Tag Archives: Bible

Give and Live

Give and Live (CaD James 5) Wayfarer

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.
James 5:1 (NIV)

The times in which James wrote his letter to scattered believers was tumultuous. Jesus railed against the aristocrat Pharisees and religious leaders who lived in luxury while they exploited the poor. He cleared out the temple moneychangers who were getting themselves and the priests rich by charging poor pilgrims exorbitant exchange rates. Jesus’ criticism and the favor it gained him among the poor and marginalized was what got him crucified. Jesus wasn’t crucified for religious reasons. He was crucified because He threatened the religious racket’s cash cow, and stirred up resentment that already ran deep.

Thirty years later, the situation has not changed. It’s only gotten worse. James was the leader of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. He was well respected as he tried to manage the political powder keg between the Jewish religious leaders, local ruler Herod Agrippa II, and Rome. The gap between rich and poor continued to grow further and further apart. The aristocratic priests lived in spacious homes in the city’s upper city while the poor lived downwind of the local sewers. Exorbitant taxes pushed poor farmers out of business and wealthy landowners took over everything. The rich sided with the Romans in an effort to keep stability. This gave the poor more reason to hate them. Tensions were high, and about to spill over.

Reading today’s chapter with this context, it’s easy for me to feel James’ situation. The Jesus Movement exploded in part because it addressed the disparity of members. The wealthy generously gave. The poor and marginalized were welcome at the table with the rich and noble. James calls out the wealthy who are exploiting the poor. He calls on poor believers to persevere in chaotic, desperate circumstances. His instructions are about maintaining simple, daily ritual: Keep praying, keep praising, keep healthy, and stay in community with other believers. Pray for one another, confess to one another, forgive one another.

In the quiet this morning, I am reminded that the current chaotic times are a cakewalk compared to what it would have been like to be a poor day laborer in Jerusalem back in James’ day. History is always good for providing me with much needed context. At the same time, the same general principles and forces are at work today as they were then. Generosity, equality, deference and humility are still the tangible ways that the love of Christ is to flow through me to others. As a follower of Jesus, I’m to live out my faith daily in simple rituals that channel those same values. I’m called to view my current earthly circumstances in the eternal perspective of the Great Story.

James’ warnings in today’s chapter were incredibly prescient. The rich in Jerusalem continued to hoard more and more wealth. The rich priests withheld tithes from poor priests, forcing them into day labor. There were 18,000 day laborers who worked to finish construction work on the temple who didn’t get paid. James was condemned by the religious leaders and stoned to death. In 66 AD a revolt broke out. Priests and the Roman Garrison on the Temple mount were massacred. The four-year revolt against Rome would end in 70 AD when the Romans invaded Jerusalem and destroyed it along with the temple.

“Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
Luke 21:5-6 (NIV)

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

James (June 2021)

Each photo below corresponds to the chapter-a-day post for the book of James published by Tom Vander Well in June of 2021. Click on the photo linked to each chapter to read the post.

James 1: Not Without Struggle

James 2: Counter-Cultural

James 3: Peeling the Onion

James 4: “Damned Spots”

James 5: Give and Live

Journey’s End

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 (NIV)

I remember driving to northwest Iowa while I was still a young man to spend some time with my grandfather. He was well into his nineties, and living in a care facility. It was the last time I remember being with him. We walked the hallways together, me pushing him in his wheelchair. We sat at a table in the common room and had “coffee time.” We talked together, though it was obvious that dementia was beginning to set in. He would sharing a story with me and I would suddenly realize that he was addressing me as a stranger, an acquaintance. In the moment, I it was obvious he didn’t remember who I was. Nevertheless, he was still relatively sharp and was able to articulate his thoughts and feelings.

“I’m the only one left,” he said with sadness as he stared out the window. “Every one I knew is already gone.”

My grandfather was not known for his silence. The man could weave a tapestry of stories and talk non-stop for hours and he was happy to do so for any stranger who would listen. I’m not exaggerating. I have clear memories of tugging gently on his arm and trying to help free some poor, anonymous housewife in the baking goods aisle who was nodding vacantly as my grandfather regaled her with stories about his ice-box cookies that won a blue ribbon at the Plymouth County fair.

“The secret is getting the cookies sliced nice and thin, but they have to be evenly sliced. The best way to do that is….”

“Come on, Grandpa. We’ve got to check-out and get back home,” I’d say as I silently mouthed an “I’m sorry” to the gracious stranger.

I have many memories of feeling the non-verbal signals of impatience from family members and friends who were trapped in the torrent of grandpa’s stories.

On this final afternoon with him, however, I remember long periods of silence as we sat together. The shift in him was obvious to me. He was in the homestretch of his earthly journey.

He felt spent, and alone.

I drove home that evening meditating on many things. It was one of the first times I recall really observing the weariness of life in an elderly person whom I’d once known in the fullness of life’s vigor.

I was reminded of that afternoon as I read today’s final chapter of Ecclesiastes. The ancient Hebrew Sage concludes his treatise of wisdom by penning a poem that beautifully describes the weariness of life one experiences when the end of the earthly journey is a long, slow descent to dust.

“Remember the Creator in your youth,” the poem begins.

Remember the Creator before you find your life spent, and alone,” the poem ends.

The sage then reminds me of where his wise discourse began: this earthly journey is a fleeting fog, a flitting vapor, a transient mist.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the reality that I’m not much younger than my grandfather was when I was born. I am in the same stage of life’s vigor that I remember in my earliest memories of my grandfather.

I began this journey through Ecclesiastes stating that the Sage’s theme was not about the futility of this earthly life, but really about what’s valuable in this earthly life. Here at the end of his dissertation, I still feel it. In fact, I feel it more acutely.

I am reminded by Wisdom to live my life backwards. I find myself prodded to begin each day, to live each day, to reflect on each day with the journey’s end in mind.

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

Topsy-Turvy Times

Topsy-Turvy Times (CaD Ecc 10) Wayfarer

There is an evil I have seen under the sun,
    the sort of error that arises from a ruler:
Fools are put in many high positions,
    while the rich occupy the low ones.
I have seen slaves on horseback,
    while princes go on foot like slaves.

Ecclesiastes 10:5-7 (NIV)

One of the reasons that I’ve always loved history is because it offers me context that is beneficial in observing the times in which I am living. The entire world has experienced life getting topsy-turvy and upside down for the past year-and-a-half on multiple levels from the pandemic to politics. It certainly has felt like a perfect storm, with multiple storm fronts of Covid, George Floyd, and national election converging into one strange year that’s still perpetuating.

In today’s chapter, the ancient Sage of Ecclesiastes warns of such times. In other words, what I’ve experienced in the past year and a half may be strange within the context of my lifetime, but certainly not in the context of history. I sincerely feel for those who lost loved ones from the Coronavirus, yet the death rate in the U.S. according to the CDC sits at 600,000 (I rounded up) which is .18 percent of the 330 million U.S. citizens. The “black death” pandemic of the middles ages is believed to have killed 50-60% of all Europeans. I try to imagine 165,000,000 deaths in the U.S. or half the people I know dying in short order. It doesn’t lessen the sting if losing a loved one to Covid, but it does make me grateful to have not experienced the Black Death.

Millions of people did experience the Black Death, however. Millions of people also experienced their world turning upside down when the Third Reich took over Europe in just five years. Even in the Great Story I read Jeremiah’s lamentation over the carnage and cannibalism of the siege of Jerusalem, or Daniel’s world turning upside down when he finds himself a captive in Babylon, or Joseph’s world being turned upside down when he is sold into slavery by his own brothers and ends up in an Egyptian prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The books of Judges, Chronicles, and Kings relate stories of an on-going game of thrones in which entire regimes change overnight and then change again in short order. As the Sage observes: yesterday’s ruler wakes up a slave while yesterday’s slave sits on the throne.

Instability. Chaos. Corruption. Pandemic.

It’s all happened before, and it will continue to happen. If John’s vision in Revelation are any indication, it’s going to get much worse before the end. Nevertheless, the overwhelming evidence reveals that the times I am living in are a cakewalk compared to all of human history: Less sickness, less poverty, less malnutrition, less violence, longer life spans, more political stability, more rule of law.

So what does this mean for me today? It doesn’t change my present circumstances or current events, but it does change the way I frame my thoughts and understanding of my circumstances and current events. It helps me in keeping fear and anxiety in check. In today’s chapter, the Sage explains that when a ruler rages there is wisdom in staying at your post and remaining calm. I daily observe the world raging in various ways and forms. I hear the shouts, screams, and cries coming at me from all directions across multiple media feeds.

I find myself considering the context.

I thank God I live in what is globally the safest, most stable period of all human history.

I endeavor to stay at my post, sowing love, kindness, and peace. I endeavor daily to calmly do what I can to make the world an even better place in my circles of influence.

And, so I begin another day.

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

What in the “Hebel?”

What in the Hebel? (CaD Ecc 9) Wayfarer

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days.
Ecclesiastes 9:9 (NIV)

Earlier this year Wendy and I were working from the lake. Often we’ll work from a table where we can look out three large windows at the lake. It was a particularly calm, overcast day, and we watched as fog rolled into the bay and descended like a cloud. In a matter of minutes we went from a crystal clear view to impenetrable mist. It was so fascinating to watch. Then, a short time later, it faded as quickly as it. One minute it was there. Then next it was gone.

This past Saturday I was reading a book review in which the writer spoke of the difficulties of translating certain American ideas into other languages. He cited the example of a team being an “underdog” which he saw translated into French as literally the “belly of a dog.” Welcome to the challenge of translation. One of the struggles a modern reader has with the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is also that of translation. Hebrew is an ancient language and there are Hebrew words that can’t be defined with certainty. This adds a certain level of mystery on top of the challenge.

The challenge and mystery is front-and-center in Ecclesiastes because the Hebrew word translated as “meaningless” (or “vanity” in traditional translations like the King James Version) is hebel, and it’s a tough one to translate like translating “underdog” into French. The root of the word hebel is that of vapor, mist, wind, or breath. One can think of futility, insubstantial, or empty. One source I found discussing this same subject landed on the word fleeting like the fog that rolled in and out of our bay at the lake. I like it. I think it gets nearer the mark:

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this fleeting mist of a life that God has given you under the sun—all your fleeting days.

It brings me right back to the subject of numbering my days. Suddenly the Sage is not so much as saying that everything is nihilistically void, but more like reminding me to seize the day, to be fully present, and to find joy even in things redundant. Before I know it, perhaps sooner than I think, life will roll out like the fog. Enjoy the moment.

In the quiet this morning I find that to be a good thought as the weekend was a vapor. Where did it go? A new work week has rolled in.

In a few hours I will be muttering to myself, “Where did the day go?”

Today will be fleeting, gone like the mist.

Be present.

Be mindful.

En-joy each moment.

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

The Two Certainties

The Two Certainties (CaD Ecc 7) Wayfarer

It is better to go to a house of mourning
    than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
    the living should take this to heart.

Ecclesiastes 7:2 (NIV)

Just this last month, Wendy and I happened to run into a couple with whom we are acquainted. They are a stretch or two ahead of us on this road of Life, and we rarely get an opportunity to chat with them. We took the occasion of our running into them to ask them about their respective journeys, and what they have been doing with their lives. Their answer intrigued us. In fact, Wendy and I talked about it multiple times ever since. We’d like to hear more.

What our friends shared with us is that they have been been working together in a personal initiative to help both individuals and organizations to understand that in our current era a person can spend almost as many years in retirement as they spent in the workforce. Their desire is to see individuals realize the value of remaining engaged and productive, while helping organizations tap the value that this growing number of “retired” individuals can bring with their wisdom and experience.

This conversation came to mind this morning as I read the chapter. Last night Wendy and I spent time praying as we drove home from the lake. As I prayed about work and business, it struck me that for my entire life the thought of “retirement” has been just an idea. It has always resided well beyond the horizon. Suddenly, it’s a fixed point on the edge of the horizon.

Then I woke to read the wisdom of Ecclesiastes’ Sage, who tells me that there is wisdom in beginning each day with the end in mind. In this case, he’s talking about the permanent retirement from this earthly journey that lies ever before me. Unlike retirement from labor, which is somewhat fixed on the calendar as a planned end-date, my permanent retirement is less certain.

It might be closer than I think.

It also, to our friends’ line of thinking, might be further away than I imagine. What if I reach that waypoint of “retirement” and still have 20 or 30 years in which I am relatively healthy and capable? What am I going to do with those 7,000-11,000 days?

In the quiet this morning, I hear God’s Spirit reminding me through the words of the Sage that all my tomorrows are simply “what ifs.” There are really only two certainties. Today, thus far, is the first. My permanent retirement, that mysteriously sits “out there” on my horizon is the second. This means that from a practical perspective, “What am I going to do with this day, which is a certainty?” is one of the most important questions with which I could occupy myself, in light of the permanent retirement that certainly lies ahead.

It’s time for me to occupy myself with the first certainty.

Have a great day, my friend.

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

Of Spirit and Paperweights

Of Spirit and Paperweights (CaD Ecc 5) Wayfarer

Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.
Ecclesiastes 5:19 (NIV)

I still remember a big, glass Skippy jar that belonged to my brother, Tim. The lid was wrapped tight with athletic tape and a slot for change was snipped into the tin lid. It was filled with change (Note: a Skippy jar full of pocket change could go a long way in those days). It sat there. For years it served as a paperweight on my brother’s desk. For years I saw that thing just sitting there…years.

During those years. I didn’t have a piggy bank or any such change jar. There was no point. If I had a dime I spent it.

That’s a parable, by the way.

It’s also a confession that I was not great with money for much of my life. It was a lesson that ended up being a long, hard stretch for me on both the spiritual and physical levels. But learn it, I did. As a sincere follower of Jesus, I couldn’t get around the fact that money and the spiritual implications of it, was His number one subject.

Not sex.
Not drinking.
Not drugs.
Not politics.
Not church attendance.

Money, wealth, possessions and their spiritual implications was numero uno on the Top Ten list of subjects that Jesus talked about. And, for anyone reading this who has not read Jesus’ teaching on the subject yourself, please know that it’s completely opposite of those televangelists who twist His teaching in order to pad their own pockets.

Yesterday morning I had the honor of kicking-off what will be a six-week series of messages about the economy of God’s Kingdom (it’s on the Messages page, btw). Talking about economics is always a tough subject from a spiritual perspective because money and economics are so intertwined with my life, my mind, my heart, and my spirit. I believe that’s why Jesus talked about it so much. I can live a good, religious, morally pure, upright life, but if I don’t get the spiritual lessons of economics right, then I’m still hopelessly stuck in spiritual kindergarten.

It felt like a little spiritual synchronicity that the Sage who authored Ecclesiastes is talking about this same subject in today’s chapter. What fascinated me is how it dove-tailed what I spoke about yesterday, and what stuck out to me in the chapter was an interesting contrast.

In verse 10, the Sage warns of the spiritual trap that wealth creates because there’s never enough, and the dissatisfaction and discontent of the perpetual more will eat a person’s soul.

In verse 11, the Sage warns of the spiritual trap of limitless consumption because it is also never satisfied. It leads to life as described in the movie Wall-E.

In verse 12, the Sage observes that there’s a certain simplicity of life and peace of spirit the comes with having very little, while having much only adds increasing layers of complexity and anxiety. This robs life of sleep (and peace, and joy, and goodness, and contentment, and etc.).

Wealth and consumption are spiritual traps that lead to bad places.

Then at the end of the chapter, the Sage observes what appears to be the exact opposite: “when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.” 

But I couldn’t help but notice the key ingredient in this latter observation. The wealth and possessions flow from God, they are received and held as the gift from God that they are by a person who manages those resources with a sense of gratitude, contentment, and spiritual discernment.

In my message yesterday I spoke about the spiritual lesson that I’ve learned (and learned the hard way) which must precede any conversation about money itself. Interestingly enough, Jesus told one wealthy man that selling all his possessions and giving it to the poor was the one thing he had to do. But Jesus had other people in his life, like Lazarus and his sisters, who were wealthy and Jesus didn’t ask them to do the same thing. I find this an important distinction that the Sage is revealing in today’s chapter.

The wealth isn’t the issue. The issue that precedes the money conversation is one of heart, eyes, and worship. You’re welcome to listen to the message if you’re interested in unpacking this more.

By the way, on my dresser sits a large coffee mug full of change. It basically serves as a paperweight. It’s been there for years.

I’m learning.

The Value of “Another”

The Value of "Another" (CaD Ecc 4) Wayfarer

There was a man all alone;
    he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
    yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked,
    “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”
This too is meaningless—
    a miserable business!

Ecclesiastes 4:8 (NIV)

A few weeks ago I happened upon a post on LinkedIn. It was one of those heart-warming stories that almost sounds too good to be true. It made me curious. I dug into the story. I’d like to share with you what I learned.

Dale Schroeder was an Iowan from my hometown of Des Moines. He grew up poor, and couldn’t afford college. After high school he got a job as a carpenter and showed up at work every day for the same company for 67 years. It appears that retirement wasn’t something he considered worthwhile. Dale lived simply. He owned two pair of jeans. He had one pair of jeans for work and one pair of jeans for church.

One day, Dale showed up at the office of his friend and attorney. He told his friend he’d been thinking. He didn’t have the money to go to college and he’d like to give kids who couldn’t afford it the opportunity he never had. He wanted to set up a fund and invest all his savings for the project.

“How much are we talking, Dale?” his attorney asked.

“Oh, just shy of three million,” Dale answered.

Dale’s fund paid for the college education of 33 young people before the funds ran out. Calling themselves “Dale’s Kids” the strangers, who are now doctors, therapists, and teachers because of Dale’s gift, meet periodically to honor his legacy.

A simple man, Dale asked only one thing in return for his generosity. He asked that they pay-it-forward. “You can’t pay it back,” his attorney would explain, “because Dale is gone, but you can remember him and you can emulate him.”

If I pull back and look at today’s chapter from a distance, I find that the Sage has divided his wisdom into two parts. In verses 1-6, the Teacher describes the cold futility of self-centric lives and the tragic fruit of living lives of envy, greed, and hatred. In verses 7-16 the focus shifts. Verse 8 describes Dale sitting on his three million in the bank, asking himself “What am I going to do with all this money I’ve stored up my entire life?”

Verses 9-12 describes the value of living, not for self, but for another.

“Do something for someone else,” the Sage proposes as he whispers to me in my soul. “Invest the fruit of your labor into someone else’s need. Step out of the chill of self-centered isolation and warm another person with your kindness, then feel the warmth of their gratitude take the chill out of your own soul. Tom, if you look below in order to reach down and lift another person up your gaze won’t be fixated enviously on the height of other people’s stacks of stuff.”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself pondering Dale Schroeder showing up to work every day in his work jeans for 67 years in order to invest everything into the lives of 33 strangers. It’s an act of extravagant generosity that has not only changed the lives of those 33, but also their families, patients, students, and descendants. Who knows how it will be gratefully paid forward to affect the lives of countless others that you and I will never know about.

The Sage has me silently asking myself this morning:

“What is truly valuable in this life?”

“What does my life reveal about what I truly value?”

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

The Inescapable Fact

The Inescapable Fact (CaD Ecc 3) Wayfarer

All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
Ecclesiastes 3:20 (NIV)

Like most people, Wendy and I spent much of the year of COVID finding old television shows to watch. We found ourselves falling in love with a handful of British series. There is a bit of a formula that the Brits have mastered. First, you set the show in a gorgeous, remote landscape. Second, you find a protagonist detective who is just a bit broken. Third, you surround the protagonist with team members who have their own unique issues. Then, of course, people in this gorgeous, remote area of the United Kingdom die all the time in strange ways.

It’s predictable, but it works. It always works. Death is the number one ingredient in our stories. Protagonists are constantly threatened with death, escaping death, and chasing a perpetrator of death. Antagonists are constantly threatening people with death, initiating the death of others, and they often become victims of death in the end. Television, movies, novels, and comic books are filled with death.

I am going to die.

This is an inescapable fact.

I have probably been around death more than most people. I have stood over individuals as they took their last breath. I have officiated many funerals. I have buried loved ones and complete strangers, individuals and couples, infants and aged.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed something ironic. We entertain ourselves ceaselessly with stories in which death is the main ingredient, yet most of us want to pull a Houdini when it comes to this inescapable fact. We want to avoid thinking about it. We want to avoid talking about it. We want to put it off as long as humanly possible.

The ancient Sage of Ecclesiastes wants me to stop trying to escape this fact. He want me to stop running from the inevitable and look this inescapable fact straight in the eye. He makes it a matter-of-fact statement:

There is a time to be born. Check. April 30, 1966. St. Luke’s hospital in Sioux City, Iowa.

There is a time to die. Date unknown. Location unknown. Still inevitable.

I mentioned back at the beginning of this chapter-a-day trek through Ecclesiastes that the Sage is pushing into what is really of value in this life. In the quiet this morning, I hear him telling me that there is value in considering my day, this very day, in light of this inescapable fact. David Gibson wrote about it in his book Living Life Backwards:

I am convinced that only a proper perspective on death provides the true perspective on life. Living in the light of your death will help you to live wisely and freely and generously. It will give you a big heart and open hands, and enable you to relish all the small things of life in deeply profound ways. Death can teach you the meaning of mirth.

I want to persuade you that only if you prepare to die can you really learn how to live.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself pondering two things as I things as I prepare to press on into this day:

One: I think I should allow the inescapable fact of my impending death to inform what I value.

Two: A disproportionate number of arcane murders seem to occur in gorgeous, remote areas of the UK, if one believes what one sees on the telly.

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

Ecclesiastes (May/June 2021)

Each photo below corresponds to the chapter-a-day post for the book of Ecclesiastes published by Tom Vander Well in May and June of 2021. Click on the photo linked to each chapter to read the post.

Ecclesiastes 1: Valuable
Ecclesiastes 2: Present

Ecclesiastes 3: The Inescapable Fact

Ecclesiastes 4: The Value of “Another”

Ecclesiastes 5: Of Spirit and Paperweights

Ecclesiastes 6: The Point

Ecclesiastes 7: The Two Certainties

Ecclesiastes 8: Humility and Uncertainty

Ecclesiastes 9: What in the “Hebel?”

Ecclesiastes 10: Topsy-Turvy Times

Ecclesiastes 11: Brewing Interpretation

Ecclesiastes 12: Journey’s End