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.
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 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.
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.
…Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
Mark 6:20 (NIV)
Here in Iowa, the science of agriculture is big business. Each autumn when harvest rolls around the crop yield is a make-it or break-it reality for farmers. Which is why I know friends whose livelihoods are spent studying soil and seeds to try and grow as much as the land can possibly yield. As I have often confessed, agriculture is not something about which I have vast knowledge. Just enough to appreciate a good parable.
As I’ve trekked my way through the Great Story again and again over the past forty years, I’ve learned that sometimes the lesson is not in microscopically mining the minutia of the text, but in stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.
Back in chapter four, Mark records Jesus parable of the sower, in which the Word falls like seed on different human hearts that each are like a different quality of soil. A quick recap:
- Like seed fallen on a hardened footpath: A soon as this person hears it, the enemy snatches it away like a bird.
- Like seed fallen on rocky ground: Life sprouts in them, but it doesn’t put down roots and can’t survive through difficult weather.
- Like seed fallen among thornbushes: Sprout and grow, but the things of this world choke it and render it unfruitful.
- Like seed fallen on good soil: Sprout, put down roots, grow, and bear fruit.
Starting in chapter Five and continuing in today’s chapter, Mark records stories of different people who rejected Jesus, His teaching, and His miracles.
Despite the fact that Jesus drove the demons from the heart of the man living among the tombs of the Gerasenes, the townspeople wanted nothing to do with Jesus. Their hearts are like the hardened footpath. It’s as if the demons snatched the Word from their hearts on their way from the man to the pigs.
In today’s chapter, Jesus goes home to Nazareth. The people of Nazareth listened to Jesus’ teaching, and some were amazed as if the Word was sprouting new life in them. But ultimately, nothing took root as their hearts couldn’t see past their prejudices: “How could Jesus Bar Joseph, the Carpenter’s boy who fixed my chair that one time, be a rabbi?”
Then we get to Herod Antipas, the local ruler of Galilee. Herod sits atop one of the “kingdoms of this world,” the descendant and co-heir of a ruthless tyrant who amassed wealth, political power, and all the luxuries it affords through corruption, deceit, and bloodshed. When Satan went “all-in” and offered Jesus with all the “Kingdoms of this World,” Herod’s kingdom was there in the pot, and Jesus knew it. Jesus grew up knowing all about Herod’s wealth, power, fortunes, women, and fame.
Mark then does something unusual compared to what we’ve read thus far in his biography of Jesus. Mark tells a story that is not about Jesus, but about Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. It gives us a picture of seed that falls among the world’s thorn bushes.
Some quick gossip from the tabloids at the checkout line at the Galilean grocery stores: There was a whole sex scandal in Herodian royal family, and Herod Antipas ends up marrying his brother’s wife. John the Baptist is a local religious figure who is extremely popular and extremely revered by all the deplorable religious types in Herod’s constituency. John publicly preaches against the immorality in the Herodian palace, and Herod can’t risk a drop in his approval rating so he has John arrested. He even has John brought before him (and his guests on occasion) to hear his religious rants. Mark tells us that Herod, “liked to listen to him.”
To Herod, John and his message are playthings. They are one more thing that wealth and power afford him. He has his own holy man at his beck-and-call. John is God’s little vine surviving amidst the entrenched hedge of Herod’s prickly power. Herod might have John preach for him and his party-guests. He might have John beheaded at the whim of his lust for his own step-daughter. It is of little consequence for him. He can always find another holy man: “I keep hearing about this Nazarene,” I can hear him say to his dinner guest after John’s head is carried out on a platter. “Maybe I should arrest him. John’s sermons were so entertaining. I’ll miss them.”
In the quiet this morning, I am reminded that Jesus had as many enemies, detractors, and people who dismissed His teaching as He had disciples. Perhaps 3 to 1 if the parable is any indication. My experience is that Jesus’ followers rarely think much about this reality.
And so I find myself thinking about the soil of my own heart.
Is my heart hard and unyielding?
Is my heart shallow and unwilling to put down spiritual roots?
Is my heart choked, overshadowed, and/or overgrown by the things of this world?
Is my heart fruitful with the mixed-fruit of faith, hope, and love?
As I meditated on the metaphor again this morning, I found myself mulling over the fact that the seed among the thorns and the seed on the good soil both sprout, take root, and grow. The only difference Jesus described was that the good-soil plant was fruitful while the plant choked by the thorns of this world didn’t yield fruit.
I also find myself thinking about these chapter-a-day blog posts and podcasts that I scatter across the internet each weekday wondering where in the world they might land. Hard soil? Rocky soil? Thorn bushes? Good soil? I have learned that there is both grief and freedom in not knowing the answer. Such is the lot of the sower who must wait until harvest to know the yield.
I hope this lands well with you, my friend.
Have a great day.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
One of the thieves of my sleep is the never-ending task list. As my sleep ebbs and flows in the darkness from deep sleep to semi-consciousness, my brain tends to use the relative wakefulness of semi-consciousness (typically around 3:30 a.m.) to begin spinning on all the tasks I didn’t accomplish the day before along with the ones that I are on the list for the following day. There are mornings that I can’t shut my brain off and return to some restful log sawing. Hello insomnia, my old friend.
In today’s chapter, Psalm 149, I noticed one of the recurring thematic devices used by the lyricists of these ancient Hebrew songs we call psalms. I’d call it the “bookends of praise.” The song begins and ends with what is essentially a tag: “Praise the LORD.”
As I sat contemplating this device, I was reminded of a line from the lyrics of Psalm 113 (which is also bookended with praise):
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
the name of the Lord is to be praised.
I can certainly interpret this familiar line as telling me that my day should be filled with perpetual praise, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As I meditated on it this morning, I thought of it as the perpetuation of the metaphor of this device. As the song is bookended in praise, beginning and end, so my day should be bookended in praise, when I arise and when I lie down. I should begin my day by offering God praise, and end each day offering God praise.
And this is where I have a confession to make. As a morning person, I’ve developed a discipline of spending time with God in the quiet each morning. I’ve got the “rising of the sun” part of the praise bookends down pat. It’s the “place where it sets” part that I’m realizing falls woefully short. Wendy will tell you that it’s not uncommon for me to be in a deep sleep before she has a chance to finish her bedtime routine.
Somehow the childhood discipline my parents instilled in me of “saying my prayers” before bed got lost somewhere in my daily routine. I might do it once in a while, but its honestly few and far between. Have I unconsciously decided that my morning quiet time has got all the spiritual bases covered?
Then I thought about actual bookends. What happens when I’m missing one bookend on the shelf? The books spill out of that end. Is it possible that without bookending my day in the “place where it sets” with praise and a moment of conversation with God, that I’m allowing all of the tasks and pressures of my day to spill out into the night like thieves to rob me of my sleep? If I build a discipline of offering up praise for all the good things in my day, and I offer up my tasks and stresses to be entrusted to the God who cares for me, might it be a spiritual bookend that will help guard my heart and mind from being robbed of slumber?
I’m guessing I know the answer.
Some mornings, the action step from my time of quiet is crystal clear.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
And he has raised up for his people a horn,
the praise of all his faithful servants…
Psalm 148: 14 (NIV)
There is a story in the book of Acts in which Paul and Silas were imprisoned the dungeon of a town called Philippi. About midnight the two of them were singing praises and hymns as they prayed. Suddenly an earthquake struck, loosening their chains and breaking open the prison doors. Talk about dramatic. Sometimes our praise has a miraculous, dramatic effect.
In his book, The Philippian Fragment, Calvin Miller tells the fictional story of a first-century pastor in the same town of Philippi who happened be imprisoned in the same cell along with one of his elders. The pastor sees, scratched on the dungeon wall, the names “Paul and Silas.”
Remembering how Paul and Silas sang at midnight as God sent an earthquake to open the doors of the jail, we took courage. “Do it again, God!” cried Coriolanus near midnight. He began to sing a hymn in monotone, and I joined in. We praised God at full volume with some of the great songs of the faith. Ever and anon we stopped to see if we could hear even the faintest rumblings of a quake. By three in the morning we still had not raised a tremor and decided to give it up. There seemed so little to rejoice about.
Suddenly a jailor who had heard us singing sprang into the cell.
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he asked.
We told him in great joy.
“I can’t do that,” he said. “It’s too risky.”
As he left, he yelled over his shoulder, “Would you cut out the noise. It’s three in the morning.”
Still, I felt better for simply having praised Him. Praise clears the heart and dusts the mind of selfishness. It lifts the spirit and transforms the prison to an altar where we may behold the buoyant love of Christ.
It is not jailors who make convicts. It is the self-pitying mind that makes a man a captive.Praise frees us. The jail cannot contain the heart that turns itself to attend the excellency of Christ. “Gloria in excelsis!” deals with stone walls and iron bars in its own way. When morning finally came, I was elated. I found a flint rock in the cell and scratched our own names above the etching of Paul and Silas: “Eusebius and Coriolanus—We sang at midnight and felt much better the next morning.”
Today’s chapter, Psalm 148, is at the center of the final five songs of praise in the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics known as the Psalms. As we’ve discovered on this chapter-a-day journey, ancient Hebrew songs often put the central theme of the song smack-dab in the middle. The central theme was in the center holding the core. When the editors of the compilation put the last five songs of praise together, they placed today’s song smack-dab in the middle. It holds the core of the final theme of praise.
Praise is a central theme throughout the Great Story. When rebuked by the religious leaders for His followers shouting His praise, Jesus replied that even if they were silent the rocks would “cry out.” Today’s psalm speaks of all creation praising God, and in fact all matter does continually resonate at frequencies we can’t hear. The universe itself perpetually resonates at 432hz. When John was given a vision of heaven’s Throne Room in his Revelation, he describes it as a scene of endless praise.
Along my life journey, I have learned that praise sincerely offered whether in word, song, or thought is a spiritual activator. To the ancients, a “horn” was a metaphor of strength, and the lyricist of today’s song made clear that there is strength in praise. When I choose to offer up heart-felt praise from the prison of my own circumstances, there is a shift that occurs. It might be a miraculous shift in the tectonic plates of life as Paul and Silas experienced. It might be simply a shift in my faith and spirit as Eusebius and Coriolanus experienced. I’ve learned not to worry about the results and to simply let my praise hold the core in the moment. Whenever I sing praises in the darkness, I always end up feeling “much better in the morning.”
Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
Psalm 146:3 (NIV)
Many years ago, our little town had a local Shakespeare Company that would produce a play each summer in the local park. Wendy and I were cast in Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy about a man and woman who despise one another and how this couple falls in love. Wendy was cast as the female lead, Beatrice, who in the beginning of the play waxes cynical about romance. When asked if she will every marry, she replies, “Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth.”
That line came to mind this morning as I meditated on today’s chapter, Psalm 146, in which the lyrics warn those listening to the song to avoid putting trust in human beings.
Along my life journey, I have observed that human systems almost always end up serving those who control them, unless those who control them have the rare quality of being both humble enough to eschew personal gain in order to serve everyone in the system and having the authority to ensure it stays that way.
Thus Beatrice waxes cynical to find a man who will serve her, honor her, and treat her as an equal partner rather than as a possession and chattel as human systems treated wives through most of human history.
Thus families become dysfunctional and unhealthy systems that end up hurting the ones they are supposed to protect and prepare for perpetuating healthy marriages and families for the next generation.
Thus organizations intended to serve the good of many become rackets that line the pride and pockets of the few in power at the top of the org chart.
Thus businesses established with eloquent vision and mission statements about valuing employees and exceptional service to customers end up cutting jobs and providing the least acceptable levels of service in order to eek out a few more pennies of dividend for shareholders.
Thus governments (of every type and “ism”) end up with those at the top offices rigging the system for themselves and their cronies while paying lip service to helping those living hand-to-mouth on a day-by-day basis.
I know this sounds cynical, yet I feel for where Beatrice is coming from. And, I have to confess that as a follower of Jesus I find myself in the quiet this morning hearing the words of Jesus and the teachings that call me to act against the grain of the systems of this world:
“Whoever wants to be ‘great’ and lead others but become the servant of all.”
“Husbands, love your wives sacrificially, even as Jesus showed us what love is by sacrificing Himself to save us.”
“Fathers, don’t exasperate your children.”
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone.”
“Do you have individuals who work for you? Then treat them the way you want to be treated, the way that Jesus has treated you, and the way Jesus has called you to do. From a sincere heart, respect them, treat them honorably, and compensate them for the good they do.”
In find it fascinating that Jesus arguably never directly addressed those who were in control of systems of human power. The only one He did address was the Hebrew religious system who were supposed to recognize Him, but killed Him to protect their power, privilege, and profits. When given the opportunity to address the political powers of His day, King Herod and the Roman Empire, he largely kept His mouth shut.
In the quiet this morning, my mind wanders back to Beatrice and her mail foil, Benedict. Through the course of the play they have a change of heart, and you can guess where that leads. All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story, and therein I see a reflection of what Jesus was about. Jesus was not about creating or changing humans systems of power in order to, top-down, force God’s will over individuals. That’s nothing more than using the world’s playbook against itself, and I only have to look at the headlines to see how that’s working out. Jesus’ taught that the Kingdom of God paradigm is to change the hearts of individuals in order to motivate love and service to others, that in turn creates change within human systems of power from the bottom-up. It’s what He demonstrated on the cross, when the sacrifice of One served to effect change in the many, who effected change in many more.
I hear Wendy in the kitchen making my blueberry spinach smoothie, and it’s time to wrap-up my time of quiet this morning. As I do, I find myself taking a personal inventory of life and spirit. As a husband, as a father, as a grandfather, as an employer, and as a organizational leader in my community, am I reflecting the character of humility, servant-heartedness, honor, respect, and generosity to which Jesus has called me? Immediately, things come to mind to which I need to add to my task list. I better get started.
Have a great day, my friend.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
But my eyes are fixed on you, Sovereign Lord…
Psalm 141:8a (NIV)
When I was a child, I went through all of the religious rituals associated with the church to which my family were members. My parents had me baptized as an infant. I attended Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. I sang in the children’s choir. I participated in, and volunteered to help with, social activities hosted by the church (including the annual “Christmas bazaar” which I remember being a really big deal in my little kid perception). When I was thirteen, I attended confirmation classes and learned what the church believed. I took the test, agreed to accept the terms of membership, and then received my certificate and my own personal box of offering envelopes.
What I came to realize a year or two later was that all of the ritual, participation, knowledge and cognitive assent to a belief statement had relatively little effect on my motives, my thoughts, my words, or my actions. Knowing about Jesus was not the same as knowing Jesus and being in relationship.
That contrast came to heart and mind in the quiet this morning as I meditated on the text of today’s chapter, Psalm 141. There is little doubt that the editors who compiled the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics, that we know as the book of Psalms, were deliberate in putting Psalms 140 and 141 next to each other. They bookend each other well. Both are ascribed to David and both of them feature a lot of physiological metaphors. The biggest contrast is that Psalm 140 uses the physiological metaphors to describe an unrighteous person:
- stir up war in their hearts
- sharpen their tongues
- poison on their lips
- hands of the wicked
Psalm 141, uses physiological metaphors to describe a righteous person:
- a heart that refuses evil
- hands lifted in worship
- a guard on one’s mouth
- a door on the lips
- a head that receives accountability
- eyes fixed on God
As I mulled over the contrasting descriptions, it reminded me of being a young man and realizing that having a membership certificate to my local church, knowledge of basic beliefs, and dutifully participating in ritual had not translated into making a difference in my self-centeredness, my selfish behavior, my relationships with others, my actions, or my words. I was a egotistical, selfish little prick much of the time. I knew that I could play a good game, but I was also really self-aware enough to know that there were ugly things at the core which needed to change. I knew about the things Psalm 141 describes, but an honest self-examination and moral inventory revealed a person more like what Psalm 140 describes.
So, about that time I stopped just knowing about Jesus, and I decided to seek to know and follow Jesus in a very different way. It’s definitely been a forty-year process and spiritual journey. In the quiet this morning I find myself mulling over the person I would be today had I not made that decision. I can only imagine a grown-up version of the young man with ugly things at the core. An arrogant, egocentric big prick with a sharp tongue, and a heart in turmoil.
I’m not perfect by any means, and I could point you to a person or two who I suspect might tell you I’m still an arrogant, egocentric prick. I have my ugly moments. But oh, how worse it would be had I not discovered the contrast between knowing about Jesus and knowing Him.
Sovereign Lord, my strong deliverer,
you shield my head in the day of battle.
Psalm 140:5 (NIV)
Ever since I was a kid, I have been one to excessively ruminate on conflict or personal problems that I encounter along life’s road. When this happens, I can’t stop thinking about it, mulling it over, replaying things again and again in my head. When it’s really bad, my ceaseless ruminations can steal my sleep and paralyze me from effectively managing other important things in life.
The word “ruminate” has only been a common part of the English language since the 1500s. It derives from a Latin word that refers to animals, specifically cows, who can dredge up already chewed and partially digested food from their stomachs in order to chew it again. This is commonly referred to as a cow “chewing the cud.” I realize that’s a rather gross word, picture. But, it is an apt word picture for the thing my mind does with problems and conflicts.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 140, is another song ascribed to King David. Like other songs of David, he is lamenting unnamed enemies who are bent on his personal and political destruction. What is interesting about the lyrics of this song is the multiple physiological metaphors David uses:
- stir up war in their hearts
- sharpen their tongues
- poison on their lips
- hands of the wicked
- trip my feet
As is common with ancient Hebrew songwriting, the central stanza of today’s chapter provides the main theme for the song. And I couldn’t help but notice that David asks God to “shield my head” in the day of battle. Of course, head injuries in human battle can easily be fatal, but as I read it I immediately thought about the conflicts, problems, and relational battles I’ve encountered along life’s road and my seemingly endless ruminating when they occur. I have found that me regurgitating an issue and chewing it over, and over, and over can be as much a spiritual and emotional threat to my well-being as a warrior going into fire-fight without their helmet.
I love that David asks God to shield his head. It’s my own brain that so easily works against me in times of trouble. I also love that David poured out his heart, his conflicts, and his problems in musical and lyrical prayers. I have to believe it was a healthy form of expression that helped him get things out so that they wouldn’t be bottled up inside where rumination can easily lead to unhealthy places.
In the quiet this morning, I’ve thinking back on circumstances that have led to ruminating in the last year or two. I have gotten better at recognizing when I’m doing it and addressing it sooner. I’ve gotten better at getting it out in conversations with the inner circle of confidants I’m blessed to have in my life. I’ve also learned that expressing things in handwritten prayers in my morning pages can be a really good antidote for ruminating.
Along life’s road I’ve observed that my natural temperament, personality, and bents lead me to certain patterns of reaction to negative stimuli I encounter along the way. Some of these natural reactions are both unhealthy and unproductive. Being a follower of Jesus, my relationship has motivated and challenged me to actively address some of my less than stellar traits, like my ruminating. By choosing to get out my ruminations, I make room for my heart and mind to meditate on the things with which Jesus asks me to fill them.