Tag Archives: Enemies

The Difference a Dinner Makes

So [the king of Israel] prepared a great feast for the [Aramean soldiers], and after they had finished eating and drinking, he sent them away, and they returned to their master. So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory.
2 Kings 6:23 (NIV)

As Wendy and I sit each morning over breakfast and peruse the news of the day, we will often discuss different politicians or other individuals making headlines. Of course, there are always certain individuals for whom we have a certain affinity but we don’t always have the most glowing impressions of other individuals.

I’m not sure how and when this happened, but Wendy and I will commonly discuss the notion of having said individuals over for a meal. I think this idea began during a Presidential campaign years ago. A few months ahead of the Iowa Caucuses you can’t spit without hitting a visiting presidential candidate. One year when the number of candidates was off the charts, Wendy and I discussed the idea of how nice it would be to actually have each of the candidates (from any/all parties) over for dinner one at a time. It’s easier to really get to know a person over a good meal and good table conversation. Somehow, the idea stuck and now it comes up quite regularly in our conversations, what it would be like to have so-and-so over for dinner.

Today’s chapter is filled with extreme events from the miraculous to a horrific human tragedy. I have no recollection of this quiet little episode stuck in the middle. The kingdom of Aram shared a border with the kingdom of Israel, and bands of Aramean soldiers were constantly raiding the towns of Israel. Elisha miraculously blinds one of these raiding parties and leads them straight into Samaria, the capital city of Israel. When the king of Israel suggests killing them, Elisha instructs him to treat them to a feast instead.

So, the king of Israel treats the enemy soldiers as honored guests. They sat around the table and enjoyed a feast together. I imagine they swapped stories, laughed together, and got to know one another to a certain degree. The Arameans, knowing they could have been killed, were treated the way Jesus would later instruct His followers to treat our enemies, by blessing those who intend to persecute us. The result? The border raids stopped.

In the quiet this morning, I am reminded of the conference Wendy and I attended this past week that addressed some of the most controversial and divisive topics of our day. One of the most powerful things that the conference accomplished was to share the complex and intimate stories of individuals struggling at the heart of the issue. When issues are translated into human stories, it changes both my perceptions and understanding of the issues themselves. It’s the same principle that the king of Israel and the Aramean soldiers discovered. They came to bust heads and instead broke bread. It changed their attitudes and behavior toward their enemies.

(BTW: Another Presidential election cycle begins later this year. For any candidate who happens to read this, there’s an open dinner invitation here at Vander Well manor! 😉)

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Who’s the Villain?

Who's the Villain (CaD 1 Sam 26) Wayfarer

Now let my lord the king listen to his servant’s words. If the Lord has incited you against me, then may he accept an offering. If, however, people have done it, may they be cursed before the Lord! They have driven me today from my share in the Lord’s inheritance and have said, ‘Go, serve other gods.’
1 Samuel 26:19 (NIV)

This past week Wendy and I have been working remotely from the lake. We finished watching all of the Marvel movies in their chronological order within the Marvel Universe which was a lot of fun. I’d forgotten how good Avengers Endgame was as all the Avengers arrived to defeat the evil Thanos and his minions.

Great stories need great villains. Thanos hadn’t arrived on the scene when the American Film Institute celebrated its 100th anniversary by listing the 100 top movie heroes and villains. I wonder where they’d have put Thanos in the list. Here are their top five:

  1. Hannibal Lecter, Silence of the Lambs
  2. Norman Bates, Psycho
  3. Darth Vader, Star Wars
  4. Wicked Witch of the West, Wizard of Oz
  5. Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One of my favorite villains, whom I believe is one of the greatest villains of all time, comes from Shakespeare’s world. In Othello, the title character’s best friend is a man named Iago. What Othello doesn’t know is that Iago is not his friend, but his enemy (ever know anyone like that?). Slowly and methodically, with manipulative and conniving whispers, Iago drives Othello to madness. Iago convinces Othello that his beloved Desdemona is cheating on him, and eventually Othello murders his innocent girlfriend in a jealous rage.

I thought of Othello as I read today’s chapter. Once again, Saul and his army are hunting David in the wilderness, even after David had spared Saul’s life just two chapters ago. Saul had repented of his foolish, mad envy of David. Now Saul is doing it again, and I had to ask myself “Why?”

Saul’s madness is certainly evident throughout the David vs. Saul saga, but I pondered the idea that it might be more than that. Then I remembered a little tidbit the author of 1 Samuel shared back in chapter 22:

And Saul was seated, spear in hand, under the tamarisk tree on the hill at Gibeah, with all his officials standing at his side. He said to them, “Listen, men of Benjamin…”

Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, and “all his officials” were from the tribe of Benjamin, as well. They are Saul’s officials from Saul’s tribe, and as the king’s officials, they enjoy feasting on the king’s gravy train. If David, from the tribe of Judah, becomes king. What do you think will happen to their privilege and power? What might David do to them if and when he becomes king, knowing they were Saul’s henchmen?

David has thought about this, too. What’s driving Saul’s repeated homicidal attempts on David’s life might not only be Saul but from his officials who have everything to lose should David come to power. Could it be Saul’s entourage who are whispering Iago-like in Saul’s ear?

In today’s chapter, David once more confronts Saul with the fact that he could have killed the king and didn’t. David doesn’t address Saul, however. He addresses Saul’s general, Abner. David calls into question the motives of Saul’s advisors and officials: “If, however, people have done it, may they be cursed before the Lord!

In the quiet this morning, I find myself pondering friendships. I have had an Iago or two in my life and wondered in hindsight how I could have been so foolish as to listen to their whispers and how I could have missed the signs of their true motives. I also find myself grateful for true friends who have walked the journey with me for years, who have been through the worst of life with me, and who have always had my back.

This is another thing David is forging in his wilderness experience. He is creating a brotherhood of men who have no other reason to be with David but loyalty. They are forging relationships through the worst of times which will translate into advisors who will be loyal to him when the best of times come and he ascends the throne.

It is a blessing to have friends and companions who are motivated only by the desire of wanting God’s best for you.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Connected

Connected (CaD Gen 36) Wayfarer

This is the account of the family line of Esau (that is, Edom).
Genesis 36:1 (NIV)

A few years ago, Wendy and I participated in a cemetery walk for our local historical society. We have, for many years, portrayed our community’s founding couple (Hendrick Peter and Maria Scholte) at the town’s annual Tulip Festival, and so we were asked to participate in the cemetery walk. Basically, we stood by the gravestones of the couple we were portraying and when people walked by we would share a brief, scripted story about individuals we were portraying. There were other actors in different costumes stationed by gravestones around the cemetery.

While we were waiting between visitors, I began investigating the gravestones within the Scholte family plot. I was shocked to see a name I thought I recognized. When we got home that afternoon I looked it up. Sure enough, a woman buried in the Scholte family plot, Harriett Yeater Vander Linden (see featured photo on this post), was a relative of mine. Why she was buried with the Scholte family is a bit of a mystery. Especially since she wasn’t Dutch, but came from my mother’s side of the family whose ancestors all came from the British Isles. Never in a million years would I have thought I would end up living in this town portraying its founder. Never in a billion years would I have expected to find my own relative buried with his family.

It’s a small world.

Let’s face it, today’s chapter is one of those that is easily skipped over. It’s one of the genealogical records that everyone hates. All the descendants of Esau are seemingly irrelevant to my life. As an amateur historian and genealogist, however, I spent some time this morning thinking about the bigger picture of Esau’s descendants, who became a small nation called Edom.

It begins with twin brothers, Esau and Jacob. Despite Jacob’s deceit, Esau appears to have prospered on his own. In today’s chapter, they seem to have amicably separated. Esau went to an area east and south of the Dead Sea to settle. The descendants of each brother would grow to become their own tribes which, in turn, would eventually become their own nations, Edom and Israel. Later in the Great Story, the two nations will become enemies. They will war with one another. The prophet Obadiah, for example, wrote his prophetic poem specifically against Edom, predicting its destruction as he recalls that the two nations were rooted in a fraternal relationship.

As time went by and the descendants expanded, the connection was lost. Families became enemies.

One thing that has always appealed to me about history and genealogy is that it is about making connections. It’s kind of the opposite of the Israel/Edom effect I just described. As I make connections to people and the past, I learn things and grow in appreciation for others.

Genetic science has proven that we all descended from one woman referred to as “genetic Eve.” The truth is that we are all connected. Feuds, wars, prejudice, and hatred are the fruit of disconnection. When Jesus calls me to bless my enemies and to pray for those who persecute me, I believe He is calling me to make a reconnection. My enemy is my family. Jesus loves and died for my enemy just as He did for me. While the Kingdoms of this world continue to divide, disconnect, separate, and antagonize, Jesus calls me to be an Ambassador of God’s Kingdom where the goal is to be one Body, connected, unified, and loving.

I may not be able to make a difference on a national level, but I can make a difference in my circles of influence each day. The grave of my great-great-aunt Harriett Yeater Vander Linden reminds me: The connections are closer than I imagine.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Guernica

Guernica (CaD Ps 35) Wayfarer

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me;
    fight against those who fight against me!

Psalm 35:1 (NRSVCE)

In January of 1937, Pablo Picasso was commissioned to do a painting for his native Spain to be displayed in the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair. His initial sketches for the project show very little difference from the theme of his other works at that time.

On the 26th of April, Nazi German and Italian Fascist air forces bombed the town of Guernica, Spain at the request of Spanish Nationalists who desired to strike against their Spanish political rivals in the region. According to local accounts, it was market day and most of the villagers were gathered in the town center when the bombs began to fall. In his diary, the commander of the Nazi squadron recorded that the town was still burning the following day. It was utterly destroyed. There were no military targets in the area. Guernica was the most ancient town and the cultural center of the Basque region. It was a terror attack designed to wipe out political rivals.

Guernica in Ruins after 1937 bombing

On May 1, Picasso read eyewitness accounts of the attack. He immediately abandoned his original ideas for his commission and began to work. The 25.5 foot wide and 11.5 foot tall painting, entitled Guernica, was finished in 35 days. Containing images of the suffering of people and animals wrought by violence and chaos, the painting prominently displays a gored horse, a bull, screaming women, dismemberment, and flames. Picasso painted it in black and white using a specially requisitioned matte house paint that was void of any gloss to give it the feeling of a black and white photograph recording a moment in time. Guernica is considered among the most moving and powerful paintings of all time.

What do artists do in response to powerful forces beyond their control? They create. They channel and express their emotions, even their most raw, painful, and socially unacceptable emotions, into their creative work.

I find today’s chapter, Psalm 35, among the most unique songs David ever wrote. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, David’s life is quite a story. He had a lot of enemies throughout his life. There were military enemies from neighboring regions who wanted him dead. There were also internal enemies everywhere he turned. His own King wanted him dead, and therefore all of Saul’s political allies were against David. David’s own son rebelled against him, turned David’s political allies against him, and led an armed rebellion against him. David’s life journey was not an easy road.

Psalm 35 is David pouring out his emotions to God in song. You can almost feel the desperation as he begs God to take up his cause. Surrounded by those who want his life on every side, and betrayed by friends and family who he loved, David begs God to take up his cause. He pours out his soul in raw anger at his enemies, asking God to destroy them. It is not an easy read.

What do artists do in response to powerful forces beyond their control? They create. They channel and express their emotions, even their most raw, painful, and socially unacceptable emotions, into their creative work.

One of the things that I love about the Psalms is the diversity of them. David wrote liturgical, religious songs for corporate worship events. David wrote the blues when he was down. David wrote songs of intense joy when he was delivered. David wrote songs of intense contrition when faced with his tragic flaws. David wrote songs of intense anger when enemies outside his control were closing in all around him.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about our emotions. Emotions can have significant negative consequences when they lie hidden, suppressed, and ignored within us. Finding healthy ways to get out my negative emotions has been one of the greatest lessons of my life journey. Many people think of God as a strict moral judge who will be shocked and punish us for expressing our “negative emotions.” I don’t find God to be that at all. Like David, I find God to be a loving creator who is not shocked, dismayed, or surprised by any of my emotions – even the negative ones. I can cry, scream, rail, and vent to God, who is Love incarnate, because love is patient, kind, and gracious.

I imagine God listening to David’s angry rant of a song, that we now call Psalm 35. I imagine David getting to the end and being almost out of breath from the pouring out of his emotions. I imagine God smiling and saying, “There. Nice. Feel better?”

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Just Appeal

Just Appeal (CaD Ps 17) Wayfarer

From you let my vindication come….
Psalm 17:2a (NRSVCE)

Years ago, I found myself the object of unfair criticism by an individual who I thought was my friend. He was unhappy with me, though instead of confronting me and discussing his concerns, he decided to take his grievances to the court of public opinion. I confess that I was both sad and angered by his actions. My friend proved to be my enemy.

As luck would have it I found myself, sometime later, in possession of information regarding improprieties this person had committed. I had the opportunity to act with vengeance against the person who had injured me. I had a smoking gun that would pay back my enemy’s injuries with compounding interest. He would be out of a job and would be publicly humiliated.

I ignored the evidence. I let it go. I made a conscious choice to continue treating the person with kindness and deference whenever I run into him. Which, I still do on occasion.

Today’s chapter is yet another song penned by King David. The fascinating thing for me was not something I found in a particular line or verse, but the song itself as a whole. David structured this song like a legal appeal one would make to a King. As king, David would have heard a million legal appeals brought to him, and to King Saul while he served as a court musician, by people wanting their case decided. King David, however, is making his appeal to God, whom he places in authority above his own royal position.

It starts with a formal appeal to God to listen to his plea. He then establishes his position of innocence. He reiterates his request to be heard and praises God for his goodness and mercy. He then lays out his case against his enemies and asks God to vindicate him by judging and righteously punishing his enemies. He ends with a statement of confident trust that God will do right by him.

Sometimes in this life we find ourselves wronged with little or no position with which to get justice. Sometimes, we find that the only justice at our disposal is the justice we take into our own hands.

As a follower of Jesus, I am called to choose against my human desire for vengeance and vindication. Jesus tells me to consciously turn the other cheek, itself a conscious act of response that he exemplified time and time again as he suffered through the kangaroo court of the high priest, then the religious elders, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Pilate again, the crowds who days earlier had hailed Him as king but now shouted for His execution, and finally His enemies who stood at the foot of His cross and hurled insults at Him.

David’s psalm is a testament to Jesus’ teaching, and to David’s own example when he had multiple chances to take personal vengeance against his enemy, King Saul, while personally ensuring his ascension to the throne. With each opportunity David chose to ignore the opportunity, to let it go, and treat his enemy with deference.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about individuals who, along my life journey, I’ve considered enemies. There’s a whole bunch from childhood who I now consider friends. There are some that the road of life led in a completely different direction, and any hard feelings I may have once felt are as distant as they are. There are others, like the person I described at the top of this post, who remain in my circles of community. Their actions would indicate that they consider me some kind of enemy, but I’ve made a choice to keep treating them as friends.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve learned that pleading my case to the only Just Judge, and choosing to surrender my need for vengeance, frees my heart and mind from toxic emotions and actions which will only perpetuate and escalate circumstances. Turning the other cheek is not a passive response, it’s a conscious choice to make my appeal to God and leave it there.

I know. It sounds crazy. Following Jesus usually leads me to make choices that run opposite my natural inclinations. But, I can’t say I’ve ever regretted it.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

People-Eaters

People-Eaters (CaD Ps 14) Wayfarer

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
    who eat up my people as they eat bread,
    and do not call upon the Lord?

Psalm 14:4 (NRSVCE)

I think David was an Enneagram Four. There are so many of his lyrics that scream it. Especially the “all or nothing” emotions with which he pens his feelings…

there is no one who does good,
    no, not one.

Today’s psalm is such an angst-filled, glass-half-empty rant. And yet, there’s underlying wisdom in David’s observations of those he refers to as the fools who shamelessly act out of their godless world-view. David describes them as one who “eat up my people as they eat bread.” I couldn’t help but think about the contrast between those whom David describes and the way Jesus taught His followers to treat others: “Love others as you love yourself.”

Are people objects to be consumed in the indulgence of ego’s appetite? Am I a spiritual cannibal, feasting on the souls of others so I feel better about myself? I have been amazed in recent months to observe the vitriol, violence, and disrespect with which I’ve witnessed human beings treating one another. It’s been hard to watch the dismissiveness and lack of decency with which people treat others.

In the quiet this morning I’m bringing it back to myself. I can get all angsty and gloomy with David, but along my journey I’ve learned that at the end of the day what really matters is what I do those things I can control: my words, my actions, and my relationship with others.

Am I a people-eater or a people-feeder? Or, do I remain neutral to the point of contributing nothing to the betterment of anyone or anything? I personally find that it is so easy in the faceless, distant communication medium of social-media to dehumanize those with whom I disagree. It’s so easy for me to get sucked into being dismissive, diminishing, and disrespectful to the “other” writing those words that appear magically in my social-media feed. I don’t see the person. They aren’t flesh-and-blood to me. I don’t have to look them in the eye and have a real conversation with them. It’s so easy to dehumanize and disrespect what ceaselessly appears to me as nothing more than pixels on my screen that anger me and push my emotional buttons.

For me, being a follower of Jesus means being a people-feeder. I’m contributing to others, not diminishing them. I purposefully attach worth to others, even my enemies, rather than dismissing them as worth-less of my kindness, respect, and generosity. As I mulled these things over, I found myself led to these words of Jesus from Matthew 5:

“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

That’s what I’m striving to be. Not a people-eater, but a people-feeder.

Have a great weekend, my friend!

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Escalation, Truth, and Discomfort

“[The teachers of the Law] devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
Mark 12:40 (NIV)

Over the years I have had the privilege of serving certain clients in the monitoring, coaching, and providing Quality Assessment (e.g. “Your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes.”) for their collections teams. The process of working with customers who owe you money can be a sticky wicket. We’re not talking about third-party collection agencies who just want to bully people into paying so they can quickly get their cut and make their margins. My clients are businesses who want to collect the debt, but also want to keep most of their customers knowing that the lifetime value of that customer’s business far exceeds the amount they are past due in the present moment.

As I always remind both my team members and my clients: “When you are dealing with people’s money, the conversation takes on additional layers of complexity and emotion.”

In today’s chapter, Mark continues to share episodes from Jesus’ final days. There had always been conflict brewing between Jesus and the religious power brokers and rule keepers in Jerusalem. Most of His ministry, however, had been in the region of Galilee far from Jerusalem. Now Jesus is in Jerusalem and is teaching in the temple during the most crowded week of the year. Three times in previous chapters Jesus has told #TheTwelve that He was going to Jerusalem to be arrested, beaten, and killed, and then He would rise from the dead. The episodes Mark relates in today’s chapter illustrate the escalation of conflict between Jesus and the institutional religious powers.

In the first episode, Jesus tells a parable that metaphorically states what He has said plainly before: The religious rule-keepers killed the prophets that God had sent in the past, and now they’re going to kill God’s own Son. The parable antagonized Jesus’ enemies who have already been looking for a way to make sure Jesus “sleeps with the fishes.” Ironically, Jesus said that, like Jonah in the belly of the fish for three days, He would spend three days in the grave. [FYI: That’s a reference from The Godfather for those of you who didn’t catch it.]

What follows is three different attempts to trip Jesus up with religious questions that were political hot potatoes. The intent in at least two of the three questions was to try and get Jesus to say something that His enemies could either spin to diminish His approval rating or condemn Him. Each time, Jesus deftly handles the question and leaves His enemies flummoxed.

On the heels of these trick questions and attempts to trip Him up, Jesus speaks critically of His enemies and warns His audience to “watch out” for the teachers of the law. He then offers a curious accusation that is lost on modern readers. Jesus says that the religious power brokers “devour widows houses.”

In most cases, women had very poor legal and social standing in Jesus’ day. This was especially true of older widows who might have been left with her husband’s debts. With limited means and a social system that made it virtually impossible for her to produce an income, the widow was incredibly vulnerable. Unless she had an influential and/or wealthy male advocate, the widow fell prey to wealthy and powerful men (remember, the religious power brokers were “Teachers of Law” (aka lawyers) within the Jewish religious, legal, and social system. These lawyers would use the law to seize a widow’s home and assets, leaving her destitute and living off the mercy of others. Even though the Law of Moses demanded special consideration for the defenseless (including widows), the “Teachers of the Law” found legal loopholes to justify their greedy victimization of these women.

What was most fascinating for me in today’s chapter is the very next episode. Right after criticizing the Teachers of the Law for their treatment of widows, Jesus leads His followers to the place where people came to give their “offerings” to the temple treasury. Wealthy Jews from around the known world were in town for Passover, so there were certainly many wealthy travelers using the annual pilgrimage to give generously (and publicly). Jesus sits and watches the riches being offered to the temple coffers. Then an old widow (I wonder which Teacher of the Law there at the temple now owned the home she once shared with her husband along with all of its possessions?) steps up and puts in two pennies.

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

Two things stuck with me this morning. The power brokers in this world have their way through systemic advantage, intimidation, instilling fear, dishing out punishment, and eliminating the opposition. This is true of any number of systems including criminal, political, governmental, organizational, business, financial, social, educational, legal, military, familial, and even religious systems. It is obvious in the episodes Mark shares that there is rapid escalation between Jesus and His enemies, and His enemies have political, religious, social, legal, and financial systemic power. They want Jesus dead, and Jesus knows this. In fact, He knows that they will kill Him. Nevertheless, Jesus continues to fearlessly speak spiritual truth that both condemns His enemies and pushes the buttons that will ensure the signature on His death warrant.

The second thing that struck me is that I have infinitely more in common with Jesus’ enemies than with the widow whom Jesus praises.

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded,” Jesus said, “and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

In other words, Jesus is in the Collections business.

Most days the chapter and my meditation leave me encouraged, challenged, inspired, contemplative, and even comforted.

Today, I leave my quiet time very uncomfortable.

Musing on Mudslinging

I sent him this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.”

They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.”

But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”
Nehemiah 6:8-9 (NIV)

We live in fascinating times.

I have been intrigued by the massive shifts I’ve witnessed in my lifetime on almost every level of life from technology, religion, politics, law, government, and business. Obviously, some of the things we’re experiencing are new as in the incredible speed and growth of technology in recent years. At the same time, how we react, respond, change, and adapt follow certain human norms. As the teacher of Ecclesiastes observed: “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

One of the things I’ve noticed of late is the way accusation has become a popular social and political weapon. Sling mud in the courtroom of public opinion. It may not destroy my enemy, but some of the mud will stick and may even cause injury in multiple ways. This is not new. It is a tactic as old as humanity. I believe, however, that it ebbs and flows in its frequency and effectiveness. My observation is that it’s flowing more frequently of late.

In today’s chapter, the enemies of Nehemiah send him an “unsealed” letter. The fact that it wasn’t sealed meant that it wasn’t for his eyes only. It was meant to look like an openly circulated letter or a broadcast email. In that day it was a way of saying, “Everyone knows!” Contained within the letter were completely fabricated lies about Nehemiah wanting to make himself king and rebel against the Persian Emporer (whose family had a long history of violently suppressing rebellions and acts of treason). There wasn’t a stitch of truth in the allegations. They were making shit up in an effort to discredit, discourage, and derail Nehemiah’s restoration project.

I found Nehemiah’s response to be a fascinating example:

He saw the message for what it was. He knew it was all lies and knew exactly what his enemies were trying to do.

He chose neither to react nor respond. An emotional reaction of anger or vengeance would have been a victory for Nehemiah’s enemies. It would have been proof that they had gotten under his skin. Responding to them would have been wasted time. They’d already sent several other messages and Nehemiah’s attempts of respectful reply were disregarded, and the whole affair had become a distraction from accomplishing the work to which he was called.

He prayed. For those with no faith, this may seem a silly waste of time as well. For Nehemiah, this was modus operandi. He had already seen how God had answered his prayers every step of the way from Persia. He chose to trust that God was going to bless the work to which he was called, to uphold his reputation against false accusation, and to manage his enemies.

In the quiet this morning I am reminded of particular stretches of my journey in which people were making stuff up about me and there was nothing I could do about it. I’m thinking about friends and individuals who find themselves in that same circumstance now. It’s part of the journey, especially when you are called to do things that others don’t want to see you accomplish.

I find myself reminded of sage advice Wendy’s mother gave us when we were going through a particular stretch of false accusation: “Make like a turtle. Pull in when you need to and let it bounce off. Then keep moving forward.” As Aesop’s fable so aptly reminds: slow and steady wins the race.

“…Don’t Scare Worth a Damn.”

 Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building.
Ezra 4:4 (NIV)

I’m on the road this week for business. I rarely sleep well when I’m on the road. My brain is buzzing from long days of meetings with our client and it is often hard for me to shut down my brain long enough to sleep. I have found that one of the things that help me sleep is to have something familiar playing quietly near me like a favorite audiobook or documentary. Last night, it was Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War, that accompanied me to my dreams.

As I woke this morning the nine-part documentary was still playing as it told of how Ulysses S. Grant was able to finally defeat the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. Lee had successfully defeated a long list of Union generals before Grant. Lee’s army was severely outnumbered and his resolute strategy was to discourage the Union’s resolve to wage war. It was working. When Lee won a battle, the Union’s response had always been to retreat. When Grant lost a battle, however, he refused to retreat. Grant continued to march his army forward no matter the cost or casualties. As one of his soldiers said, “Ulysses don’t scare worth a damn.”

I then read today’s chapter. The Hebrew exiles have begun construction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the repair of the walls. Their regional enemies, however, fear a rebuilt and powerful Jerusalem. So, they set out to thwart the rebuilding. Their strategy? Much like Robert E. Lee, they set out to discourage the Hebrews and break their resolve to rebuild.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that God’s Message tells me, as a follower of Jesus, I am engaged in a Level Four spiritual struggle. With the resurrection of Jesus, my enemy’s defeat is made certain, but it did not break my enemy’s resolve. Along my life journey, I have found that the enemy’s strategy is basically the same as Lee’s and the same as the Hebrews’ neighbors in today’s chapter. The enemy wants to discourage me, to diminish my faith and break my resolve to trust and obey the One I follow.

Will I retreat like a long list of Union Generals who always backed down despite overwhelming odds in their favor? Or, will I continue to march forward in the face of an enemy who continually works to discourage me from that resolve?

As I ponder this morning, I can’t help but desire that it would be said of me in the spiritual realm: “That Tom Vander Well. He don’t scare worth a damn.”

Chorus to a Tale of Pain & Purpose

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah…
And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.
Daniel 1:1a, 21 (NIV) 

In the history of theatre, Greece was the first great age. The Greeks developed several theatrical conventions that are still widely used today including the use of what was called a Chorus to prepare the audience for what they are about to watch and to narrate the events. Shakespeare used the same convention widely in his plays, as do many modern productions.

The first chapter of Daniel is the literary equivalent of a Chorus. The author, traditionally ascribed to Daniel himself, uses the opening of the book to provide a quick lay of the land with regard to the background of the story and introduces us to the major players. The fact that the chapter describes Daniel and his companions as being learned young men who were then given a thorough course in Babylonian literature and culture, is ironic. It seems to me that the chapter itself gives evidence to this in its structure and content.

In the next year, our local gathering of Jesus’ followers will be studying the theme of exile. I’ve written in previous posts about the theme of wilderness throughout the Great Story. The exile of God’s people in Babylon is one of the major examples and many casual readers don’t realize just how many characters, psalms, and books come out of this period. Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezekiel, and Nehemiah are all books that chronicle parts of the Babylonian exile and return.

In today’s chapter, Daniel provides bookend dates of the story he’s about to pen. It starts in the “third year of Jehoiakim king of Judah” and ends the first year of King Cyrus. A little study shows this to be 605-539 B.C. In other words, Daniel was an educated young man from nobility in Israel’s southern kingdom of Judah. His hometown is destroyed in a long Babylonian siege in which Daniel watched people starve to death and, according to the prophet Jeremiah, reduced to cannibalism to survive.

Out of this horrific event, Daniel is taken captive by his enemy. He is torn from his family, his people, and his hometown which has been reduced to rubble. He ends up in the capital city of his enemy, Babylon, and finds himself subject to indentured servitude to his people’s enemy number one: King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel’s own name is taken from him and he is given a new name. He is forced for three years to learn everything about the history, culture, and literature of his enemy.

A young man of God forced to live in captivity and exile and to serve his enemies for about 65 years. Welcome to the story of Daniel, whom many people only know from brightly illustrated children’s books in the dusty Sunday School memory bins of their brains.

But the real story is far deeper and more complex than that, as Daniel tries to tell me as a reader in his opening Chorus. It is the story of a young man who finds a way to survive. He courageously maintains and lives out his faith in the midst of the unbelievably difficult circumstances that make up nearly his entire life.

In the quiet this morning I find myself mulling over the common misperception I observe followers of Jesus often have, and that I confess I find myself unconsciously falling into from time to time. It’s partially driven, I believe, by the American Dream and the Protestant work ethic. If we believe, work hard, and live good lives then life should be a breeze of material blessing and pain-free existence. But as I journey through God’s Message I find that this has never been the message. Daniel fires an explosive shot across the bow of that notion from the very beginning of his story.

Trauma, suffering, starving, captivity, bondage, indentured servitude, and life-long exile in the land of his enemies serving a mad king.

I find God’s purpose in my pain. That’s the message Daniel foreshadows in the Chorus of his book, and the one I’ve been reminded of over and over again on my life journey.