So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre—both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees within the borders of the field—was deeded to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city. Genesis 23:17-18 (NIV)
I spent some time with my parents yesterday as they continue to prepare matters related to the end of their respective journeys on this earth. Don’t get me wrong, they are currently in relatively good health and reside in independent living at their retirement community. They are just getting ahead of things for the sake of me and my siblings.
It felt like a bit of synchronicity that today’s chapter is the story of Abraham buying a tomb to bury his wife, Sarah. What is fascinating about the story is that God promised to give Abraham’s offspring the land. Abraham has been living as a nomad the entire time and it feels a bit ironic that the cave which will serve as he and his family’s tomb is the first time he actually owns a piece of the land God promised.
The cave of Machpelah in Hebron exists to this day, and Jewish tradition holds that Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah are all buried there. It was customary in those days from families to use a cave that was used to bury entire families. Recently buried bodies would be placed on shelves carved out of the rock. When a body decomposed to the point that it was just bones, the bones would be placed deeper in the cave, often in some kind of vessel, to make room for newer remains.
King Herod built a giant structure over the cave which is still standing (see featured photo). The actual cave is sealed and no one is allowed in, though two clandestine entries were made in modern times and the testimony of students who made one of the visits testified that they found two chambers and in one they discovered pottery vessels and bones.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the march of time. I remember all four of my grandparents’ funerals. With the last of them, I remember pondering the reality that my parents had transitioned to being the eldest living generation of my family. The day draws nearer when I and my siblings will make that same transition. Wendy and I will be the ones making plans to save Taylor and Madison from worry or responsibility.
Our culture is obsessed with living well, but I don’t observe many people who consider what it means to die well. As a follower of Jesus, I learn that dying is requisite to living. So, perhaps it’s not a subject I should avoid, but rather one I should embrace.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Genesis 12:1-2 (NIV)
In early 1889, a young man from the small town of Piershil, in South Holland, boarded the ship P. Caland of the Holland America Line (featured photo on today’s post) sailed across the Atlantic, arriving in New York on April 20th. He made his way to a Dutch settlement in northwest Iowa. His name was Wouter van der Wel, and he was 22 years old. He promptly found employment and Americanized his name to Walter Vander Well. Four years later he married a daughter of the owner of the local furniture store and funeral parlor.
Walter came to America alone. Family speculation is that he was angry about his widowed mother marrying an older man who had once been her teacher when she was a girl. Walter’s daughter, Kate, told me that later in life Walter wrote his mother and expressed a desire to return home to see her. “If you’re not coming back to stay,” she replied, “then don’t come. I’ve lost my son once in my life. I’m not going to go through that again.” He never made the trip.
Walter was my great-grandfather, and for the rather small, widely spread-out Vander Well clan in America he is our patriarch. He’s the one who made the journey and crossed an ocean and half a continent to start a new life, and the family from which we sprang.
Today’s chapter marks an important shift in the Great Story. The first eleven chapters lay the foundation in establishing humanity’s bent toward disobedience (Adam and Eve), violence (Cain), chaos (the time of Noah), and pride (Tower of Babel). Today’s chapter is an inflection point. The narrative shifts from humanity’s continuous and repetitive descent toward a promise and hope of redemption. It begins with one man named Abram, who will be known throughout history as Abraham.
Along my spiritual journey, I’ve found followers of Jesus to be largely ignorant of the larger narrative of the Great Story and of the importance of Abraham, the patriarch, from whom the redemptive work of Jesus and the hope of eternity ultimately springs. Abraham was a historical person who is still playing a role in history some 4,000 years after the events of today’s chapter. In August of 2020 the state of Israel and the United Arab Emirates agreed to a peace accord along with the United States. It was called the Abraham Accords. Abraham, we will learn, is patriarch of both the Jewish and Arab peoples.
Like Walter, Abram’s story begins with a faith journey. God calls him to leave his tribe and follow towards a destination defined loosely as “the land I will show you.” God then makes the first of three covenants with Abram. It is a seven-fold covenant of blessing which begins with God telling Abram that he will be the father of a great nation and ends with the promise that “all peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.”
God’s blessing from one person to “all peoples.” Abram is the patriarch.
What is odd about God’s choice of Abram is that his wife, Sarah, was barren and in her sixties. This is yet another instance of God going against the grain of human inclination; Another reminder that “My ways are not your ways.“
Abram sets out on his faith journey following God to who knows where based simply on belief in the promise God had given him.
In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think about Walter and what it must have been like to leave everything and everyone behind, to board a ship, and to head west toward a land he didn’t know. I can’t help but think of my own life journey and places to which I have been led. I can’t help but think of the journey of being a follower of Jesus who says to each and every follower, “If you would come after me, then lay down your life, take up your cross, and follow.” Like Abraham, the destination of the faith journey following Jesus is not identified or defined in the call other than the rather audacious clue of bearing the instrument of your own execution.
Which brings me back to being a wayfarer. I am a wayfaring stranger traveling through this world of woe and simply believing a promise. Just like Abram. Just like Walter. Just like our daughters and sons and our grandson, Milo, who can’t even comprehend it as of yet. We spring from wayfarers who stepped out on a journey in faith. We make our own respective journeys on this earth. We carry the Story forward as we press on one unpromised day at a time.
May the road rise up to greet you today, my friend. Enjoy the journey.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Genesis 2:18 (NIV)
For whatever reason, God saw fit to surround me with women most of my entire life journey. My eldest brothers are twins, my sister came five years later, and I brought up rear. Most of my childhood the sibling dynamic in my family system was two pairs: the twins and Jody and me. When I was very young, I can remember times when dad and the twins would be off doing something and I was home with mom and Jody. It made an impression on me.
Further down life’s road, I find myself the father of two girls, and then was blessed to have Wendy’s sister live with us for a few years. I always seem to find myself in situations in which I’m surrounded by women. About four years ago I wrote a post with my first words to my grandson, discussing this very phenomenon.
I’m not complaining, mind you. I rather enjoy it most of the time. In fact, the experience has significantly changed my view and understanding of women along my life journey. For most of my early journey I loosely held a fairly fundamentalist view of the roles of men and women, husbands and wives. And, I confess that many of my views early on were downright misogynistic. My life experiences, my spiritual journey as a Jesus follower, and the amazing women in my life, have led to embracing what I consider to be a deeper understanding of women and all the incredible things they are in creation.
In today’s chapter, God looks at Adam and makes a “helper suitable for him.” The Hebrew words are ezer kenegdo.Ezer simply means “help” or “assistance.” Kenegdo is made up of three words. The study text I read this morning stated that it suggests: “someone God fashions for the man who would correspond to him.” This does not imply inferiority, weakness, or submission, but rather one who “uniquely his counterpart and uniquely suited for him.”
And that brings me to Wendy, the woman who is the definition of my ezer kengdo. We couldn’t be more different in so many ways, and the Enneagram Institute describes relationships between Fours (me) and Eights (Wendy) “the most inherently volatile” of combinations, though it adds the combination can be “one of the most creative relationship couplings.”
Wendy and I do everything together. We work together out of our home, we serve together, and we play together. There are certainly things each of us do and enjoy alone, but for the most part we are around each other 24/7/365 in our daily lives. And that’s a good thing for me. It’s a great thing for me.
I had a member of my company’s Board of Directors once ask me if I could imagine doing my job without Wendy. My response was immediate: “Absolutely not.” In fact, I can’t imagine doing it without her. I can’t imagine doing anything without her. She’s “uniquely suited” to make me better at everything I do in life, in community, and business as I like to believe I am uniquely suited to make her better in the same.
Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. We’re not perfect. We clash. We have flashes of volatility as the folks at the Enneagram Institute describe. Sometimes sparks fly. Yet that, I believe, is inherently a by-product of ezer kenegdo. Not alike, but uniquely suited.
So, in the quiet this morning, I think there are a whole host of things that I could have blogged about from today’s chapter. It is chock full of truth on multiple layers. Yet, on this chapter-a-day journey, I often find that the thing that is most meaningful to me is the thing that rises to the top of mind and soul. To me, this day, that is ezer kenegdo; that is Wendy, and all of the women with whom God has surrounded me my entire life journey to teach me about manhood, and to make me a better man.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Summer for Wendy and me has increasingly become a series of celebrations in recent years. The big three summer holidays (Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day) are the pillars of the season which we spend at the lake. Then there are minor celebrations and summer moments unique to each year’s trip around the sun.
This summer began with the annual VL, JP, VW Memorial Day gathering at the lake. When we started this tradition the eldest JP and VL children were babies. Now we have high school and middle schoolers enjoying the rays, waves, and lake fun.
June was marked by a visit from Wendy’s sister and her family. Wendy’s sister let us know that raising their daughter, Lydia, was like raising a “little Wendy.” Lydia let Aunt Wendy know that we’re welcome to adopt her. We also enjoyed the perks of having a brother in the sign business. Tim and Kumi stopped by on their never ending travels to install that sign that he designed and made for the Vander Well Pub.
After the year of COVID, I was feeling the need to get out of Dodge and indulge a growing case of wanderlust. What better way to appease both than the Great American Road trip? One week, three-thousand miles, and over fifty hours behind the wheel. Pella, Elkhart, Logansport, Richmond, Columbia, Gainesville, Little Rock, Sunrise Beach, and back home. I got to mix a little business with a little pleasure, as well as meeting a few old friends face-to-face. By the time I got home my body was a little stiff, but my soul was full.
Wendy and I continue to enjoy supporting our community (the coolest small town in America). We loved supporting the Pella Opera House at their annual gala. We also loved celebrating the Pella Historical Society on a gorgeous summer evening of Big Band music. The new Wyatt Earp experience (Did you know Wyatt Earp grew up in Pella, Iowa?!) is amazing.
The pinnacle of the summer was our Fourth of July week at the lake with the family. Tay, Clay, and Milo were back in the states for six weeks from their home in Scotland. They were with us for a week in Pella. We got to spend some time at the Atkins’ Oasis and Milo got to ride on the tractor with Papa. We then for a week at the lake. Madison and G (and Bertha) made the road trip from SC to join us all at the lake. It was so fun getting to introduce Milo to his first water slide ride, fun on the beach at Captain Ron’s, and swimming off the dock.
One of the worst parts of COVID has been the way it has kept us from being with people we love. We were, therefore, so excited to have our friends Kevin and Linda with us at the end of July for a visit. The visit was way too short, but we made the most of it doing the things we love: great food, great drink, cigars, laughter, love, and spirited conversation. We can’t wait to visit them in Palm Springs.
We were sad to see our Scottish crew go in August. Nevertheless, we were so excited to have Tay and Milo join us for one last night together and to join us at our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. Clay joined us for a final meal together in Pella. We also made a quick trip to DSM for one last hug before they left for home.
This summer was also marked by the arrival of two new nephews, bringing our total count of nieces and nephews to a baker’s dozen. Ian, born to Wendy’s sister, Suzanna, was born at home in Mexico. We can’t wait for the opportunity to meet him in person. Owen, born to Wendy’s brother, Lucas, arrived here in Iowa and we have enjoyed getting to hold him.
As always, Labor Day weekend marks the end of the summer. It has been a tradition for many years to toast the season’s finale with an adult weekend at the lake with the VLs and JPs. We did so again this year. It was a mellow weekend of good meals, good drink, and good conversation. Our friends left a few hours ago.
Wendy and I love the week after Labor Day at the lake. The crowds are gone, but the summer weather remains. We’re looking forward to working remotely this week and enjoying some time together in the quiet, by the water.
Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” Ruth 4:17 (NIV)
The Sage of Ecclesiastes says that everything is “hebel”which is translated from Hebrew into English using various words, most commonly “meaningless” or “vanity.” The Hebrew word, however, is mysterious and is rooted in the imagery of vapor, smoke, or fog. I love that word picture when I think about life. The vast majority of my 20,209 days are simply vapor. They came and went and I have no recollection of them. But some days are indelibly etched in my mind.
One such day was a gorgeous summer day in July. I was up early and drove four hours to visit a client for a day full of coaching sessions. Then I had a four hour drive home. Wendy and I were in the depths of our journey through infertility. It was a particularly painful time.
As I drove up the interstate that morning, I had been praying and working through the incredible grief we were feeling. I looked out my car window and saw a gorgeous rainbow over a beautiful valley. This was a bit odd since it was a bright morning and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Thinking about the rainbow being a sign of God’s covenant and promise, I got emotional and began to cry. Then later that day, Wendy called me. She, too, had an emotional moment with God that morning when she read from the prophet Isaiah:
“Sing, barren woman, who has never had a baby. Fill the air with song, you who’ve never experienced childbirth! You’re ending up with far more children than all those childbearing women.” God says so! “Clear lots of ground for your tents! Make your tents large. Spread out! Think big! Use plenty of rope, drive the tent pegs deep. You’re going to need lots of elbow room for your growing family.“
Walking with Wendy on our journey through infertility is one of the most difficult stretches of my life journey to date. There were so many lessons about a woman’s soul, my own masculinity, and what it means to be one. I learned about profound emptiness.
The story of Ruth is really about Naomi’s journey from emptiness to redemption and then to fullness. In today’s chapter, Boaz makes the deal to redeem Naomi’s deceased husband’s estate through an ancient custom called the Levirate Marriage. This was incredibly generous of Boaz because he was agreeing to marry a Moabite woman in order to produce a son, who would then continue the family line of Naomi’s dead husband and inherit his estate. Socially and financially there was no tangible reward for Boaz doing this, there was certainly a cost in doing it, and there was also potential risk.
Boaz marries Ruth. Ruth immediately gets pregnant and gives birth to a son. Naomi takes the boy into her arms and her community of women celebrate that she has “a son” to inherit his grandfather’s estate, carry on his name, and care for her in her old age. She came home from Moab empty. Her story ends in fullness.
Along my spiritual journey, I’ve learned that God sometimes gives a sign or a word and the fullness of its meaning is only understood further down life’s road. The day of the rainbow and the prophet’s words for Wendy, we hoped that it meant we might finally have a child together. That wasn’t the case. Nevertheless, Wendy and I have experienced our own kind of redemption in the fullness of life. Our tent pegs are stretched out and in our tent are numerous children of family and children of friends we get to love and in whose lives we get to invest. And, of course, I’ll never forget the day Wendy took our grandson Milo into her arms like Naomi holding little Obed.
From emptiness, to fullness.
Life is good.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Wendy and I were blessed to have the family together for a summer celebration at the lake. Taylor is our firecracker, born on the 4th of July. Taylor, Clayton, and Milo joined us on a trip to the lake on July 2nd. Madison and Garrett, along with Bertha, drove from South Carolina to join us on the Fourth. We had such an enjoyable time together.
We enjoyed time at the beach at Captain Ron’s. We swam off the dock and got lots of sun. We took the boat to Bear Bottom. Milo had his first experience driving the boat with Papa and going down the Water Slide. We had enjoyable family meals. We watched “Men in Kilts.” The SC crew headed back south after lunch at the Branding Iron. A good time was had by all.
Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. Mark 3:6 (NIV)
As a student of history, I’ve observed that much of history is about those in power, how they came to power, how their power was threatened or taken away. It always makes for a good story, as Shakespeare well knew. The Bard mined a lot of historical leaders and events to write plays that are still being ceaselessly produced today.
One of the themes that runs through both history and our classic literature is that of holding on to power. I find it to be a very human thing. Once I have power, I don’t want to let go of it. This is not just true of politicians who rig the system to ensure they remain in control, or business leaders who cling to their corner office, but it’s also true of parenting. For almost two decades I am essentially ruler and lord with total authority over this child. Then I’m suddenly supposed to just “let go” of my power and authority and let her run her own life when she might make some crazy life decision? Yikes!
As I read today’s chapter, I couldn’t help but see the continued development of conflict that Mark is revealing in the text. Those representatives of the powerful religious institution who were indignant with Jesus’ teaching in yesterday’s chapter, are finding Jesus to be a growing threat to their power in today’s chapter.
Jesus’ popularity is rising off of the charts. His name is trending throughout the region, even in Jerusalem where the earthly powers of politics, commerce, and religion reign. Crowds are traveling to Galilee to see this rising star. And the people who are flocking to Him are the crowds, the masses, commoners, the sick, the poor, the simpletons in fly-over country, the deplorables.
The stakes have grown. The power brokers and their minions are no longer just watching, they are plotting:
“Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus…” (vs. 2)
Once again, Jesus thwarts their monopolistic, religious control by healing someone on the Sabbath. The crowds are cheering. This Nazarene upstart could turn the crowds against them. Mobs, protests, and violence in the streets could be the result, and that’s a threat to our power. Something must be done, and Mark tells us that something interesting happens:
“Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (vs. 6)
The Pharisees were religious power brokers who publicly condemned the Roman Empire who was in control of the region. The Herodians (followers of local King Herod) were local political power brokers who did business with Rome in order to get lucrative Roman contracts and Roman authority to wield local political control. These two groups publicly hated one another, and in the media they had nothing good to say about one another. However, history reveals time and time again that in the playbook of the Kingdoms of this World “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Welcome to the smoke-filled back room. Have a seat. We’re just getting started. What are we to do with this “Jesus problem?”
Jesus, meanwhile, has other problems. The crowds are pressing in to the point of almost being out of control. The line of people wanting to be healed is endless. They’re coming from all over. Where are all these people going to stay? What are they going to eat? The locals are complaining about their quiet little towns being overrun with foreigners. The markets are sold out of everything!
And then Jesus’ own mother and brothers show up. They’re scared. Jesus is making powerful enemies. They are feeling the pressure themselves. Is it possible that an elder from the local synagogue was urged by higher-ups to pay Mary a friendly visit? I can imagine it…
“Mary, this isn’t good. Your boy has a good heart. I know he means well, but he’s going to get himself in big trouble with the Sanhedrin, with Herodians, and you don’t want the Romans to get involved. This could look really bad for your family. You’re a widow. Jesus is your oldest boy. He’s responsible to take care of you and instead he’s running around creating trouble for you and your family. We think it best that you talk to him. Be a good mother. Talk some sense into your boy.”
When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (vs. 21)
Next comes the spin campaign, and those in power know how to spin a narrative. It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to come from a seemingly “reliable” and authoritative source. It has be sensational, it has to be easily repeatable, and it has to create fear and doubt in the minds of the public.
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” (vs. 22)
In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking that the more things change, the more they stay the same in the Kingdoms of this World and their playbook.
And Jesus’ response to all this? He sticks to His core message: “The Kingdom of God is here, and it’s not like the Kingdoms of this world”. He continues to heal, He feeds, He tells stories, and He escapes the crowds to be alone for periods of time. He refuses to bow to pressure from the envoys of worldly power. He even refuses to bow to pressure from his own mother.
Poor Mary. It’s hard to let go of authority of your adult child when He can make crazy life decisions that affect the whole family. I think it’s lovely that as Jesus hung on the cross one of the last things He did was to see to it that His friend John would care for His earthly mother.
The further I get on my own life journey, I find myself seeing the Kingdoms of this World with greater clarity on all levels. As that happens, I hear the Spirit calling me to understand that being an Ambassador of the Kingdom of God on earth means living in the World, but following a different playbook.
Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. Psalm 146:3 (NIV)
Many years ago, our little town had a local Shakespeare Company that would produce a play each summer in the local park. Wendy and I were cast in Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy about a man and woman who despise one another and how this couple falls in love. Wendy was cast as the female lead, Beatrice, who in the beginning of the play waxes cynical about romance. When asked if she will every marry, she replies, “Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth.”
That line came to mind this morning as I meditated on today’s chapter, Psalm 146, in which the lyrics warn those listening to the song to avoid putting trust in human beings.
Along my life journey, I have observed that human systems almost always end up serving those who control them, unless those who control them have the rare quality of being both humble enough to eschew personal gain in order to serve everyone in the system and having the authority to ensure it stays that way.
Thus Beatrice waxes cynical to find a man who will serve her, honor her, and treat her as an equal partner rather than as a possession and chattel as human systems treated wives through most of human history.
Thus families become dysfunctional and unhealthy systems that end up hurting the ones they are supposed to protect and prepare for perpetuating healthy marriages and families for the next generation.
Thus organizations intended to serve the good of many become rackets that line the pride and pockets of the few in power at the top of the org chart.
Thus businesses established with eloquent vision and mission statements about valuing employees and exceptional service to customers end up cutting jobs and providing the least acceptable levels of service in order to eek out a few more pennies of dividend for shareholders.
Thus governments (of every type and “ism”) end up with those at the top offices rigging the system for themselves and their cronies while paying lip service to helping those living hand-to-mouth on a day-by-day basis.
I know this sounds cynical, yet I feel for where Beatrice is coming from. And, I have to confess that as a follower of Jesus I find myself in the quiet this morning hearing the words of Jesus and the teachings that call me to act against the grain of the systems of this world:
“Whoever wants to be ‘great’ and lead others but become the servant of all.”
“Husbands, love your wives sacrificially, even as Jesus showed us what love is by sacrificing Himself to save us.”
“Fathers, don’t exasperate your children.”
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone.”
“Do you have individuals who work for you? Then treat them the way you want to be treated, the way that Jesus has treated you, and the way Jesus has called you to do. From a sincere heart, respect them, treat them honorably, and compensate them for the good they do.”
In find it fascinating that Jesus arguably never directly addressed those who were in control of systems of human power. The only one He did address was the Hebrew religious system who were supposed to recognize Him, but killed Him to protect their power, privilege, and profits. When given the opportunity to address the political powers of His day, King Herod and the Roman Empire, he largely kept His mouth shut.
In the quiet this morning, my mind wanders back to Beatrice and her mail foil, Benedict. Through the course of the play they have a change of heart, and you can guess where that leads. All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story, and therein I see a reflection of what Jesus was about. Jesus was not about creating or changing humans systems of power in order to, top-down, force God’s will over individuals. That’s nothing more than using the world’s playbook against itself, and I only have to look at the headlines to see how that’s working out. Jesus’ taught that the Kingdom of God paradigm is to change the hearts of individuals in order to motivate love and service to others, that in turn creates change within human systems of power from the bottom-up. It’s what He demonstrated on the cross, when the sacrifice of One served to effect change in the many, who effected change in many more.
I hear Wendy in the kitchen making my blueberry spinach smoothie, and it’s time to wrap-up my time of quiet this morning. As I do, I find myself taking a personal inventory of life and spirit. As a husband, as a father, as a grandfather, as an employer, and as a organizational leader in my community, am I reflecting the character of humility, servant-heartedness, honor, respect, and generosity to which Jesus has called me? Immediately, things come to mind to which I need to add to my task list. I better get started.
Have a great day, my friend.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Wendy and I are almost through the first season of Poldark, originally a 2015 Masterpiece Theater production. It’s been thoroughly enjoyable. The series is set in the late 18th century and tells the story of a headstrong and struggling English nobleman who returns from the American Revolution to find his father dead, his family estate in shambles, the love of his life engaged to his cousin, and the family business on the edge of bankruptcy.
The themes of the show include the clash between nobility and peasant, the long-held tradition of the entitlement of the first-born son, and the legacy of both family systems and family names.
Over the past year of Covid-19 with all its tension over masks, mandates, and lockdowns, one of the conversations I found fascinating was the individualistic spirit in Americans. From our break from mother England to today, we don’t like being told what to do. Along my life journey, I’ve come to believe that we don’t have a full realization of, nor appreciation for, just how deep the “rugged individualism” that fueled our country runs in our veins. In the entire history of human civilization, human rights and the freedom of self-determination are relatively new concepts. For thousands of years, an individual’s lot-in-life was pretty much fully established the moment they were born. It was completely dependent on your family, your gender, and your birth order.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 132, is a case-in-point. This ancient Hebrew song was used at the coronation of monarchs ascending to the throne of King David. Some scholars believe it was initially written to honor King David at the dedication ceremony of the Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. David’s family line was firmly established as the royal line of Judah, the prophets also pointed to the coming Messiah being from the same lineage, and the lyrics of today’s chapter would have been a clear reminder to the people not to forget it.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself meditating on the concept of determination. Growing up, I and my peers were told that we could be anything we wanted to be in life if we were willing to work hard, study hard, and pursue our dreams. Once again, I’m reminded that this very notion would have been ludicrous for the vast majority of human beings who ever lived. And yet, while I would argue that there are, in general, greater opportunities for self-determination than in any other time in human history, there are still those determining influences of life that I don’t control.
Among the teachings of Jesus that fueled the Jesus Movement of the first century was that everyone was welcome at the dining table where believers sat, listened, prayed, feasted, and “communed.” Men, women, slaves, slave owners, rich, poor, societies’ big shots, and social lepers. As Paul put it in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Galatia:
In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the things in this life that I can control, and the things that I can’t. When Jesus said to those seated around Him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” I believe that He was telling his followers that I don’t have to be enslaved to systems that formed me. When Paul said that for the believer “old things pass away” I believe that among the things that pass away are beliefs, patterns of thought, and behaviors that were instilled in me by the systems into which I was born and in which I was raised. I observe that the spiritual transformation I’ve experienced on my spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus has not only changed me, but it has led me to leverage the fruit of God’s Spirit to help transform the human systems I’m a part of for the better.
This month marks our sixth anniversary here at “Vander Well Manor,” the house Wendy and I built here in the most awesome little town in America. Wendy, working alongside our contractor, did a lot of the designing of our house and she did an amazing job.
One of the rooms that got special attention in the design of our home was the dining room. In fact, the original designs had the dining room that you usually see in homes today. It was a tight little space large enough to comfortably fit a standard table for six. We quickly decided that this just wouldn’t do. We ended up creating an entire addition to the house just for our dining room in which we placed a table that comfortably seats eight (but we’ve squeezed 10-12 people around it).
One of our good friends once commented, “You’re the only people I know who actually use your dining room on a regular basis.” Meals are an important piece of life to Wendy and me. It’s where we gather with family and friends. It’s where conversation flows like wine and where community is formed. Even when our girls were teenagers and lives were hectic, we attempted to have at least one evening meal per week in which we were sitting together at the table and engaged one another. Now, the nest is empty, but even Wendy and I frequent the dining room, just the two of us.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 128, is akin to yesterday’s. It’s hard not to understand why the editors who compiled this collection of ancient Hebrew song lyrics put the two side-by-side in the compilation. They are both celebrations of hearth, home, and family.
The words “your children will be like olive shoots around your table” leaped off the page when I read it. Olive shoots were a common metaphor to the ancient Hebrews. An olive shoot is young, green, full of life and possibility. Olive trees have amazingly long and productive lives. One olive tree in Portugal is estimated to be 3,350 years old. That means it was already over 1,000 years old when the writer of Psalm 128 penned the lyrics of today’s chapter. When I visited the olive “garden” outside of Jerusalem where tradition says Jesus went to pray the night of His arrest, I learned that there were trees in that garden today that were alive and present that fateful night.
Wendy and I were so blessed this past Christmas to have the kids and Milo home. As always, meals were an important part of the family agenda from cocktails through dessert. Christmas Day began with a brunch feast and continued in the afternoon with the most amazing charcuterie spread that Wendy and the girls worked together to create. I cherish the experience, and the Life present and celebrated around the table. As the Hebrews say as a toast, “L’chaim!” (“to life!”).
In the quiet this morning, I remember a former colleague who told me that their family ate the entire traditional Thanksgiving feast in ten minutes. She then swore that she wasn’t exaggerating. The family gathered, ate, and were done at the table in ten minutes. I’m not criticizing. That might just be how they roll, and that’s cool for them. As for me, and my house, we’re going to be at the table a little longer than that, enjoying good food, good drink, good conversations, and the good company of one another which happens far too seldom.