Tag Archives: Jesus

“Who are You?”

“We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth….”
Ezra 5:11 (NIV)

“Who are you? ‘Cause  I really wanna know.” The Who famously asked this question in song back in 1978.

It’s a simple enough question. A few musical responses immediately came to mind as I thought about how other songwriters answered the question. Like this one from Meredith Brooks:

I’m a bitch
I’m a lover
I’m a child
I’m a mother
I’m a sinner
I’m a saint
And I do not feel ashamed
I’m your hell
I’m your dream
I’m nothing in between

And, of course, the Beatles would reply “I am the walrus.” (goo goo g’joob).
Last night at dinner my colleague and I were talking about the conversations one has with strangers on airplanes. We carry business cards for such occasions.
“Here you go. Here’s who I am.”
I’m being trite, of course. There is, however, a much deeper and more profound question poking at me this morning. How I answer the question, “Who are you?” says a lot. There are so many options for answering:
“I’m a husband, father, and grandfather.”
“I’m a Vander Well.”
“I’m Dutch by heritage.”
“I’m a consultant.”
“I’m an Iowan.”
“I’m an American.”
“I’m a Cubs fan.”
What struck me as I read the chapter this morning was the response of the returned Jewish exiles in Jerusalem when the question was posed to them. “We are servants of the God of heaven and earth,” they replied.
For some, I’m sure faith is simply another facet of their being:
“Monday through Friday I’m a broker. Saturdays I’m a coach for my kid’s soccer team. Saturday night I’m my wife’s date. On Sunday morning I’m a Catholic, and then on Sunday afternoon I’m a Chiefs fan.”
As I ponder the exiles response, it struck a chord with me. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t a facet of who I am, because it has transformed the way I see myself in every other context. I’m a follower of Jesus when I’m with my client and it affects the way I conduct my business. I’m a  follower of Jesus when I’m responding to Wendy and it affects the way I act as a husband. I’m a follower of Jesus when I’m with friends, when I’m alone, when I’m eating out, when I’m at CrossFit, when I’m driving, when I’m on stage, and when I’m writing these posts in the morning.
This morning in the quiet of my hotel room I’m thinking about my faith and my identity. I don’t want the fact that I’m a follower of Jesus to be a piece of who I am. I want it to transform who I am in every other respect.

“…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.”

Bad Blood Boiling Over

All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.
Esther 3:2 (NIV)

I recently read a fascinating op-ed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali by birth who became a member of the Dutch Parliament. In the article, she shares about her journey of understanding that she was culturally and systemically raised to hate Jews and blame them for everything, and how she overcame that hatred.

Feuds are as old as humanity itself. Whether it is unresolved interpersonal conflict, blood feuds between familial tribes, or long-standing hatred between people groups, there are countless examples of systemic hatred and generational conflict throughout history.

For the casual reader, there exists in Esther an underlying conflict that is not easily detected on the surface of the text. Mordecai was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. The tribe of Benjamin had a famous ancestor in the person of Saul, the first King of Israel. Saul had warred against the Amalekites and their King, Agag. Saul’s disobedience to God’s command in the battle against King Agag led to Saul’s downfall which, in turn, brought shame to the tribe of Benjamin. Haman was an Agagite, a descendant of Saul’s famous enemy. There are over 500 years of bad blood between Haman and Mordecai’s tribes.

This adds a whole new layer of understanding to the story. Mordecai had thwarted an assassination plot against Xerxes in yesterday’s chapter, and yet he received no real reward for his courage. Haman, in contrast, is elevated to a place of unprecedented power within Xerxes administration and no reason is provided to explain why he was deserving of such favor. The King demands that everyone bow before Haman. Bowing and kneeling before others was a common form of public respect in ancient Persian culture. It would be similar to shaking hands in our culture or taking your hat off in respect. Mordecai’s refusal to offer this basic courtesy to Haman was not treated as treasonous, but as culturally impolite and disrespectful. Mordecai was scolded and lectured, but still, he refused to bow. Each day he stood as Haman passed by and each day the insult pricked Haman’s ego and pride. With each passing day the 500 years of cultural bad blood between Benjaminite and Agagite, between Jew and Amalekite, slowly simmered to a boil. Haman plots to have Mordecai and all of his people annihilated.

This morning I find myself contemplating Jesus’ command that I forgive my enemies. This not only includes the interpersonal conflicts or wrongs which I have suffered, but I believe also includes the deeper cultural, ethnic, moral, and religious prejudices I may hold against other people groups; Prejudices that I may have been systemically and culturally taught without even realizing it.

Which brings me back to Ms. Ali, a woman from a different culture, tribe, and religion than my own. I found her willingness to confess her hatred of the Jewish people and turn from the cultural enmity she’d been taught a shining example of what Jesus asks of me. I find myself taking an honest inventory of my heart this morning. As King David (ironically, God’s replacement for the disobedient King Saul) wrote in the lyrics to his musical prayer, “Search me, God, and know my heart.” Addressing prejudice and cultural hatred has to begin with me.

Strong Women in Weak Circumstances

“According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?” he asked. “She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.”
Esther 1:15 (NIV)

In the days after the end of Game of Thrones, I have suffered a bit of withdrawal. I know I am not alone in this. While nothing in the current entertainment market is going to really compare to the epic series, of late I have been catching up on the series, The Last Kingdom, (on Netflix) which has enjoyably filled the void. It follows the life of a young English noble who is captured and raised by Vikings while his uncle claims the title and land rightfully his by birth. The series is set in a period of actual history when Vikings threatened to conquer all the kingdoms of the British isle while Alfred the Great sought to join the disparate Kingdoms of the isle into one united England.

One of the interesting themes that I have noticed of late in multiple series and movies set in medieval times is how the role of women is handled. Certainly, the dark ages and middle ages were a time in which women had little or no social standing. Daughters of nobility were married off to create political alliances. Writers seem to enjoy creating female characters of strength and courage who challenge and undermine the status quo of that time. I laughed a lot as I watched the character of Brida (played expertly by Emily Cox) in The Last Kingdom (who, like the male protagonist was a young Brit captured and raised as a pagan Viking) who re-enters English society and all of the male priests and nobles have no idea how to handle this strong, fiery, female warrior. Earl the Bruce’s wife in the movie Outlaw King (also on Netflix) is another recent example.

Today we begin another chapter-a-day journey through the book of Esther. Along with the stories of Daniel and Jonah, which we just blogged through in the past few months, Esther is set in the period of exile when many of the Hebrew people were living in exiled captivity to a successive series of foreign empires (Babylonian, Mede, and Persian). Esther is one of the most enjoyable and unique reads in the entirety of God’s Message.

The first chapter sets the scene as the Persian Queen, Vashti, refuses her intoxicated husband’s demand that she present herself to him and the drunken, seven-day binge of a frat-boy party that he and his court were having. King Xerxes wanted to serve his wife up to be sexually ogled by his “noble” entourage. When Vashti has the self-respect and courage to refuse her husband’s demand, the boys decide that she must be punished so that all women would know their place and all men could cement their power over their wives and households.

Today’s chapter sets the scene for the story on which we are about to embark. It establishes the setting in an ancient culture in which men systemically dominated politics, society, and culture. Women had little or no power, and to challenge the system – even for the best of reasons – could lead to very negative consequences. The Hebrews, as a people living in exile, understood this position of powerlessness.

As I think about the historical setting of the story of Esther, of the courage of Vashti to stand up to her drunken husband, and the examples of strong women in weak social positions that I’ve been watching of late, I can’t help but think of my wife and my daughters. God has surrounded me with strong women whom I greatly respect. I am partnered with a fiery, Enneagram 8 of a wife, who compliments and challenges me in all sorts of healthy ways. I also know, however, that most of human history would not have treated her and her God-given temperament kindly, despite what Hollywood writers portray as they try to bring 9th-century realities to 21st-century audiences.

In the quiet this morning I find myself excited to once again wade through the amazing story of Esther. It reminds me of the spiritual paradoxes that lie at the heart of being a follower of Jesus: that strength is found in weakness, that spiritual power is often unleashed in temporal impotence, and that the power of Life is found on the other side of death.

Shades of Schadenfreude

[Jonah] prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
Jonah 4:2 (NIV)

As I get older, I’ve grown to enjoy etymology, the study of words and their origins. I find it fascinating how these building blocks of communication become part of our everyday conversations, and how they wax and wane in popular usage. I also find it fascinating how cultures ascribe certain significance, power, and meaning to certain words, while others don’t. Our kids in Scotland have a few great anecdotes about uncomfortable social moments when they discovered that a word they used, which has a benign meaning in the States, has a very different meaning in the U.K.

There is a word I first noticed a few years ago, and I’ve found that it’s growing in popularity: schadenfreude. It’s a compound German word that comes from the root words meaning “harm” and “joy“. It means to take pleasure in another’s person’s misfortune.

There certainly is a natural and rather harmless way that we enjoy seeing the bad guy get his comeuppance. I was one of the many who watched the entire series Game of Thrones. The series was masterful in creating really bad characters who I wanted to see come to a nasty, bitter end and was happy when it eventually happened.

At the same time, there is a dark side of schadenfreude that I feel like I’m witnessing more and more in our current culture. It’s not enough to disagree with another person’s political, religious, or social worldviews, we have to publicly call them names and post antagonizing memes on social media. Just last night I found myself shutting off social media and walking away. I realized how mean-spirited the posts were that I was reading and it wasn’t having a positive effect on my psyche or my feelings towards others.

In today’s final chapter of the story of Jonah, we finally learn what was at the heart of Jonah’s mad dash to flee from what God had asked him to do. Jonah didn’t want God to be gracious and merciful with his enemies. Jonah wanted to wallow in schadenfreude and watch his enemies, the Assyrians, suffer.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus took five common statements about matters of relationship and then told His followers He was raising the bar. Jesus’ expectation for me as a follower is that I behave in a way that goes against the grain of common human behavior:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.”
Matthew 5:43-47 (MSG)

Reading Jonah’s story this week has caused me to do some real personal introspection. You can see it in the common ways my posts have ended the past few days.

As I was reading about the etymology of the word schadenfreude, I learned that many cultures and languages have a word that means the same thing. I recognize that there is a relatively harmless pleasure that I take when my favorite team’s rival loses. C’est la vie. I don’t, however, want to wake up someday and find myself in Jonah’s sandals. Following Jesus means loving, even those people who wish to see me suffer; Even those who actually act on it.

“Forgive them. They don’t realize what they’re doing.”

God, make me more like that.

When Obedience Seems Not Such a Wonderful Life

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
Jonah 2:1 (NIV)

In the film classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart plays the leading role of George Bailey. Stewart, with his easy-going manner and “aw, shucks” charm, was the perfect person to play the role. George Bailey is a character referred to as an “everyman” because he’s a basic human archetype to whom every viewer can relate.

Late in the film, as he feels his life unraveling, Bailey stands on a train trestle and talks to God. “I’m not much of a praying man,” he says as he begins to address the Almighty. It’s a great line because it reaches those viewers who are not religious. Religious people know all about prayer and will identify, but for the non-religious viewer, it makes both Bailey’s character and prayer accessible.

In today’s chapter, we find Jonah, the runaway prophet, trapped in the belly of a giant fish. The chapter records the prophet’s distressed prayer from his precarious predicament.

What I found ironic as I read the chapter this morning was the placement of the prayer in the story. Jonah is not a George Bailey, for whom prayer is reserved for life’s foxhole desperation. Jonah was a prophet of God. It was his life. It was his job. Prayer, study, and the proclamation of God’s word was his daily preoccupation. Jonah didn’t pray when God told him to go to Nineveh and preach to the Assyrian people. He didn’t wrestle with God on the subject or seek guidance, clarification, or the grace to help him understand the command. He simply, and defiantly ran the other direction.

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. A generation before Jonah the Assyrians had waged a bloody war against his nation. A generation later they would do the same. The people of Nineveh were Jonah’s enemies and the enemies of his people. Jonah’s struggle was not what God was calling him to do, but those to whom God was calling him to do it.

Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the better part of a year studying the Jesus Movement of the first century in the Book of Acts. One of the major themes in the book is the racism that surfaces between different groups of believers. Those of Jesus’ followers who were Jews from Palestine discriminated against those who were from Greece. Those Jews who were from Greece discriminated against believers who were non-Jewish Gentiles. It was a hot mess, but it pointed to a heart issue that is present in Jonah as well.

In asking Jonah to preach to the Assyrians, God is proclaiming that He cares about the Assyrians. He wants the Assyrians to repent of their ways and turn to Him. God is, in fact, demonstrating the very message His Son would preach a few hundred years later:

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

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Matthew 5:38-48 (MSG)

Jonah now becomes the everyman archetype of his people who loved taking pride in being “the people of God” and “God’s chosen people” but had no interest in sharing the love or favor. Jonah doesn’t want to go to God’s enemies because he wants nothing to do with their repentance. He is like the Prodigal’s dutiful, hard-hearted older brother, only this time the father is asking him to go find his lost brother and see if he’ll come home.

Jonah is so adamant in refusing the call that he’s not even willing to pray and ask a few questions or to try and understand God’s heart in the request. But having barely survived a storm at sea, having been thrown overboard by non-Jewish sailors (who repent and turn to God), and having been swallowed by a giant fish, Jonah finally prays.

This morning I find myself standing in Jonah’s sandals. I have been a follower of Jesus for almost forty years. How willing have I been to show love for those who hate me? Jesus repeatedly points out, in His sermon on the Mount, that He doesn’t want His followers to do the easy thing (like loving the homers who love you) but the hard thing (reaching out to the evil Assyrians of Nineveh). Am I even willing to consider how I might have settled into the former while conveniently ignoring the latter?

Jonah is an everyman, a character with whom we can relate. In the quiet this morning I confess I find myself relating to him more than I care to admit. I am called to love, even those I would much rather ignore.

Responsibility and Need

If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.
1 Timothy 5:16 (NIV)

Early in my life journey I worked at a number of different churches and different denominations. One of the common struggles I observed was how each church handled those who would regularly come to the church asking for a handout. In every church I served there was a sincere and loving motivation to help those in need, but there was also the realization that responsible generosity also required  wisdom and discernment. While some individuals were people truly in need, others were not. There were individuals who were perfectly capable of getting a job and supporting themselves, but they were more than happy to avoid the work and simply make the rounds of every church in town seeing how much money they could talk the churches into giving them.

Along the way I’ve observed a simple reality of human nature. If you create a system of welfare there will be those who will try to take personal advantage of the system. Even Jesus encountered this when He fed the multitudes by turning a few loaves and fish into to a  miraculous Filet o’ Fish fest. He quickly recognized that many were following Him simply for the free lunch. John 6 describes Jesus confronting the crowd and questioning their motivation. He appears, at that point, to have shut down his miraculous fish sandwich program on the spot.

It’s so easy for me to get stuck thinking about “church” in context of what I have known and experienced “the church” to be in my lifetime. I default to thinking of buildings and denominational institutions with varying takes on theological issues.  It’s critical as a reader of Paul’s letter to Timothy for me to understand how different the circumstances were then. There was no institution, no denomination, and no church buildings. Small groups of Jesus’ followers were “the church.” It was a flesh and blood organism. Followers of Jesus gathered in homes where they ate together, worshipped together, and shared life together. They were loosely structured and yet they quickly gained a reputation for collectively caring for those in need who were marginalized and outcast by society of that day: widows, orphans, the sick, the diseased, and the disabled.

And, true to human nature, there were those more than willing to take personal advantage of the corporate generosity.

There is a theme woven throughout Paul’s life and letters that I rarely hear discussed today. It’s threaded through the entire chapter today. Until late in his life Paul always worked for his living and supported himself. His family were tentmakers by trade and no matter where he went he could pull out his tools and ply that trade. He expected Jesus’ followers to take personal responsibility for the needs of one’s self and one’s family so that generosity could be given to those “truly in need.”

In the quiet this morning I’m whispering a prayer of gratitude, as I recognize that I am blessed to have been raised in a culture and a family system that taught and modeled personal responsibility, hard work, and generosity. My gratitude extends to giving thanks for my job, my clients, and my colleagues. Finally, I’m thankful for the reality that, thus far in my entire life journey, I have never known what truly means to be what Paul described as “really in need.”

featured photo courtesy of IIP Photo Archive via Flickr