Tag Archives: Play

“Jesus People Very Nice”

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You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 23:9 (NIV)

My Vander Well family in America is here because of one ancestor, Walter Vander Well (born Wouter van der Wel) who came to the States from South Holland and settled in northwest Iowa in the 1880s. He was part of multiple waves of Dutch immigrants who settled across Michigan and Iowa, founding rural towns like the one Wendy and I call home today. Five generations later there’s a small army of Walter’s descendants spread across the continent from Michigan to Iowa, Canada, and all the way to the west coast.

Immigration is a fascinating thing. Wendy and I were privileged to see a play at London’s National Theatre back in 2009. It was called England People Very Nice by Richard Bean. The setting of the play is a poor tenement building in London and a neighborhood pub. It humorously chronicles the multiple waves of immigrants to flood into Britain over time from French, to Irish, to Jewish, and Bangladeshi. Each wave lands in the low-rent tenement building and raises the ire of the locals in the pub. The previous wave who was hated by the locals, now find themselves being the locals hating the next wave of immigrants. It continues to stir conversation for Wendy and me in light of the immigration issues of our day.

I have observed this same pattern in the experience of my Dutch ancestors who initially struggled to acclimate to life in America. The Dutch huddled together in small communities and clung to their Dutch neighbors, language, and way of life. This often fueled local resentment towards them. My grandparents were both the first generation born in the States and they both spoke Dutch fluently. They refused to teach my father and his brother because of prejudice against the Germanic sounding language during World War II. Our little town, both steeped in its Dutch heritage and proud of its successful American experience, is now sometimes criticized (a la England People Very Nice) of being closed to aliens moving in.

In today’s chapter, God continues to provide the ancient Hebrews with specific rules for life. God repeats the rule mentioned in yesterday’s chapter about treating foreigners living among them with deference. Fascinating that it’s mentioned twice in such proximity to one another in the text. It leads me to wonder if the repetition speaks to the importance God places on it, or the knowledge that it will a tough one to obey given human nature. I personally conclude that it’s a case of “both, and.”

As I mulled this over in the quiet this morning I couldn’t help but think, once again, beyond the letter of the law in the text, to the Spirit of the law to which Jesus pointed time and time again. Far from being obedient to the command, Jesus’ people separated themselves from the aliens living among them. They treated foreigners and those of mixed-race, like the Samaritan people, as inferior. They created systemic social and religious barriers much like the ones we are addressing in our own culture today.

When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, when He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, and when He commanded His followers to take His message to Samaria, He was addressing systemic racial prejudice. Jesus was pointing His own people back to the heart of God that motivated the law repeated twice in yesterday’s chapter and today’s. He was, essentially, pointing to His own law of love: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Isn’t that what God says in the text? “You’ve been an alien in a foreign land. You know what it’s like. You’ve been the victim of prejudice and hate. So treat the aliens living among you with loving-kindness the way you wished you’d been treated in Egypt.”

Jesus’ followers did just that and “turned the world upside-down.

I’m reminded this morning that Jesus was not about adherence to textual rules. Jesus was about following God’s Spirit to speak, act, and relate to others in accordance with God’s heart. As a follower of Jesus, I’m called to do just that in my own world and my own culture. That’s what I want to do. That’s who I want to be, increasingly, this day and each day of this earthly journey.

Of course, that requires me to act differently than human nature has led people to behave in ancient Judea, in London tenement houses, and in Dutch-settlements in America, along with almost every other people group on the earth. May I speak and behave in such a way, with anyone with whom I interact, regardless of what they look like or where they are from, that it would be said of me: “Jesus’ people very nice.”

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Change, Action, and Reaction

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Acts 11:1-3 (NIV)

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting Letters from Pella, a one-act play I wrote some years ago to an academic conference. The academic conference celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of H.P. Scholte, the founder of our town. Scholte, a secessionist pastor in the Netherlands, led hundreds of Dutch immigrants to carve out a new home on the Iowa prairie in 1847. Historians from both the Netherlands and the U.S. participated in the conference.

At the Scholte Conference with Dutch historians Leon van den Broeke, Ron van Houwelingen, Michiel van Diggelen, and George Harinck

Each year in our town’s annual Tulip Time festival we celebrate a polished narrative about our founders, but as I researched the actual events that transpired in those first years I found a very different story. Letters between the first immigrants and their families back in the Netherlands gave evidence of anger, conflict, discord, and disagreement. I sought to give voice to that story in my play.

Newton’s Third Law states that for every action there is an opposite reaction. Along my life journey I’ve observed that there are, at times, parallels between physical and human interactions. As both leader and participant in many human organizations I’ve observed that any action or initiative that introduces change to a human system will create a reaction from that system.

In today’s chapter, Peter returns to Jerusalem from his experience of being called by God to the home of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius and his entire household became believers. They had been filled with Holy Spirit and Peter realized that God was doing something “new” in this rapidly growing Jesus movement. The movement was expanding beyond the Jewish tribe to include non-Jewish “Gentiles” whom Jews found religiously unclean. There was a general attitude among the Jewish people of that day despising and looking down on anyone who wasn’t born Jewish.

In going to the home of a Roman Centurion and befriending Cornelius and his household, Peter had crossed a whole host of religious, social, and political lines that his tribe religiously held with systemic rigor.  Now he returns to Jerusalem and the Jewish believers hear what happened, they criticize Peter for what he’s done. Peter’s action has created a powerful reaction.

Peter provides his defense, explaining his vision, God’s call for him to go with the three visitors, and his experience in Cornelius’ household. According to Luke’s description, the believers in Jerusalem “had no further objections.” The Greek word translated “no further objections” is esuchasan which is defined as “quieting down,” “rest,” and “becoming silent.” In other words, no one pushed the issue with Peter, but my experience as a leader tells me there were those who kept their mouths shut publicly and began to whisper their questions and criticism of Peter behind his back. Radical change to deeply rooted human system doesn’t quickly result in “no further objections.” This Jew-Gentile conflict is not going to go away.

This morning I’ve been thinking about some of the “reactions” to systemic change that I’ve observed and experienced over the years. Some of them are instructive. Some of them are tragic. Some of them are downright comical. Yet this spiritual journey had taught me that spiritual growth always necessitates change. God is always calling me and challenging me to love more expansively, forgive more deeply, and to be more sacrificially generous. Those things don’t happen unless there is a willingness within my spirit to things changing, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.

H.P. Scholte certainly experienced his share of “reactions.” Twice the pastor was thrown out of the pulpit by his own congregation when they didn’t like the changes he had introduced into their social and religious system. They called him a scoundrel. Those are the things our town politely forgets to talk about. Yet, all of those radical, uncomfortable changes brought about a really bright future for our town.

Growth happens through change and struggle, while human systems tend to cling to a comfortable status quo. I see this paradigm wherever God is working in the Great Story. If I want to grow, I have to  prepare myself for the reactions I know will be coming my way.

“Return”

“For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.”
2 Chronicles 30:9b (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I wrote a play and the entire play was created out of one simple truth: At some point, you have to return home. From there I reached out and plucked a leaf off the tree of tales about a young boy who ran away from his true love and stayed away for many years. When tragedy strikes just over a decade later he has no choice but to return home, and with it he must face the thing he’s been running from for so long.

The theme of “returning” is a big one across the Great Story. There are so many stories in which people find themselves off in some kind of wilderness. Sometimes they place themselves there and sometimes they are there against their will, but somehow they eventually return in some fashion whether they are led, they are invited, they are forced by circumstance, or they simply choose to do so.

In today’s chapter we pick up the story of King Hezekiah who is trying to help his nation heal after years in which they’ve willfully wandered from the God of their ancestors and many find themselves in the wilderness of captivity. In yesterday’s chapter, Hezekiah had the Levites clean out the temple and prepare it to be used as it had been intended for the worship God. In today’s chapter he sends out a proclamation throughout the land, even to neighboring countries where people were living in exile and captivity. The proclamation simply asked people to do one thing:  return.  Hezekiah wanted all of the Hebrew people to come to Jerusalem for the biggest annual festival on the Hebrew calendar. The Passover feast celebrated God delivering their nation from slavery in Egypt.

Along my journey I’ve seen the theme of return play out in the lives of many people in many different ways. I’ve observed that we often abandon faith in God early in life. Sometimes it’s a willful choice out of disagreement with the faith institution of our childhood. Sometimes it’s prompted by pain or a tragic victimization of some kind. Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing to go our own way. So we wander, and often our spirits are stuck back in childhood. Then later in our life journey I observe people returning, not necessarily to an institution, but to God whom they find altogether different than those childhood memories of pain, anger, doubt, and frustration. Not because God has changed, but they have changed and with it their understanding and perceptions.

In today’s chapter the people of Judah returned for the Passover. Just as Joseph returned to his family. Just as David returned after years as mercenary in exile. Just as the remnant returned from Babylon in Nehemiah’s day. Just as the prodigal son returned in Jesus’ parable. Just as Peter returned after denying Jesus. Just as Jesus returned to the Father after His resurrection.

Just as….

No matter how far we may wander, no matter where we may roam, I’ve found that God’s Spirit is always whispering to our spirits:

“Return.”

 

The Junior Babcock of History

He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign; he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem.
2 Chronicles 27:8 (NRSVCE)

The very first role I had in a main stage production was my freshman year in high school. I played the role of Junior Babcock in the musical Mame. Remember that one? Didn’t think so. I still remember the day scripts were handed out. My script had one page in it which contained both of my monumental lines along with the last few words of the “cue line” or the line just before mine. That was it. I had no idea what the context of my lines or where it fit into the storyline of the musical.

I had a great experience in Mame. Along with my walk on, walk off part as Junior Babcock I got to sing and dance in the chorus. I learned the jazz square. I dressed in a tuxedo for the first time. I met a ton of new friends, including some Juniors and Seniors who actually treated me like a real person. I even got invited to cast parties. My unremarkable role was such a great experience that I decided that being involved in theatre was something I wanted to explore.

Today’s chapter is a short one. The Chronicler slips in one paragraph (only nine verses) summarizing the sixteen year reign of Judah’s King Jotham. Poor Jotham gets the Chroniclers thumb’s up rating for being a good king and following the ways of the Lord. Yet even with that Jotham only gets one paragraph, and two of the sentences in the paragraph are basically repeated word-for-word!

Jotham’s reign appears to have been unremarkable in the mind of the Chronicler. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, “and all the men and women merely players.” Jotham appears to have been cast as Junior Babcock.

This morning I find one of my life verses welling up in my spirit:

“…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

As I’ve shared in the past, I’m a Type Four on the Enneagram. Type Fours are all about having purpose and significance. It’s easy for types like me to equate purpose and significance with greatness, the spotlight, and starring roles. Yet along my life journey I’ve learned and have been continually reminded that there is both purpose and significance to bit parts and roles in the chorus. My unremarkable role as Junior Babcock had all sorts of purpose and significance for me and my journey. In fact, I’ve had a few “lead” roles which were not nearly as significant or purposeful.

Most all of us are part of the Chorus in this grand production of Life. Like Jotham we will play our unremarkable part and get a paragraph (maybe two) in the Obituary section of our town’s newspaper. Today’s chapter is a good reminder. I want to make sure I nail my couple of lines, hit my cues, support the production, build great relationships with other members of the Chorus, and play my part well.

“Places.”

Memorized Lines

So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Isaiah 41:10 (NIV)

When I became a follower of Jesus as a teenager, I soon found myself being spiritually mentored by a gentleman who was my boss in an after school job. Every Tuesday morning at 6:00 a.m. we would meet in his office. Very quickly he began to instill in me the discipline of memorizing verses and passages from God’s Message. The verse I’ve pasted at the to of this post was among the first that I committed to memory.

This morning as I woke and began to think about starting my day meditating on today’s chapter, I immediately associated Isaiah 41 with the verse I had memorized some 35 years ago. My soul smiled as I looked forward to journeying through the entire chapter once again.

As an amateur actor, I am used to memorizing words. I have memorized lines for many parts in many shows. In just the past few months, I had to refresh myself in memorizing that same lines for the same part I played 10 years ago. It’s amazing how few of them I actually remembered. I’m not sure having memorized them ten years ago was much of a help.

I find it fascinating that words from God’s Message memorized 35 years ago come so quickly to mind, while words memorized for a part 10 years ago were completely lost to me. I think there are reasons for this on a number of different levels, but I believe one of the key differences lies in fact that the lines of Eliot Herzog in The Christmas Post were committed to my brain for a finite period of time. I had to get through the handful of performances and then the lines had little value to me. Isaiah 41:10, however, was committed to both my mind and my heart. It became spiritually useful and beneficial to me whenever I traversed a particularly rough stretch of life’s journey.

This morning I am thinking of words that live inside my spirit, and words that I have buried in my mind. I am thankful for my old mentor and the discipline he instilled in me during those spiritually formative years. I am grateful for these words of Isaiah that have bubbled up to the surface once again as 2016 wanes and 2017 is about to begin. I am, once again, reminded not to be afraid of what the future holds, as I know Who holds me in the palm of His hand.

Prophets and Political Satire

“This is a lament and is to be used as a lament.”
Ezekiel 19:14c (NIV)

One of the popular theatre events in London these days is a play entitled King Charles III in which the playwright audaciously imagines the reign of Queen Elizabeth’s son. What makes the plays so controversial is that the characters are still alive and the events depicted haven’t happened yet. Queen Elizabeth is stubbornly alive and remains on the throne. Her son, Charles, is still waiting to ascend to the throne of England that he’s been preparing for his entire (and, at this point, long) life. The play created quite a stir when it first opened and more than a few people questioned its propriety.

In a similar fashion, today’s chapter would have created quite a stir when Ezekiel first performed it. The chapter begins and ends establishing the fact that it is a lament . In fact, the last line (pasted above) is an authors note to the reader/performer that it is lament and is only to be used as such. It is a poem, perhaps put to music and sung, meant as a funeral dirge. But, the metaphorical subjects of the lament were members of the royal house of Judah who were very much alive.

Ezekiel’s lament was both prophetic and politically satirical. It was an SNL skit of his day. It would have offended, poked, and prodded the political power brokers of his day. He was trying to make a point: your days are numbered and we will all be lamenting your eventual downfall.

Today, I’m thinking about the power of satire, which I believe has been a part of culture since the birth of culture. Even God was not afraid of using his prophets to satirically poke at His ancient people and their rulers. It’s one of the things that I love about theatre in all of its various forms. It has the ability to provoke thought, conversation, and change. It’s too bad the institutional church of our day is so uptight. We could use regular doses of satire.

An Epic Production; A Bit Part

2012 12 USP Joseph Backstage Grovel LR

All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.
Ezekiel 17:24 (NIV)

Ezekiel’s prophetic parable in today’s chapter is specifically related to the political circumstances of his day. Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem and carried off her royals, nobles and promising young talent back to Babylon. A royal family member, named Zedekiah, was set on the throne as a political puppet of the Babylonian king. But Zed had his own ideas and conspired with the Egyptians to deliver Jerusalem from Babylonian control. Today’s chapter is Ezekiel’s prophetic prediction of Zed’s failure and downfall.

Two things struck me this morning as I read the chapter this morning and considered the regional intrigue of Ezekiel’s day.

First, I am mindful of the Israeli Prime Minister’s controversial address to the U.S. Congress earlier this week and the reality that the political intrigue of that region of the world continues 2500 years later. The Israel of today has its capital in Jerusalem, the same capital city destroyed by the Babylonians in Ezekiel’s day. The Egyptians to whom Zedekiah pled for help remain a nation to this day. The ancient Babylonians are today’s Iraq. The Assyrian empire of Ezekiel’s day is today’s Iran. The names are slightly changed, but the peoples and the players are the same as are the regional power struggles and conflict. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Second, I was struck by God’s word through Ezekiel that there is a divine plan being worked out in all of this. God can bring down the powerful from their lofty heights and raise the lowly to positions of prominence. All the world’s a stage and there is a Great Story being played out amidst the proscenium of time. We are part of the same production.

All of this makes me and my silly little troubles feel small and insignificant. And yet, Jesus reminded us that there are no small parts. I may be a bit player and an extra in the chorus of this epic production, but the costume department considers me important enough that  every hair on my head is numbered and the Producer/Director knows my name. I have a part to play, as small as it may be and as insignificant as it may seem. It starts with loving my neighbors as I love myself, and acting accordingly.

The Power of a Play

Michael Buesking painting depicting the events of today's chapter. His artwork can be found at prophetasartist.com. Click the painting to be taken there.
Michael Buesking’s painting depicts the events of today’s chapter. He teaches painting at Evangel University in Springfield, MO. 

“They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear.”
Ezekiel 12:2b (NIV)

I received an inquiry yesterday from a community theatre who would like to do a group reading of a play I wrote, Ham Buns and Potato Salad. What excited me about the request is that it came from a town not far from where I live and in my reply I inquired about the possibility of sneaking into the reading anonymously to listen to the reading and to hear what the readers thought of it.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about watching a play I’ve written being produced is listening afterwards to what others saw and heard in it. I have been struck by the wide range of perceptions. Some people catch the jokes and enjoy the characters but clearly don’t get the things I was really trying to say about humanity, community, family and faith. Others really perceived the themes I wove into the fabric of the story and were touched deeply by them. 

God, the Author of Life, was having frustrations with His people in today’s chapter: “They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear.” God instructs Ezekiel to produce another performance art piece. This time, Zeke is to metaphorically act out being taken in exile. It is clear that God intended the play (that’s really what it was, Ezekiel was an actor playing out a scene) to communicate to people in ways that all the sermons delivered by the prophets had failed. The goal was to provoke thought and prompt questions as God asks his actor, “Son of man, did not the Israelites, that rebellious people, ask you, ‘What are you doing?’”

Today, I am reminded that a good story, well produced and performed, can be more powerfully moving and create more productive conversation than a Sunday sermon. Today’s chapter is evidence to me that our creator/artist God knows this to be true. It’s a tragedy that the institutional church, by and large, abandoned the arts centuries ago. I am excited that this Saturday night our local group of Jesus followers is having an “Original Works Night” which we do periodically for artists among us to have a venue to present their works. It’s a start. There is hope.

“The Play’s the Thing”

David Tennant as Hamlet
David Tennant as Hamlet

“Now, son of man, take a block of clay, put it in front of you and draw the city of Jerusalem on it. Then lay siege to it: Erect siege works against it, build a ramp up to it, set up camps against it and put battering rams around it. Then take an iron pan, place it as an iron wall between you and the city and turn your face toward it. It will be under siege, and you shall besiege it. This will be a sign to the people of Israel.”
Ezekiel 4:1-3 (NIV)

In the play Hamlet, the young prince of Denmark is faced with a dilemma. His father died and his mother was quickly married to his uncle, the brother of his father. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears, tells the prince he was murdered by his brother, and tasks Hamlet with revenge. Hamlet is haunted by the vision, the accusation, and his task. He must find a way to verify that the story his father’s ghost told was true.

The idea Hamlet comes up with is to have a visiting troupe of actors write and produce a play that tells the very story his father described: a king murdered by his brother in order that he might marry his brother’s wife. Hamlet knows that if his uncle is guilty of murdering his father, then the uncle will be convicted by the play and Hamlet will know for sure that what his father’s ghost said is true. “The play’s the thing,” Hamlet says, “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of a king.”

In today’s chapter it is God who is saying to Ezekiel, “The play’s the thing.” He commands Ezekiel to do very much what Hamlet did. Ezekiel is going to get out the ancient equivalent of his Legos and erector set and play out the siege of Jerusalem in a marathon performance art piece which will last for well over an entire year. Ezekiel’s public performance was intended to visualize for his people what they were in for if they didn’t turn their hearts around, and to convict them to repent.

In the class I’ve been teaching on Wednesday nights we’ve been exploring metaphor, how it is the foundational way in which God expresses Himself, and the powerful ways we use it to communicate. Today’s chapter serves as a powerful example. He didn’t tell Ezekiel to preach from the street corner. He told Ezekiel to act it out.

source: Michael Buesking (prophetasartist.com)
source: Michael Buesking (prophetasartist.com)

The Crossroad of God’s Silence

source: shibanov via Flickr
source: shibanov via Flickr

Then summon me and I will answer,
    or let me speak, and you reply to me.
Job 13:22 (NIV)

This past Saturday night Wendy and I went to see a production of Rabbit Hole at Central College here in town. The play is an intimate look at a married couple struggling with the accidental death of their young son. It is a wonderfully written script, though certainly not an easy one to act or a comfortable one to watch. It is a continuation of the questions with which Job and his friends are grappling.

After the show Wendy and I spent some time unpacking our thoughts and feelings about the play. To be honest, it stirred some of the same deep questions and emotions Wendy and I struggle with in our journey of infertility. Like Job, like Rabbit Hole, our own experiences are simply a different facet of the same stone.

In this morning’s chapter, Job alludes to one thing Wendy and I have found incredibly difficult in our own journey, and which we saw allusion to on stage the other night. When you are walking through senseless suffering, you want an explanation from God.

Please God, simply reply to my questions. Sit down and explain to me ‘why.’ If I’ve done something to deserve this, I want to know what it is. If there is a reason for me to suffer this, then by all means lay it out for me so I can process it and move on.”

But, God remains silent.

I have found this intersection of my questions and God’s silence to be a crossroad. It is a crossroad which beckons me to choose. I can choose out, raise my middle finger to heaven, and walk away from God. I can choose in and press forward being assured of what I hope for based on evidence I do not yet see. It is a crossroad at which most all of us will stand at some point in our life journey. Despite the throng of people who have stood there before, those standing on either side, and those waiting their turn behind us, we each stand at the crossroad oblivious of the crowd. When we stand at this crossroad, we feel utterly alone.

I have equally found that this crossroad is not a one-and-done affair. No matter what I choose in the moment today, I find myself standing there again another day. When I choose out at the crossroad yesterday, then God leads me back to it. I have discovered again and again that God is big on second chances. If I chose in yesterday, then I will go to a play tonight that leads me back to the crossroad mulling over the same questions, feeling the same silence, faced with the same choice once again.

Today, I’m praying for all who find ourselves standing at the crossroad hearing God’s deafening silence. Despite our feelings to the contrary, we are not alone. We’re standing here together.

I’m choosing in.
Again.

You’re welcome to join me.