Tag Archives: Life

Measuring Up for a Move

Then I looked up, and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand. I asked, “Where are you going?”

He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to find out how wide and how long it is.”
Zechariah 2:1-2 (NIV)

It’s been a few days since I’ve written my chapter-a-day posts. One of the things I’ve observed along my journey is that sometimes life interrupts my routines. I can’t control when it happens, so I do my best to be present in the moment and not get too stressed out it. The life interruption of late has been two-fold. First, there has been a rather intense travel schedule for work that includes early morning flights and scrambling to prepare for presentations, meetings, and client deliveries.

The more intense interruption, however, has been the health of my parents. My father has been hospitalized for nearly two weeks with acute pain. Seemingly endless tests have led the doctors to believe that he has a nasty infection and they are growing cultures in the lab to find out just what they are dealing with. In the meantime, my mother’s Alzheimer’s requires that my siblings and I must be with her around the clock.

My parents’ situation has caused us to realize that it is time for them both to get a higher level of care. This week we will move them out of their independent living apartment into a smaller assisted living apartment in another building within their retirement community. And so, we find ourselves measuring furniture and determining what’s going to fit where, and what may need to go away.

The “measuring line” was a common theme in the prophetic visions of the ancient Hebrew prophets. In today’s chapter, Zechariah sees an angel with a measuring line. He says he’s headed to measure the city of Jerusalem. In Zechariah’s day, Jerusalem was a rubble heap. He was among those feverishly trying to persuade the Hebrew exiles living in Persia to return and rebuild.

My observation is that there are two reasons a measuring line is used as a metaphor in prophetic writing. One is to find that something doesn’t measure up and judgement, therefore, awaits. The second is that something is going to be built or restored. That is the image that Zechariah is providing for his fellow exiles. It’s a vision of a grand, restored Jerusalem that might inspire his reader’s and listeners to return.

In the quiet this morning, I find my thoughts scattered (An unexpected head cold is not helping!). Zechariah was trusting that God would enable and bless the restoration and rebuilding of Jerusalem. As the events of today’s chapter took place, the very idea of a restored Jerusalem had to have seemed a daunting task. It did happen, however. Jerusalem would become a major city and sprawl well beyond its ancient walls just as Zechariah’s prophecy predicted. It remains so to this present day. Zechariah and the Hebrew people had to have faith, and the willingness to act on it.

And so I bring myself back to aging parents transitioning into new living arrangements amidst so much uncertainty and so much that is unknown. We are measuring and moving. We are trusting for a sense of restoration for them on the other side of dad’s quizzical medical issues. I’ve observed, and have come to accept, that there are moments along this life journey in which I have to accept that I can only do my best to make wise decisions, and trust God with the rest.

I stayed with my mother last night. As I wrote this post she woke from her slumber and began her dementia laced morning routine. It will take her a few hours to get ready and we’ll go to the hospital to check on dad. My siblings and I will continue the tasks of packing up my parents’ things for a mid-week move to a new place. We’re trying to make the wisest decisions. We’re trusting.

Now, where did that tape measure go? (Knowing my mother’s Alzheimers, it might be in the freezer!)

I pray for all who read this a blissfully routine week.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Detours and Déjà vu

But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.
Haggai 2:4 (NIV)

Along my life journey, I’ve come to understand that there are many stops and starts along the way. As a child, I had this (mis)perception that life had a simple linear path. High School, college, career, marriage, children, house, grandchildren, retirement, death. And, in some respects, it may have followed that general direction. The road, however, has definitely never been as straight, flat, and easy as I thought it would be.

A friend of ours once said she personally polled her family and friends with the question: “Has life turned out like you thought it would?” She reported to me that the almost universal answer was “No.” Somehow, I still find myself occasionally falling back into the delusion that when it comes to life not turning out like I had planned I am the exception, not the rule.

Life is full of unexpected twists, turns, dead ends, and detours. Tragedy strikes, houses burn, businesses fail, marriages fail, loved ones walk away, people do terrible things, jobs go away, et cetera, et cetera, and et cetera.

One of the things I’m learning as I’m meditating on the theme of exile is that is also not the exception, but the rule. The Biblical perspective is that exile is the very nature of life on this earth. Adam and Eve were at home in the Garden. The consequence of their sin was to be sent away. They became exiles. All of humanity to follow were/are born into exile. Paul wrote that we are citizens of Heaven. This entire life journey can be viewed through the spiritual understanding that we are all exiles making our way home.

What I’ve found, however, is that despite the road of life not always being easy, I find myself back in situations and circumstances that are eerily familiar. I’ve been disappointed before. I’ve faced similar adversity before. Life has felt like a grind before. What did I learn in those stretches of life’s road? What resources did I draw upon to get me through? What did or didn’t work back then that informs what I should do or not do now?

In today’s chapter, work on the Temple has stalled. It’s not going according to plan or expectations. But that had happened before. David’s plans to build the first temple had stalled, and his expectations for starting construction had been dashed. So David charged his son, Solomon, with doing it saying:

“Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished.”

1 Chronicles 28:20

Now, the prophet Haggai addresses Zerubbabel and Joshua who are tasked with rebuilding the temple just as Solomon had been tasked with it before. And he says to them:

“Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished.”

Haggai 2:4

Sound familiar? Life’s road had circled back to a familiar place. God through Haggai draws upon the same encouragement, the same assurance of God’s presence and faithfulness, the same charge that had preceded Solomon’s successful building project.

In the quiet this morning I am standing on life’s road and looking back. I’ve had my share of tough stretches, but I like to think that I haven’t let it defeat me. Rather, I’ve let it instruct me, inform me, teach me, and strengthen me. As Paul wrote to the followers of Jesus in Rome:

There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

Romans 5:3-5 (MSG)

I’m saying a prayer for any who read this, no matter where they find themselves in their own journey. Press on, my friend.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

What’s Your Story?

In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.
Nehemiah 9:33 (NIV)

Everyone has a story.

In recent years, I have started asking people a simple question:

“What is your story?”

I find that those I ask are often taken aback by the question. It’s not unusual for a person to sit quietly for a moment and size me up. I imagine that, at times, the person is questioning my motives for asking. I also assume that some individuals are pondering just how much they really want to reveal to me. A person’s story, the revelation of self, is an intimate gift. What an individual chooses to share with me, and how they frame their own story, says way more about the person than his or her mere words.

In today’s chapter, the Hebrew exiles gather on what was known as a “Day of Atonement.” They recounted the story of their people from creation, through Abram, slavery in Egypt, Moses, the giving of the law, the wilderness, conquest, kings, prophets, captivity, and exile. At the end of their story, they summed things up:

“In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.”

Nehemiah 9:33 (NIV)

I have been a follower of Jesus for almost forty years. No one knows my own story, my own journey, as well as I do. Like the returned exiles in today’s chapter, like everyone else, my life journey is a tale that contains both incredible blessing and tragic mistakes. I have witnessed and experienced the miraculous, and I have willfully exhibited misdeeds and immorality.

I find in today’s chapter a good example to follow. It’s a healthy thing to remember and to recount my story warts and all. In all of the joy and pain, the triumphs and trials, the blessings and mistakes of my journey I am reminded of God’s faithfulness, guidance, goodness, and abundant grace despite my many missteps.

In the quiet this morning, I’m recounting my story to myself. It leaves me with feelings of gratitude and humility in light of God’s goodness. It reminds me that the story is still being told. Thanks for being part of it.

So, what’s your story?

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Five Days with My Mom (and Alzheimer’s)

Earlier this sumer my dad found himself in the hospital for five days after suffering what was eventually diagnosed as a (thankfully) minor stroke. Being in the hospital meant that I had the honor of spending five days and four nights with my mother, who is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. It was the most uninterrupted time I’ve spent alone with my mother since childhood. I found it a fascinating opportunity to observe her life at this point in her journey through dementia, and to interact with her in her daily realities.

Let me begin by confessing that I am no expert in Alzheimers. Our daughter, Taylor, has had far more experience with, and education in, the tragic disease. I am, however, deeply versed in life with my mother. I began noticing the changes long before her diagnosis. Conversations with her, which have always been pleasant, meandering journeys slowly became stilted and repetitious. I began to realize that there were certain subjects that she clung to like a child hanging safely on to homebase in a neighborhood game. In retrospect, I wish I had forced the issue with her and our family long before it all came to light, as we learned that medications can successfully slow the disease’s progression. C’est la vie.

I also know that Alzheimer’s and Dementia experiences can vary widely depending the patient and his or her own unique circumstances. I am in no way implying that my observations are somehow applicable to every person who suffers from these terrible diseases. For what it is worth, I am merely recording some of the observations and lessons that came from my personal time with my own mother in her current stage of this tragic disease.

First, a few general observations about my mother’s current waypoint in the descent to the cognitive darkness of Alzheimer’s. She has yet to forget any of our family members, though the names and faces of life-long friends have begun to escape her. When talking to me, she now refers to my father as “my husband” as though her relationship with him and her relationship with me have been separated from the mental compartment of “family” into separately labled relationship compartments in her brain. Nevertheless, I am still able to enjoy her recognizing me when she sees me. She has yet to fail in greeting me with the pet name she’s had for me since childhood (“Hello, Tommy Jameses“) and extending her arms for an embrace.

I have heard it said that those with ALZ can sometimes become more childlike, and many become bitter, angry and even violent. Mom has occasionally had momentary flashes of uncharacteristic anger, though more often I’ve experienced that she now lets fly with a blunt honesty about people and things that she’s never exhibited before. To be honest, I tend to find it refreshing. I am thankful that she has mostly exhibited a sweet, childlike humor I’d never seen in her before.

Watching mom now often feels like peering into the little girl she must have been. She is playful and joyous in an almost exhibitionistic way. The woman who who raised me and my siblings was sweet and fun-loving, but she carefully guarded herself, her looks, her words, and her actions. For most of my childhood she wore a partial set of dentures. I can remember her never wanting anyone, even her children, seeing her without her partial in her mouth. The mom I spent five days with this summer could not only care less, but I expect she’d be happy to pull out her dentures and make a funny face to make me laugh. My mother has always been apropriately reserved and “mature” around a camera. Now if I pull out my phone to take a picture she starts hamming it up  and making faces. A part of me asks, “Who is this woman who looks like my mother?” Then I realize that I’m probably seeing an entire side of my mother that has always been there. I just never saw it.

I spent my time with mom in quiet observation. Our days together had a certain cadence. We would rise and have breakfast together. We would ready ourselves and drive to the hospital where we sat with dad in his hospital room. Each day I would take mom out for lunch before returning to the hospital to spend the afternoon with dad. In the late afternoon we would return to their apartment at the retirement community, enjoy a bite together, and spend the evening watching television until mom was ready to retire.

I made a conscious effort not to intervene with mom in the time I spent with her. I’ve observed that her flashes of temper often come when she feels as though someone is telling her what to do or treating her like she’s incompetent. It’s much like a child who barks at a nagging parent and exclaims, “I can do it myself!” So, I never told her what to do or tried to control her in any way. I just let her do her thing and quietly paid close attention. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was only occasionally necessary to “suggest” that she might want to see if she’d taken her pills or double-check this-or-that. As long as I kept my voice tone pleasant and helpful, she always responded positively.

I discovered that she had a very specific routine each morning:

  • Turn on the coffee pot. This is always prepared before bed the night before, another part of her daily ritual.
  • Sit on the couch and turn on the television. Any morning news channel will do. It seemed to be randomly different each morning.
  • Drink one cup of coffee while watching television. She doesn’t really watch television or take anything in, but she likes to have it on. I think it allows her the illusion (for others) that she’s doing something while her mind struggles to make sense of her moment. Interestingly, when she watched baseball with me she would regularly comment on things that happened in the moment (e.g. “Boy, hit that ball a long way.”) which is something she didn’t really do with any other kind of program. One night I took her to Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner. Surprisingly, she wanted to sit at the bar. She actually found all the television screens interesting. There was so much to look at and steal her attention.
  • Set the table for breakfast. This included placemats, spoons, and plates. The east and south sides of the table were where the settings went. This seemed important. If I was working on my laptop where the placemat was supposed to be set then I could tell this threw her off a wee bit, but didn’t rattle her.
  • Eat one yogurt with her second cup of coffee at the table. In the evening her meal was a Boost protein drink and another yogurt.
  • Wash her cup and spoon along with the coffee maker.
  • Go into the master bedroom/bathroom to get ready. Putting on make-up and “fixing herself” in front of the mirror is one of the things she gets lost in. One morning I finally had to “suggest” that we get going to the hospital in order to get her out of being lost in her endless loop of putting on and fixing her make-up.

I was pleased to observe that there were things that her routine helped her to remember and how much she still did without me prompting her. I watched her, at times, silently straining her mind to organize her world even if she quickly got lost in the process. If dad’s doctor started to give instructions she would get out a pen and note pad. She knew that she was supposed to do that. She might even pretend to pay attention and write “Dean’s Instructions” at the top of the page. Nothing else would be written as she would then get lost in another moment.

The mother I grew up with would NEVER have allowed this picture to be taken. 🙂

Much of my time spent with mom was me experimenting with, and even catering to, this playful, child-like spirit that has emerged in her as the Alzheimer’s has progressed.

Take chocolate malts for example. Mom’s appetite at this point is almost non-existent. A year-or-so ago her doctor said that she was, medically, at the point of starvation. Her weight was just under 90 lbs. Props to my dad and sister who have worked tirelessly to get her to eat. She’s gained weight and has been doing much better. Nevertheless, she is never hungry and will, like a child, refuse to eat almost anything you put in front of her. The one exception is chocolate malts.

Mom has developed an insatiable appetite for chocolate malts. When I asked her, “What sounds good to you?” it was the only answer she ever gave and she gave it every time. And, if I got her one she would actually eat the whole thing. So, I joyfully indulged her appetite. I mean, the woman’s almost starving and, in the near future, she’s going to forget the joy of tasting anything! Good nutrition, be damned! I decided that I would buy her chocolate malts as often as she’ll eat them. I soon learned that three chocolate malts a day was perfect.

Three times a day I would ask her “How about a chocolate malt?”

Every time I asked she’d look at me wide-eyed like a little little girl and responded, excitedly, “Oh, that sounds good!”

I started going to different places (DQ, Culvers, Bauders, Smokey Row, etc.) to see if she liked certain chocolate malts better than others. Smokey Row was clearly the winner, so that became our usual stop. It was during our thrice daily chocolate malt runs that I had another epiphany.

Mom’s ALZ has a certain repetition to it, but there’s also a routine to the repetition. Driving down I-235 always brought about the observation “I wouldn’t want to live in any of these houses along here.” Driving through the neighborhood around the hospital always brought out the comment, “I just love these big, old houses.” Pulling into a restaurant’s parking lot always brought out the comment, “Oh, I haven’t been to this place in a long time!” This statement was made the first time we pulled into the drive-through at Smokey Row even though I knew my mother had never been there before. And, it came out again four hours later when we returned for the chocolate malt she loved so well.

Two, make that three, observations sitting in the drive-through with mom at Smokey Row.

First, we often wax poetic in our culture about living in the moment:

  • “Forget the past.”
  • “YOLO.”
  • “Tomorrow is never promised.”
  • “Enjoy the moment.”

But, I find that we rarely do any of these things. We allow ourselves to be haunted by the past or refuse to deal with resentments, injuries, and relational baggage. We worry incessantly about tomorrow. We crank through our days with little or no introspection, observation, or enjoyment.

Our dinner date sitting at the bar of Buffalo Wild Wings. Mom actually found all of the television screens fun to watch.

For my mother, the present moment is her only constant reality. The past is a fog. The future is cognitively unreachable. There is only this moment. Certain stimuli bring out the same reaction time and time again. I can’t will my mother to remember. I can’t correct her brainwaves to help her conceive of the future. I can only be her companion right now, in this very moment. My brain is the one that functions “normally.” When my mother’s “moment” repeats itself in intervals of five minutes or five hours I am the one who must compassionately choose to forget the last time it happened, let go of the annoyance I feel in the knowledge it will happen again (and again, and again, and again…), and simply be fully present with her in this moment.

There is also, I realized, compassion to be had for my father who is my mother’s constant companion on this journey. That was my second take-away from the moment.

I believe that my father’s Dutch sensibility long-ago convinced him that there is a black-and-white, right-and-wrong aspect to everything in life. Add to this a touch of perfectionism and he’s always been a bit OCD, and vocal, about the correct way to approach everything. My dad was a great accountant. The books always balanced perfectly. He was also a master craftsman with anything he built or made by hand.

Of course, living with a person who forgets almost everything means you’re living with a person who gets almost everything wrong. My father’s compulsion for everything to be right means that whatever is wrong must be corrected just like an incorrect number on the spreadsheet. Alas, correcting a person with ALZ is a fruitless, even counter-productive, exercise. Here I cross-reference the culturally popular definition of crazy: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You can correct my mother all you want, she’s going to make the same mistake when she repeats herself in five minutes. I’ve watched my dad struggle to adapt to these difficult new realities. He’s done remarkably well, considering.

Once again, I found child-like-ness to be a good vehicle to understand that I needed to surrender any compulsion I felt to correct my mother. Life for her, much like a child, is a never-ending game of pretend. Sometimes she doesn’t remember and I watch her make up an answer just like our daughters did when they were toddlers and you asked them a question that was just beyond their comprehension. Sometimes her brain is permanently confused about a fact or a memory, and nothing is going to change that.

Because she can’t remember the past, however, I began to notice that each moment can be a bit of an adventure, a new revelation, and an exploration. When I decided to play pretend with her and to even encourage it, I suddenly found it easier to give up any need I felt for anything she did or said to be right. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s a game, and I am simply playing along. And, I sometimes found it to actually be fun.

Btw, our daughter Taylor wrote a great piece in which she observed that a conversation with a person who has dementia is a lot like a playful theatre exercise. I highly recommend it. It’s a quick read: https://storiicare.com/blog/carer-amusement-absurd-conversations/

Which brings me to my third observation sitting in the Smokey Row drive-through. During our first visit that day I noticed a cemetery across the street. Mom was, as usual, staring out the passenger window trying to make sense of her moment.

Look at that cemetery over there,” I said.

Yeah,” she answered as she looked to where I pointed.

They say people are just dying to get in there,” I dead-panned.

She laughed, and laughed, and laughed. “Oh, Tommy Jameses, you’re so funny!” she giggled.

When we returned a few hours later for her third chocolate malt of the day she experienced her routine “I haven’t been here for a long time” moment. It was then that I realized: If she forgot that she’d been there a few hours ago, then she also forgot my joke. So, like a stand-up comedian working a different audience at a different club on a different night, I used my cemetery joke again just as I had before. She thought it was hilarious again! She thought it was hilarious every time I used it (and, I used it a lot).

Yes, the repetition of my mother’s dementia can be really, really annoying, but it also affords me the opportunity of repeatedly giving her a laugh or a happy moment over and over again with minimal effort. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

As I began to embrace the fun of playing with my mom in her moments, I had other discoveries. I’d read that the Church of England has started to conduct services in which they’ve consciously returned to the hymns and liturgy of 60-80 years ago. They did this because church members with dementia remember and connect with the hymns and ritual in the compartments of long-term memory they could still access. This gave me an idea.

I know some of my mother’s favorite songs from her childhood. She used to tell me stories about playing the song Sh’ Boom by the Crew Cuts so many times that her father yelled at her. So, as we left the apartment to head to the hospital I pulled up Spotify and played Sh’ Boom. My mother came to life. She knew almost every word to the song and began dancing in her seat. I then queued up Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Doris Day. We sang together and danced in our seats together all the way to the hospital.

Then, we did it again the next day and the day after that. The moment was new to her every morning, and I had the joy of singing and dancing and sharing a special moment with my mother each time. I realized that these moments are all I have left with her in this life. Alzheimer’s will eventually steal them, too.

My father and my sister are my mother’s constant care-givers. I recognize that my time with mom is grossly minimal in comparison, and I honor their love and perseverance.

Thank you for helping take care of me,” my mom, nevertheless, said repeatedly to me in the days I spent with her.

Each time she said it I repeated the same answer. “Are you kidding me? Mom, you gave me life. You and dad have given me so much over the years. Helping you out right now doesn’t even compare. I am so deep in your debt.”

Repeating that answer was somehow therapeutic for me, as was the realization that doing so brought to mind. I’d learned some important life lessons in those five days that I will always carry with me. I also enjoyed some precious moments of laughter and joy with my mother that I will always cherish. Even with Alzheimer’s, she was still giving.

The debt can never be repaid.

“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.