Tag Archives: Journey

Timing is Everything

Timing is Everything (CaD 2 Sam 1) Wayfarer

Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword. 2 Samuel 1:11-12 (NIV)

One afternoon while in high school I sat at the counter in our family’s kitchen and was having an after-school snack. My mom had gotten home from work and was opening the mail. All of a sudden her hand went to her mouth (her signature gesture when she was going to start crying) and she began to weep. At first, I was scared, but then I realized that they were tears of astonishment.

My sister was in college. Times were tight. My folks were struggling financially. I hadn’t known it because I was a clueless teenager, and no one else knew it because my parents had not said anything to anyone. But, God knew. They received an anonymous envelope with cash in it and an anonymous note about God’s provision. Wouldn’t you know it, it was just the exact amount of money they needed to send my sister on her college choir trip.

“Timing is everything,” they say.

Along my life journey, I’ve been both amazed and incredibly frustrated by God’s timing. I have witnessed what I consider to be miraculous events of God’s timing like my parents’ cash gift. I’ve also been through long, difficult stretches of life’s journey when my timing was definitely not calibrated with God’s timing. What I wanted, and felt I/we needed, was perpetually not provided. This has usually led to grief, doubt, silent tantrums, and anger. In pretty much every case, a dose of 20/20 hindsight from a waypoint a bit further down the road made me grateful for God’s wisdom in NOT letting me have what I thought I wanted.

In today’s chapter, we pick up the story of David, who had been anointed King of Israel by the prophet Samuel as a boy. But, the timing of his ascension to the position was not immediate. Saul occupied the throne and David refused to usurp the throne or depose Saul, choosing to defer to God’s timing. If you’ve been following along with the story in 1 Samuel, you know this led to David being branded an outlaw, having a price put on his head, fleeing to neighboring countries, and living for years on the lam. Now we read of David’s response when he hears of the death of Saul and Saul’s son Jonathon, who happened to be David’s best friend.

I was struck by David’s grief this morning. Believe me, David was also frustrated by God’s timing. We’ve recently journeyed through some of the blues-like psalms David wrote in the wilderness expressing his anger and frustration with the situation. Yet, when his enemy Saul is finally killed and the way is finally opened up for David to walk into his anointed calling, David recognizes that his anointed calling comes with a price. David grieves for the king who had been “God’s anointed” king before him. He grieves for his friend Jonathon who also died and gave David a clear line of accession without political rival.

Today I’m thinking about God’s timing in my life. I’m exploring how I see God working in my journey on the macro level. I’m thinking about paths I desired to take that God blocked, paths that remain closed, and paths that have opened up that I didn’t expect. More than ever, I want to follow David’s example as I proceed on my own journey. I want to wait, trust, acknowledge, and honor God’s timing.

A Note to Readers
I’m taking a blogging sabbatical and will be re-publishing my chapter-a-day thoughts on David’s continued story in 2 Samuel while I’m take a little time off in order to focus on a few other priorities. Thanks for reading.
Today’s post was originally published on April 28, 2014.

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

Waypoint Lessons

May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands.
1 Samuel 25:33 (NIV)

Very early in my career, my boss and the founder of our company planted the seed that someday I would be an owner of the company and eventually lead it. That seed of vision he planted eventually bore fruit, though the process was almost thirty years in the making.

Along the way, I remember having one colleague who told me straight-up that they were glad I wasn’t leading the company. It was one of those comments that kind of stings at the moment. In my gut, however, I knew they were probably right, and in hindsight, I can affirm with certainty that they were right. Just recently, another colleague told me that they remembered when I wasn’t ready for the position of leadership, then affirmed that I am now. Along my life journey, God has used individuals to mark certain waypoints for me.

I mentioned the other day that David’s years in the wilderness are forging his God-given gifts and abilities into the tools of a true and experienced leader. In today’s chapter, the author of 1 Samuel provides us a glimpse of this forging process. Yesterday’s episode of David sparing Saul’s life was an example of David doing everything right in God’s eyes. Today’s episode reveals that he’s still a leader in training.

Living in the wilderness, David and his men often came upon the shepherds and sheep herds of a local farmer named Nabal. They had multitudes of opportunities to kill and/or rob the shepherds. They could have rustled a sheep or two for food whenever they wanted. David, however, knew this was wrong. He ordered his men to protect Nabal’s shepherds from harm and never to touch Nabal’s sheep. Sheep shearing time was a time of celebration and abundance, much like a harvest festival for crop farmers. David sends a delegation asking Nabal if he wouldn’t share a little of his abundance with David and his men. Nabal, had he reputation of being a jerk, not only refused but did so in an insulting way.

David’s response is a stark contrast to yesterday’s episode with Saul. David humply spared the King’s life and withheld vengeange from the man who was hunting like an animal. In today’s episode, David is ready to take his entire band of warriors to vengefully kill a lowly sheep farmer and his entire household for refusing David’s request and insulting him.

David still has a few things to learn about himself, and leadership.

Nabal’s wife, Abigail, realizing her foolish husband’s mistake, quickly acts to intervene. She bring David and his men a donkey-load of food and wine. She then tells David that she is sure that he will one day be God’s king over the nation and that God will establish his throne. She then reminds David that he doesn’t want the bloodstains of petty vengeance on his hands when he places the crown on his head. “You’re better than this,” she’s saying. “Be the leader God’s making you to be.”

David hears Abigail’s message loud and clear. He sees God setting a waypoint on his path to leadership through Abigail’s wisdom. He relents. Within ten days Nabal dies of natural causes. God affirms for David that “Vengeance is mine. I will repay,” and David learns an important lesson on his journey toward destiny.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself whispering a prayer of gratitude for my own spiritual journey, for the people God has placed along the way to teach me invaluable “waypoint” lessons, and for the gifts of wisdom He delivered out of them. I’m also praying for the wisdom to perservere in pushing forward through the lessons that still lie ahead, until the journey’s end.

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

“Blessed”

"Blessed" (CaD 1 Sam 19) Wayfarer

Saul tried to pin him to the wall with his spear, but David eluded him as Saul drove the spear into the wall. That night David made good his escape.
1 Samuel 19:6 (NIV)

If you’ve followed my blog/podcast for any length of time, you know that Wendy and I typically have a “word” on which we focus every year. My word for this year is “blessed,” and this has led me to memorize Matthew 5:3-12, which is the opening of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” also known as “the Beatitudes.”

A few weeks ago I was with a friend who was asking me some really good questions about life. I recounted with him some of the life challenges Wendy and I have experienced and are experiencing this year. As I got through the list, my friend exclaimed, “Wow!” He then asked me, “And what is your word for this year?”

“Blessed.”

We shared a good laugh together.

One of the observations I’ve made along my spiritual journey is that it’s quite common for people, myself included, to assume that life should be easy. When I encounter troubles or trials on life’s road, it surprises me. I didn’t see it coming. I wasn’t prepared. My natural response is often pessimism, complaint, and descent into a funk of despair.

In today’s chapter, Saul’s madness and obsession with killing his rival, David, only intensifies. David has done nothing wrong to deserve Saul’s homicidal rage. In fact, David is living a “blessed” life. A shepherd boy from a backwater town, he has been anointed king by Samuel, become a royal minstrel, defeated Goliath, become a national hero, proven himself a gifted military leader, and married a princess. Despite all this, David has big troubles. Saul is hell-bent to kill him, and because of this, his life has become untenable.

The famous psychologist, Carl Jung, would point out that David is on an archetypical “hero’s journey.” Heroes always face trials and obstacles. At some point, they find themselves in the wilderness. It’s a repetitive pattern in the epic stories we love.

It’s also a repetitive pattern in life.

As I’ve been meditating on the Beatitudes in my memorization process, it has struck me that what Jesus is really getting at is an attitude of embracing the trials, obstacles, suffering, and tragedies with humility, trust, lament, right motive, and peace (props to Mark Scandrette and his book The Ninefold Path of Jesus). There are blessings within the struggle if I will stop fighting them as some kind of heinous and unexpected aberration in life, and start to flow with God in the midst of them.

Life is filled with trials, obstacles, suffering, and unexpected tragedies.

But it doesn’t mean I’m not blessed.

Like me, David’s going to learn this the hard way.

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

The Valley and the Mountain

The Valley and the Mountain (CaD 1 Sam 1) Wayfarer

There is beauty and power in today's chapter that is easy to miss if you've never trekked through the Valley of Infertility. A chapter-a-day podcast from 1 Samuel 1. The text version may be found and shared at tomvanderwell.com. — Send in a voice message: https://anchor.fm/wayfarer-tom-vander-well/message Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/wayfarer-tom-vander-well/support

Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year.
1 Samuel 1:4-7a (NIV)

When I was a young man, the opening chapters of 1 Samuel were all about the special circumstances surrounding the birth of Samuel. Samuel is important. Samuel is special, as was his birth. Samuel is the name of the book. Samuel was the last of the Hebrew Judges. Samuel established the Hebrew monarchy and crowned its first two kings. Samuel established the Prophetic tradition within the Hebrew monarchy. It was all about Samuel.

Then Wendy and I spent years on a journey through the Valley of Infertility.

I will never read the first chapter of 1 Samuel the same way.

There are things that couples experience on the infertility journey that are unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced in this life. I learned along the way that it is an incredibly nuanced experience based on multiple factors in that journey. It makes a difference whether a husband is truly all-in (physically, emotionally, spiritually) with his wife for the long haul. The fact that I’d been previously married and had experienced the pregnancy and birth of our daughters was a factor in the relational equation. It’s also a very different experience for those who walk through the Valley of Infertility and find the path that leads to the mountain top of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood compared to those whose journey languishes in the Valley of Infertility seemingly destined to never find the ever-desired pathway to that mountaintop.

The first chapter of Samuel is about a woman named Hannah who is on this journey through the Valley of Infertility and the particular nuances that were unique to her experience.

Polygamous marriages among Hebrew “commoners” was relatively rare in this period of history. One of the exceptions was when a man first marries a woman who turns out to be barren. Having children, especially sons, was so important to the perpetuation of families and culture in those days that a man who finds his wife to be barren would be encouraged to marry a second wife so as to bear him sons. It’s likely that this was Hannah’s reality. She was not only shamed that she could have no children but shamed that her husband married another woman to do what she could not.

Not only did her husband, Elkanah, marry another, but he also married a woman named Peninnah who saw Hannah as a female rival. Although Elkanah was empathetic and generous toward Hannah, he was never “all-in” with her. His loyalties would always be divided between her and Peninnah, and Peninnah had plenty of children with which to claim and maintain her favored status as the wife who gave him sons.

When Elkanah and his household go to Shiloh for the annual prescribed sacrifices it was a harvest festival celebrating God’s abundant provision of fertility via life, crops, and children. As if Hannah’s everyday experience wasn’t hell enough having “mean girl” Peninnah rubbing salt in the wound of Hannah’s infertility, attending a national festival of fertility and harvest would be like descending to an even deeper ring of hell.

At this point in today’s chapter, Hannah is an emotional and inconsolable wreck. With Peninnah and all her children standing behind Elkanah as a reminder of Hannah’s shame, Elkanah says to her “Aren’t I worth more to you than ten sons?”

Oh, you stupid, stupid man.

A husband who has walked with his wife through the Valley of Infertility knows that words must be chosen wisely when consoling your wife in her grief. In fact, it was in the Valley of Infertility that I learned to embrace the truth that sometimes there are no words. In the same way, there are no shortcuts to making the pain of infertility “all better.”

In this context, Hannah’s prayer and commitment to give her son to the Lord takes on a whole new level of meaning. After all those years in the Valley of Infertility, Hannah finds that pathway to the mountain top of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. She should rightfully enjoy clinging to her boy and soak up the blessings of raising him along with the justice of being able to daily show him off to Peninnah and tell her to go take a long walk off a short pier.

But, Hannah doesn’t do that. She literally gives her son to the Lord, handing him over as a baby to be raised by the High Priest and the Levites in God’s tabernacle.

She becomes a foreshadow of what God will one day do when He “so loves the world that He gave His one-and-only Son.”

That is the beauty and power of today’s chapter.

It’s easy to miss if you’ve never trekked through the Valley of Infertility. Wendy and I never found that path to the mountain top of pregnancy and childbirth. We did, however, find a different path that led to a mountaintop called Joy. The view from there is pretty amazing.

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

Dense Fog Advisory

Dense Fog Advisory (CaD Jos 14) Wayfarer

Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day.
Joshua 14:12a (NIV)

There are stretches of my life journey that are like walking through dense fog. What lies ahead is uncertain. All I can see is the next step on the path before me. This is disconcerting. Am I headed in the right direction? Does the path ascend or descend? What obstacles lie on the path? How do I know there’s not a cliff or a dead end just a few steps ahead?

“Faith,” says the writer of Hebrews, “is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Faith is pressing on through a dense fog not knowing what lies ahead.

In today’s chapter, Caleb calls in a 45-year-old promise made by Moses. The first time that Moses sent spies into the Promised land, ten of the spies returned and reported that the people living in the land were too great. Only Joshua and Caleb returned to report, “With the Lord’s help, we can do this.” The result of Joshua and Caleb’s faith was a promise that they would live to enter the Promised Land and that Caleb’s family would inherit the land he had spied out.

The moment finally arrives. Caleb has been waiting for this moment for 45 years, and the day finally arrives. Joshua and the leaders of the twelve tribes fulfill Moses’ promise to Caleb and his family. I wonder how many times Caleb struggled to believe that this day would actually come. How many stretches of dense fog did Caleb traverse between Moses’ promise and its fulfillment over a generation later?

Along my life journey, I’ve discovered that the further I get on life’s road, the more road there is behind me, and this actually affords me a greater perspective for the foggy steps ahead. A backward glance reminds me of God’s faithfulness. I recall specific moments along my journey when God’s provision was evident. I’ve also experienced “Caleb moments” when I experienced promises fulfilled after long periods of time.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself in another foggy stretch of the journey. I have to confess that I was naive to think that the further I got in my Life journey the fewer of these I would encounter. No such luck. This life journey is a faith journey from beginning to end and, like a muscle, faith must be stretched and exercised in order to be strengthened.

And so I step into another foggy day. I glance back over my shoulder to be reminded of the many foggy days I’ve trekked through before, and God’s faithfulness through each of them. I remind myself of Caleb, who eventually had his moment when the promise was fulfilled. It doesn’t lift the fog, but it strengthens my faith to press on.

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

Pivotal Moments

Pivotal Moments (CaD Joh 3) Wayfarer

Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.”
Joshua 3:5 (NIV)

I will never forget that day. I had no real plan; No idea what I was going to do. As a husband and father of two rug rats under the age of five, this was not ideal. I just knew that I couldn’t remain in my current job. The circumstances had become untenable. So, I gave my notice.

That afternoon I was offered the job that has been my career for almost thirty years.

Driving home from the Village Inn restaurant where I’d been offered the position, I prayed for God’s direction. It wasn’t exactly a sure thing. The work might be inconsistent, as well as the income. It would require some faith that the business would grow along with my position. It felt precarious, and I asked God for guidance.

I remember the moment clearly. I was pulling in the driveway in my blue Volkswagen Fox. It was a gorgeous summer afternoon. It is one of a small handful of experiences in my life journey in which I received a clear and direct answer in my spirit. I can’t really explain it. I heard it clearly:

“Take this job. Stick with it. You will be blessed.”

It was a pivotal moment in my story. One chapter closed. A new chapter began.

Today’s chapter is incredibly significant in terms of the Great Story. It’s a climactic moment for the Hebrew people. One chapter of their story is ending, and a new one is beginning. It’s been about 750 years since God promised Abraham that his descendants would be numerous and inherit the land God showed him. It’s been an entire generation since the miraculous escape from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. The Hebrew nation is finally crossing over the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land.

God makes it clear to Joshua that He is doing three things in this event.

God is leading the way. The Ark of the Covenant was a metaphor for God’s power and presence. The fact that the priests carried the Ark into the Jordan first was a living reminder to God’s people that it was God leading them, and it was God on whom they should put their trust.

God is making the impossible possible. The miraculous holding back of the Jordan River’s waters echoes the crossing of the Red Sea and reminds God’s people that God’s power is still very much present as they begin this challenging new stretch of their journey. It also bookends their wilderness wanderings with two matching miracles, reminding them that the chapter of wandering is over and a new chapter is beginning.

God is sealing Joshua’s leadership in the eyes of the people. Moses had some mighty big sandals to fill. The stories of Moses’ exploits and the miraculous things God did through Moses were legendary. As the challenging conquest of Canaan begins, God makes it clear to His people that He can and will pour out His miraculous power through Joshua just as He had done through Moses.

In the quiet this morning, I’m looking back at my own life journey and the various stages of that journey: childhood, becoming a follower of Jesus, high school, college, marriage/fatherhood/pastoral ministry, returning home to Des Moines, career, the years of many moves, the dark years, the return, Pella, divorce, theatre, Wendy, lake, leadership, infertility, house, empty nest… In hindsight, I can see the thread of God’s presence, purposes, and guidance through each stretch. Yep, even “the dark years.”

This, in turn, reminds me that I can trust that same presence, purpose, and guidance on this day, and the road ahead until I reach the journey’s end and the “great crossing over” that ends my earthly wandering and begins a new, eternal chapter.

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

Vertical and Horizontal

Vertical and Horizontal (CaD Heb 13) Wayfarer

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
Hebrews 13:15-16 (NIV)

I began yesterday with coffee and an English muffin at a friend’s office. We chatted about what is going on in each other’s lives. We shared about the challenges we’re facing with family, work, and our bodies that are feeling the natural strains of age. We prayed together. It was a good start to the day.

It was St. Patrick’s Day, so Wendy and I knocked off of work a little early and met friends in the late afternoon for a pint and some Irish music. As the after-work crowds began to swell we were on our way to pick up pizza and retire to their house where we continued sharing life and conversation. Their college-age child was home on Spring Break and we got the whole 411 on life, studies, and relationships at school.

It was a fun day. It was late by the time we returned home.

In today’s final chapter of Hebrews, the author wraps up his letter with more exhortations to the Hebrew followers of Jesus for whom the letter was addressed. Throughout these instructions are more than subtle allusions to the old sacrificial system of Moses that the author has argued was fulfilled by Jesus and is no longer valid or necessary.

In that old system, there were all sorts of ritual religious sacrifices that an individual was expected to make in order to stay in good standing with God. Of course, like all religious rituals, it is possible for a person to go through the motions without there being a heart or life change, and the author has argued that Jesus has provided the once-for-all sacrifice through His death and resurrection.

“So, are there no more sacrifices?” the author hears his readers asking.

Yes, the author answers. The sacrifice of self just as Jesus taught that His followers must take up their own cross in following Him. Jesus’ word picture tells me that I’m supposed to die to myself, to sacrifice myself for God and others. The author provides a picture of this in continuous sacrifices that are both vertical (me to God) and horizontal (me to others). The vertical sacrifice is that I consciously, willfully stay connected to God through offering my praise and prayer (which is simply conversation). The horizontal sacrifice is my goodness and generosity towards others. Not just physical gifts and needs, but also the generosity and goodness of life and spirit through relationships and sharing the life journey together.

Which made me think of my day yesterday. Along my life journey, I’ve experienced that good relationships, the kind that is mutually and spiritually life-giving, require the ongoing generosity of time, conscious thought, intention, energy, vulnerability, and grace. Over time and in every case, every one of those ingredients becomes sacrificial for me as my friends may need more from me at certain times than I can comfortably provide. But the same is true on the other side of the equation. I need them at times and in ways that require their sacrificial generosity.

With Jesus, I can never get around the reality that He emptied Himself, left heaven, came to Earth, and endured the suffering of a horrific death. He sacrificed everything for me. I can ignore that fact. I might allow other thoughts and distractions to drive it from my mind, but it’s always there. What is asked of me in return? To live in a relationship that is essentially no different than my horizontal ones: time, conscious thought, intention, energy, vulnerability, and generosity that comes out in worship, prayer, life, obedience, trust, hope, and perseverance.

I’m grateful this morning for life-giving relationships, both horizontal and vertical.

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

A Different Spirit of the Season

A Different Spirit of the Season (CaD Lam 5) Wayfarer

the young men have stopped their music.
Joy is gone from our hearts;
    our dancing has turned to mourning.
Lamentations 5:14b-15 (NIV)

Wendy and I attended the funeral of a friend yesterday. As funerals go, it was the kind of celebration of life and faith that I appreciate. After a long battle with cancer, our friend ended his earthly journey at home, surrounded by his family, holding his wife’s hand. Each of his three children shared honestly and humorously about their father’s foibles as well as his faithfulness. It is popular to say that funerals are a celebration of life, but it was really true in this case. We really felt it in our hearts as we watched and listened.

During one of the special music numbers, Wendy leaned over and whispered to me, “This sounds like a song from a Broadway musical.”

She nailed it. My eyes grew big and nodded and smiled in agreement. But that wasn’t the end of it. As the song continued, Wendy started whispering to me her vision of the musical on stage.

“This is where the chorus slowly begins to make their way on stage to join the soloist as the music swells.”

At this point, I’m laughing because I can totally see it in my head.

The song continued to build through a repeat of the chorus, and then right on cue I leaned over and whispered, “Key change!”

Wendy doubled over with laughter as the song moved to the final bridge. As it moved to the dramatic closing Wendy whispered the possible titles of the musical we’d just conjured up in our heads. I can’t remember what she said. I was laughing too hard. It’s a good thing we were sitting in the back row.

Later in the day, Wendy and I talked about the fact that we both felt very much at ease at the funeral. Our friend knew where he going and was ready to go. He lived a life of faith, hope, and love and he touched our lives in such good ways. His family was laughing amidst their tears during the funeral. The spirit in the room was that of joy, which I think gave Wendy and me the freedom to share our own laugh together. I believe there is such a thing as a good funeral, and this was one of them.

I couldn’t help but bring that to mind as I read the final poem in Jeremiah’s five-poem cycle we call the book of Lamentations. Those who like happy endings will be disappointed. If anything, Jeremiah leaves me mired in the terrible circumstances he witnessed. There’s no glimmer of hope. It’s still out there somewhere on the dark horizon.

Jeremiah even leaves a buries a clue of his sorrow into the structure of the chapter. The structure of the first four poems in Lamentations are forms of alphabetic acrostics in which the first word of every verse began with successive letters in the 22 letter Hebrew alphabet. You might notice that there are 22 verses in today’s final chapter, but the verses don’t follow the alphabetic acrostic pattern. Metaphorically, the poet is telling us that things are breaking down, the structure is falling apart.

“The music has stopped,” Jeremiah reports. No joy. No dancing. No inspirational swell of a climactic Broadway finale. Not even a funeral dirge. There’s just continued mourning, the perpetuation of chaos which ends with a final questioning cry to God, whom Jeremiah feels is distant and aloof.

Christmas Eve is a week from today, and I admit that it has felt a bit odd to journey through Lamentations while the world is waxing sentimental about gingerbread houses, Santa’s visit, and “peace on earth goodwill to men.” At the same time, there was something about this week with Jeremiah that felt honest in a healthy way. This life journey ebbs and flows, and its course doesn’t always conveniently coincide with the spirit of the holidays the world seems to annually expect of me. And, that’s okay.

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

Pilgrimage, Pandemic, and Perspective

Pilgrimage, Pandemic, and Perspective (CaD Gen 47) Wayfarer

And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers.”
Genesis 47:9 (NIV)

This morning as I booted up to write this post and record the podcast, one app flashed a big banner saying “2021 is a Wrap” and offering to show me all the stats and data from the last twelve months. And so, it begins. December and January are typically times of contemplation about where we’ve been and where we’re going. Get ready for media to start posting all of the lists of the “bests,” “worsts,” and “mosts” for 2021.

We’re coming up on two years since COVID changed life on our planet. In early 2020, Wendy and I went on a cruise with friends. The pandemic had barely begun and was believed at that point to be confined to China. Our cruise line told us that passengers from China had been barred from the cruise. Within a few weeks after that cruise, the world was in full lockdown.

One of the observations I’ve made in these two years is the degree to which people fear death, and just how powerfully that fear can drive a person’s thoughts, words, and actions.

Today’s chapter is fascinating to read in the context of our own times. The known world was in a similar state of mass insecurity due to the seven years of famine they were experiencing. Step-by-step, Egyptians submitted their money, livestock, land, and their very selves to the State in exchange for their survival. By the time the famine was over, the State of Egypt owned everything and everyone.

The thing that resonated most deeply with me was Jacob’s answer to Pharaoh when asked his age. He speaks of his life as a pilgrimage. The Hebrew word is māgôr and it isn’t very common, though it’s already been used a few times in reference to the lives of Jacob, his father, and grandfather. What struck me was the metaphor. He sees his entire life as a pilgrimage, a sojourn, a period of exile on this earth. As the songwriter put it: “This world is not my home, I’m a just a passin’ through.”

Jesus called His followers to have this same perspective as Jacob. He called me to understand that what happens after this earthly life is more real, more important, and valuable than what happens here on this earth. What comes after this life is where Jesus tells me to invest my treasure, which in turn changes the way I observe, think, believe, and live in my own pilgrimage as a “poor wayfaring stranger traveling through this world of woe.” Jesus also tells me to expect trouble on the earthly journey and to be at peace in the midst of it.

In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded by Jacob’s experience that there is nothing new under the sun. Pandemics, famines, floods, earthquakes, wars, and eruptions dot human history. Jesus not only tells me to expect more of the same but also calls them the birth pains which will lead to the nativity of something profoundly new.

Wendy and I are once again going on a cruise with friends to start 2022. I’m looking forward to it despite the continued restrictions. Just as our last cruise marked, for me, the beginning bookend of COVD, I’m hoping I might look back on this cruise as the other bookend. In the meantime, I continue to press on in my own pilgrimage on this earthly journey and expectantly look forward to a homecoming that lies beyond its end.

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

Exile and Return

Exile and Return (CaD Gen 35) Wayfarer

Then God said to Jacob, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.”
Genesis 35:1 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve discovered along my spiritual journey is that the return is often as important as the destination. In some cases, they turn out to be one and the same.

In today’s chapter, God calls Jacob to return to Bethel which is the place where God first revealed Himself to Jacob. Jacob has been on a journey of exile for over twenty years, and now he has returned to his home and family. At Bethel, God renews the promises made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. God makes Jacob’s name change to Israel official.

The timing of this is important. Isaac is about to die. Having the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn, God is leading Jacob through a rite of passage. He’s returned from exile to lead the family, and head the family business. Things are about to change in a big way.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself looking back. My spiritual journey has led me on paths of exile and return. I found it to be the path of both wisdom and maturity. In exile, I face trials and struggles that grow me up as I learn essential lessons in faith, patience, perseverance, joy, and hope. The return is the place where those lessons bear fruit. The landscape looks different upon my return. Time may have changed things, but most importantly I have changed. I see old things with new eyes. In exile, I have been refined, honed, broken down, and rebuilt for a purpose. The return is where that purpose eventually comes into focus.

I also found myself meditating on God’s name change for this patriarch-to-be. In exile, Jacob (meaning the deceiver) is transformed into Israel (he wrestled with God). When Jacob left Bethel, everything he had and came from his (and his mother’s) own deceptive cunning and initiative. In exile, he struggled with his Uncle, himself, and with God. He discovers in exile that his blessings come from God and not his, and his family’s, penchant for deception. Jacob left Bethel and went into exile. It was Israel who returned to Bethel ready for the next stage of the journey.

I have found that there are certain spiritual truths that do not change. Among those truths is the necessity of both exile and return.

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