Tag Archives: Fear

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.

When Life Throws a Wicked Curve

As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.
Daniel 2:30 (NIV)

One can’t control some circumstances. Life sometimes throws you a curve, and you stand there in the batter’s box with only a proverbial moment to decide what you’re going to do with it.

The latest curveball in our journey happened on Friday when my dad suffered a (thankfully small) stroke. In the course of a few hours, our weekend plans were scuttled and our plans for a week at the lake were placed on hold. I quickly found myself spending my nights caring for my mother who is living in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and spending my days with her and my dad at the hospital entertaining a small army of doctors who are trying make sense of my father’s puzzling mixture of medical issues. I’m glad to report that everyone is well, and it could have been much, much worse.

As doctor after doctor has come in to discuss the various tests that have been continually run over the weekend, my dad has been intent on asking them exactly when his stroke occurred. He’d had symptoms starting on Tuesday of last week and went to the hospital on Friday. I’ve watched as every doctor he asks will look at him quizzically and laugh at the question. Strokes apparently don’t leave a time and date stamp on the brain. Undaunted by this, he continues to ask.

His doctors should be happy they aren’t serving King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. In today’s chapter, King Neb asks a similar unknowable question to all of the prophets, magicians, and enchanters on his royal payroll. The mad king had a puzzling dream, and he wanted the interpretation, but he wanted to make sure the interpretation could be trusted. So, he asked them to first tell him what the dream was, and then tell him the interpretation. If no one could do it, then they’d all be killed and their homes destroyed. Talk about a major league curveball.

Daniel and his friends were, at this point, minor minions at the bottom of the King’s org chart of advisors. Nonetheless, the decree of death applied to them, as well, when Neb decided that he was cleaning house in the Advisory Department.

I find Daniel’s response fascinating. He doesn’t seem to panic. Having not been aware of any of the circumstances leading to the fateful knock on his door, he makes a bold move. He asks for an audience with King Neb. It’s possible that Daniel had not even been in the King’s presence since he and his friends were tested and made the cut to be on the King’s advisory staff. Daniel requests a night to see if he could do the impossible. Then he and his friends pray. That night, Daniel receives a vision explaining both the dream and interpretation.

When Daniel approaches the King with the answer, he is quick to let the King know that there was no magic involved and Daniel did not have some kind of ESP. He simply says that God had a message for the King and Daniel was the messenger. In the entire affair, Daniel’s thoughts, words, and actions appear humble, measured, and focused on seeking God’s purpose in the midst of it all. He stands in, keeps his eye on the ball, and knocks the curveball out of the park.

This morning as I write from my folk’s apartment and help get my mom going so we can head back to the hospital, I’m finding inspiration in Daniel’s attitude. As I wrote in my previous post, Daniel had already faced several wicked knuckleballs and curveballs in life. Perhaps he had learned from those experiences. Nonetheless, he provides a good example.

Don’t panic. Take some time. Seek God’s purpose. Be humble. Flow.

My dad was supposed to be discharged from the hospital today. He called last night to report that the doctors have found another complication. Another procedure today, and I have no idea what it will reveal or whether we’ll bring him home today or not.

Here we flow.

 

The Fateful Knocking

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
2 Timothy 4:6-7 (NIV)

He knew he was going to die. I don’t know how he knew. He had been struggling with his health for some time. Nevertheless, he knew. He heard fate knocking like the opening measure of Beethoven’s fifth. He asked his caregivers to call me, and I went to his bedside. He was restless, agitated, and there was fear in his eyes.

I had pleasant conversations with him and his wife before. They were very sweet people who lived in a little house on top of a hill with a gorgeous view. They were both humble individuals with gentle spirits. He loved to tell stories. They had no desire to talk about spiritual matters. So, we didn’t. I visited and we swapped stories. We talked about many other things and enjoyed the view together. It really was spectacular.

Now, things were different. He needed to get some things out. He needed to take care of some matters of Spirit. He’d always avoided this conversation so he had no idea how to have it. I took his hand and began to ask him questions. He wept. He talked. I listened. I gently asked more questions. At his request, I helped him pray. I believe it may well have been his first and only time.

When I left he was quiet and resting peacefully. He died a few hours later.

It was what many people call a “deathbed confession.” My experience is that when that phrase is used in conversation it has typically been uttered cynically or sarcastically as if a dying person is trying to rig the system. I liken it to taking on the mantel of the prodigal’s older brother who gets pissed that little brother squandered his life and partied like it’s 1999, and then dad just welcomes him home with feasting and homecoming gifts. Where’s the justice in that? Perhaps I should have told the man, “Too bad, old man. You had your chances and now it’s too late. Good luck. You might want to take a fan with you.”

Everyone has their own journey. Everyone has their own story. Who’s to say that his story wasn’t a great story? Who am I to judge? The fear in his eyes was genuine. The words, the tears, and the prayer were humble and sincere. I am honored to have played a bit part in his final chapter.

Speaking of chapters, today’s is the last surviving words that Paul wrote. He, too, hears fate knocking. His story is very different. He welcomes the journey’s end. He looks forward to what lies beyond. His earthly journey is a sojourn. He is the prodigal heading home and looking forward to being welcomed.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about life and death and resurrection. I’ve recently been walking with a friend whose father has heard the fateful knocking and, along with his family, is making preparations. It’s a strange time when it comes – however it comes.

Everyone has their own stories in both life and death. Paul’s journey had prepared him in mind and spirit for the journey’s end. My friend, who asked his caregivers to call me, had never allowed himself to think much about it. I certainly identify with Paul as we share a common faith and a common hope. I find myself saying a quiet prayer for those who, like my friend who made his deathbed confession, have not thought much about it – and have no one to call.

Fear: The Great Motivator

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of Godthat is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:1, 38-39 (NIV)

Just a few days ago there was a major Winter Storm Warning for our region. The local weather hyped it like no one’s business. Stock-up on provisions! (Never mind that Wendy and I could survive for years on what is in our pantry!) Cancel your plans! Stay home! Don’t travel! Schools cancelled and businesses told their people not to come to work.

Then, it didn’t happen.

Oops.

Here’s what I’ve observed along my life journey: Fear is everywhere. Fear gets our attention. Fear sucks us in. Fear motivates us to act. That’s why media, politicians, and religion all love to lead with fear. Fear works.

The left tells us to fear billionaires, Wall Street and capitalism.
The right tells us to fear socialists, unions, & academia.
Religion tells us to fear worldliness, sin, the devil, heresy, and damnation.
Media tells us to fear earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, floods, tsunamis, lightning, blizzards, asteroids, flu, greenhouse gases, melting glaciers, rising temperatures, lowering temperatures, inflation, deflation, economic stagnation, dirty water, dirty restaurant kitchens, opioids, meth, gateway drugs, terrorism, bacteria, genetic engineering, GMOs, getting vaccinated, not getting vaccinated, scams, shams, abduction, murder, pedophile rings, product recalls, anything that causes cancer (which appears to be everything), nuclear war, nuclear anything, spies, conspiracy, gangs, criminal immigrants, rogue law enforcement, and on, and on, and on.
Parents tell children to fear every conceivable bad thing that’s happened to a child ever.

A long time ago I began paying attention to any entity that wants something from me. In ways both subtle and overt I find that I am being ceaselessly told to “be afraid.” I contrast this with Jesus who said “Don’t be afraid” over and over and over again. He asked His disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Don’t you have any faith?” Great question to ask myself daily.

Today’s chapter in Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome is among the most encouraging, uplifting, and faith-building reminders ever penned. I find it an antidote to the steady stream of fear to which I am exposed each day, and which eventually starts to poison my thoughts and my outlook on the world. It’s full of hope in the moment, hope admits our current circumstances, and hope for the future. Paul gives encouragement and assurance.

In the quiet this morning I once again confess my own penchant for pessimism. People are often surprised when I tell them that, but it’s true. When faced with the least bit of fear or opposition I can quickly go into shut-down mode. Wendy and I were just talking about it yesterday over breakfast. I have found along the journey that it’s important for me to consciously let my heart, soul, and mind drink regularly from a deep well of encouragement and affirmation like today’s chapter:

The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture…None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

Don’t be afraid, my friend. Have a great day.