Tag Archives: Christianity

Losing the Truth of Loss

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You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
Exodus 22:21-24 (NRSVCE)

I find it fascinating, as I read the laws of Moses in today’s chapter, that the Hebrews were commanded by God to take care of foreigners living among them, and to take care of socially and economically disadvantaged groups within their society. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene some 1500 years later, the Temple in Jerusalem had become a religious racket (which is why Jesus drove the currency exchange vendors out of the Temple). The religious system prescribed through Moses had become an institution that made money for the the chief priests and religious leaders who then leveraged their power and authority to line their own pockets at the expense of their own people, while they prejudicially looked down on anyone who wasn’t one of them. They religiously kept the rules that made them look pious while finding excuses for ignoring those that might require real compassion and generosity.

One of the reasons the early Jesus Movement grew so rapidly was the fact that Jesus’ followers were radically challenging the social structures of the day. There were no church buildings. They met in homes around the supper table and, at that table, everyone was welcome to sit together. Both women and men, Jews and non-Jews, and even slaves were welcomed to sit at the table with their master. Beyond that, the followers of Jesus took care of those who were socially and economically disadvantaged in the society of that day including widows, orphans, and lepers.

When Christianity became the state religion of Rome a few hundred years later, the Jesus Movement became a powerful religious and political institution almost overnight. The good news is that Christians would no longer be persecuted and fed to the lions in the Roman Circus. The way was paved for sincere teachers and theologians to meet together, debate, and establish core doctrines. With the authority of the Roman Empire, there was an opportunity for real change.

Interestingly enough, what followed was ironically similar to the very things Jesus criticized in the religious leaders of His own people. The movement moved from the supper tables in peoples homes to churches and cathedrals, which required a lot of money. Generosity to disadvantaged groups was curtailed as funds were shifted to lining the pockets of the church leaders and their churches and residences. Women were once again diminished as male dominance was established within the institution. Those who threatened the emerging orthodoxy, like the desert fathers and mothers, were branded heretics and either killed or forced to flee. Leadership positions in the church suddenly became positions of socio-economic and political power that were bought, sold, and traded by rich, powerful, and connected families. That’s how we eventually ended up with an eleven-year-old pope (Pope Benedict IX).

In the quiet this morning, I find myself asking a lot of questions. Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the last year grappling with the mega-trends we’re seeing in our culture and our world. There are fewer and fewer individuals claiming to be Christians. Churches, especially here in rural and small-town America, are closing for lack of members. Christianity is no longer accepted as the prevailing cultural worldview in our culture, and there is open and growing antagonism as the historic sins and failings of church institutions spark anger and resentment in many circles. Meanwhile, around the world, Christians are being persecuted and killed without earning much attention.

As a follower of Jesus, I find myself wondering if all of this is simply going to lead Jesus’ followers back to our roots. The history of the Hebrews and the history of Christianity both reveal to me that when the heart of God’s message to care for strangers, aliens, and disadvantaged groups is lost amidst the desire for social, economic, and political power, then there is a loss of spiritual potency and legitimacy. I can’t help but believe that the loss of cultural prominence is actually the road back to spiritual progress. The way of Jesus has always been about letting go, giving up, and leaving behind. The diminishment of self for the gain of others is not an optional path for those followers of Jesus who want an advanced spiritual placement. It’s foundational to being a follower at all:

“and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

-Jesus

I think that this has been lost. I confess that as I reflect on my own journey it’s clear that I am as guilty as anyone.

My heart and mind return to yesterday’s post. I want to stop being an ally to Jesus’ teachings and become an accomplice in putting them to work in tangible ways.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

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

Masking Tape Mess

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
Romans 7:18-19 (NIV)

For most of my childhood there was a line of masking tape on the floor in the doorway to my brothers’ bedroom. My bedroom was across the hall. The masking tape was the visual border my brothers placed at the entrance of their bedroom sanctuary. I was told, and reminded regularly, that I was never to cross that masking tape without their permission and presence. Their room was sacred space and it was off limits to me.

So, naturally, I snuck into their room every chance I got.

It’s silly isn’t it? The rules telling us what not to do stirs inside of us the desire to do (and get away with) the very thing the rule is made to prohibit us from doing. The small town where Wendy and I live has a long tradition of being a religious community. The kids in our community are raised feeling pressure of the community to be “good” kids and “Christian” kids. Parents have told me that what their “good Christian” kids now do is to have one social media account to broadcast their “good” kid image to the world, but then they have a secret social media account on the same platform to get away with all the “bad” things they want to say, show, share and sext with their friends.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s a perfect word picture of the human nature problem that Paul is getting at in today’s chapter.

A few weeks ago my friend Katie presented a word picture that I love. The law, she said, is an x-ray. It shows us what’s broken, but it’s not going to heal us. The doctor is not going to wrap the x-ray around your arm in order to heal the break.

For a long time institutional Christianity and its adherents (myself included, I confess) have given the world the perception that being a follower of Jesus is just another religion with another set of rules. Yet when I read Jesus’ teaching and study His example, He is always about freeing me from the silly, broken system of rule-keeping that only seems to feed this insidious, secret desire to do the very things I’m not supposed to do. Jesus calls me to something higher; Something that C.S. Lewis described as “further up and further in.” Self-sacrificing Love, permeating grace, and radical forgiveness that is led by Spirit, built on Truth, and fueled by resurrection Life.

The further I leave behind legalism and religious rule keeping, the more I embrace and experience where Jesus is calling me to follow, the less I feel of that pesky desire to step across the masking tape.

When the Opening Hints of Doom

Now Jehoshaphat had great wealth and honor, and he allied himself with Ahab by marriage.
2 Chronicles 18:1 (NIV)

When you study the art of film, one of the things you learn is that the opening scene of a movie is very important, and a good writer and/or director is going to put a lot of thought into it. A good opening shot sets the stage and tone for the entire film and establishes the movie’s theme. Writers will use an opening line much the same way, and playwrights will do the same with their opening scene or Chorus.

In today’s chapter, the ancient Chronicler uses his opening sentence to set up the reader for the story to follow. I think most modern readers miss it the same way many film-goers miss the importance of the opening scene as they settle into their seat with the popcorn.

First, he references King Jehoshaphat’s “wealth and honor” which ties this part of the story back to the previous chapter which detailed Jehoshaphat’s wealth and honor. The Chronicler also made it clear that the said wealth and honor was linked to Jehoshaphat’s commitment and obedience to God. The next thing he tells us in the opening sentence is that Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance with a man named Ahab.

Marriage alliances were common practice of royals throughout history. If you were King of one nation, Kings from neighboring nations would give you their daughters in marriage (or arrange a marriage between your respective children) as a way of assuring peace between nations as you’re not likely to attack your wife’s own father and destroy your wife’s family and tribe. This is why all the royal families of Europe are, to this day, a dizzying mash-up of intertwining family connections:

The fact that Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance is not surprising, but the Chronicler is telling his readers that Jehoshaphat made the alliance with Ahab. All of the Chroniclers contemporary leaders would know Ahab. It’s like a contemporary writer referencing a name like Gates, Buffet, Clinton, or Trump. Everyone knows who you’re talking about.

Ahab was king of Israel (the 10 tribes who split from Solomon’s son and created their own nation). Israel and Judah had been more or less in a state of on-and-off civil war for years. Israel’s monarchy and tribes had abandoned the worship of God. Ahab’s wife was the infamous Queen Jezebel. Together Ahab and Jezebel were one of the most detestable royal couples in the history of Israel. Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance with them.

Since I’m on the theme of movies, let me reference the Godfather’s famous leadership principle: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” It might be hopeful to think that Jehoshaphat was that cunning, but that would be wishful thinking. What the Chronicler is doing with his establishing sentence is setting his readers up for the fact that this is not going to end well. Especially given the fact that the Chronicler has already established a theme of immediate retribution throughout his stories: Do good by God and good things immediately happen. Do wrong by God and bad things immediately happen. We as readers should know by now that Jehoshaphat getting involved with the idolatrous and murderous Ahab and Jezebel is a foreshadowing of bad things to come.

This morning I’m thinking about the very simple life lesson of being careful who I align myself with. Jesus specifically prayed to God the Father that He would not take his followers “out of the world.” He wanted us in the world so as to influence it and bring His Kingdom’s love, grace, and power to all, especially those who need it most. So, I don’t think being careful with my “alignment” is about staying in my holy huddle and avoiding “those people” all together. There are certain individuals, however, for whom it would be unwise of me to align myself in a close relationship, a business partnership, a marriage, a contract, an obligation or a similar intertwining of life or business.

Even if it looks good on paper, the establishing shot hints at problems to come.

Afscheiden

Therefore,
“Come out from them

    and be separate,
says the Lord.

Touch no unclean thing,
    and I will receive you.”
2 Corinthians 6:17 (NIV)

I have lived much of my life  in and around communities with strong Dutch heritage. The Dutch communities in Iowa were settled, for the most part, by tight-knit groups of Dutch believers who came to America for religious freedom. Over 150 years later most of these communities maintain a strong connection to their heritage. It’s fascinating to experience life here and, over time, observe how we function and interact.

On one hand I have an insider’s understanding, receiving my paternal DNA from a father with Dutch genes who came from this heritage. On the other hand, mine is an outsider’s perspective as I grew up in a city away from these Dutch communities and only experienced them when visiting my grandparents. It is as an adult have I found myself living within them.

There is a Dutch word, afscheiden, which you still hear on occasion in conversation. It means “to separate.” I have come to observe that it is a thread in the fabric of our community in multiple ways. Our ancestors were those who separated from their home to come to America. Within the community there are strong religious subgroups who have historically separated themselves within the community based on adherence to certain church doctrines and religious practices. Visitors to our communities often comment on the large number of churches. It is, in part, due to our habit of separating whenever there is disagreement.

Afscheiden in our communities typically has strong religious connotation to it. One group of Christians claims to have a better (usually more strictly conservative) hold on God’s truth, so they separate and disassociate themselves from their wayward, liberal brethren. The scriptural defense they use comes from today’s chapter in which Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah (pasted at the top of this post).

I always think a little historical context is in order.

Competing religions in the prophet Isaiah’s day were often centered around fertility and nature. There was a wide variety of communal sexual activity cloaked as religious practice and even the human sacrifice of babies and children to please the gods. It was nasty stuff. In Paul’s day, the Greek and Roman temples in cities like Corinth continued to be religious prostitution rackets that propagated a lot of typically unhealthy practices. For both Isaiah and Paul, the call to separate was less about religious dogma and more about foundational moral code.

Along life’s journey I’ve observed that legalistic religion loves afscheiden. Black and white appears on the surface to be much simpler than struggling with gray. For certain groups life must be strictly categorized in terms of clean and unclean, acceptable and unacceptable, good and bad, godly and evil so that I always know what to do, think, say, and who I can associate with. After a while, however, you have all these small, insular groups who have afscheidened themselves to death.

This morning I’m looking back on my own journey and the ways that the concept of “come out and be separate” have affected my life, my choices, my relationships, and my actions. I made the observation to Wendy the other day that Christians like to be prescriptive with our religion, prescribing the things you must do to be a follower of Jesus (and if you don’t toe the line we afscheiden ourselves from you!). Jesus, however, was more descriptive about the Kingdom of God. He always said, “the kingdom of God is like…” and then would describe it.

I’m realizing that I prefer a description to reach for rather than a prescription to swallow.

 

 

The Path to Crazy

For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God.
Galatians 3:3 (MSG)

While in college, I had two other guys with whom I began to share my life journey. We met on Saturday mornings in the Great Room of Volkman Hall right after PeeWee’s Playhouse. It was the first time in my life that I’d met regularly and intentionally with other guys just to talk about our respective life journeys. We waded into, what was for us at the time, the deep weeds of life. We shared openly about our hurts and confessed our sins to each other. For me, it was monumental.

When college was over, the three of us each took our own paths in divergent directions. One of the guys I have continued to keep up with through periodic phone calls and Facebook. As I read the chapter this morning, I struck me that the other friend went the of the “crazy” Galatians.

The third member of our trio contacted me a few years after college. He’d found his way to a group who taught him that only by following their rigid religious rules could anyone truly call themselves a follower of Jesus. He accused me of not measuring up, of not truly being a follower. It sounded insane; The kind of insanity Paul was confronting among the Galatians. Having once followed by simply believing, my friend was now convinced that only by following a strict set of doctrinal beliefs and behavioral rules could he be “holy” and acceptable to God.

Today, I’m offering sincere prayers for the other two members of my college trio. I have such good memories of Saturday mornings with my Judson College homies wrapped in blankets, listening for Pee Wee’s secret word, and moose slippers. It was an important stretch of life’s journey for me and I will forever be grateful for that time and these two companions. I trust that whatever crazy Galatians-like path my one friend followed, God has been faithful in helping him find his way back to the simplicity of Jesus’ message: faith, grace, love, and forgiveness.

“Freud’s Last Session”

C.S. Lewis
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smok...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will praise the Lord all my life;
    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Psalm 146:2 (NIV)

Wendy and I went to see a wonderful play last night entitled Freud’s Last Session. It is set in the early days of World War II. Sigmund Freud fled Vienna and sought refuge in London. It is 1939 and his death from oral cancer is imminent. The play is a “what if” imagining in which the brilliant psychoanalyst and staunch atheist calls a young Oxford Professor and  Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, to visit him in his London office.

The two intellectuals spar conversationally for an hour and twenty minutes about life, death, God, religion, history, sex, and family. There is precious little agreement but plenty of humorous jabs and flashes of passionate verbal conflict in-between very poignant human moments. The German Blitz and impending war is a present reality in the room as is Freud’s impending death. Their world views are polar opposites and in conflict with one another, yet under the tense debate between proud, brilliant scholars is a respectful curiosity of the opponent, a delight in the conversation and the desire understand.

There is no “winner” or “loser” in the play. Neither man is convinced or converted. In the final minutes through his coughing up blood, Freud makes his declaratory statement that the truth he sees is that “the end [e.g. death] is the end.” Lewis amicably departs his session with Freud, and each audience member is left to weigh the arguments themselves and carry on the conversation.

I woke up this morning thinking about the play, the men, and their respective world views. As I read the psalmist’s lyric above, I thought of Lewis, the story of his conversion, and his personal faith journey which . I have a story like his, and I closely identified with the faith and world view which molded Lewis’ own life journey for another 34 years after the play’s end. I can’t imagine my life apart from my faith. Like the psalmist, like Lewis, it is a faith journey which I will walk to my grave. At the same time, because of my faith I can’t imagine not loving and respecting those who don’t share it. Even those who passionately disagree with me.

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God is Not “Either Or.” God is “Both And.”

Hammer your plowshares into swords
    and your pruning hooks into spears.
    Train even your weaklings to be warriors.
Joel 3:10 (NLT)

I know a small host of people I love for whom the “warrior God” metaphors such as we find in Joel’s prophecy today an uncomfortable pill to swallow. I totally get it, but it’s an on-going reminder to me that God is so much more than any one of us can possibly comprehend. God’s nature, as described throughout God’s Message, is so vast that it encompasses incredible contradictory elements. God is Lion and Lamb. God is Alpha and Omega. God is Artist and Warrior. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is not “either or.” God is “yes and.”

I’m reminded this morning of Meredith Brooks‘ song, B*tch. I believe God totally relates to Brooks’ very true, very raw sentiments. They’re inspired. Just as Brooks so eloquently describes the complexities and contradictions of being a woman, God is so much more than the box we try to put Him in. He is solely confined by boundaries of His own choosing, and that can be confusing for our finite understandings.

Brooks sings:

I can understand how you’d be so confused
I don’t envy you
I’m a little bit of everything
All rolled into one

I’m a b*tch, I’m a lover
I’m a child, I’m a mother
I’m a sinner, I’m a saint
I do not feel ashamed
I’m your hell, I’m your dream
I’m nothing in between
You know you wouldn’t want it any other way

Today I’m thinking about the oft forgotten reality that we are engaged in a spiritual battle. Like all good stories, the Great Story that God is authoring throughout history is about light versus darkness, death versus life, good versus evil. It is not about what is seen, but what is unseen. That doesn’t, however, mean it isn’t real. When the climactic confrontation arrives in that spiritual conflict, I personally want a warrior God leading the charge of the forces of Light.

*i  😉

The Monk & the Pilgrim

psalm 84:2
psalm 84:2 (Photo credit: joopvandijk)

Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
Psalm 84:4-5 (NIV)

People are complex. I’ve discovered this in my own journey of self-discovery. I’ve discovered it in character studies I’ve carried out as an actor. I’ve discovered this in relationships with family and friends. People are rarely one-dimension. Humanity is not a simple equation. In these two adjacent lines from Psalm 84 I found two sides of myself.

Something you probably don’t know is that most mornings in the quiet of my home office as I write my daily post I’m listening to Gregorian Chant. I was probably one of the few people who got really excited about an article in the Wall Street Journal last week about a group of cloistered Missouri nuns whose CD of chants and sacred ancient music have made it to the top of the classical music charts. Meet Brother Tom, the monastic wannabe. There is part of me that feels called to the quiet and the simple. I long to dwell in the House of the Lord in quiet isolation to read, pray, and write.

A few years ago Wendy, the girls and I all did personality profiles and talked about our differences. I was amazed when Madison said she always thought of me as an introvert. She woke every morning across the hall from my office seeing me isolated in my pseudo-monastic quiet.

But there is the other part of me that people are more familiar with. Tom, the extrovert. Tom, the guy up front. Tom, the performer. Tom, the is called to the outside. My heart is set on pilgrimage in this life. I’m a pilgrim journeying through the arts, through corporate America, and through community.

The monk and the wayfaring pilgrim. We are all multi-dimensional people. We are not stamped out on an assembly line. God hand-crafted each of us with incredible complexity. Life is a process of understanding, accepting, embracing and celebrating the multiple layers of the unique person we are each created to be.

Sexual Healing

English: The Meeting of Isaac and Rebekah (Gen...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter-a-Day Genesis 24

And Isaac brought Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent, and she became his wife. He loved her deeply, and she was a special comfort to him after the death of his mother. Genesis 24:67 (NLT)

Back when I was in high school, one of our youth leaders stood before the youth group on a Wednesday night and railed angrily against the number one song on the Billboard charts at that time: Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye. She ranted and raved about how terrible of a song it was and what a lie it was to think that sex was the vehicle for any kind of healing. I look back on her fire and brimstone lecture and quietly shake my head with sadness. While I agree that sexual relationships that are out of bounds can be destructive, I also have learned that ol’ Marvin had a point. I’ve experienced the healing properties of a healthy sexual relationship and that’s a good thing.

One of the honest struggles I have with contemporary Christian culture and the organized church is what I would characterize as “limited conversation.” There are certain subjects and topics that we just don’t talk about. There are topics considered at best inappropriate and at worst downright sinful. At the top of the list of limited conversations is the topic of sex, which I’ve observed is generally constrained in Christian circles to the discussion of prohibited sexual activities/practices, conviction of sexual sin and whispered gossip about who is rumored to have done what with whom.

I find this limited conversation about sex very sad and very unhealthy. Sex plays such a huge role in our lives and relationships. I suppose one reason we tend to focus on the negative aspects of sex is because when sex bleeds out of bounds the wounds it creates for spirit, mind, body and relationship can be devastating.  But what we don’t talk about is that the opposite is also true. When husband and wife enjoy a healthy, active sex life the benefits to spirit, mind, body and relationship are enormous.

I can’t speak for others. I can only speak for myself. I have experienced the consequences of both unhealthy and healthy sexual relationships. I find the healing properties of a healthy sexual relationship to be so rich and potent that I want to talk about it. The truth of the matter is that there is both a physiological and spiritual alignment that takes place when I make love to my wife that calms the spirit, soothes the soul, and gives rest and refreshment to the body. There are times when life seems somehow out of whack, but in the sweet afterglow of sex I feel like I’ve just had a spiritual and emotional chiropractic adjustment. Things are back in line and all is right with the world.

What a beautiful description of Isaac and Rebekah’s relationship in today’s chapter. What a beautiful start to their life together. He takes Rebekah into his mother’s tent (the mother who had died, the mother he was deeply grieving) and she became his wife (fyi: they had sex) and she was a special comfort to him after the death of his mother. The healing virtues of Rebekah’s love and love making comforted Isaac and his life found restored alignment.

I believe that more open and honest conversation about healthy, active sexual relationship would lead to more husbands and wives experiencing the fullness of it. How wonderful it would be for more people to experience the healing properties of the sexual relationship rather than it becoming an infected wound within their marriage.

Chapter-a-Day Psalm 5

from imuttoo via Flickr

Listen to my voice in the morning, Lord.     
     Each morning I bring my requests to you and wait expectantly.
Psalm 5:3 (NLT)

When I was a kid, I often made outrageous requests of my parents at Christmas time. I’d leaf through the catalog and put some crazy expensive toy on my list. I knew there was no way that toy would be under the tree, but I threw it on there anyway. What’s funny is, I still have a lot of that kid in me. When Wendy asked me for a wish list for my birthday, I gave her a complete list that included both the practical and affordable as well as outgrageous (she loved seeing a motorcycle on the list). There’s no expectation that the outrageous would happen, but it’s out there.

I thought about prayer this morning in relationship to what happens after we pray. Do we sincerely present God with meaningful requests and then wait consciously, expectantly, knowing that God has both the power and desire to answer our prayers? Or, do we treat prayer a bit like an outrageous wish list? We throw it out there, but quickly walk away and forget about it because in our hearts we doubt God would ever answer.

Today, I’m not just mindful of my on-going conversation with God and the sincerity of my requests, but also my own response to my prayers. I don’t want to be like the farmer who throws seed up into the wind and then walks away. I want to plant my seeds carefully, then wait expectently for things to emerge.