Tag Archives: Life

“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.

“If You Only Knew What it was Like….”

Meanwhile, the remainder of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces also assembled to protect themselves and get relief from their enemies. They killed seventy-five thousand of them but did not lay their hands on the plunder.
Esther 9:16 (NIV)

This past weekend I attended my 35th high school reunion. It’s only the second reunion that I’ve attended and it was a lot of fun to catch up with old classmates and where their life journeys have taken them. I walked to Kindergarten with some of these people. We played Kick-the-Can, Freeze Tag, and Ding-Dong Ditchem’ as children and experienced all the awkwardness of adolescence together. It was especially sobering for me to see the table of memorials to all classmates who have already passed, and to recall moments and life events I experienced with each of them. It was strange to have such vivid memories with these amazing individuals from my childhood and to realize that so much time has passed. One of the common conversations that evening was how our children (and now grandchildren) have no concept of what everyday life was like for us.

I found myself expanding that thought to a macro-level this morning as I read the chapter. It’s been a while since this chapter-a-day journey took me into such a bloody text. It is difficult for this twenty-first century, enlightened Western mind to get my head wrapped around such bloodshed and carnage. I’ve observed along the way that we have a penchant in our modern culture to whitewash, rewrite, or simply ignore certain aspects of history, including the brutal violence which was an everyday part of the culture in ancient days. “Kill or be killed” was the way of life and survival for most tribes and people groups.

In today’s chapter, I found it fascinating that Xerxes did not seem to bat an eye at the destruction of Esther’s enemies. But, I have to remember that his father, Cyrus, established the Persian Empire and became the world’s first “superpower” by destroying a lot of people. Xerxes had a reputation for holding onto that power and his Empire by brutally suppressing any kind of rebellion against him and his kingdom. Again, it was simply the way of life during that period of history.

There are two things happening in today’s chapter that are often lost on the casual reader. The first connects to something I pointed out the other day. The face-off between Mordecai (descendant of King Saul’s tribe of Benjamin) and Haman (descendant of King Agag of the Amalekites) is a historical rematch. In the first round (see 1 Samuel 15), Saul did not complete the task of wiping out Agag and his followers. In today’s chapter, the destruction of Haman and his followers was historically perceived by the Hebrews as righting an old wrong that Saul should have completed.

Second, while Xerxes’ proclamation gave the Hebrews permission to plunder their enemies, you’ll notice the text clearly points out that they chose not to do so. Again, this is further evidence that the events of today’s chapter were perceived as righting the wrongs of Saul, who was forbidden from plundering King Agag and the Amalekites but did so anyway. The story of Esther is layered with the theme of reversals: the reversal of fortunes, the reversal of specific events, and the reversal of past wrongs.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the march of time. Based on conversations this past weekend, I and my classmates clearly wish that our children could understand what life was like for us:

  • “If you only knew what it was like without smartphones.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to write a research paper on a daisy-wheel typewriter without the internet, Google, or Wikipedia.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to walk a mile to school every day in the winter.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to be at college and communicate with your parents once a week (at most) because they didn’t want to pay for the collect call.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to be expected to get a paper route and start working as soon as you were 11 or 12 years old.”

In the same way, I imagine Mordecai and Esther inviting me to take off my modern, rose-colored glasses and to attempt to see beyond my politically correct horror at the violence of their time in history.  I imagine them beckoning me to try and imagine what it was like to live in the “kill or be killed” realities they experienced every day when there was no other choice. “If you only knew what it was like,” I hear them say, “to walk in our sandals as exiles and captives in a foreign land surrounded by enemies bent on killing us.”

I don’t think it’s fully possible, but I’ve found it worth the effort to try. The stories of history have secrets to teach me; Secrets that provide wisdom for my own life journey, and for the journeys of my children and grandchildren.

As Jesus said, “Seek, and you’ll find.

And so my “seeking” begins for another day, in another week.

I hope your own search is going well, my friend.

An Ear and a Prayer

Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.
Daniel 9:18 (NIV)

Yesterday morning the nurse walked me into the exam room of the dermatological surgeon. As I sat down on the bed she turned, smiled at me, and asked, “Is this your first time with skin cancer?”

I told her that it was.

“Welcome to the club!” she said, cheerfully. With that, she launched into her work.

Thanks. I guess.

I successfully had a small patch of cancer cells removed from the top third of my right ear (Don’t forget to rub sunscreen on your ears, too!). Other than looking like I’m performing the role of Vincent Van Gogh for the next few weeks along with some minor discomfort, I’m doing fine.

I will admit, that the experience has me thinking about my age. I’m not doing to the “pity me, I’m getting old” kind of thing. I’ve simply been meditating on the fact that I’m entering a new season of the journey. Things change. The body starts requiring different kinds of maintenance and attention. It is what it is.

Perhaps that is why I got to thinking about Daniel’s age as I read today’s chapter. In all the times I’ve read through the book of Daniel, I’ve never really thought much about the timeline or Daniel’s age as he wrote about his dreams and visions. Given the reference to Darius the Mede at the top of the chapter, David has been living in exile in Babylon for roughly 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11-12). What prompted his journaled prayer in today’s chapter was the realization that seventy years was how long Jeremiah had prophesied the Babylonian kingdom would last. He was there.

What struck me is that in casual reading I wouldn’t differentiate between the Daniel praying in this chapter with the young man who was praying and keeping the faith back in the first chapter. He has not forgotten who he is, where he came from, or the God whom he has served with fidelity while living an entire lifetime as a captive exile living in the capital city of his enemies. He has been living faith-fully for a lifetime as a stranger in a strange land.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reflecting on my own earthly journey. In about a year and a half, I will mark 40 years since I said a prayer and made my decision to follow Jesus. Despite feeling my age I’m still short of the tenure of Daniel’s sojourn by quite a ways, to be sure. And, my journey has been much easier than his.

A good reality check and an inspiring reminder to start my day…with a sore ear.

Press on, my friend. Have a great day.

 

The Miraculous and the Mundane

“There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.”
Daniel 5:11 (NIV)

The book of Daniel is actually a literary compilation with two distinct sections. The first six chapters are selected stories from Daniel’s life in exile. The rest of the chapters are a journal of Daniel’s prophetic dreams, visions, and prayer.

In order to understand the context of the first section of the book and today’s chapter, I have to dig a little into the dates. Daniel, along with a host of other Hebrews, was taken into exile and captivity in 597 B.C. He was a young man. Today’s story takes place when Belshazzar lost the Babylonian throne to the Medes in 539 B.C. It’s now 58 years that Daniel has lived in captivity. Even if he was only 12 when taken captive, he’d be 70 years old in this story.

The six stories told in the first six chapters of Daniel are great stories. They are incredible, miraculous events both instructive and inspiring. But there are six of them in roughly 60 years. Across a lifetime of living captive in exile trying to be faithful to God in a foreign nation often hostile to foreigners, Daniel experienced six miraculous events. There are almost 22,000 days in a 60 year period. Daniel had six incredible days. So, what about the other 21,994?

Daniel served as an administrator for a foreign king. He went to work. He spent time in prayer. He sought God and did his best to be faithful to God’s commands. He did what all of us do as we walk this earthly journey. The mundane, everyday stuff of walking the journey for 21,994 days. And, he had six amazing experiences that were instructive and inspiring.

Along my own life journey, I’ve noticed that it’s easy for those of us fortunate enough to live in the luxury of the West to get addicted to experiences. We go to great lengths to have amazing experiences. For those of us who follow Jesus and regularly gather to worship, we desire to have amazing, miraculous experiences and events, even to the point of trying to conjure them and make them happen.

I’ve had a small handful of amazing spiritual experiences myself. I’m happy to say there were no fiery furnaces involved, and I am by no means saying they were on par with what I’ve read the past few days in Daniel. They were, however, pretty cool spiritual experiences that were unexpected. They were unlooked for. They came out of nowhere. I did nothing to conjure them. I was simply physically present, and spiritually open. Without wasting a lot of time recounting how many I’m talking about, let’s say there are five of them.

The rest of my 19,424 days on this Earthly journey have been spent doing what is the often mundane monotony of walking this life journey. I spend quiet time with God most mornings. I gather with other followers to worship once a week which is often spiritually filling and sometimes just feels routine. I work. I pay bills. I maintain stuff. I cultivate friendships. Wendy and I enjoy time together doing things we do.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the focus of my life. It’s so easy to slip into a mode where I’m chasing after experiences of all kinds. I’ve observed that social media isn’t helpful with this. I see everyone’s amazing experiences that make my mundane, routine existence today feel like I’m doing something wrong or that my life sucks compared to others.

I’ve come to the conclusion of late that if I seek after and find God in the everyday, mundane liturgies of my life then I find myself both more content and open to God doing the amazing and miraculous in His time, for His purpose, if and when He chooses.

And so, I enter day 19, 429.

When Life Throws a Wicked Curve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we flow.

 

Chorus to a Tale of Pain & Purpose

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah…
And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.
Daniel 1:1a, 21 (NIV) 

In the history of theatre, Greece was the first great age. The Greeks developed several theatrical conventions that are still widely used today including the use of what was called a Chorus to prepare the audience for what they are about to watch and to narrate the events. Shakespeare used the same convention widely in his plays, as do many modern productions.

The first chapter of Daniel is the literary equivalent of a Chorus. The author, traditionally ascribed to Daniel himself, uses the opening of the book to provide a quick lay of the land with regard to the background of the story and introduces us to the major players. The fact that the chapter describes Daniel and his companions as being learned young men who were then given a thorough course in Babylonian literature and culture, is ironic. It seems to me that the chapter itself gives evidence to this in its structure and content.

In the next year, our local gathering of Jesus’ followers will be studying the theme of exile. I’ve written in previous posts about the theme of wilderness throughout the Great Story. The exile of God’s people in Babylon is one of the major examples and many casual readers don’t realize just how many characters, psalms, and books come out of this period. Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezekiel, and Nehemiah are all books that chronicle parts of the Babylonian exile and return.

In today’s chapter, Daniel provides bookend dates of the story he’s about to pen. It starts in the “third year of Jehoiakim king of Judah” and ends the first year of King Cyrus. A little study shows this to be 605-539 B.C. In other words, Daniel was an educated young man from nobility in Israel’s southern kingdom of Judah. His hometown is destroyed in a long Babylonian siege in which Daniel watched people starve to death and, according to the prophet Jeremiah, reduced to cannibalism to survive.

Out of this horrific event, Daniel is taken captive by his enemy. He is torn from his family, his people, and his hometown which has been reduced to rubble. He ends up in the capital city of his enemy, Babylon, and finds himself subject to indentured servitude to his people’s enemy number one: King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel’s own name is taken from him and he is given a new name. He is forced for three years to learn everything about the history, culture, and literature of his enemy.

A young man of God forced to live in captivity and exile and to serve his enemies for about 65 years. Welcome to the story of Daniel, whom many people only know from brightly illustrated children’s books in the dusty Sunday School memory bins of their brains.

But the real story is far deeper and more complex than that, as Daniel tries to tell me as a reader in his opening Chorus. It is the story of a young man who finds a way to survive. He courageously maintains and lives out his faith in the midst of the unbelievably difficult circumstances that make up nearly his entire life.

In the quiet this morning I find myself mulling over the common misperception I observe followers of Jesus often have, and that I confess I find myself unconsciously falling into from time to time. It’s partially driven, I believe, by the American Dream and the Protestant work ethic. If we believe, work hard, and live good lives then life should be a breeze of material blessing and pain-free existence. But as I journey through God’s Message I find that this has never been the message. Daniel fires an explosive shot across the bow of that notion from the very beginning of his story.

Trauma, suffering, starving, captivity, bondage, indentured servitude, and life-long exile in the land of his enemies serving a mad king.

I find God’s purpose in my pain. That’s the message Daniel foreshadows in the Chorus of his book, and the one I’ve been reminded of over and over again on my life journey.

 

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.