts when they have children of their own?

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and soldiers media center

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