Tag Archives: Joy

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.

The Other Side of the Valley

The Other Side of the Valley (CaD Gen 21) Wayfarer

Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
Genesis 21:6-7 (NIV)

Along my life journey, I have walked through a number of dark valleys. The thing about being an Enneagram Type Four is that Fours feel the darkness more acutely. We feel the despair more deeply. We tend to savor the melancholy the way an oenophile savors a complex Bordeaux.

When Fours walk through a dark valley we don’t rush to the next mountaintop. We tend to experience the dark valley in its fullness. This can be good because we can take the time to glean everything that the journey through the valley has to teach us, and every dark valley in life has a lot to teach us about crucial spiritual fruits such as perseverance, faith, perspective, maturity, wisdom, and joy. It can also be a bad thing, however, if we fail to progress through the valley; If instead of savoring the melancholy we become intoxicated by it.

In today’s chapter, Sarah finally emerges from a decades long journey in the valley of infertility. The promise is finally realized. She becomes pregnant in old age. She bears a son, and they name him Isaac, which we learned a few chapters ago means “He laughs.” God gave Abraham and Sarah this name after they both laughed in sarcastic doubt that God’s promise would ever be fulfilled. Sarah’s laughter has now been transformed from cynicism to joy as she holds her own son.

I’ve regularly written about Wendy’s and my journey through the valley of infertility because one tends to remember most clearly the valleys on life’s road that were the most difficult to navigate and had the most to teach you. I couldn’t help but read about Isaac’s birth this morning with a mixture of both joy and sadness. I also couldn’t help but to realize that Wendy and I journeyed through that valley for a handful of years while Sarah’s trek was literally for a handful of decades. The woman deserves a jackpot of joyful laughter.

In the quiet this morning, I found myself recalling moments during our slog through that valley. There were moments (in all my Fourness) that I pessimistically wondered if I would ever hear Wendy laugh with joy again. Of course, I did. I do. I hear it regularly. Unlike Abe and Sarah, we emerged from that valley with a different kind of joy than Sarah’s laughter, but it is pure joy that springs from God’s goodness and purposes for us. It is the joy of embracing the story God is telling in and through us.

The valley of infertility is now a ways behind us on life’s road. While Sarah’s story raises pangs of memory this morning, it also brings the realization of how far we’ve come. There are a number of dark valleys on this road of life. Despite my Fourness, I have emerged on the other side of each of them with greater knowledge, experience, and wisdom with which to experience the thrill of each mountaintop vista and face each dark valley that lies before me. With each step, I find the muscle of faith strengthened to press on to the journey’s end when…

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will pass away,” and He who is seated on the throne will say, “I am making everything new!”

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

The Point

The Point (CaD Ecc 6) Wayfarer

A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
Ecclesiastes 6:3 (NIV)

As I have been contemplating the words Ecclesiastes’ Sage this past week, the character of Ebenezer Scrooge has repeatedly come to mind. It happened again in the quiet this morning as I read today’s chapter.

Scrooge is such an embodiment of the person that the Sage describes when he writes of one who has everything and doesn’t enjoy it as he lives life “squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, his body is a musty cellar.” (see Matthew 6:22-23 in The Message). When he describes a man with many children who nevertheless dies alone, unremembered, with no one to give a proper burial, I can’t help but envision Scrooge asking the ghost of Christmas future to show him a single person who felt something, anything at the news of his death. The ghost takes him to the home of a couple who were his tenants. The emotion they felt was one of elation that their merciless landlord was dead as they now had time to get their finances in order.

It’s easy to sound too Hallmark sappy when it comes to expressing the en-joy-ment of life. Yet I find the Sage contrasting those who live in joy and contentment with those who live in misery and discontent no matter their lot in life. I can’t help but hear the echoes of Paul’s words in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Phillipi:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself contemplating not only Scrooge’s reputation, but also his transformation. Isn’t it ironic that when I hear the name “Ebenezer Scrooge” my first thought is about what he was, not what he became? I wonder how often I do that with people I’ve known along my life journey. But the transformation is the point of Dicken’s story. It’s the point of the Great Story:

“If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. Old things pass away. New things come.”
2 Cor 5:17

And the one who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I’m making all thing new.”
Rev 21:5

Here I am at the beginning of a new day. Where will my heart and eyes lead me this day?

Misery and discontent?

Joy and contentment?

The further I’ve get in my spiritual journey with Christ the former becomes more-and-more of an impossibility, and the latter comes naturally with each breath.

The point of the journey is transformation.

Speaking of enjoying life. Wendy and I are off to enjoy the start of summer at the lake, and I am taking a break from the chapter-a-day journey. I plan to be back on the path June 7. If you need a fix, please visit the index or the ol’ archives. Thousands of chapter-a-day posts to choose from. Cheers!

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

“King of My Castle”

"King of My Castle" (CaD Ps 145) Wayfarer

I will exalt you, my God the King
Psalm 145:1 (NIV)

In my mind’s eye, I can vividly see my Grandpa Spec sitting at the head of his dining room table during a family meal, smoking his Dutch Masters cigar. There was a humor with which he approached life that always endeared me to him. I loved being his little shadow. It was only as an adult, as I learned his story, that I fully appreciated his humble and quiet joy.

On Spec’s 10th birthday he came home from school to find the remains of his father’s suicide. His mother sent him to be raised by his grandparents, while she kept his little brother and sister. He came of age during the Great Depression, got married nevertheless, almost lost his wife to childbirth, and scratched out a living in the tire business. He had so much to be bitter about. He had so many reasons to play the victim card, but he didn’t.

From the head of the table, cigar in hand, Grandpa would often smile, pound his fist on the table, and with a gleam in his eye insist, “I’m the king of this castle!” It was part of a never ending dance of teasing between he and Grandma Golly. They needled one another mercilessly whether they were competing at cards or betting on the World Series. In response to Grandpa’s claim to the throne, grandma hung a decorative plaque above the kitchen sink (Grandpa always did the dishes) which read, “I’m the boss of this house, and I have my wife’s permission to say so.”

As I read today’s chapter, Psalm 145, anew this morning, it was the first verse that leapt off the page at me. King David, the greatest King in Hebrew history, sings an exaltation to God whom he refers to as “my king.” The King has a King.

It’s hard for a modern reader to understand how this sentiment ran against the grain of the popular monarchy playbook of his times. Kings wanted the masses under control. Kings wanted an air of undisputed authority. Kings wanted people to fear them. To achieve these ends, Kings claimed to be gods. They might worship other deities for good measure, but they demanded that their people view them as a god themselves.

Not David.

David always saw himself as a servant of the One True King of heaven. Having read all of his lyrics in the Psalms about enemies within his own kingdom seeking to slander and supplant him, I begin to wonder how much easier his reign might have been had he followed the playbook. But that’s what made David different, and God saw it in him when David was a shepherd-boy, the runt of Jesse’s litter of sons. Samuel balked. God assured the prophet. “He’s a man after my own heart.” David is humble. He acknowledges his role in the Great Story. He fully embraces position and place as God’s partner in the Divine Dance.

“I’m king of the Hebrews! And, I have God, my King’s, permission to say so.”

In my mind’s eye, I now distinctly see Grandpa Spec sitting on his glider rocker. He’s shirtless and wearing an old pair of shorts. (He might have central air-conditioning, but one doesn’t want to resort to that unless one has to. The Great Depression taught him many things. Frugality was at the top of the list). He is smoking his pipe now. It’s a summer afternoon and he is listening to the baseball game on the transistor radio. He survived many tragedies and trials on his life journey, but he humbly pressed on with simple faith and determination to do the right. He is king of his castle, and like David, eternally grateful to the King of Heaven for the blessing of his little three-bedroom, quarter-acre kingdom on the east side of Des Moines. He is the servant of his wife, and his family.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself reviewing my own “place and position.” Over the past year, I’ve observed that it’s easy, even fashionable, to feel the heady satisfaction of pious self-rule, then proudly take to the no-man’s-land of social media to stake one’s claim of divine-rightness and lord one’s opinions and world-view upon others, demanding submission upon threat of being sentenced to relational exile.

I don’t want to do that.

I want to try and follow David’s example, and Grandpa Spec’s example. I want the last song in my life’s anthology to be like Psalm 145, ascribing anything I’ve gained and every blessing I’ve been afforded to my King. In fact, when it comes right down to being the person Jesus asks me to be I must accept that I am Lord of no one. I am a servant of all.

God, help me to fully embrace that role today in thought, word, and deed.

“Consider it Joy” (Again)

"Consider it Joy" (Again) [CaD Ps 86] Wayfarer

Bring joy to your servant, Lord,
    for I put my trust in you.

Psalm 86:4 (NIV)

For centuries, followers of Jesus around the world have annually recognized different seasons of the calendar year as they relate to celebrated holidays (or Holy Days) of the faith. We are currently in a season called Advent, in which followers of Jesus prepare hearts and minds to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

One of the metaphors that followers use in this season is the advent candle. Each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, and then on Christmas Eve, candles are lit reminding us that with Jesus’ birth the “Light” of heaven had come to earth. Each of the five candles represents a theme. This past Sunday was the “Joy” candle. “Joy,” as it was described among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers on Sunday is the soul’s deep happiness, contentment, and sense of well-being which is experienced regardless of circumstances.

Joy has a specific meaning for Wendy and me. Over the years I have shared in these posts about our journey through the valley of infertility. Joy was something Wendy and I found in that journey, and not a Christmas goes by without being reminded of the story of Elizabeth’s miraculous deliverance from barrenness, Mary’s miraculous conception, and of course Jesus’ humble birth. Each year I am reminded of the verse tatted on Wendy’s forearm, where it can be a constant visual reminder for both of us:

“Consider it joy when you encounter various trials…” (James 1:2)

She and I learned that sometimes joy must be consciously considered, sought after, and found as one finds buried spiritual treasure. Finding joy requires surrendering the momentary, circumstantial pain in order to seek something deeper; We reach for joy which is always “further up and further in.” The joy of Christmas is found despite the often unconsidered circumstances that stare me right in the face: a socially outcast little girl, her scandalous teen pregnancy, her equally outcast husband, and the exilic, compulsory, uncomfortable journey to a strange town. The humility of having nowhere to stay, the realities of childbirth, not in a luxurious modern birthing suite surrounded by talented caregivers, but alone in a dirty barn. I sing Joy to the World but only because I’m looking back with 20-20 hindsight at the larger story, knowing where it led.

As I read today’s chapter, Psalm 86, I was a few verses in before it struck me that it’s the first song of David I’ve encountered in Book III of the psalms. The lyrics are so personal. They are coming from deep in David’s heart. It’s another song of lament which was written at a time of personal distress. What fascinated me is that David doesn’t share any real specifics about his personal distress until the very last stanza. The song is front-loaded with David’s faith, hope, and trust. He dwells on God’s goodness, faithfulness, love, and deliverance. Only then does he describe his circumstances in light of these things.

Today’s psalm is David’s version of “Consider it joy.” And how many of his songs contain that theme? “Consider it joy” is not a one-and-done deal. It’s a perpetually repeated exercise along my spiritual journey.

It often amazes me how this chapter-a-day journey leads me right to the thing I need to read on the day I need to read it. Like David, I’ll spare you the specifics. Suffice it to say that there are days when I have to be reminded, once again, to consider joy: Surrendering the circumstances of that day in order to reach further up and further in to take hold of it.

Running to the Same Stronghold

Note: The featured graphic on today’s post is a diptych by Cole Arthur Riley, an artist and “curator of words” living in New York. Her amazing work can be found on Instagram @blackliturgies. Wendy and I are honored to support her through Patreon and we encourage anyone blessed by her art to do the same.

Running to the Same Stronghold (CaD Ps 9) Wayfarer

The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
    a stronghold in times of trouble.
And those who know your name put their trust in you,
    for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.

Psalm 9:9-10 (NRSVCE)

I was recently able to spend time with my good friend, Steve. Steve and I became friends in college, spent time as roommates, and I hadn’t seen him in what we figured to be about 15 years. Steve is a semi-retired cop who shifted from serving on the streets to serving in his local schools. Steve is the guy you want wearing the badge, the one you want training your young officers, the one you want mentoring kids, and the one you want showing up at your door when there’s trouble. Steve is a man who channels Jesus’ law of love (e.g. 1. Love the Lord with all your heart. 2. Love others as yourself.) into his service on the job. It was so good to reconnect with him.

We drove his wife’s convertible (Thanks for letting us use it, Traci!) up the Mississippi River valley and through the beautiful bluffs and valleys of southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois. I listened as Steve grieved current events and the broad brush with which he sees people hatefully painting any and all police officers as the enemy. He feels heartbroken having worked so hard, for so long, to love and serve everyone through the love of Christ throughout his career. My heart hurts for him.

I have also had a chance to hear the emotional hurt and frustration of friends and relatives who are grieving a broken system that led to the needless murder of George Floyd and the unjust treatment of so many for so long. I’ve heard the stories of those I know who have suffered at the hands of officers who were sworn to protect but abused power to oppress rather than serve. My heart hurts for them.

Here’s the thing I’m observing: In this moment of time, everyone feels oppressed by those who don’t look the same, feel the same, think the same, or see things the same way.

Many people believe that Psalms 9 and 10 were originally one song. They are the song(s) of King David expressing the heart of one who feels oppressed from without and within. In the lyrics of today’s psalm, David is feeling the hatred of other nations who seek to destroy him and his people. Tomorrow’s lyrics shift to witnessing the oppression of the poor and lowly by those who wickedly take advantage of the weak for personal gain.

I spent some time as I drove home from my time with Steve thinking about people I know and love who are entrenched on different sides of the hot-button issues of our day. I know people of vastly different world-views who all seeking to be followers of Jesus, seeking to trust God, and attempting to be people of Jesus’ love in their words and actions.

As I read today’s psalm I found myself reading it through the eyes of loved ones on both sides of contrasting world-views. I read that God is “a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” and I realized that it was true for all, no matter the side, party, world-view, status, office, or standing. In fact, this thought gives me hope.

Within Jesus’ twelve appointed disciples there was a Jewish patriot and a Roman collaborator. As the Jesus movement spread throughout the Roman Empire turning the world upside down, the movement was filled with radically diverse ethnicities, religious backgrounds, socio-economic status, backgrounds, and world-views. In loving and following Jesus, these people who felt equally oppressed by the others’ “side” eventually learned the Way of Jesus which is to choose:

love over hatred
joy over hopelessness
peace over chaos
patience over demands
kindness over name-calling
generosity over fear
faithfulness over avoidance
gentleness over violence
self-control over unbridled reactivity

forgiveness over resentment

I believe that those who earnestly seek Him today, and persevere, will find the same Way. When we all run to the same Stronghold, when we all put our trust in the same Jesus who loves and died for each.one.of.us, we find ourselves together, under the same stronghold roof, serving the same God who calls us each to love our enemies and bless those who oppress us.

In this, I find hope.

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

Pierced

“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.”
Zechariah 12:10 (NIV)

For any reader who has not been following along with these chapter-a-day posts, a quick word of introduction. For the past few months, I’ve been blogging my way through the ancient Hebrew writings that come out of a period of exile they experienced 400-500 years before the birth of Jesus. Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon were destroyed by the Babylonians and for 70 years all of the best and brightest of the Hebrews were forced to live in the area of Babylon and Persia (present day Iraq and Iran).

Exile is a consistent theme throughout the Great Story, and while the prophets all speak of eventual redemption, restoration, and peace, they are equally consistent in speaking of suffering as the path through which humanity reaches that destination. I just spoke about this in a message this past weekend. Through the entirety of God’s Message, believers are told to expect joy and peace but to expect it within suffering. This was the modus operandi for Jesus, as well. God’s Son came, not to live a life of privilege and prestige, but to be pierced for humanity’s iniquities and inequities.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah continues to eerily foreshadow the crucifixion and suffering of Jesus (see the verses at the top of this post). Zech was not the first to do so, however. King David prophetically described the same in the lyrics of Psalm 22:

Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.

Psalm 22:16 (NIV)

It was also prophesied by Isaiah:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

Isaiah 53:5 (NIV)

Jesus’ disciple, John, was an eyewitness of the crucifixion. He chronicles the fulfillment of these prophetic words in his gospel:

…one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.

John 9:34 (NIV)

After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciple, Thomas, says he won’t believe unless he puts his hand in the holes that pierced Jesus’ hands and feet, and the wound in his side where Jesus’ was pierced by a sword, he wouldn’t believe:

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

John 20:24-27 (NIV)

This morning I find myself, once again, intrigued by the mystery of the prophets foreshadowing of actual events. I’m also reminded that God’s Kingdom, as Jesus proclaimed it, runs counter-intuitively the way this crazy world operates. I’m reminded that, as a follower of Jesus, I’m expected to walk in His footsteps. That may mean a certain amount of suffering, in which I will find a peace that passes human understanding and discover a joy that runs deep, to the very core of being.

At the same time, I am mindful that suffering is relative. I am blessed beyond measure, and my momentary sufferings are of but little consequence compared to most of my fellow followers. For that, I find myself whispering a personal prayer of gratitude this morning.

Another work week gets completed today on this exilic earthly sojourn. Enjoy your weekend, my friend. Thanks for reading. See you on Monday.

Weeping and Joy in the Valley of Infertility

No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.
Ezra 3:13 (NIV)

For the past month, our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been in a series entitled “Summer Stories.” Each week an individual has shared experiences from their own personal stories and the spiritual lessons they have learned from them.

Last Sunday, it was Wendy who chose to stand and share a piece of her personal story. When she and I married almost fourteen years ago, she was 33. She not only gained a husband but two teenage daughters. Nevertheless, having children together was something we wanted to do. We tried for many years.

Trekking together through the valley of infertility may be the most difficult stretch of life’s journey that I have experienced to date. I’ve heard experts say that tremendous stress either brings married couples closer together or it tears them apart. Looking back, I can certainly appreciate why many marriages don’t make it through the valley of infertility. It is a long, lonely and trying slog on multiple levels. We plumbed depths of grief and relational stress I didn’t think was possible during those years. Wendy’s message, however, was not about the pain as much as it was about her discovery of joy at the end of that journey.

I couldn’t help but think of her message as I read the chapter this morning. The exiles return home to Jerusalem and begin the arduous task of rebuilding God’s temple which lay in ruins after it had been destroyed decades before by the Babylonians. After laying the foundation for a new Temple, the people gathered to worship and praise God. Those who were old enough to remember the original temple wept while the others shouted their praise until “No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping.” 

Yeah. I get that. That description captures our journey through the valley of infertility pretty well.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of one of the points that Wendy made in her message: “One can’t simply ‘choose joy’ any more than you can simply choose to get up off the couch and run a marathon.” As Jeremiah observed in his lamentation (over the destruction of the same Temple the exiles are rebuilding in today’s chapter): “Weeping lasts through the night, but joy comes in the morning.” In the valley of infertility Wendy and I learned that you can’t always distinguish the sounds of weeping and the sounds of joy, because they are often the same thing.

For any interested, here are both the audio and video of Wendy’s message, posted with her permission:

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.

An “Eternal Question”

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Colossians 3:12 (NIV)

I call them the eternal questions. This is not because the questions have no answers, but rather because no matter how many times you answer them they must be answered again. Perhaps they should be called the “perpetual” questions, but the phrase “eternal questions” has a certain ring to it. The eternal questions are the boulder of Sisyphus, the mythic schlep who perpetually rolled the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again. In our home, the most common eternal questions are:

  • “What are we having for supper?”
  • “So, what’s the plan today?”
  • “What am I going to wear?”

I’ve learned along my life journey not to fight the eternal questions. It’s futile. It’s best to make your peace with them. For me, a step in the process of making peace was the understanding that the eternal questions come from an abundance of blessing. We are blessed to have choices. Indeed, we are blessed to have so many choices available to us from which the eternal questions spring.

In today’s chapter, I found myself intrigued by Paul’s encouragement to “clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” We don’t often think of kindness as a garment. I don’t think of myself slipping into gentleness and patience like a pair of yoga pants.

Nevertheless, as I meditated on the word picture Paul gave, it struck me that when it comes to my attitude and responses towards both circumstances and people, I have an entire wardrobe available to me. I can choose that bright rage coat, or I can choose the suede jacket lined with gentleness. I have an entire wardrobe of choices available to me. Welcome to the walk-in closet of free will.

“What should I wear today?”

Of course, if you’re anything like me there are those “go to” choices that don’t seem like a choice at all because they’re easy and require no thought. No effort needed, and the choice is oh so comfy. Passivity slips on me like a familiar old sweatshirt. I’ve worn prejudice so long I’ve worn holes in it like my ancient pair of 501 blues. And then there are those well-worn flip-flops of pessimism I can just slip into as I head out on my daily trek.

I once had a prophet who was given a word picture for me. It was the image of Father God handing me a shirt to put on. It was a shirt I would have never picked for myself, but once I slipped it on and looked in the mirror I realized it looked so good on me.

That came to mind as I meditated on the notion of choosing what I’m going to clothe myself with today. My spiritual closet is stocked with love, kindness, patience, joy, peace, gentleness, and self-control. How often do I reach down to the dirty clothes scattered on the floor of my closet and slip into my old stand-bys of resentment, apathy, impatience, complaint, discontent, bitterness, and indulgence?

This morning I’m once again asking myself the eternal question “What am I going to wear?” This morning, however, it’s not about the clothes I put on my body. I’m on a business trip and there’s only one outfit in the suitcase for today. Today, the eternal question is about how I’m going to clothe my spirit, temperament, and attitude as I work with colleagues and clients. Father God has an outfit picked out that I might not normally choose for myself. Maybe I should try it on. I bet it’ll look fabulous.

Dress well, my friend.