Tag Archives: Devotion

When Exile Becomes Home

Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem. The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten of them to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns.
Nehemiah 11:1 (NIV)

In recent weeks the Bahamas were struck by Hurricane Dorian. The devastation was immense. Fresh in my mind are the images of the rubble as entire communities appear to have been completely leveled. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to get supplies to the island and how expensive and labor-intensive it will be to rebuild. I’m sure that there will be some survivors who will be evacuated and never return to their homes.

It’s easy for me to read the handful of chapters of Nehemiah and get the sense that the walls of Jerusalem were quickly rebuilt by the returned exiles, the gates were put in their place, and suddenly Jerusalem was settled. Mission accomplished! The people moved in and all was well. But, it didn’t work that way.

The Babylonian’s destruction of the city was devastating. It wasn’t just the walls and Solomon’s Temple that were leveled. The Babylonians destroyed and burned dwellings. Those who were left in the area seem to have largely resettled in nearby towns. The exiles who returned preferred not to live in the rubble of Jerusalem where redevelopment and rebuilding would be hard and costly. Most exiles would prefer to live easier in the countryside outside the city.

Governor Nehemiah and his fellow leaders implemented a forced repopulation of the city by forcing ten percent of the people to move into the city as decided by an ancient form of lottery. This type of forced repopulation was somewhat common in ancient times.

I was reminded as I read the chapter this morning that many of the Hebrews taken into exile never returned home. Jewish communities in Persia lived and thrived near ancient Babylon until modern times. Those who did return faced many difficulties and hardships. Rebuilding isn’t easy. Sometimes exile becomes permanent. Our concept of “home” shifts.

There’s a spiritual lesson in that for me. Among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, we are continuing to explore the broader theme of exile. I mentioned in a message I gave a few weeks ago that exile is universal in the Bible. Once Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden they became exiles. We all did. Paul and Peter both wrote that this world is not our home; we are citizens of heaven.

I’ve observed, however, that it is very easy for my mind and spirit to be repatriated in my earthly exile. I make this world my home. I put down roots. I store up possessions. I build a home (that could easily be blown apart by a tornado just as the Bahamas were devastated by Hurricane Dorian). I invest in my earthly future. Eventually, without even giving it much thought, I find myself treating my earthly exile as if it’s my eternal home. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at…

“Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.

Jesus

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that God’s Message repeatedly speaks of our days being numbered. Just as Nehemiah cast lots that brought exiles back into the City of Jerusalem, my number will come up one day and my exile will be over. I will return to what John’s Revelation calls the New Jerusalem. In the meantime, I’m left figuring out how to tangibly do what Jesus instructed. I must learn how to invest less time, energy, and resources on my earthly exile, and transfer the investment into God’s eternal Kingdom.

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!

Popcorn Prayers

The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king…..”
Nehemiah 2:4-5a (NIV)

I was honored a few weeks ago when I was asked to pray for our meal at my high school reunion. In part, I was honored because it has become increasingly common for prayers at public events to be ignored our outright forbidden. I also realize that I and my classmates grew up in a time when public prayer was hotly debated along with questions regarding whether it was appropriate for public school choirs to sing sacred music at events such as commencement.

I can remember during some of these debates about “school prayer” that it was humorously acknowledged that the school building will always be the center of a million prayers during finals week. Of course, there is a difference between a public prayer at a school event and the silent prayer students staring at the test that has just been placed before them.

For those who are not regular readers, I have been blogging through what’s known as the exilic books of God’s Message in recent months. These are the writings of the ancient Hebrews who experienced being taken into captivity by the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Medo-Persian empires. They eventually returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and restore their homeland. Being an exile, in its very essence, means living away from home, and being in exile often means a loss of power, control, and public standing. My local gathering of Jesus’ followers is currently exploring the notion that the people of God are, by nature, exilic and what that means for us in the 21st century.

Nehemiah was a cupbearer for the Persian king, Artaxerxes. In today’s chapter, Nehemiah could not hide his grief while serving in the king and queen’s presence. It was, in those days, deemed inappropriate to show any kind of negative emotion in the presence of the king. On a whim, the king could have his servant executed for such an infraction. So when Artaxerxes notices the depressed look on his cupbearer’s face, Nehemiah’s immediate fear was warranted.

What I found interesting is that the phrase “Then I prayed to the God of heaven” is sandwiched in between the king’s question and Nehemiah’s response. There is no way that Nehemiah said, “Can you hang on a few minutes while I get on my knees and pray for a while?” Nehemiah’s prayer to the God of heaven had to have been what I call a “popcorn prayer.” A popcorn prayer is the silent, sudden, internal exclamation of my spirit to God’s Spirit in an instant. It’s exactly what I did as a student before every Biology test (science was not my thing).

According to a 2017 survey by the Barna, 79 percent of Americans said they had prayed in the previous three months. Barna found prayer to be the most common faith practice among American adults, but it was also the most multi-faceted. In fact, the researcher concluded that “the most common thing about people’s prayers is that they are different.”

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve discovered that my own prayer life is much like Barna’s research. It’s multi-faceted. I do, at times, spend set periods of time in prayer. Sometimes, I audibly talk to God while I’m alone in my car driving. Wendy and I pray together before meals, and often we will pray together when it is just the two of us traveling in the car. I’ve sometimes described my life journey itself as one long, uninterrupted conversation with God. I’m constantly aware of God’s presence, and my “popcorn prayers” are popping constantly in the heat of Life’s microwave oven.

Our culture has shifted in the 35 years since I graduated from high school. I know some who see this as a source of grief, anxiety, fear, and even anger. Sociologists and scholars are calling our current culture the “post-Christain” world. Frankly, I’m not that worried about it. In fact, I think it might just be a good thing. Throughout the Great Story, it’s clear that God’s people flourish, not when they are in power, but when they live in exile. It’s a paradox that Jesus said He came to model and that He told his followers to embrace:

“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.”

Jesus (Matthew 20:25-28 [MSG])

Paul, one of Jesus’ early followers, put it this way:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul of Tarsus (2nd Letter to the Corinthians 12:10 [NIV])

In the quiet this morning I find my head swimming in thoughts of culture, and power, and exile, and prayer. Nehemiah found himself a servant to the King of a foreign empire. Artaxerxes had the power to execute Nehemiah for having a frown on his face, and yet his precarious position of impotence led him to depend on his faith in the power and purposes of God. Isn’t that the very spiritual reality that Jesus wanted us to embrace?

As I finish this post I’m saying a popcorn prayer for any and all who read it. Hope you have a great day, my friend.

Foolish Anxiety and Real Threats

They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
Nehemiah 1:3 (NIV)

The immigration of large people groups tend to happen in waves. The town of Pella, Iowa, where I live was founded by a group of Dutch immigrants in the 1800s. It happened, however, in waves. The first group arrived on the Iowa prairie in 1847 and began a settlement. They were the trailblazers. In his book Iowa Letters, Johan Stellingwerff, chronicles the letters sent back and forth between the first wave of settlers and their families back home who were still preparing to make the voyage:

“Dear Parents,

I write specially about the expenses of my journey…The journey from Borton, New York, or Baltimore is tiresom and damaging for freight because of reloading. It is better and cheaper via New Orleans…..

Hendrik Hospers

It is important for readers to understand that for the exiles returning to the city of Jerusalem from their captivity in Babylon and Persia, the same is also true.

For many years, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were considered one book with two sections. They were authored by two different leaders of the waves of returning exiles. There were actually three waves of people who returned. The first was c. 538 BC led by Zerubbabel (the rebuilt Temple of Solomon is commonly referenced by historians as Zerubbabel’s Temple). Ezra led the next wave c. 458 BC. Nehemiah led the third c. 432 BC.

In today’s opening chapter of Nehemiah, the author records the word that came back to him from the returned exiles in Jerusalem. The news was not good. The walls of Jerusalem were in ruins and the gates of the city were burned and useless. It’s hard for us to appreciate the magnitude of this reality for the people of that time. Raiding armies were common among the many tribes and factions in the region. Plundering and pillaging were common and walls were an essential deterrent. The success of the exiles in their return and rebuilding of the city was in peril if there were no walls or gates to protect them from outside armies and/or raiding parties.

It may be hard to relate to everyday life in the 21st century, but the truth is that in life and in business, I find myself mindful of potential threats. There are threats of weather for which we must prepare our home and property. There is the threat of catastrophic life events against which we buy insurance for our health and lives.

Along my life journey, I have struggled to find the balance between being prepared for unexpected threats and being worried about them. I am more convinced than ever that I live in a culture in which politicians, media, special interest groups, and corporations peddle a non-stop stream of fear and apocalyptic predictions, which in turn create human reactions in large numbers of people, which in turn leads to clicks, views, ads, votes, sales, revenues, and etc. Wisdom is required.

Yesterday, among our local gathering of Jesus followers I was reminded that the Kingdom of God is not in trouble.

Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to my wife, my family, my employees, and my loved ones. There is wisdom in taking honest stock of potential threats that could seriously affect our well-being, and to take realistic precautions. When Nehemiah heard that the walls of Jerusalem were in ruins and the gates of the city had burned down, he was not motivated by unrealistic fear but by wisdom with regard to very real threats to his loved ones and his people. Two previous waves of exiles had failed to address a very real threat to their existence, and Nehemiah immediately knows that something must be done.

As I begin this new day and this new work week, I find myself asking for wisdom in discerning between fear-mongering, foolish anxiety, and real threats.

spiritual infection

While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly.
Ezra 10:1 (NIV)

Earlier this summer I had outpatient surgery to remove a patch of cancerous cells from my ear. Days after my surgery the pain and discomfort were getting worse instead of better. By the time the chills and fever set in, I knew that something was wrong. It turns out I had a nasty infection that required two rounds of antibiotics and some intense attention to quell.

One of the subtle changes I’ve noticed during my lifetime is the attention that has been given to fighting infectious diseases. You can hardly go into a public venue or restroom without finding sanitizers by the door waiting for you to protect yourself and others from germs, viruses, and disease.

But, like so many things in life, infection cuts both ways. The positive example can be infectious as well. A teacher stands at the door of her classroom each morning and greets every child with their own unique handshake. A stranger surprises with a random act of kindness and then tells the recipient to simply “pay it forward.” One person’s sacrifice or selfless act inspires others to follow like Alex’s Lemonade Stand.

In today’s chapter, Ezra’s very public display of regret and repentance compelled others to stop and notice. Eventually, the crowd began to join him. One man’s confession and dedication became the spiritual contagion that started a spiritual revival.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself taking a trip down memory lane and revisiting various experiences I’ve had along my life journey of spiritual outpourings and movements within groups of people. In most cases, I can follow them back to one person whose faith, conversion, witness, or confession became the spiritual pebble that started the avalanche.

I’m reminded this morning that I have the power to infect people in both positive and negative ways. What am I affecting with my thoughts, words, actions, relationships, posts, tweets, and snaps? When Paul wrote his letter to the followers of Jesus in Galatia, he used contrasting descriptions of infectious spiritual results.

A negative spiritual infection Paul describes this way:

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.

Galatians 5:19-21 (MSG)

A positive spiritual infection Paul describes this way:

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Galatians 5:22-23 (MSG)

I endeavor to infect those around me in a positive way today.

Have a great day, my friend.

Chapter-a-Day Posts by Book

Click on an image to access a summary of posts for the book. I will slowly be going back and adding book summaries. Please bookmark and keep checking back.

Ezra (Aug/Sep 2019)
Nehemiah (Sep/Oct 2019)
Esther (Jul/Aug 2019)
Song of Solomon (Sep/Oct 2013)
Tom Vander Well's chapter-a-day posts for the book of Jonah published in June 2019.
Jonah (June 2019)

About…

Tom Vander Well has been writing his Wayfarer blog since 2006. Since then he has blogged his way through the entirety of God’s Message twice along with posting about personal experiences and life observations. He continues pressing on one chapter at a time. Tom is a teaching leader among his local gathering of Jesus’ followers and serves as President and CEO of Intelligentics Inc., a market research and quality assessment firm. In addition, he is a speaker, actor, playwright, lover of history, and back porch musician. He lives in Pella, Iowa with his wife, Wendy.

web: tomvanderwell.com
email: tomvanderwell@gmail.com
twitter: @tomvanderwell

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Mysterious, Mystical, Gracious, and Favorable Flow

Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.
Ezra 7:28b (NIV)

I caught a trailer for the movie Birth of the Cool the other day. Musicians talked of the recording session of one of the most iconic albums of all time: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. The musicians were surprised when Miles had no score for them. He simply had “sketches” handwritten.

We’re just going to play,” Miles told his band.

What happened in that studio, what flowed through those musicians as they “just played” changed the history of music.

I’m not fluent in the language of music, but I believe there is a parallel when it comes to other things in life. I have experienced “it” a couple of times on stage, and it is almost impossible to describe. The scene I’m playing becomes a separate reality. At that moment there is no audience. The present slips away. There is a sense of otherworldliness to it. I slip into another dimension. When it’s over, it feels like waking from a dream.

There is a similar experience I’ve had writing. Time stopped. The words flowed. They were not my words. They were flowing through me. The words were leaves falling from the “tree of tales,” as Tolkien described it. I just happen to be the conduit. I sat down at the keyboard to write. Suddenly I was on the lawn with two men sitting there in their lawn chairs. I was eavesdropping on their conversation; transcribing what they were saying. I have no idea how long I typed. I just wrote what I was hearing. When it was over I had thirty-five pages of dialogue.

I’ve never been much of an athlete, but I have heard those who are speak of “being in the zone.” Time changes. The ball slows down. You see things before they happen. Everything just flows.

In today’s chapter, Ezra mentions three times a similar flow in his life circumstances:

The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.

…he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him.

Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.

Favor. Zone. Flow. There is something mystical and mysterious to it, but I’ve experienced it. It is the Hand. It is favor. It is tangible grace. Things just happen and I am doing nothing to create it, cause it, or make it happen. I’m just the conduit.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded that we are made in the image of the Creator. When we ask, seek, and knock at the door of our birthright, we occasionally find the gracious, favorable flow.

Trials, Gold, and Dross

So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the Lord, the God of Israel.
Ezra 6:21 (NIV)

On Sunday, after I gave the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, Wendy and I were having our normal lunch date together. Wendy had given the message the previous Sunday. She shared the story of her journey through infertility. This past Sunday I spoke about secrets and my own experience with secrets that kept me spiritually imprisoned.

There was a common theme in our messages. We both slogged our way through long stretches of trial and difficulty, and we both experienced previously unknown depths of joy and freedom at the other end of our respective valleys.

As we dined and debriefed, we discussed a few of the things that some religious people cling to as if of vital importance. Things such as church membership and adherence to a particular denominational institution. For the two of us, such trappings hold very little importance. To a certain extent, I realized that our journeys and struggles through hard spiritual terrain had refined our perspectives on what it means to be followers of Jesus. Membership certificates and institutional inclusion are of very little importance to us compared to the more tangible daily realities of our own personal, daily spiritual trek among our community of Jesus’ followers.

In today’s chapter, the returned exiles complete their construction of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. There is a very small distinction in today’s chapter that is easily lost on a casual reader. The returned exiles are referred to as “Israelites.” When Jerusalem was besieged and the exile began, they were the nation of Judah. For hundreds of years prior to the exile, the tribes of Israel were separated in a bloody civil war. “Israel” was the northern kingdom. “Judah” was the southern kingdom. Now, upon return from their exile and the restoration of the Temple, they were simply “Israelites” along with Gentiles, like Ruth, who had chosen to follow their faith.

I couldn’t help but think that the experience of exile over 70 years changed some things for those who went through it. Old conflicts and prejudices fell by the wayside. Those who returned had a renewed understanding of what was truly important and what things simply didn’t matter all that much in the eternal perspective. That’s what exilic experiences and the spiritual struggle through valleys of pain, grief, and trouble will do for a person. It refines things. I’m reminded of Peter’s words to fellow believers scattered across the Roman Empire experiencing dreadful persecution:

May the thought of this cause you to jump for joy, even though lately you’ve had to put up with the grief of many trials. But these only reveal the sterling core of your faith, which is far more valuable than gold that perishes, for even gold is refined by fire. Your authentic faith will result in even more praise, glory, and honor when Jesus the Anointed One is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7 (TPT)

In the process of refining metal, which Peter uses as a metaphor, the gold remains while the “dross” (literally “scum on molten metal”) is removed as useless and worthless.

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering those things that my trials have refined and revealed to be the gold of eternal importance and those things that my trials have revealed to be worthless scum in the grand scheme of things.