Tag Archives: Fear

Crisis Through Agur’s Eyes

“Under three things the earth trembles,
    under four it cannot bear up:
a servant who becomes king,
    a godless fool who gets plenty to eat,
a contemptible woman who gets married,
    and a servant who displaces her mistress.”

Proverbs 30:21-23 (NIV)

I don’t believe that I can truly appreciate just how blessed I am in this world, and in this time, compared with the general state of human existence throughout history. There are daily necessities for survival that I take completely for granted like fresh water out of a tap, secure shelter, heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, and an abundance of food. There is also sanitation, security, safety, and health. Then there’s communication (I get to see and talk to my grandson on the other side of the world whenever I desire), transportation (I can fly through the air anywhere in the world), medicine, and the rule of law make living today easier, safer, cleaner, healthier, and more entertaining than any age in human history this side of the Garden of Eden.

In the ancient Middle East, a very high value was placed on social order. I’m not sure I can completely appreciate why it was so important. I do understand, however, that everyday life for the sage Agur (who wrote today’s chapter of wise sayings) was infinitely more tenuous than for me. His most basic needs for human survival (water, food, shelter) were never givens. If he got a virus, an infection, or had a heart attack he would die. His life expectancy was short. If there was a famine, a drought, or a flood there was no government assistance or subsidies. Agur would starve, or risk traveling to another country to beg, or his tribe might attack another tribe to plunder what they could. Life for Agur was not safe, not secure, and not easy. So, social order gave him and people of his day a sense of peace and sanity to an otherwise unpredictable existence.

Agur then speaks of “earth trembling” (think uncertainty, confusion, insecurity, and being out of control) when four things happen. The four things he lists might seem silly to us today, but they represented the social order of Agur’s world turned upside-down. They were things that brought unease, insecurity, and meant the already tenuous order of life was going to be even more out-of-sorts.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but find myself thinking of the “trembling” our “earth” has experienced in recent weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. The insanely easy and secure order life I enjoy has been briefly interrupted. I am inconvenienced. I will suffer a loss of income. But, as I meditated on what life must have been like for Agur, I imagined him traveling through time and arriving as a guest in my home. I imagine the wonder in his eyes as he sees how much room we have in our house (for only two people). I picture him walking around and seeing the food in my pantry (which could probably sustain us for weeks or months), our water faucet, the sanitary plumbing in my bathroom, the countless gadgets that entertain me, the library of books on our shelves, the safety of my nation and community, the modern apothecary and medical supplies in my medicine cabinet, the bed I sleep in, and the number of clothes in my drawer. I imagine him seeing all of this and taking it all in. Then I hear his incredulous scoff at my whining and complaints of the travails of quarantines, social distancing, and how inconvenienced I’ve been for a couple of weeks.

“Crisis” is a fascinating thing to experience. I find myself being continually reminded just how often Jesus told His followers not to be afraid, not to worry, and not to be anxious. And Jesus’ life was a lot more like Agur’s than mine. I find it ironic how easy it is to step into the fear trap, no matter how safe, secure, and well-provisioned I am.

Today, I want to keep seeing my life through Agur’s eyes.

I think the perspective will do me good.

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Lord Protectors of Orthodoxy and Tradition

Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere.
Luke 20:20 (NIV)

It’s been years, but I can still see their faces. The look on most of those faces is a scowl. Along my journey, I have been a member and have taught in many different churches of diverse denominational bents. I have found these individuals in almost every one of them.

They are the thought police, the guardians of tradition, and the Lord Protectors of the Orthodox Realm. They wear the mantel of righteousness, believing themselves responsible to strictly observe and question anything they perceive to seep outside the rigid box in which they hold their tradition and orthodoxy. They often believe themselves to be spiritual heirs of the first century Berean Jews who are described as follows:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Acts 17:11 (NIV)

My experience, however, leads me to believe that “noble character” is not an apt description for most of these individuals. They don’t receive my message with eagerness and open examination but with skepticism and censure. I have come to believe that their motivation is often fear and or pride cloaked in religiosity. Their minds and spirits are not open but closed. The fruit of their words and actions is rarely love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, or gentleness. I have observed that the root of their words and actions lie in the soil of fear, pride, self-righteousness, and anger. The fruit of their words and actions is conflict, quarrels, division, and dissension.

The faces of these individuals came to mind today as I read Luke’s account of the final week of Jesus’ earthly journey. We find Jesus in Jerusalem teaching in the Temple courts. He is drawing large crowds. He is the talk of the town. And, the orthodox power system of that Temple is angry and afraid. Jesus threatens their lucrative religious racket that has amassed their wealth. Jesus threatens their power and social standing with the people whom they control through religious rule-keeping, condemnation, judgment, and shame. Their tradition is holding onto power and they are bent on taking Jesus down.

So these teachers of the law and religious authorities send people to question, to trap, and to report anything the upstart Nazarene says which might be used to make a case against Him. They are already trying to find a way to send Jesus to the Roman Governor, for under Roman occupation it is Pontius Pilate alone who can sentence one to death, and they want Jesus dead.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. As a follower of Jesus, I firmly believe that I must be responsible to consider, weigh, and test the things said, written, and taught in the name of Jesus. At the same time, I am called upon to be both shrewd and gentle. I have been commanded to follow the law of love in all things. I have been told to reserve judgment for the One true Judge. I am not judge, jury, and executioner of orthodox justice with a Junior Holy Spirit badge pinned to my chest. What a sad way to live and be. It doesn’t seem like the “full life” Jesus wanted His followers to experience and live out.

Back to the faces and the individuals. I have learned along the way to always try responding thoughtfully, gently, and with self-control. If they are open to a sincere and kind conversation to explore and discuss, then wonderful! However, when a thoughtful and gentle reply is fruitless (and it typically is), then I endeavor to press forward on the path to which God has led me. I keep loving, keep praying, keep reading, keep seeking, keep asking, keep knocking, and I focus on the only things in my control: my intentions, thoughts, words, and actions. And, I pay as little attention to my scowling critics as is humanly possible.

Sometimes, the most loving thing I can do is to walk away.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Rules and Exceptions

On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God.

When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.
Nehemiah 13:1,3 (NIV)

A large part of my daily vocation is working with companies and their Quality Assessment (QA) efforts. You know, when you call and they say, “Your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes”? That’s a piece of what our company does.

Many years ago I observed a pattern in many companies with whom I consulted on their QA programs. An exceptional situation will result in a general rule for the population. Often, the rule had more of a detrimental effect than the exceptional situation that started it ever would. Let me give you an example.

Our team’s customer surveys (another piece of what our company does) typically find that customers appreciate a company who knows their name (Remember Cheers? “You wanna go where everybody knows your name.”) and offers a personal service experience. Then one day a well-meaning Customer Service Representative (CSR) makes a mistake and addresses the caller by the wrong name or butchers the pronunciation of an unusual sounding name. The customer goes postal on the CSR and calls back to speak with managers and executives up the org chart making a huge deal out of a relatively little thing. Management, not wanting to have that happen again, makes a general rule: CSRs will no longer address customers by name!

The result? One exceptional, cranky customer who made a mountain out of a molehill has resulted in all customers getting a diminished service experience from the company.

Then I began to realize that this isn’t just something that happens in business. It happens all the time in families, churches, communities, and cultures. In fact, it happens in today’s chapter, but I bet you didn’t see it if you read the chapter.

Back in the days of Moses, there were two exceptional enemies of the Hebrews. The Ammonites and Moabites had gone out of their way to curse the Hebrews and attempted to thwart their passing through the land. Because of this, the law of Moses contained an exceptional rule:

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. However, the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.

Deuteronomy 23:3-4 (NIV)

Then, I read again what Nehemiah and the returned exiles did when they read this text:

When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.

Nehemiah 13:3 (NIV) [emphasis added]

Do you see what they did there? They took an exceptional situation that applied to two specific people groups (the Moabites and Ammonites) being allowed into the temple, and they expanded into a general rule excluding all people of foreign descent from the entire land.

Here’s the kicker. In doing this, they were breaking another very specific law of God in Leviticus 19:

“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.'”

Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV)

I can see the legal wrangling spinning in the hearts and heads of Nehemiah and his people: “If we exclude all foreigners from the land, then we won’t have any of them residing among us, and that renders the Leviticus rule moot!”

By the way, what Nehemiah and the people are doing in today’s chapter is part of why Jesus came 400 years later to find a culture of separation, animosity, prejudice, and hatred between Jews and Gentiles. If they’d have interpreted Deuteronomy 23:3-4 differently and made Leviticus 19:33-34 their general rule, things may have just have turned out differently.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking of all the ways we still do this today. Parents have one child who rebels and they clamp down their draconian rules on all of their children in the belief that the entire brood is a bunch of little rebels waiting to happen. Two young people at a school dance go too far and the girl ends up pregnant, so the church outlaws dancing in any form as evil. One dumb terrorist thought he could plant a bomb in his shoe (simply resulting in him burning his feet), and now billions of travelers have to have their shoes removed and x-rayed at every airport in the world.

By the way, I think both extremes of the political spectrum do this, as well. Let me give you two easy examples. The right does it with guns: “Because the Constitution made an exception for Colonists to have a musket to defend themselves against enemies and provide food for their tables, there’s no reason why I can’t have an M-16 and a rocket launcher in my home arsenal.” The left does it with abortion: “Because there are tragic situations of rape, incest, and life-threatening situations, we should allow abortion for all women, for any reason, right until the moment of delivery in the ninth month.”

The further I get in my life journey the more I observe that we humans are largely driven by fear, distrust, and emotional over-reactions. I don’t want to live that way. I’d rather have my life, words, and actions driven by faith, hope, and love. And, the latter most of all.

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.

“…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.”

Unlikely Hero

“And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Esther 4:14b

In a couple of weeks, I’m scheduled to give a message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers entitled “It’s a Secret.” In preparation for that message, I have been pouring over some of Frank Warren’s PostSecret books. For those who are unfamiliar, Warren is simply a small business person who decided to do an art project. He handed out about 3000 black postcards with his address printed on them and asked people to share their “secret” with him. Years later they keep arriving from all over the world and his blog at postsecret.com is among the most popular in the world.

As I read today’s chapter, in which Queen Esther is made aware of Haman’s plot to annihilate her people, I thought about her secret. Esther had successfully managed to become the queen of Persia by being keeping her heritage and ethnicity a secret. She had assimilated into Persian culture. She did not demand a kosher diet, which would have given her away. She did not bring up any moral objections during her year-long education in providing the king sexual pleasure. The evidence would suggest that Esther was not a “godly woman” (by the strict definition of religiously following the tenents and disciplines of Judaism) and the faith of her people does not appear to have been something she practiced or felt compelled to take seriously.

I was also reminded, once again, that God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. It’s also interesting that when Esther asked Mordecai and her people to fast for three days it does not mention prayer in conjunction with the fasting. While prayer and fasting traditionally went together, the prayer part of it is not mentioned by the Queen.

Along the journey, I’ve observed that the institutions and adherents of my own faith like to try and keep God in their own binary boxes. I confess that I have, at times, fallen prey to this notion myself. People are either “sinners” or “saints.” God’s pleasure and purpose are reserved for the latter but definitely not the former. And yet, there are so many examples of God using people who wouldn’t pass our moral or religious litmus tests in order to accomplish His purposes. I’ve come to embrace the fact that when Paul wrote of God who is “able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine” it includes working through and accomplishing His purposes through the most unlikely, seemingly unworthy, of individuals.

Esther is an unlikely hero who reveals herself to be, like all of us, very human. I compare her to Daniel who zealously and religiously clung to his faith, religious discipline, and heritage, and he still succeeded to carve out position and purpose throughout a lifetime in captivity. Esther, on the other hand, follows the easier path of cultural compromise. She keeps her heritage, her people, and what faith she might have had in her people’s religion a secret. She likely kept her secret in order to avoid prejudice and persecution. Some would call that cowardice. Her response to Mordecai upon learning of Haman’s genocidal plot reveals her feelings of powerlessness and fear. All of this, and still she finds herself in just the right place at just the right time to accomplish God’s purpose of saving her people.

Ever since I became a follower of Jesus, I’ve sought God’s purpose in my life journey. I’ve tried to be a person of zealous, disciplined conviction like Daniel, but any who care to look closely at my track record will find that it is dotted with the same kinds of compromises, secrets, easy choices, and fear revealed in Esther. My solace is that God did accomplish His purposes in both of them, and I believe that somehow in the mysterious tension between God’s sovereignty and my free will I continually find myself at just the right place, at just the right time, to accomplish the purposes God has for me at this very moment.

And so, I begin another day in the journey. Press on, my friend.