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.
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.
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.
I have strayed like a lost sheep.
Seek your servant,
for I have not forgotten your commands.
Psalm 119:176 (NIV)
Like Psalm 117, the chapter from two days ago, Psalm 119 is also widely known as a trivial pursuit question. Coming in a mere two verses, Psalm 117 is the shortest psalm and shortest chapter of the Bible. The 176 verses of Psalm 119 make it the longest psalm and longest chapter in the Bible. If you actually read today’s chapter then you should pat yourself on the back for the accomplishment.
What makes this epic Hebrew lay even more fascinating is that the entire thing is about one central theme: The Great Story. The lyricist used eight different Hebrew words which get translated into English as law, word, commands, precepts, statutes, promises, and decrees. What’s also lost in the translation to English is that each stanza of the song begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet and every line of that stanza begins with the same letter. Psalm 119 is really an ancient work of art.
As I read through the lyrics, I couldn’t help but think about my own journey of reading, studying, meditating on, and memorizing the Great Story. It has been pretty much a daily part of my life for forty years. As I read it this morning, there were so many pieces of the psalm with which I identified with the lyrics. I have no regrets about my devotion to studying the Great Story. It has made me a better person and taught me so much wisdom.
Having said that, I also freely admit that it has not made me a perfect person. And that is one of the things I love about the writer of Psalm 119. Despite his almost fanatical dedication, the songwriter freely confesses on several occasions to his shortcomings, mistakes, and failures. The entire thing ends with the author admitting to being a “lost sheep” and asking the Great Shepherd to “seek your servant.” I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words:
By this time a lot of men and women of questionable reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.
“Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself holding the tension of both my spiritual pursuit and my personal journey. As I sit here and type, I stare over the top of my laptop at a shelf of Bibles lined up together. They are the Bibles that I have read, studied, and marked up over forty years. There’s the puke-green Living Bible my parents gave me when I was a kid. There’s the cheap faux leather version held together by red duct tape, and the paperback that’s covered with personal photos and ephemera. There are resource versions used for specific purposes across the years. And then there’s the beautiful seven-volume copy of the illuminated St. John’s Bible that I’ve collected.
And yet, like the lyricist of Psalm 119, my life has been dotted with foolish choices, acts of gross disobedience, and personal failures. You can accuse me of being a hypocrite, and I won’t deny it. In our current world of cancel culture, there are plenty of past mistakes that the mob of political and moral busybodies could use to summarily dismiss me and write me off. C’est la vie. Making the Great Story a part of my daily life hasn’t made me perfect or pure, but the Great Shepherd has always used it to find this lost sheep and call me back to the fold. My perpetual journey through the Great Story has helped me to slowly, steadily, sometimes haltingly, grow into becoming my true self. I hate to imagine the person I would be today without it.
He made for the altar a grating, a network of bronze, under its ledge, extending halfway down.
Exodus 38:4 (NRSVCE)
One of the things I’ve observed along my life journey is what little appreciation I often have for how good I have it, and how different (i.e. comparatively great) life is today compared to the other 99% of human history.
Those who read the text version of my posts may notice that I will often quote different verses from different English translations and paraphrases. I typically will put a little parenthetical acronym behind the reference to let those who care about such things know which translation or paraphrase the quote is from. And, those who care about such things may have noticed that these chapter-a-day posts from my current journey through the Exodus story have come from the NRSVCE which stands for New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition.
What’s strange about that?
Well, I am not, nor have I ever been, Roman Catholic (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! [cue: rimshot]).
I have been reading the chapter each morning from the St. John’s Bible, which happens to be the NRSVCE translation. (Stick with me here, there is a point to all of this.)
The events we are reading about in Exodus happened somewhere roughly around 1500 BC/BCE. It was roughly 1500 AD/CE when Gutenberg and his printing press created the first mass-printed copies of the Exodus text. That means for 3000 years the only copies of Exodus were those which were copied by hand using whatever utensils and materials were available. For roughly a thousand years, followers of Jesus painstakingly copied the texts of the Great Story and added to their handwritten copies beautiful calligraphy, ornate illustrations, and artistic flourishes. These have come to be known as “illuminated manuscripts” which now are typically only found in museums and rare book shops.
After mass printing became available, the art of illuminated manuscripts became obsolete. But in 1998 Queen Elizabeth’s calligrapher, Donald Jackson, in conjunction with fellow scribes and some scholars from St. John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota, began work on a handwritten, illuminated manuscript of the Great Story. It’s the first one of its kind in 500 years. The combination text and artwork have been published in seven gorgeous volumes that Wendy and girls have gifted to me over the years. So each morning of this journey through the Exodus story I have come to the quiet of my office and read the chapter in the beautiful calligraphy of the St. John’s Bible.
This morning, I encountered something unusual. Donald Jackson and his fellow human scribes made an error. They left out the first half of verse four. Ugh. I can imagine when you put in countless hours of painstaking, intense artistic labor you don’t simply just scrap the page and start over. So what do you do?
In the margin of today’s chapter, the scribes drew a beautiful eagle holding a rope in its talons and its beak pointing to the space between lines where the missing text was supposed to go. The rope in the eagle’s talons descends all the way to the bottom of the page where I found the first half of verse four inside a text box around which the eagle’s rope appears to be hand-tied and knotted.
Brilliant, and beautiful.
In yesterday’s post, I noted that sometimes with the seemingly boring and rote information in certain chapters of the Great Story I have to look outside the text in order to find what God’s Spirit has to teach me that day. It’s always there if I’m open to it, and it’s taught me an important spiritual lesson: In God’s creation, everything is connected. Yesterday it was in the meta-communication of repetition that I found meaning. Today, I find my lesson in the human error of the handwritten text.
The scribes of the St. John’s Bible made a mistake. I wonder how far along they were on the page before they discovered it, or had it been completed before an editor discovered the bad news? I can only imagine the guttural groan of the calligraphers, the agonizing team meeting that may have taken place, and the depths of artistic shame and despair that may have accompanied the moments the oversight came to light.
This life journey is filled with human mistakes. Buy me a pint and I will give you an entire list of mistakes I’ve made along the way (it might cost you two pints, there are a lot of them). Mistakes that, when they came to light, created all sorts of groans, agonizing, shame, and despair for me. But, I’ve discovered through those stretches of life’s road that God is not a God of condemnation and shame. That’s just human experience projected on the divine or the enemy twisting the truth and passing it off to those who have no desire to ask, seek, or knock. God does what the scribes of the St. John’s Bible did. He takes my failures and shame and does something artistic with it. He molds the old mistakes into a new creation. He redeems it.
In the quiet this morning, this ancient lyric from Psalm 30 (MSG) rose from my memory bank. It’s written by King David (who had a boat-load of his own failures and shame):
I give you all the credit, God—
you got me out of that mess,
you didn’t let my foes gloat.
God, my God, I yelled for help
and you put me together.
God, you pulled me out of the grave,
gave me another chance at life
when I was down-and-out.
You did it: you changed wild lament
into whirling dance;
You ripped off my black mourning band
and decked me with wildflowers.
I’m about to burst with song;
I can’t keep quiet about you.
God, my God,
I can’t thank you enough.
If you find yourself staring at the consequences of your own mistakes and failures, trust that God wants to make something beautiful out of it. As God put it to the Hebrews after delivering them out of Egypt: “I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to myself.“
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord….
Exodus 15:1 (NRSVCE)
I have a confession to make. I have always wished I had a gift in music. Sure, I did the requisite year or two of lessons as a kid, but nothing every really clicked for me. I sang in the church youth choir and continued to sing in church and school groups for years. I taught myself a bunch of chords on the guitar so I could sing a few Bob Dylan songs on my back porch on a summer evening, and serenade our daughters to sleep singing Forever Young. But, that’s not the gift of music.
I remember an episode of M*A*S*H I watched as a kid. One of the doctors, Major Winchester, was a patrician blue blood with a knowledge of all the fine things of life. He finds himself having to amputate the hand of a patient, only to recognize the young man as one of the world’s up-and-coming virtuoso pianists. The Major goes to great lengths to ensure that the man does not let the loss of his hand prevent him from playing. His response was that young man had a gift and he couldn’t let that go to waste. “I could always play the notes,” Winchester said, “but I could never make the music.”
Bingo! One of the best delineations between competence and giftedness I’ve ever heard.
So, I’ve never been a gifted musicians, and that’s okay. My gifts are in other areas. But it doesn’t stop me from appreciating music. I believe that God infused music with powerful properties. One of them is the way music ties us emotionally and spiritually to moments of our life journeys.
When I started to read the lyrics to the Hebrews’ victory song in today’s chapter I was immediately transported back to my high school youth group on a summer morning clapping and singing these same lyrics to an acoustic guitar.
As soon as I hear the Hollies’ classing Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress I am ten years old and in cabin 3 at Camp Idelwood on Rainy Lake, Minnesota. It’s a cold, rainy day and I’m stuck in the cabin with Mark Malone, Piper, Matt, and my sister Jody.
When I hear The Old Rugged Cross you might notice me smile softly and catch a tear welling-up in my eye. That was my grandma Golly’s song, and the music connects me forever to her.
You get it. I know you do. We all do. That’s the power of music.
Three Times a Lady: My first kiss.
Bridge of Troubled Waters: Road trip to Le Mars and 8-track tapes.
The Joshua Tree: Judson College
Psycho-Killer: Backstage. Pre-show. Kirk.
In today’s chapter, the Hebrews celebrate what God has done with a song. They lyrics are recorded and handed down generation-to-generation. What the tune originally sounded like is lost in the depths of time, but thousands of years later me and my friends at church were singing the same lyrics as we clapped and sang and worshipped God on a summer morning.
How cool is that?
I don’t know about you, but life has felt so heavy the past week or two. The weight of months of quarantine and social distancing, life out-of-whack, George Floyd, riots, violence. Ugh.
As I returned from my road trip on Wednesday I happened upon Bob Dylan and gospel great Mavis Staples singing Dylan’s song called Change My Way of Thinkin’. In one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard in modern music, they stop the music to act out a scripted vignette in which Dylan tells Mavis that he’s got the blues.
Dylan: I been up all night with insomnia reading Snoozeweek.
Staples: Snoozeweek? That ain’t no way to get rid of the blues. You’ve got to sing!
With that, they launch back into the raucous gospel-blues tune.
Here’s the song on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/0ssPo81sHtsS1VfFn4DtjH?si=ftZZt5b0SMKc7BYQjgSBUw
Thanks, Mavis. What a good reminder. And this morning in the quiet it reminds me that in connecting us emotionally and spiritually to people, places, and events, music also has healing properties.
Mavis Staples is right. Staying awake all night watching the news is no cure for the blues. We need music. We need to surround ourselves in the beat, the melody, the lyrics that will lift our spirit and help us extricate the weight of the moment by expressing it.
Gonna Change My Way of Thinkin’ did that for me.
Think about it. Try it. Let me know what song or songs help you. I’m curious to know.
Rock on, my friend.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
1 John 3:17-18 (NIV)
Very early in my spiritual journey, I was given the task by my mentor of choosing a couple of verses that would be my “Life Verse.” In other words, they were verses from God’s Message that I wanted to shape and inform the rest of my life. I was a young teenager at the time.
One of the verses I chose in that exercise still hangs on the wall in my office, written in calligraphy by one my brothers. It was a gift to me many years ago. That verse is from today’s chapter, which I originally memorized from the Living Bible paraphrase:
Little children, let us stop just saying we love people; let us really love them, and show it by our actions.
That verse understandably leapt off the page at me this morning, but the thing I really noticed was the verse before my life verse:
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?
I have to confess this morning that generosity was not something that came naturally for me. Growing up, I had everything that I needed, but definitely not all that I wanted. Being the youngest of four, I grew up used to receiving the things handed down to me. Somewhere early in life, I developed a gross measure of selfishness. Any money I was given or earned flowed quickly and freely through my fingers. I would quickly spend everything I had to get something, anything that was new and shiny, and all mine even if it was something I quickly consumed.
Along my spiritual journey, I eventually had to own up to the fact that I had a massive blind spot. I was deep in debt, had very little to show for it, and a look at my finances would reveal that my behavior pattern hadn’t changed since I was a young boy. I continued to quickly spend everything I had (even money I didn’t have) to get something, anything that was new and shiny, and all mine even if it was something I quickly consumed.
The harsh truth of the matter was that I had memorized words that said I wanted to love people and show it by my actions. Ask me and I could rattle it off by heart at the drop of a hat complete with the reference. If you asked me to recite the verse before it, I would have looked at you with a blank stare. I had completely ignored the description of what that love by action really meant. How can I say that the love of God is in me and that I am following Jesus when everything in my life revealed a total lack of generosity fueled by endless and out-of-control consumption?
I am glad that this life is a spiritual journey. It allows time and opportunity for old things to pass away, and new things to come. Just as John had to be transformed by love to address his anger, rage, and lust for prominence (which I wrote about in yesterday’s post), I needed to be transformed by love to address my selfish consumption, fiscal irresponsibility, and lack of generosity.
I confess that writing this post is a little uncomfortable for me this morning. However, that’s another lesson I’ve learned along my journey: If I’m not at least a little uncomfortable then I’m not making progress.
Before me lies another day. In fact, it’s day 19,723 for me (FYI: You can quickly calculate your days at this website). It’s time to press on.
Thanks for reading, my friend.
When you sit to dine with a ruler,
note well what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat
if you are given to gluttony.
Proverbs 23:1-2 (NIV)
When I was starting out in my career, we had miser in charge of our company’s travel expenses. It was dictated that we would stay in the cheapest places, rent the cheapest cars, and keep our meals to a minimum. In many cases, the cheapest alternatives were zealously investigated and it was required that we use them.
I still have memories of the hole-in-the-wall car rental place that this person found. It was a true “rent-a-dent” with a small fleet of small, two-door Grand Prix Pontiacs. They were almost all red and they had been purchased from other car rental places on the cheap because they had high-mileage, lots of wear, ran rough, and every single one of them had been the used by their previous owners as the cars designated for smokers. Even the $17 a day we paid was overpriced for these barely roadworthy pieces of junk. I now look back and laugh at those days like a veteran road warrior swapping battle stories, but it really was extreme.
I’m happy to say that after a few years the travel restrictions were eased. We were allowed to stay in mid-tier hotels and negotiated an account with one of the major car rental companies. Our per diem for meals was eased to a reasonable limit. Nevertheless, the standard had been set. We watch what we spend, what gets charged to the client, and always keep it reasonable.
A few years later, I was having lunch with the CEO of a large client we were privileged to serve for many years.
“You know why I love you and your company? Why I respect you and keep doing business with you?” he asked me unexpectedly in his thick New York Jewish accent.
I was honestly curious to know.
“It’s your expense reports,” he quickly said in response to his own question without waiting for me to answer, “You don’t try and gouge me. You wouldn’t believe what most vendors try and get away with. They expect me to pay for the magazines they buy to read on the plane and $200 bottles of wine at lunch. It’s ridiculous. Your team always just charges me for the basics, and it’s always reasonable. That tells me a lot about your company.”
I thought about that lunch, and that CEO, as I read this morning’s chapter and the sage saying of ancient Jewish wisdom at the top of this post. That lunch was an important waypoint in my career as I began to see myself through the eyes of the decision makers who hire our company. While the miser I first experienced as a corporate rookie took things to an unnecessary extreme, I came to understand the wisdom that motivated their frugality. Clients pay attention to what we charge them, and they make judgements about our integrity, our character, and our relationship because of it.
In the quiet this morning, I’m smiling and whispering a prayer of gratitude for the person who made me endure long road trips in a stale, smoke-smelling rust-buckets. It wasn’t fun at the time, but it taught me an important lesson. And, it became a really good story for those days when I find myself comparing battle scars with fellow road warriors at the airport.
Now that I find myself at the top of the company’s org chart, I know that there are clients who assume that I will expect a higher level of travel experience when I’m on business with their company. I’ve even had a few clients encourage me to stay in nicer places and/or enjoy a higher-ticket meal or two than what they see I charged on my expense report. I thank them, and then I purposefully and silently refuse to do so. When it comes to next year’s contract, I never want to give the client any reason, even a small reason, to suspend or end our relationship.