“They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God.” John 16:2 (NIV)
The little Iowa town where Wendy and I live has a fascinating history. It was founded and designed by a pastor who was escaping persecution in the Netherlands. That sounds odd to most people since the Netherlands is known for being a place of tolerance. In the early 1800s, however, the King of the Netherlands, and the government, controlled the church of the Netherlands. Pastors were told what to preach, and were threatened and punished if they disobeyed.
There was a group of rebellious young pastors who led an organized secession from the state church. Some were imprisoned for it. The leader of the secessionist movement was H.P. Scholte, and it was during this period of conflict with the state church of the Netherlands that he decided he wanted to experience the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech guaranteed to all Americans. In 1847, he led hundreds of followers to the Iowa prairie and created a town out of nothing.
In America, Scholte fully exercised his freedoms. Always a maverick, he refused to join any denomination and eventually built his own church which he led as a local, independent, non-denominational congregation. He practiced his freedom of speech by publishing his own paper, loudly speaking out for the abolition of slavery, and getting involved in the political process. He became a friend of Abraham Lincoln. The faith and spirit that Scholte and his wife imbued in this town is still evident for those who have eyes to see it.
Today’s chapter is the third of four chapters that John dedicates to all the things Jesus told His followers on the night before His crucifixion. Almost 20% of his biography is dedicated to those few hours on a Thursday evening.
Two chapters ago, I observed that all of the players present in the “fall” in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) are represented and/or referenced on this fateful evening. Again in today’s chapter, Jesus references the “prince of this world.” Jesus points to the fact that the events of this evening are part of a larger story; They are part of the Great Story.
What fascinated me as I, once again, read Jesus words to His followers this morning was both the warning and the promise with which today’s chapter is bookended. Jesus begins by warning His followers of the difficulties they will soon face: institutional persecution and the threat of death. Jesus wasn’t lying. All but one of the eleven disciples listening to these words (Judas was, at that moment, carrying out his betrayal) would be killed, martyred, for carrying out Jesus’ mission. At the end of the chapter, Jesus reiterates the “trouble” that they will experience in this world adding that “in Him” they would find peace amidst the conflict.
As I contemplate this, I am reminded of three things:
First, that when Wendy and I attended our local gathering of Jesus’ followers yesterday, it was the result of a legacy of believers who literally risked life and limb to escape “trouble” to carve out lives in the freedom of America.
Second, I am reminded of the “trouble” that many followers of Jesus face this day. I recently read that in Nigeria, 43,000 followers of Jesus have been killed in the past 12 years. An additional 18,000 have permanently disappeared. 17,500 churches have been attacked. There are 49 other countries in which the risk of “trouble” for being a follower of Jesus is rated “very high” to “extreme.” Those are dangers a follower of Jesus in America can largely ignore because it’s not my reality.
In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded of Jesus’ promise which was a very direct contrast statement: “In this world you will have trouble,” He stated, while “In me you will have peace.” The latter was never intended to negate or escape the former. Rather, it was intended as the means to endure it.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Wendy and I arrived at the lake last night. We’re getting things ready for our annual Memorial Day Weekend celebration with the JPs and VLs. Hello summer!
The last time I posted on “The Latest” was just about a year ago, and what a year it has been. 2020 was the year of COVID-19 and we weathered the storm like everyone else while managing to do so with our close family and friends.
Here are the highlights from the last year… the year of Covid.
June 2020 in Kansas City
Wendy and I enjoyed a really strange weekend in Kansas City amidst the pandemic. We went to see our longtime friends, Matt and Tara. Despite a narrow list of things we could do, we managed to get out for a wonderful evening with our friends and enjoy Covid-KC.
Grandma Vander Hart Turns 93
In July of 2020 the Vander Hart family gathered to celebrate Henrietta’s 93rd birthday. Since none of her children are in Pella anymore, Wendy has been helping her with her daily needs, shopping, doctor’s appointments, and etc. Wendy says with all the years Grandma watched her when she was a kid, she’s glad she has this opportunity to return the love.
Fourth of the July at the Lake
The JPs, VLs, and Schempers joined us at the lake for the Fourth of July this past year. Wendy and I actually spent less time at the lake last summer than ever. We got down just for the holiday weekends.
For the past few years my college roommate, Steve Elliott, and I have been talking about actually getting together. In July, we made it happen by meeting each other half-way in Galena, IL. Steve drove his wife’s Mustang convertible and we spent the afternoon exploring the backroads of the Mississippi River valley through northwest Illinois and southwest Wisconsin, making a stop when we stumbled upon a craft brewery.
Labor Day Weekend at the Lake
While Memorial Day and Fourth of July are typically family affairs, the Labor Day weekend has been a traditional adult weekend for the JPs, VLs, and V-Dubs. Always a nice way to celebrate the end of summer. Even summer of COVID.
Tay and Clay’s Highlands Wedding with a Stegosaurus
It was a beautiful wedding. We wish we could have been there. We wish anyone could have been there. Taylor and Clayton had hoped to have a private ceremony in Edinburgh with their close friends and then a quiet dinner. Then lockdowns nixed that. So, they opted for an even more private ceremony in the middle of the Scottish highlands with just the photographer and Milo. Milo requested to be a Stegosaurus for the special occasion, so, why not (at least for part of the time)?
Autumn Trip to Austin, Texas
Long before anyone had heard of the Coronavirus, we had scheduled a trip to Austin with our friends Kev and Beck. We had to do so to secure the lodging we wanted. We were determined to do enjoy what we could. As is always the case with the four of us, Beck had thoroughly investigated options and restrictions in order to structure an entire calendar of “fun” places where we could do what we love: enjoy good food, good drink, and good conversation.
Crowning a New Tulip Queen
A couple of years ago I was asked to be Master of Ceremonies for Pella’s annual Tulip Queen Announcement Party (TQAP), which is to say “it’s not a pageant!” Realizing that I’d had a blast doing it and would be doing it again, Wendy decided to sign-on for a six-year stint as a member of the TQAP Committee. So it was that we enjoyed working with the 13 young ladies (who were all amazing) to prepare for their presentations and I was honored to announce the new Tulip Queen and her Court for Pella’s 2021 Tulip Time.
Thanksgiving was a quiet family gathering at our house for a small gathering of Wendy’s family.
Christmas and Covid 2020
Wendy and I felt so blessed to have the whole fam at our house for Christmas, and an entire Christmas Day together. Tay, Clay, and Milo arrived in early December. They spent a few weeks with us, and a few weeks with other family. Madison and Garrett arrived in time for Christmas. Ya-Ya (Grandma Wendy) enjoyed Milo being her little helper with Christmas cookies, smoothies, and other cooking duties. We had a Christmas cookie decorating contest and the adults all participated in a Christmas cocktail contest. There were no losers.
To honest, Wendy’s birthday was overshadowed this year as she played hostess, baker, cook, and caretaker. Nevertheless, her heart was full of joy. We even took the rare opportunity of being together to have some family portraits taken.
Christmas Day began with opening stockings before Ya-Ya’s amazing Christmas breakfast complete with cinnamon rolls. Gifts were opened and we enjoyed an equally amazing charcuterie spread for lunch/dinner as we binged on The Crown. I got to use the nifty Lifegoo precision screwdriver set in my stocking to repair Lightning McQueen for Milo.
The Andersons headed back and the Vander-Boeyinks headed to Des Moines for a week of Christmas celebrations with family there. Wendy and I had originally scheduled a cruise to celebrate our 15th Anniversary (New Year’s Eve) but that had long-since been cancelled. I believe we spent a quiet evening at home and went to bed early.
The ‘Rona came to our house on January 3rd with Tay, Clay and Milo’s return. All five of us ended up getting it. Taylor, Wendy, and I had relatively minor, flu-like symptoms. For me it was a day-or-two with body aches followed by a few weeks with zero-energy. Clay and Milo were asymptomatic. Their return to Scotland got delayed due to our quarantine together, and we made the best of our unexpected, extended family time. They eventually flew back to the UK in February.
Getting Out of Dodge
In February, Kev and I were commiserating about feeling a mutual case of cabin fever due to COVID. Deciding we’d like to look at different walls for a few days, we scooted down to the lake for a week of guy-time and working remotely from a different location.
Lake Work Weekend
We returned to the lake in April for a work weekend with the JPs and VLs. It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a decade since we built the Playhouse and there was a fairly decent list of things that needed sprucing up, repaired, updated, and improved.
JP discovered that our dock had been torn from the gangway due to the low water level this winter. He, along with our neighbor, got it repaired. There was a lot of power-washing, labeling, clearing out, and organization.
It also happened to be Shay’s birthday that weekend, so we celebrated the senorita at our favorite local Mexican haunt at the lake.
Easter was a quiet affair at our house. My folks and Wendy’s folks came to Pell and Grandma Vander Hart joined us for a light lunch and an afternoon of family time. It was so good to have my parents here. They spent so much of the year in lockdown in their senior community. To actually have them physically present was such a blessing.
Weekend in “COLA”
Wendy and I headed to South Carolina in April to spend a long weekend with Madison and G. It was our first time in SC since their wedding in October of 2019, and the first visit to the house they purchased last year. We also got to meet our grand dog, Bertha. Madison arranged for both Wendy and me to have facials at the salon where she works, Pout.
We enjoyed a quiet weekend and enjoyed some great restaurants in Columbia. G’s family were in town that weekend and we all got together for breakfast on Saturday morning. It was nice to spend time with them, as well. G demonstrated his grilling skills for us before we left on Sunday, and on the way to the airport we stopped to pick-up a new grand dog, a puppy named Hazel.
I got to wear a sombrero like Shay, when my bud Matthew took me out for lunch to celebrate my birthday at the end of April. Actually, Kev, Beck and I all have birthdays within 13 days of one another, so it’s become a tradition to get together to celebrate each year. This year the celebration was in Pella. We enjoyed some time at the Peanut Pub and the rooftop of Butcher’s Brewhuis before retiring to Vander Well Manor with George’s Pizza.
Tulip Time and Mother’s Day2021
There was a modified Tulip Time this year, but at least it didn’t get completely cancelled like it did last year. Wendy and did our annual turn as Pella’s founding couple. We make a couple of pop-up appearances each day of the festival to give a little spiel about the history of Pella. There was a great turnout for the festival and, as usual, we got stopped many times each day to have our pictures taken with new friends from all over.
Not to be redundant, but the year of Covid-19 was a year of a lot of redundancy in so many ways. Mother’s Day (the Sunday of Tulip Time weekend) we hosted Wendy’s grandma, folks, and my folks. Wendy’s brother, Josh, was also back in Iowa for a visit. We had a light lunch and shared family stories around the table. It was good, once again, just to be together.
And, there you have it. The highlights of the past year. More memories to be made this weekend as Memorial Day kicks off another summer.
On this Wayfarer Weekend (WW) podcast I welcome Dr. Eric Recker to the Vander Well Pub for a conversation about his mission from God that sprung out of the COVID-19 pandemic and one of the most difficult days of his life. On our conversational journey, we intersect on exceptional situations, finding relationships, and how essential it is to have good companions on this earthly trek.
In the fall of 2018, m’luv Wendy was inducted into our local community theatre’s Walk of Fame. She gave me the honor of introducing her that evening. As I was going through some old files this weekend, I found the text of the introduction that I prepared and delivered that night. Please indulge me. I’d like to post this tribute to Wendy so that it will be preserved on the world-wide interweb until, and perhaps beyond, the apocalypse. She deserves that.
“I have taken a billion photographs of Wendy. I take a lot of photographs period, and over the years I’ve noticed that I have this mysterious internal catch in my spirit when a certain photograph rises to the level of a personal favorite. I don’t always know why. I just know it’s special, and I have to spend time with it to figure it out. This photograph of Wendy is one of those. I’ve meditated on why it’s special and I’d like to share a few reasons why.
The first time I saw Wendy Hall was in the same place this photograph was taken. Our daughter Taylor and I were new residents of Pella and had been cast in USP’s South Pacific. We sat at the back of the Joan Kuyper Farver Auditorium as Wendy, Prop Master for the show, made her way to the front to make an announcement. I saw her from behind just like this photograph as she strode with purpose and intensity up the aisle toward the stage. First impressions. Oh my, that hair – which I’ve come to love as metaphorical of the wild-child, the explosion of passion tinged with red.
Wendy stood on that stage and gave the well-known rule for all large cast shows filled with children and teens: “Look!” she said, “Rule number one! If it’s not yours, DON’T TOUCH IT!” That little bit of a thing with the wild, red-streaked hair spoke with such assured, intense authority. I knew in that moment I was NOT going to touch a prop that wasn’t mine. I was a little scared.
In this photo, we see Wendy in the off-stage darkness, which is where I first got to actually know Wendy Hall during South Pacific. What I learned about Wendy back stage is that she knew theatre, she cared about doing theatre well, and in her arena of responsibility things were going to be done well down to the minute details. While on-stage as Captain Brackett, I had to eat a sandwich.
“What kind of sandwich do you like?” she asked me in one early rehearsal.
“Why?” I asked honestly, caught off-guard by the question.
“If you have to eat a sandwich on stage it might as well be something you like,” she responded as if it was the most logical question in the world.
But as a stage veteran, it wasn’t the most logical question in the world. Anyone who’s been involved in theatre of any kind, especially in community theatre, knows that props are thrown together at the last minute using whatever is expedient by half-hearted volunteers who aren’t sure what they’re doing. I expected a sandwich that was two slices of cheap white bread hastily purchased at the Dollar General before tech rehearsal two weeks ago and by opening night it’s dry and crusty with hints of mold.
But Wendy Hall was in charge. She was Prop Master. You’re going to have a freshly made sandwich, a real sandwich that is something you like. Because, I was Commander Bracket (dammit!), and Commander Bracket would eat a sandwich he wanted prepared for him by the mess cook.
In one of my South Pacific scenes, I had to sit on stage for a period of time while action and dialogue were focused elsewhere. During the final weeks of rehearsal, each night I found on Captain Bracket’s desk clipboard different things to read. A Shakespeare sonnet one night, a list of corny jokes the next, a Robert Frost poem. Prop Master Wendy Hall figured if you have to sit there on stage looking at a clipboard you might as well have something interesting to read. I’d never met a Prop Master or Stage Manager who cared about the actors and their experience down to the smallest of details.
An unknowing person looking at this photograph is likely to see only a dark, contrasting figure. A two-dimensional shape: “Female figure in black.” Over the years I’ve observed that people who don’t really know Wendy, this is what they see. A simple figure contrasted by her intensity, her strong opinions, her kick-butt and take-charge attitude which is so easy to dismiss just as simply: Female figure in black.
I look at this photo and observe she is not in the spotlight but in the shadows off-stage because Wendy, the amazingly capable and talented leading lady, has no need for the spotlight. In fact, she does her best work on-stage during the rehearsal process. Her best work off-stage is in the shadows where she is intensely focused on what’s happening on-stage and thinking of every detail that will make this production sing – not just for the audience but for the actors and the crew members. She cares, not just for the show that takes place on stage but the experience of the entire production from the first audition to the post-production cast party. Those who only see and hear an oft intense director demanding exactly what she expects and exactly the ways she wants it do not see her on the couch at home obsessing about actors not having to be at rehearsal if they don’t have to be, parents being able to count on a well-thought-out rehearsal schedule that will make for worry-free planning, or people having a great experience from first to last.
When I look at the woman in this photograph I see someone who knows what she’s doing. She’s standing tall, intensely focused, doing the work, orchestrating the action; Pen in one hand and the other hand open and ready to edit the show and the production if they are the right changes to advance the quality of the show and the good of the whole.
From 2003 through 2017 Wendy has been credited with 43 roles in USP productions, only 12 of them as an actor. Seven of those 12 roles I had the privilege of playing opposite her, and there is no one I would rather be on stage with than Wendy because I’ve rarely met another actor who shares my passion for the process of bringing a character to stage. Thirty-one of Wendy’s roles were off-stage roles: Producer, Director, Assistant Director, Front of House, Make-up, Costumes, Props, Publicity – she’s done it all and that doesn’t count some 15 years of continuous service on the USP Board of Directors, organizing Award Nights, helping organize Drama Camp registrations, Picnics, Costume Shop help, and of course making lots-and-lots of cheesecake.
The final thing I want to point out in this photo is the mystery it makes me feel. You don’t see this woman. You don’t really see her. You see just an impression of her. When I look at this photo, I both enjoy the mystery and experience the selfish satisfaction of being a secret keeper. I do know her. I have been granted the privilege of seeing what no one else sees.
My theme song for Wendy, and I’m not sure I’ve ever shared this with anyone, contains these lyrics:
Tonight as I stand inside the rain Ev’rybody knows That Baby’s got new clothes But lately I see her ribbons and her bows Have fallen from her curls She takes just like a woman, yes, she does She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does And she aches just like a woman But she breaks just like a little girl
In this journey of theatre with Union Street Players I have shared her public triumphs and wiped away her private tears. I can tell that both spring from love: love of God, love of doing things well, love of theatre, love of this crazy organization, and most of all love for each of you with a depth and passion you likely know not – from this two-dimensional, female figure in black.
May I present to you my leading lady, my best producer, my life director, my muse, and my partner on Life’s journey. M’luv! And the newest member of Union Street Players Walk of Fame, Wendy Vander Well...”
The last time I shared an update of what the family has been up to, it was March. Wendy and I had just completed the longest stretch of travel in the shortest amount of time in our lives. Our sojourns included but were not limited to Madison’s wedding in Columbia, SC, Suzanna’s wedding in Mazatlan, Mexico, Christmas in London, New Year’s in Dublin, and our vacation and cruise in Florida and the Caribbean. That doesn’t include all of my work travel between those trips. Basically, between October and March, I was at home less than 50% of the time. So my last update on this blog happened after Wendy and I had just returned from a cruise with our friends and there was rising concern about this pesky little virus from China.
That seems like it was another lifetime. From non-stop travel to staying at home all the time. What a contrast.
So, I guess I should start off by letting everyone know that everyone in our family is healthy and safe. Living in a small town in rural Iowa has its advantages. For Wendy and me, that means a total of only 73 cases of COVID-19 in our county with zero deaths. A few of Wendy’s family members had the virus but quarantined and were fine.
So let’s go back in time…
(Love that meme!)
Right before our cruise and right before COVID lockdown, Wendy and I had been asked if we would allow our home to be the location for a special birthday blow-out for our friend, Sarah. Of course, we said “yes,” and we loved that our home could be used for the event. It was a great night of meeting lots of new people, serving as hosts to our friends and their guests, and celebrating Sarah’s big day.
Of course, right after we returned from our cruise the world stopped. All of my business travel was canceled. The lockdown also happened right before St. Patrick’s Day, which happens to be one of our favorite holidays. Thankfully, the Vander Well Pub right down the stairs in our basement. Wendy and I celebrated in a private affair.
For a couple of months, Wendy and I barely got out of the house. In some ways, it was a nice change from the plethora of travel we’d just finished. Like most people, we took the opportunity to accomplish tasks that had been on the to-do list for years. This included stringing up a shade-sail and lights over our patio. We were so excited to use the grill for the first time this spring.
Our kids, Madison and Garrett, made a brief weekend visit (they were the only passengers on the plane) to Iowa in early April. Because my parents (who had never met Garrett in person) were unable to attend the wedding in South Carolina and Garrett had never been to Pella, they wanted to make the trip and it was awesome to have them. Of course, they couldn’t actually meet my parents in lockdown, but they stood on the sidewalk and spoke to them through the folks’ second-story window. C’est la vie.
About that time, I was playing a little driveway basketball with m’man, Nathan, and took a tumble while chasing the basketball into the yard. In one swift move, age met with athletically-challenged coordination. I chipped an ankle bone, strained my Achilles tendon, and tore my calf. Ugh. Welcome to weeks of crutches and sleeping in a recliner followed by several weeks on hobbling in a bionic-boot.
I continue to teach on occasion among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and volunteer in leading the teaching team, but even that has been weird. Like most churches, we went to live-streaming the service from an empty sanctuary to those watching on YouTube at home. This year, Wendy made a lovely Easter breakfast and we ate as we attended Sunday services on the couch in our living room.
On a couple of occasions, I also got the chance to join our friend, Jenny, in hosting the eerily Today-like pre-and-post-service on-air chat.
Wendy and I made good use of the patio on my birthday. Of course, COVID meant that the celebration was limited, so we invited the VLs (who moved into the neighborhood! Woot! Woot!) over to cookout and celebrate one more orbit around the sun.
Of course, celebrating May fourth is always important.
Spring is when Wendy and I are usually busy portraying our town’s founding couple at the annual Pella Tulip Festival. The festival was canceled along with every other event in the known world, but by May things were starting to begin a scaled opening and we were desperately ready to get out of the house. Our friends Kev and Beck brought their kids to Pella for a day of enjoying the tulips, even if there was no festival.
While our business has been, understandably, slow, Wendy has kept busy this year working as the studio manager of a new yoga here in Pella: Selah Studio. The studio is owned by our friends the VLs and it has been holding classes in various rented spaces while they got the studio space uptown ready for prime time. Wendy and I were so excited when we got the opportunity to join them to pray over and bless the space.
In the world of COVID-correctness we tried very hard to balance being safe and wise with continuing to live life. While we stayed away from most social situations, we considered our inner-circle of friends the “family” with whom we do life. So it was, that Wendy and her girlfriends decided to have an old-fashioned girls’ sleepover at our house and I was politely asked to vacate the premises for a night and a day. So, my friend Kev and I took his son, Harry, to the lake for a little male rite-of-passage weekend before the young man headed off to forge his own path in life. This dudes weekend with father and son had been discussed for years. I was so glad we finally got to make it happen!
Our “family” normally spends Memorial Day at the lake together, so we kept up our tradition. Always a fun time with the crew.
My folks continue to hang in there through the COVID craziness. Their retirement community locked down pretty tight, but they were given a special dispensation to go to the lake for a long weekend with me and my sister. We tried to remember the last time we spent a weekend together, just the four of us, which we figured was probably sometime in the late 1980s. It was a great weekend reliving memories and spending time together at the Playhouse. Dad and I fixed the dock light together. Jody and I helped dad alter his Memoji so that it actually looked like him. We went for boat rides, spent the mornings on the deck and the afternoons on the dock. It was a great time of making memories.
As June continued we realized a years-long dream of getting the friends together for a Godfather night. The JPs and VLs came to VW Manor for a really amazing Italian dinner. Wendy made Chicken Parmesan (so good) and fresh-baked Italian bread (so, so good). Dinner was followed by a showing of the original Godfather. After the movie, we enjoyed Cannoli (yes, we left the gun) as we talked about the movie. It was awesome.
As for the rest of our crew: Tay, Clay, and Milo are still living in Edinburgh, Scotland (way too far away for Papa and Ya-Ya’s liking). A HUGE congratulations are in order for Clayton for finishing his doctorate from the University of Edinburgh while navigating life with a new and unexpected wee-one. Clay has been hired to participate in a three-year research project, and we’re really proud of him. Milo is two-and-a-half years old and is totally into dinosaurs and fire trucks. Taylor continues to work for storii.com and loves advancing the cause of care for Alzheimer’s and Dementia in our world. They recently got out of lockdown and celebrated Taylor’s 30th birthday with their favorite team of Iowa ex-pats in Scotland.
Meanwhile, Madison and Garrett purchased their first house in Columbia, South Carolina and they adopted our first-ever granddog, Bertha. Garrett continues in medical device sales and Madison continues to work in development for the Governor’s STEM high school in South Carolina.
So, that’s the skinny on February through June 2020. Cheers!
Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. 3 John 5-6
A few months ago our friend asked to use our house to throw a semi-surprise party for his wife. It was a blast. This past Saturday, Wendy and I were blessed to host members of her family from out of town for lunch. Tonight we have friends staying with us for the night in our home. This Friday evening a small group of Wendy’s oldest and dearest friends are having a girls’ night at our house. Had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic, this weekend would have been our little town’s annual Tulip Time festival. Our house would typically have been filled with family for the weekend.
Hospitality is something that Wendy does extremely well, and something that we enjoy doing together. One of the motivating factors for building our house was the simple ability to provide hospitality for others. Relatives, friends, children, friends of children, and even friends of friends have stayed with us. The blessing is ours.
The realities of the Jesus movement in its first 300 years are typically lost on modern readers. The tens of thousands of Jesus’ followers met regularly in people’s homes scattered across the Roman Empire. Communication was poor making organization and oversight difficult, and sometimes impossible. That’s why much of what we refer to as the “Books” of the New Testament are actually letters that were written to be delivered, read, and sometimes copied and broadcast to all the other house churches of all the other believers. The letters would have to be carried, and the deliverer(s) (for safety is was common to send two) would need lodging and food. Inns were not great places in those days and typically doubled as brothels. It was imperative that the network of house churches double as the “LandBnB.org” of that day, offering safe lodging and hospitality for fellow believers.
Today’s chapter is another short letter that tradition ascribes to John. It is essentially a letter of recommendation for Demetrius to a house church leader named Gaius. The letter commends Gaius for his reputation as a Five-Star hospitality provider (compared to the One-Star rating John gave to another house church leader named Diotrephes). His letter provided Gaius with John’s Five-Star rating of Demetrius as a guest.
In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the gift and art of hospitality. Sure, AirBnB and others have turned many private residences into pseudo-inns for profit. That’s cool, but that’s not the kind of hospitality out of generosity that John was calling upon from Gaius. The “LandBnB.org” that John and early believers depended upon was a non-profit enterprise founded on generosity. Providing a warm and comfortable place that’s generously given with hospitable blessing truly is, I believe, a spiritual gift. And, as Wendy and I have discovered, the profit is joy.
One person pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth. Proverbs 13:7 (NIV)
Looks can be deceiving.
It’s one of those basic truths that I find myself conveniently forgetting time and time and time again. That perfect image being broadcast for everyone to see on Facebook and Instagram hides the inner shambles of life. The billionaire turns out to be bankrupt. A child buries his poor, elderly parents and is shocked to find out from the estate attorney that they’ve had millions all along.
The amazing little town where we live in Iowa was founded by Dutch settlers. We celebrate the Dutch heritage to the point that visitors from the Netherlands regularly comment that we are “more Dutch than the Dutch.” If you do business in our town your building (even the fast food places and national retail chains) has to have what we call a “Dutch front” with decorative flourishes that fit in with the town’s Hollander motif. In some of the old buildings downtown, the cute Dutch front you see from the street might easily hide a ramshackle, interior mess desperately in need of updating and renovation. It’s not unlike a set on a stage that looks amazing from the audience but actually hides bare lumber on a hollow, dark backstage.
Over the years, the concept of “Dutch front” has taken on a deeper metaphorical meaning for me. Religion regularly puts forth a false exterior of purity, piety, and self-righteousness for the world to see, while the interior life hides all sorts of dark desires, appetites, thoughts, and deeds. It is the same thing Jesus addressed with the religious leaders and teachers (part of a religious faction called the Pharisees):
“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.
“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.
Matthew 23:25-28 (MSG)
In the quiet this morning, I’m finding it hard to look at the spec of dust in the Pharisee’s eye and ignore the log in my own. The truth is that I can be just as guilty of wanting to be seen by others in the best light while keeping my flaws, faults, failures, and foibles conspicuously hidden.
As I walk the spiritual path of the season of Lent, one of the key practices to which I’m called is honest introspection. For non-believers or the non-religious, it’s basically the same thing as Step Four of the Twelve Steps: made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
And so, I find myself desiring this morning to be authentic in how I present myself to the world. I don’t want to hide behind a facade of piety (projecting false spiritual wealth to the world while I’m actually struggling because my spiritual reserve account is overdrawn), nor do I want to hide behind a facade of false humility (projecting to the world that I’m spiritually destitute while having a spiritual inheritance as a child of the Creator). To be honest, I’m not always sure where that balance is, but I know it starts with me being authentic in how I present myself whether it be in my work, my neighborhood, my relationships, my social media posts, these blog posts, or among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers.
The prayer that is welling up in my spirit this morning is actually a show tune. Here’s the YouTube for you. (Shout out to our friend Brystal for inspiring us with this. Your message that morning still resonates!)
These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. Ezra 2:62 (NIV)
The small community in which Wendy and I live was established in 1847 by a group of several hundred immigrants from the Netherlands. They followed their pastor to “the new world” to experience the freedom of religion that was found in America, along with the opportunities that the American frontier offered.
In our town’s Historical Villiage there is an entire wall that lists all of the original families who made the dangerous voyage. It was dangerous. Many died at sea or on the trek by foot across the still untamed American prairie.
There were relatively few families of any significant means among the original colonists, but for those that were there was a clear distinction between them and the poor and “common.” Today, I can look down the list. Most of the names I recognize. The families prospered and grew. They found the opportunities they were looking for. Most of them still have descendants living in the community.
I thought about that wall in the historical village as I read today’s chapter. I find that chapters like today’s are quickly dismissed and glossed over by most casual readers, but in context, they hold lessons to be learned.
In the Hebrew religion and culture, your family determined a lot about your life. They considered the land as “God’s” possession and they were merely tenants. When Moses led the people out of Egypt and they entered the “promised land” the land was divided by tribes. Religious offices were also determined by tribe and family. Only descendants of Aaron could be priests and only descendants of Levi could oversee the temple and official religious duties. Your family of origin determined much of life for the returning exiles.
A couple of things to note in the chapter. There is an entire list of men who are not numbered by family, but by their towns. They had no family distinction or genealogy to be listed among the families or tribes. They were “commoners” like many of the people who settled our community. Also, there were those who could not prove their claims as they had no family records. They were religiously excluded until a process could be set up to settle their claims. Then there’s the curious story of Barzillai who had married a daughter of Barzillai and took his wife’s family name rather than his wife becoming part of her husband’s tribe; A very uncommon situation in those days.
This morning I’m thinking about family, about history, and about the opportunities that I enjoy on this life journey that did not exist for most people in all of human history. My great-grandfather came alone to a new world. He was a young, poor, uneducated commoner with some carpentry skills. He started a hardware store and a family. How much do I owe to his daring to cross the ocean and half a continent to make a new life for himself and his descendants? How much do I owe to a country where one is not bound by a family name or trade, but free to pursue any path you desire?
One of the offerings that the ancient Hebrews would bring to the Temple that they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild, was a “Thanksgiving Offering.” This morning in the quiet of my hotel room I find my spirit offering a word, a song, a heart of gratitude to God for the incredible blessings afforded me that I daily take for granted.
This past weekend was Pella’s annual Tulip Time festival. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Wendy and I spent the weekend volunteering as did most everyone else we know. Our town was packed with thousands of tourists and visitors, and that always brings out all sorts of interesting people and groups. There were news crews from all over, a crew shooting a movie, a counterfeiter trying to pass fake twenties to various street vendors, and street preachers screaming hellfire and brimstone through their little powered speakers.
I was at a meeting last night with several of my fellow Jesus followers from here in town. I found it interesting that no mention was made of the news crews, the movie crew shooting in the crowd, or the man arrested for counterfeiting. It was the street preachers that inspired conversation.
As I listened to people share, I found that others experienced the same frustration I did as I passed by and heard the street preacher’s rhetoric. They were preaching condemnation and judgement. It was all fear and accusation. Someone from my group shared that they had attempted to engage the preacher and ask about his approach. “Everyone knows about Jesus’ love,” he was reported to have replied. “What they don’t know is the fear of judgement.”
Along my life journey I have found just the opposite to be true. While there are exceptions to every general rule, I’ve observed that most people judge and condemn themselves, or else they have acutely experienced the judgement and condemnation of others. Often, they are judged and condemned by individuals who are supposed to love them the most, such as a parent, a sibling, or a close relative.
I’ve also observed that most people don’t know really know and experience Jesus’ love in its gracious, unconditional form. I believe a large number of Jesus’ followers walk the way of religious, transactional merit. Good behavior is rewarded with blessing and bad behavior exacts a curse, and they’re just hoping the scales tip the right way in the end.
Last night’s conversation ended with a story from a friend who shared that they had heard personally of a suicidal adult who was quite literally at the point of deciding one day that instead of ending it all they would visit Tulip Time. That day a sweet, smiling young child in a dutch costume walked up and gave them a tulip. That simple act of kindness set this person on the path of life change (i.e. repentance) which led to the way of love, redemption, and restoration.
As I read this morning’s chapter it struck me that Paul did not say we should walk this life journey on the way of holiness, the way of purity, the way of religion, the way of judgment, the way of condemnation, or the way of fear. To be sure, things like holiness, purity, and obedience are good things asked of all Jesus’ followers. However, Paul reminded the believers in Corinth that it is the activating ingredient of love that makes any of those things worthwhile. Without the activating ingredient of love, those things become spiritually worthless.
I’m also reminded this morning of another thing Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, that it is “kindness that leads to repentance.” The hellfire and brimstone street preachers must have missed that part.
I’m glad to know that a little child in a Dutch costume got it right.
Note to subscribers: I had a technical glitch publishing this post this morning with some nasty HTML coding issues. My apologies. I trashed the original post and am reposting, so you may have gotten two emails. Sorry. Maybe it’s the cold 😉
I write this post from the depths of winter in Iowa. It’s -13 as I tap out these words, which is a bit warmer than it was yesterday. This morning I woke up to find our hot water heater isn’t working. Lovely.
Just a week or so ago I was sitting in O’Hare airport in Chicago chatting with a wonderfully gregarious transplant from New Zealand. He was complaining about the weather extremes he’s learned to live with here in the midwest of North America. It reminded me of an observation Garrison Keillor once made: Living in the midwest is like spending your summers in Death Valley and your winters in the Arctic. Indeed. Here’s the headline from the Des Moines Register on Tuesday:
Along the journey we face all kinds of different challenges. While it’s human to grumble and complain, I often find it personally necessary to make myself put things in context. This morning’s chapter provided it for me.
In writing to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul references “all our troubles.” Later in the letter he provides specifics. Let me jump ahead for the sake of today’s thought. Paul writes:
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.Five times I received the forty lashes minus one.(Note: 39 lashes with a scourge was the ancient prescription to bring the punished to the point of death without letting them actually slip into the comfort of death). Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones (Note: Paul’s would be executioners actually believed they had successfully stoned him to death. His body was carried and dumped outside the city of Lystra and left for dead.), three times I was shipwrecked (Note: He doesn’t mention the venomous snake bite that should have killed him.), I spent a night and a day in the open sea,I have been constantly on the move (Note: Scholars say that Paul logged some 10,000 miles during his journeys. That’s roughly 21,120,000 steps without a FitBit) . I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
As I said: Context can be a good antidote for self-centered misery. It’s cold this morning and my water heater is broken. I am, however, in a warm house, with warm clothes, and a warm wife. The water heater guy will be by in a few hours to deal with the hot water problem. Boo-hoo for me.
What I found even more fascinating as I read Paul’s words today was that while he endured torture, stoning, shipwrecks, snakebites, imprisonment and the rest, he states that his “joy knows no bounds.”
Along this journey Wendy and I have learned a lot about joy (though I will freely confess that I know far less than Paul). Joy always jumps off the page at me, because it is one of those words that holds a lot of meaning for Wendy and me. We’ve learned from our journey together that joy is something deeper than a momentary feeling such as happiness which flits in and out with the ever shifting winds of circumstance. Joy comes from a deep spring. It’s not a surface, run-off emotion. You have to drill through bedrock of suffering to experience the flow of joy. It is a spiritual by-product of the three things that remain when all else is stripped away: faith, hope, and love.
In the quiet (and a blessedly warm home office) I am thankful this morning for the flow of joy that Wendy and I have come to experience, independent of whatever momentary personal circumstances we may be experiencing.
By the way, temperatures here in picturesque Pella, Iowa are forecast to be 57 degrees (above zero) on Sunday.