Tag Archives: Binary

Plans and Purposes

Commit to the Lord whatever you do,
    and he will establish your plans.

Proverbs 16:3 (NIV)

I just finished up an “over the coffee” conversation with Wendy this morning. We talked about race and culture. One of the observations we mulled over was that it’s very easy for things to be perceived as simple, binary, either-or issues when it’s just not. There are so many layers.

I find that the same can be true when reading through Proverbs. It’s really been hitting me as I journey through them this time around. The attraction of ancient sage wisdom is that they are simple. They are binary couplets. It’s wisdom or foolishness, hard work or sloth, honesty or lies, pride or humility. They are easily absorbed and understood. It’s easy to take them at face value and that typically works.

Sometimes, however, it’s not that simple. There are more layers. Context is needed. Take the verse from today’s chapter. At face value, it’s an easy concept. Commit your plans to God and He will establish them. Done. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Rub the lamp and the Genie will appear. This is the kind of verse that can easily get misunderstood:

“I prayed and committed my plans for going to Harvard to the Lord, and I got a rejection letter. God didn’t establish my plans. I guess the whole thing is a lie.”

It’s a bit of synchronicity that this came up in the chapter today because I talked a lot about this in my podcast that was published yesterday. The mysterious, divine dance between my plans and God’s purposes is complex choreography that I never perfect. Just when I think I’ve got it down the steps, Holy Spirit (who is leading the dance) suddenly goes where I didn’t expect or the music changes.

I bring my plans to the dance, but Jesus also talked about asking, seeking, and knocking. My “plans” could be coming from a place of pride, or selfishness, or vain ambition, and what God is ultimately trying to establish for me and where God is leading me is something I can’t see from my current waypoint on Life’s road. In my podcast, I shared the story of my “plans” to have a career in pastoral ministry. Actually, before that, I planned to be an astronaut, a naval aviator, a lawyer, POTUS, a private detective, a professional actor, and one day while drawing on the back of my mom’s old recipe cards, I remember planning to be a cartoonist. What was eventually established was that I would spend my career in the one place I never planned to be: the corporate world. Even though I had been given a foreshadowing of this, I couldn’t see it. I refused to see it.

So, does the fact that my “plans” didn’t come to fruition mean that today’s proverb is a lie?

Not from my perspective. It’s not that simple.

When I chose to become a follower of Christ it was the first step in a never-ending process of surrender. The “plan” that I committed to at that moment was to follow where God led, do what God called me to do, and strive to become more like Jesus each step of the way. The becoming like Jesus part starts with not living for myself, but to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love others as I love myself. If I do that, it changes my plans, which ultimately results in this journey being all about the things that God is establishing as He leads me. God’s purposes will always take precedent over my plans. When you follow Jesus, it’s part of the gig.

I look back now and am overjoyed that my career did not end up in pastoral ministry (sorry, mom), or in law, or in politics, or in space. What God established out my plans to follow where I was led turned into a job that I love and a job that has blessed me in so many amazing ways.

[The cartoonist thing might have been pretty cool, though. I’m just sayin’.]

In the quiet this morning I am thankful for being led down this path on my journey, despite the struggles, heartache, confusion, anxieties, stress, and pains I’ve encountered along the way. The reality is that those are all part of the journey no matter where we’re led or choose to go. And, who knows but that God might lead me into a completely different career at some point. After all, I’m letting Him lead the dance.

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

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

Yes and Yes and Yes and Yes

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
Luke 17:20-21 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve come to embrace, the further I’ve pressed into this journey, is that we as human beings are earthbound in the way we see and react to everything around us. Interacting with our world through five senses leads us to perceive and believe that spiritual things are bound by temporal limits. We think and speak of heaven and hell as fixed positions somewhere and relegate the general direction of “above” (because we look at the night sky and perceive vast and infinite unknown) and “below” (because we watch the dead be buried in the ground and the bad place to which they go must be further down). The miracles were fairy tales and the resurrection could never have happened because for the majority of us these things don’t happen in our earthly human experience.

Along the way, I’ve come to realize that Jesus was constantly speaking of things that are real, but beyond our earthbound senses. I’m reminded of the prophet Elisha and his servant. Surrounded by an entire enemy army, Elisha tells his servant “There are actually more for us than against us.” Elisha prayed that his servant’s “eyes” might be “opened” and when they were he could see a vast army of angels encircling them. (2 Kings 6)

Jesus carries on this teaching of a dimension, realm, reality, that is just as real but lies beyond the boundaries of our senses. The problem, then, is that I try to describe a reality beyond my senses but I only have the language and reality I’ve experienced through my senses to describe it. Those very attempts at description will naturally fall short because even my words and language have their earthly, human limits.

In today’s chapter, Jesus is asked when “God’s kingdom” would come. They are seeking a fixed point of time that their earthbound brains can accept and perceiving that God’s kingdom looks like an earthly kingdom. Jesus pushes back at the limits of their human perceptions:

Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

It isn’t seen with human eyes, Jesus said. It’s not a fixed position that can be labeled on Google Earth. He then tells them that God’s kingdom is right in their midst, hiding in plain sight.

Now the original language Jesus used, and the language Dr. Luke used to retell the story, must be translated into English. Translations are a sticky wicket. Scholars have landed both on the phrase being “within you” and “in your midst” (there’s actually a footnote in the NIV version stating this).

Now I run into another earthbound reality of human reason, which tends to like to boil things down into binary choices: either or, right or wrong, black or white, true or false, this or that. My perpetual sojourn through the Great Story, however, has convinced me that God’s base language is metaphor, and metaphors are layered with meaning which is why the same words, phrases, stories, and passages can have different but just as relevant meaning to me today as when I studied the same passage years ago.

So was Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God is in your midst because I’m the incarnate Christ standing right in front you“?

Was Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God is not a fixed position in time and space but a place you inhabit internally and spiritually“?

Was Jesus saying, “When I am in you and you are in me, you are the kingdom of God“?

Was Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God is within you when you love God and others as I have been showing you“?

My spirit answers:

Yes, and

Yes, and

Yes, and

Yes.

In the quiet this morning I find my spirit engaged, creativity enlivened, mind curious, and heart imaginative as I think about spiritual realities beyond my earthbound senses. It’s all over the chapter in what Jesus was saying….

  • When you cause someone else to stumble, and harm innocents, you reveal your spiritual condition, and it is not the kingdom of God. (vs. 1-2)
  • When the kingdom of God is within you then forgiveness and grace will pour out of your heart and life no matter how many times you’ve been wronged. (vs. 3-4)
  • When you get beyond your earthbound senses and God’s kingdom is within, you’ll find that the “impossible” is “possible.” (vs. 6)
  • When you embrace God’s kingdom, you find peace and contentment in your divine role in the Great Story. (vs. 7-10)
  • The Kingdom of God is not tied to a particular nation, tribe, race, or institution. It’s deeper than flesh, blood, genetics, citizenship, or doctrinal adherence. A huge number of people who should “get it” don’t and even the most unlikely of outcasts and outsiders will. (vs. 11-19)
  • There will come a time when the fecal matter will be propelled with great velocity at the electric, rotary oscillator of this world; A climactic collision of that which is temporal and that which is spirit. (vs. 22-37)

Jesus was always getting His followers to see, to touch, to taste, to smell, and to feel beyond the limits of what is physical. Because when you do, it changes how you relate to everything else along your journey. It’s taken me a long time to get that. I’ve still got a long way to go.

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!

Don’t Stop the Music!

For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the musicians and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Nehemiah 12:46 (NIV)

This past week, Wendy and I went to a craft brewhouse in Des Moines. About three times a year they have an event called “Hymns at the Hall.” There was a large gathering of people that night. There were young families with children playing board games. There were older folks (I guess you have to start including me in that demographic). It was a fascinating mix of people who gathered to eat, drink, and sing the old hymns of the faith together.

Along my spiritual journey, I have experienced that music can be the subject of tremendous religious passion for some people. I grew up with hymns accompanied by a pipe organ and traditional choral music. I witnessed the emergence and growth of the “contemporary” music industry. Music within the churches I’ve associated has shifted radically in one generation. Most children today have never seen a hymnal or sung in a church choir in which you had to learn to read music and sing harmony.

So here’s the thing: I have lent my ears to friends who bemoan the changes as watering down and diminishing worship. I have witnessed heated debates over the theological implications of certain songs. My observation is this: music continues to change and evolve as does music’s place in worship. With all of the change, there are three things that are constant:

  • Our general discomfort with change.
  • Music’s ability to stir spirit, emotion, and thought (sometimes it does all three at the same time) in individuals and groups.
  • Worthwhile things that are discarded by culture as “dead and gone” are eventually resurrected to experience new life.

We are nearing the end of Nehemiah’s account of the return of the Hebrew exiles from Persia and the rebuilding of the walls and gates of Jerusalem. In the previous chapter, the people made a legally binding agreement to rededicate themselves to the law of Moses, the responsibilities of the sacrificial system, and the contributions required to keep Temple worship going. In today’s chapter, Nehemiah calls all of the musicians together from the region and forms two great choirs to march around the top of the wall in worship and dedication.

At the end of the chapter Nehemiah observes:

For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the musicians and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Nehemiah 12:46 (NIV)

In other words, the music of worship and of the Temple had been silenced for many years. It had been silenced at least 70 years since the destruction of the Babylonian siege. It may have been silenced before that. Nehemiah was resurrecting a worthwhile thing of the past and breathing new life into it for the discovery of a new generation. The subtext of the statement feels as if Nehemiah is defending the action and explaining his rationale for those who are grumbling about the change (see my first bullet above).

As my friends and I shared our “Hymns at the Hall” on social media, we had friends and family who seemed to bristle at the idea of singing hymns and drinking beer at the same time. I quietly smiled to myself knowing that hymn writers such as Martin Luther and Charles Wesley often took melodies of well-known songs that were sung in bars and taverns and changed the lyrics. In the days of illiterate and uneducated masses, it was easier if they used tunes that everyone knew (and everyone knew popular bar songs). Ironic that the songs have found their way back home. As I sang I watched people being stirred. You can take the hymns out of the church, but you can’t take God out of the hymns.

In the quiet this morning, Alexa is playing Gregorian Chant and ancient choral music, which is what I prefer in my quiet time with God. Later in the day, I’ll switch to more contemporary worship music as Wendy and I work in the home office. This evening we might switch to Gypsy Jazz, blues, or the music of the Rat Pack as dinner is prepared.

I don’t get too hung up on music. For me, is not a “holy” or “unholy” “either, or” binary thing. Sure, any good thing can be coopted for profane reasons, but it’s easy to turn it off or tell Alexa to skip a song. For me, music is a “both, and” equation.

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

Living in Gray

When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem.
Esther 2:8 (NIV)

Yesterday at the breakfast table Wendy and I were having breakfast and reading the news, as is our daily habit. Wendy happened upon a news piece that quite clearly divided the United States into two generalized racial groups. Implied in the article was the notion that in America you are either black or white. I find the distinction of choice ironic.

The simplistic divide does not account for the vast number of people of Hispanic, Asian, or Native American descent, nor does it account for the population of interracial couples and their children which, according to U.S. Census figures, has steadily grown since 1967 and continues to do so.

Our culture loves binary, either-or choices. I have observed this to be true of both institutional religion and mainstream news media who are critical one another. When dealing with a large population of people, simple binary choices are much easier to deal with. Here are some examples from both of them:

  • Black or White
  • Conservative or Liberal
  • Fox News or MSNBC
  • Capitalism or Socialism
  • Red State or Blue State
  • Progressive or Deplorable
  • Blue Collar or White Collar
  • Educated or Uneducated
  • Urban or Rural
  • Republican or Democrat
  • Protestant or Catholic
  • Sacred or Secular
  • Christian or Secular
  • Holy or Worldly
  • Evangelical or Mainline
  • Religious or Atheist

And yet, as I have traversed this earthly journey and spiritually followed in the footsteps of Jesus, I find most binary distinctions simplistic and inadequate for addressing complex circumstances and issues. The world and its people with whom I interact every day are an elaborate mosaic of DNA, thought, spirit, background, and experience. To put one complex person into one of two binary boxes for the sake of simple definition is foolishness.

One of the things that I love about the story of Esther is how God works through this young Jewish woman who appears to navigate the tremendously gray territory between binary choices of Jew or Gentile, Hebrew or Persian, and Moral or Immoral. She keeps her heritage and faith secret. Whereas Daniel refused to eat meat provided by his foreign captors, Esther has no such qualms. There is no indication that Esther balks at being part of the Persian harem system that would have instructed her how to pleasure the king sexually on demand.

The book of Esther has confounded binary thinkers for ages. One commentator wrote that Esther’s behavior would not pass any test of modern ethical theory. Her cultural compromises coupled with the pesky fact that God is never mentioned by name in the story led some editors in history to introduce prayers into the book that were never part of the original text along with commentary stating that Esther hated being married to a Gentile. I’ve observed that when the truth is too gray for our comfort zone, we like to shade it to fit our personal binary leanings.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the value and importance of a story like Esther. She successfully navigates a very uncomfortable world of gray politically, culturally, religiously, and morally. From a position of powerlessness and critical compromise, she is used for God’s purposes in profound and powerful ways. In a time when our political, religious, cultural, and social systems seem perpetually intent on placing me in one of two simplistic boxes, I pray I can, like Esther, find a way to successfully navigate the territory of gray that lies in tension between simplistic, black-and-white definitions.

Art History; History Art; Art, History

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:20 (NIV)

Back in college I was required to take a visual art class as part of my major. Being a lover of history I chose to take Art History II. The fascinating thing about Professor Jeff Thompson’s class was that the text book was not an Art History textbook. It was simply a History textbook.

Professor Thompson began the class with a question: “Does art merely reflect history, or does it drive history?” If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll recognize this is a binary, “either, or” question, and the answer to his question that we arrived at was “yes, and.”

What was fascinating in the course of study was the connection between all that was going on during a certain period of time of history (politics, religion, economics, and etc.) and what we were seeing in the important artworks of that period. Not only that, but also the connection between what we saw in visual art (paintings and sculptures) and the other art mediums (music, theatre, architechture, and literature). The art of each period both reflected what was happening and drove history forward.

That class planted in me a seed which has grown over time to bear much fruit of thought. Here is the root of it: In creating art, no matter the medium, artists express themselves through what they create. It cannot be otherwise. It is inherent in that act of creation itself that artists express who they really are, what they see, what they think, what they feel, and how they’ve experienced the world around them. In expressing these things, they influence the world around them and they drive the action of this Great Story.

This morning, in this chapter-a-day journey, we make our way to Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus living in Rome, heart of the Roman Empire and epicenter of western civilization at the time. Today, art historians flock to Rome to see remnants of the ancient city with its architecture and artwork. The people Paul wrote to were surrounded by it as it was happening all around them, and to them he wrote this:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

The creator revealed themselves in what was created. The Genesis poem says that humans were created in the image of the Creator. Just as Van Gogh painted the unique way he saw light and color, just as Bach channeled his love and understanding of mathematic order and the woven details of the universe into his music, just as Shakespeare expressed the tragedy of everyday humanity in the gilded trappings of man-made royalty, so God the Creator expressed  the light, energy, life, beauty, and power of their person(s) in all creation.

In the quiet this morning I’m pondering how through much of my journey I’ve viewed faith and science as living entrenched in their “either, or” camps like the armies of World War I dug in for the long haul, reduced to hurtling grenades at one another across no man’s land. At least, that’s the perception I’ve had from what has been presented to me by media who like to simplify complex issues into simple binary groups in conflict (it sells more). As I’ve proceeded in my journey I’ve met many fellow sojourners who could be easily labeled as a members of either trench, but who have wandered out into no man’s land. They observe and study and appreciate this cosmic work of art still expanding outward, still creating, still reproducing life, and  they’ve come to a “yes, and” realization, just as we did in Professor Thompson’s Art History class.

That’s where Paul begins his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome. He starts with the expansive canvas of the cosmos through which the Creator expresses self. From the mystery of the cosmos Paul will dive into the mystery of being human, and how he sees the Creator has interacted with creation in the Great Story.

The Gap Instinct

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:28 (NIV)

This week I started reading a book called Factfulness by Hans Rosling, a doctor and professor from Sweden. In his opening chapter he makes the case that we as humans have a “gap instinct.” We like to divide things into two extremes with a gap between them:

  • rich or poor
  • black or white
  • developed or developing
  • white collar or blue collar
  • liberal or conservative

Rosling goes on to state:

We love to dichotomize. Good versus bad. Heroes versus villains. My country versus the rest. Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time.

The gap instinct makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement.”

Along my journey I’ve noticed that the institutional church and those of us who follow Jesus often allow the gap instinct to invade our belief system and religious lives in unhealthy ways. God’s Message is quite direct in stating that “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” and “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” Yet, all of the time we condemn ugly sins while silently ignoring the pretty ones. We like to categorize others as sinners and ourselves as righteous. A job in the institutional church is “ministry” while all other occupations are not. Everything from music, to art, to books are divided into either “secular” or “sacred.”

In Paul’s letter to the believers in the region of ancient Galatia he finds himself struggling to keep Jesus’ followers from falling back into their gap instincts. One of the marks of Jesus’ teaching and the believers of the early Jesus Movement was that they bridged long-held gaps between people. In Jesus, there were no distinctions. Everyone was welcome at the table regardless of gender, race, background, history, or socio-economic standing.

Now, in Paul’s absence, some Jewish legalists claiming to be followers of Jesus have begun to rebuild the distinctions. Primarily, they were teaching that if a person wanted to follow Jesus they would have to follow all the old rules and regulations of the Jewish law and customs. Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus could only do so through being a good Jew. With it, all the old gaps, distinctions, and differences would be firmly back in place.

Paul does not mince words. He tells the believers that falling back into their old gap instincts is complete foolishness. For his good Jewish readers who need convincing, he makes his case by citing both Law and prophet. He, once again, tears down the gaps:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In the quiet this morning I’ve been examining my own heart and looking for my own person gap instincts. Where have I set up distinctions in my own mind? Who’s in and who’s out? Who’s acceptable and who’s not? Who is wrong where I am right? Who is the sinner on the opposite side of my (self-)righteousness?

Lord, have mercy on me. Tear down the distinctions routinely I make with my own gap instincts. Renew my mind. Help me see as you see, think as you think.

In my silent prayer, the Spirit whispered this passage to my spirit:

If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Philippians 2:1-8 (MSG)

Have a great day, my friend. If you need me today, you’ll find me over there bridging some of my gaps.