Tag Archives: Process

The “Why Me?” Blues

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O Lord my God, if I have done this,
    if there is wrong in my hands…

Psalm 7:3 (NRSVCE)

David is on the run from his King, Saul. David is God’s anointed to ascend the throne, but Saul is still wearing the crown and he is hell-bent on killing David and keeping the throne to himself. To accomplish the task, Saul puts a price on David’s head. Bounty hunters are on the loose and they have David in their sites. The reward is not just the bounty, but the favor of the king and all that comes with it.

King Saul is from the Hebrew tribe of Benjamin, and in his tribe, there is a man named Cush who is after Saul’s favor and David’s demise. In those days, hunters often used a technique of digging a pit and arranging for your prey to fall into it. Cush is digging pits to trap David.

I tend to believe that David, after being anointed God’s choice for the throne by the prophet Samuel, probably thought the road to the throne would be a cakewalk. But Saul still has a tight grip on the crown and David finds himself wandering in the desert avoiding the pits that Cush has laid out for him like a modern-day minefield.

“Why me?”

That’s the refrain of David’s heart, and in that spirit he writes a song. Today’s psalm are the lyrics.

“Why me?”

I used to ask that question a lot as a child when things weren’t going my way. I confess, victim mentality comes naturally when you’re the youngest sibling (btw, David was the youngest of eight brothers). There are a lot of times in life, especially when I was young when my mind and heart assumed direct connections between my negative circumstances and divine wrath. If something bad happened in my world, then it must be God punishing me. If I couldn’t come up with any reason God would want to punish me for anything, then I would start singing the “Why me?” blues.

It’s helpful to put myself in David’s sandals as I read the lyrics of today’s psalm. David begins by reminding God of his faith in God’s protection and his acknowledgement that without it, he’s a dead man. David then pleads his innocence. David has done some soul searching and can’t come up with any reason why God would be ticked-off at him, so he sings “If I deserve it, then let Cush take me.”

Having established his innocence, David shifts from plea to prosecution, asking God to rain down justice on the wicked. He envisions Cush digging a bit to trap David only to fall into it himself with Shakespearean irony.

Having expressed his trust, lament, plea, and prosecution, David ends his song in gratitude and praise. He’s musically thought through his circumstances, poured out his heart of anxiety, fear, and uncertainly. He finds himself back in the refuge of God’s protection, trusting God to sustain him against the traps and attacks of his enemies.

Along my life journey, I matured from the childish notion that every negative thing that happens to me is some kind of divine retribution for my wrong-doing. At the same time, I’ve recognized that my mature adult brain can find itself reverting back to childish patterns of thought and behavior, especially when I’m reacting to unexpected tragedy or stress.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself realizing that I often have to do what David did in today’s psalm. I have to process my thoughts and emotions. I have to walk through them, get them out, express them on paper or in conversation with a trusted companion. Once they’re out in the open, in the light of day, I can usually see them with more context and clarity. Silly, childish, tragic, or toxic thoughts and emotions tend to thrive in the darkness of my soul. Bringing them into the light allows me to see them for what they really are. They lose their power and I am able to get my heart back in alignment, my head on straight.

The “Why me?” blues can be good for the soul.

Want to Read More?

Click on the image, or click here, to be taken to a simple, visual index of all the posts in this series from the book of Psalms.

There is also a list of recent chapter-a-day series indexed by book.

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

David’s “Seven Steps”

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When you are disturbed, do not sin;
    ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

Psalm 4:4 (NRSVCE)

Not long ago I happened to be talking to a friend who experienced the tragic death of a child. As we talked, I asked how he was doing in the process of grief. He honestly shared with me some of the havoc that grief had wreaked in everyday life. He then shared about conversations he’d had with others who were walking the same, difficult stretch of life’s road. One, he shared, had been drinking heavily. He then confessed that he had been over-indulging his appetite for sweets every night.

“We all have the same grief. We cope in different ways,” he said. “My friend medicates with one appetite. I medicate with another.”

Along this life journey, I’ve observed and experienced that it is a natural human reaction to want to self-medicate by indulging our appetites whenever we encounter a difficult stretch of the journey. It could be one of the “ugly” social taboos like alcohol, drugs, gambling, smoking, or sex. It could equally be an unhealthy indulgence in what’s considered a normal appetite, like that to which my friend confessed: over-eating, over-sleeping, over-spending, over-exercising, binging on screens, or isolation. I’ve even observed those who have become zealously over-religious in an attempt to feel some kind of control over out-of-control emotions, circumstances, and relationships. Twelve Step groups often teach members to be aware of negative feelings that often trigger appetite indulgences. They use the acronym S.A.L.T. (sad, angry, lonely, tired).

In today’s psalm, King David expresses his frustration with finding himself the object of public ridicule and scorn, especially among the socially elite power brokers in his world. He begins his song imploring God to listen to his prayer, he then lays out his troubles and frustration.

What happens next is a Hebrew word: Selah. Scholars believe that this was a musical notation calling on there to be a “rest” in the song.

David then reminds himself that God has called him to be faithful, and reminds himself that God has repeatedly answered his prayers.

Then comes the verse I pulled out and quoted at the top of the post:

When you are disturbed, do not sin;
    ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

It is followed with another Selah.

I couldn’t help but notice that the pattern of David’s lyric is a really great reminder of how to approach troubles, anxieties, fear, grief, sadness, anger, loneliness, or weariness. Not the Twelve Steps, but the Seven Steps:

  1. Take it to God.
  2. Get it out, express it, be honest about your feelings.
  3. Rest. Take a deep breath.
  4. Remind myself of God’s faithfulness and promises.
  5. Avoid my natural inclination to exit and indulge my favorite appetite as an escape hatch of the negative emotions.
  6. Be silent. Ponder. Feel.
  7. Rest. Breathe.

The final lyrics of the song are a testament to David discovering a “gladness” in his heart that is better than feasting and drinking. Certainly healthier than over-eating and over-drinking.

Just as with yesterday’s psalm, David ends up with a peaceful night’s sleep.

In the quiet this morning I find myself accepting the fact that, despite 54 years on the journey and almost 40 years of following Jesus, I still have very human struggles with responding to negative emotions and circumstances in healthy ways. What I have learned, however, is that I have to allow myself the grace to be human. I also have learned to surround myself with companions who love me unconditionally, are honest with me in my weakness, and never cease to encourage and support me in the process of growing.

It’s a journey, my friend. It’s about progress, not perfection.

Want to Read More?

Click on the image, or click here, to be taken to a simple, visual index of all the posts in this series from the book of Psalms.

There is also a list of recent chapter-a-day series indexed by book.

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

Spiritual Hearing and Sight Impairment

Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.
Exodus 6:9 (NRSVCE)

When Jesus was teaching, He would repetitiously tag his message by saying, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” This phrase has always resonated with me. Maybe more so because in the experience of delivering a message I have always experienced that some people really “hear” the message and others do not. Jesus was constantly acknowledging this truth. In explaining to His followers the reason He taught with parables He went so far as to embrace that this is part of a larger spiritual mystery revealed by the prophet, Isaiah:

That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast repeated all over again:
“Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing.
    Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears
    so they won’t have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut
    so they won’t have to look,
    so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face
    and let me heal them.
“But you have God-blessed eyes—eyes that see! And God-blessed ears—ears that hear!”

Matthew 13 :13-16 (MSG)

Not everyone wants to see it or hear it in this moment.

Not everyone is ready to see it or hear it in this moment.

In yesterday’s chapter, Moses’ first attempt at getting Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people go was a dismal failure. Not only did Pharaoh reject the appeal, but he made life even worse for the Hebrews whom Moses is trying to lead. In today’s chapter, Moses is prompted by God to have another go at it but his people would not listen “because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself meditating on those whom I observe to be suffering from spiritual hearing and sight impairment. In my experience, the institutional church and its regulatory minions have been too quick to diagnose such a person with a terminal spiritual condition. Judgment and condemnation quickly follow before shaking the dust off and returning to the cloister. I confess that, in my own spiritual journey, I have been guilty of this very attitude.

Mea culpa.

As I began to walk life’s journey along-side those who are struggling to spiritually see and hear, I found them to be a lot like the Hebrews in today’s chapter. There is something broken spiritually. Often it is something old and painful that is deep-seated. Typically it is of no fault of their own. It is the scars of circumstance. I have also observed that there is almost always a true desire to spiritually hear and see, but there is a process. Like the blind man whom Jesus healed, the first time Jesus rubbed the man’s eyes everything was blurry. It took another repetition before the man gained his full sight.

It’s going to take repetition for Moses’ people, too. They are broken. They’re struggling under the weight of their chains and the scars of their overseers. It’s going to take time, repetition, and perseverance before they can hear what God is saying and see what God is doing through Moses.

Along the way, I’ve learned that if someone is spiritually deaf and blind, it simply means I need to keep speaking in love, listening patiently, acting kindly, responding gently, serving faithfully, and controlling my reactions. I’m reminded that on the night before His crucifixion, Jesus was still complaining that His closest followers weren’t hearing Him or seeing what He was doing.

Some things take time.

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

A New Take on “The Proverbs 31 Woman”

A wife of noble character who can find?
    She is worth far more than rubies.

Proverbs 31:10 (NIV)

Those who are even occasional readers of my posts know that I often make reference to the Enneagram. We were first introduced the Nine Types by our daughter many years ago. As it’s grown in popularity, we have been asked to introduce it and discuss it with various groups. We are, by no means, experts. We have simply shared our personal experiences of understanding and how the Enneagram has helped our relationship as we have come to understand and appreciate one another in deeper ways.

Over the years we’ve had many, many conversations with individuals, couples, and groups about the Enneagram. Of course, one of the first questions that is asked is, “Do you know what type you are?” Wendy and I quickly began noticing a certain pattern among women who are card-carrying followers of Jesus living primarily in Christian community.

They almost all say they are Type Twos (a.k.a. “The Helper”). Here’s the summary description of Type Two from the Enneagram Institute:

Twos are empathetic, sincere, and warm-hearted. They are friendly, generous, and self-sacrificing, but can also be sentimental, flattering, and people-pleasing. They are well-meaning and driven to be close to others, but can slip into doing things for others in order to be needed. They typically have problems with possessiveness and with acknowledging their own needs. At their Best: unselfish and altruistic, they have unconditional love for others.

Enneagram Institute

The problem, of course, is that it’s not possible for 80-90% of Christian women to be Twos. Either only females who are Twos follow Jesus, or those who do follow Jesus are miraculously transformed into Twos by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As Wendy and I pondered and contemplated this phenomenon, we came to the realization that “Twos” sound eerily similar to the ideal wife and mother described in the epilogue of Proverbs; She is otherwise known as “The Proverbs 31 Woman.” I have come to believe that many women project themselves to be, or truly desire themselves to be, an idealized version that both the church and Christian community have relentlessly told them they should be.

In today’s chapter, the book of ancient wisdom ends with a rather eloquent description of a “wife of noble character.” She’s the picture-perfect supportive spouse who is an asset to her husband’s public image and career. She’s the super-charged industrial homemaker and the perfect mix of Joanna Gaines and Martha Stewart. Her clothes, decor, and children are all Pinterest-worthy. She’s tireless and shrewd. She’s the undisputed CEO of the home which always runs with efficiency, organization, productivity, timeliness, and keeps the household budget always in the black. She is intelligent, spiritual, and practically wise; a combination of Beth Moore and Jen Hatmaker. Her children think she’s the coolest mom in the world, and they all dutifully reflect her Proverbs-Thirty-One-ness in dress, appearance, and behavior. Her husband would never look twice at any of the “wayward” and “adulterous” women that Proverbs has been incessantly mentioning for thirty chapters, and this is because…well…while charm may be deceptive and beauty fleeting, “The Proverbs 31 Woman” actually has those, too! She’s the whole package.

Except, no woman is all these things. In my almost 40 year journey of being an adolescent-to-adult male and a follower of Jesus, I’ve never met a Proverbs 31 Woman. I’ve met women who seem to look like her. They project her image, but it’s never real. She’s just an air-brushed model on a magazine cover painted and lit to look like the ideals of maternal, marital, and spiritual virtue.

I’m probably going to get into trouble writing this, but let me share with you the observation of an old dude who’s spent his entire life surrounded by and in relationship with amazing girls and women.

Unintentionally, the book of Proverbs can easily do a disservice to the women in my life. The ancient sages Solomon, Agur, and Lemuel lived in a brutal, patriarchal society that developed out of a need for a strict social order (as I explored yesterday) to ensure survival. Women are presented in Proverbs in a binary fashion: bad (wayward, adulterous, contentious, quarrelsome) or ideal (The Proverbs 31 Woman). So, lady, what’s it going to be? You want to be good or bad? And, if you want to be good, then you have to be ideal.

I’ve observed along my journey that the women in my life often allow themselves to fall into these binary mental traps: fat or skinny, beautiful or ugly, sexy or lonely, smart or dumb, popular or not, trendy or so-not-with-it, and etc. So, what I’ve observed happening are perpetual cycles of pressure, hopelessness, despair, striving, depression, and never-ending comparison to others hoping “If I’m not ideal then at least I’m better than….”

So, I’m going to wade into dangerous territory this morning and I beg your grace and forgiveness upfront. If this old husband, father, grandfather, son, brother, employer, mentor, colleague, neighbor, and friend were to re-define what Proverbs calls a “woman of noble character” for all the amazing women in my life it would go something like this:

A Becoming Woman

If you find a becoming woman, you are blessed.

She is learning to embrace the individual, in mind, body (all of it), and spirit just as her loving Creator intentionally and uniquely knit her DNA together.

She has made an honest inventory of both her personal strengths and her intimate struggles; She is persevering in her efforts to build on the former while diminishing the latter.

She seeks roles and positions that make the most of her unique gifts and abilities, though they may not fit the dreams she once had, the norms of her community, or the expectations that others have placed on her.

She is learning how to accept God’s grace and forgiveness for all of the mistakes, faults, imperfections, and sins that she knows so well, even when others have not forgiven her; She is learning how to be gracious with herself, letting go of her own desires for perfection. She embraces the knowledge that she’ll still be learning all of these things when she reaches the end of this earthly journey.

She loves her husband and children genuinely, sometimes passionately, though often deficiently. She embraces the journey of becoming that is being a friend, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. She presses on, neither denying the many faults and mistakes of her past nor becoming complacent in the onward journey of becoming that is always leading her further up and further in.

She is doing her best for her family even though it feels like a thankless task most days. She is struggling constantly against the lie that she is a hopeless failure in her role and responsibilities. She is learning to let it go when all that she has already done is summarily ignored while the incessant demands for more keep building up, seemingly with every moment.

She is realizing that the Creator has lovingly made each of her children as unique as she, herself, is unique. She desires that each of them becomes the individual God has made them to be. She desires that each child discover the unique purposes God has for them, even as she’s learning in fits and starts to let go of her own personal desires and expectations which can feel so instinctual and can be so strong at times.

She is learning to care more about the emotional and spiritual needs of her child than she cares about how her child’s appearance, actions, achievements, failures, words, and/or behaviors might influence how others, especially other women, in the community perceive her and her mothering skills.

She is purposefully mindful of her own needs and is learning that taking care of herself in mind, body, and spirit is necessary to manage every other role and relationship in her life.

She is purposefully mindful of her husband’s needs. She is learning to meet the unique needs that fill his love tank (though it may not fill hers), speak his unique love language (though she may not be fluent), and to be gracious with his unique shortcomings as she needs him to be gracious with hers. She is learning to encourage his own unique gifts, strengths, and purposes even when she realizes that they aren’t what she once thought they were or what she wants them to be.

She has surrounded herself with other good women who know her faults and love her anyway and who speak truth into her even when she doesn’t want to hear it. They are present even when time and/or miles create physical separation. They pick her up when she is down. They cheer her on in her endeavors and celebrate her in her accomplishments. They struggle through and survive relational strife with one another, learn to forgive one another, and graciously walk life’s journey together all the days of their lives.

She is learning, persevering, seeking, letting go, embracing, pressing on, realizing, desiring, purposeful, struggling, endeavoring, loving, giving, caring, forgiving, and she is surrounded.

She is loveable, valuable, and capable.

She is becoming.

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!

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

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

Out with the Old, In with the New

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:22-24 (NIV)

A couple of weeks ago Wendy and I went through a process of going through ever article of clothing we own. All the closets were emptied along with the drawers, boxes, bins, and racks. We went through everything and then had discussions about keeping, selling, pitching, and giving. It took a few hours on two different Saturdays, but it was well worth the time. What was left was manageable and organized. Having taken a thoughtful inventory,  it became clear in the process where there are opportunities to update and improve.

In today’s chapter, Paul mentions a similar process of spiritual inventory and life change. As you break it down in the English translation, there are three distinct steps in the process:

  1. Put off your old self. What old habits am I hanging on to, even though they haven’t served me well? Why do I cling to behaviors that only cause me and my loved ones pain and problems? What immature appetites do I continue to indulge when nothing good or worthwhile comes of it?
  2. Be made new in the attitude of the mind. The word “repent” has gotten a bad rap in our culture, conjuring up images of fire-and-brimstone preachers spewing condemnation. It’s a good word, however, and Jesus was clear that following Him required decision and change. Paul tells me in that the process of old-to-new life change starts with my mind and attitude. Willingness, desire, and openness to change coupled with a conscious decision to act.
  3. Put on a new self. When I empty out the old, I find myself all of a sudden with room. If I don’t consciously make wise choices of what to do with the time and space, then I’m only going to find myself cluttering up with the same old junk. Then I’m back to where I began. Once I’ve cleaned up the old, I need to intentionally change how I fill up the Life-space.

I continue to be pleasantly surprised how much better I feel about something as simple and silly as my wardrobe and closet after working through what ended up being a very simple process. I’m reminded by today’s chapter that the same process works more meaningful and worthwhile things in life.

I write this on a Monday morning. The beginning of a new work week is a good morning to meditate on things that I need to “put off,” decisions that need to be made, and new things that I need to “put on” in life.

Poured Out, Changed, Improved

“Moab has been at rest from youth,
    like wine left on its dregs,
not poured from one jar to another—
    she has not gone into exile.
So she tastes as she did,
    and her aroma is unchanged.”
Jeremiah 48:11 (NIV)

Wendy and I enjoy wine with a good meal. We’re not experts by any stretch of the imagination, but I have learned some of the basics of pairing a wine with the food we’re eating and getting the most out of the wine we drink. Just last night I put a couple of beef filets on the grill and Wendy made some sweet potato medallions. We opened this big, bombastic Spanish red wine, a Cariñena. It was aptly named El Bombero, and its bold flavor was a wonderful compliment to the richness of the steaks.

One of the things I’ve learned about wine is that it changes after you uncork the bottle. In fact, some of the experts I’ve read believe that almost any wine will taste better if you “decant” it, or transfer it to a glass decanter, and let it breathe for an hour or so before you drink it. Wine often has an initial sharp taste from being shut up inside the bottle for a long period. That sharp or sour taste smooths out, and the true flavor of the wine opens up when it’s transferred to another vessel and oxygen has a chance to work its natural magic.

Today’s chapter of Jeremiah’s prophetic works is a message of condemnation for the ancient nation of Moab (located just east of the Dead Sea). Moab’s mountainous regions were known for their wine and vineyards, so Jeremiah leverages their wineries for the purposes of a word picture. The Moabites had not changed and had not been “poured out” into exile as other nations in the region had. But, Jeremiah’s prophetic word tells Moab she would be “decanted” when the Persian army came through.

As I pondered Jeremiah’s word picture this morning I meditated on my own life journey. One of the unexpected realities of my own journey is how much change I would experience as I reached this stage of life. When I was young I had this notion that a person sort of reaches maximum personal maturity somewhere in early adulthood and then just maintains. To be honest, I have observed fellow adults for whom this appears to be their reality. I had no idea how much, in my experience, the spiritual process of being poured out, matured, and changed is cyclical and perpetual.

Wine that stays corked, bottled up, and unchanged retains a sharp and bitter taste. I’ve observed that humans are much the same way. There is a benefit to wine being poured out, decanted, and allowed to patiently sit so that change can bring out the blessings of maturity and aging. So my spirit  benefits from a similar process as I continue on life’s road.

Death, Life, Surrender

 Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; they will escape with their lives.
Jeremiah 21:9 (NIV)

Along my life journey there have been a number of dreaded moments. Those days when the seeds of fear that have silently been cultivated in your heart and mind finally come to fruition. The unexpected phone call with tragic news of the death of a loved one. The final surrender to years of marital struggle. The company’s largest client who unexpectedly and completely walks away from a 25 year relationship, and with the departure nearly half of your income disappears. The ultrasound image of an empty womb.

In today’s chapter, the day of dread which Jeremiah has long prophesied finally comes to fruition. This is the predicted reality everyone around Jeremiah had mocked, ignored, laughed at, and denied. It finally happened. Nebuchadnezzar and the mighty Babylonian army have surrounded and laid siege to the city of Jerusalem.

Now the King of Judah and the priests of the Temple, representatives of the institutions who have long ignored Jeremiah, dismissed his warnings, threatened his life, and thrown him into the stocks, come begging the brooding prophet for help. It’s now obvious to them that Jeremiah’s hotline to God was real. Perhaps they can throw up a Hail Mary prayer through the prophet and escape the terror of a siege. After all, it worked for King Hezekiah decades earlier when the Assyrians came besieging.

Jeremiah’s response: “Not this time.” The city will be destroyed, all inside the city will suffer unspeakable horror, and likely be killed. There is only once chance a person had to keep his or her life: surrender.

This morning in the quiet of my hotel room as I ponder these things, I am struck by two thoughts;

First, God has woven the paradigm of death and life into the very fabric of creation. “If you want to really live,” Jesus said, “first you have to die.” When I really meditate on this simple teaching, I come to the conclusion that this notion is not some mystical, ethereal thought. At its core this is simple grounded reality of creation. “Ashes to ashes, Dust to dust.” Place the spiritual aside for a moment and think only of the physical and material. Our dead bodies don’t disappear. They are converted to a different kind of energy that, in turn, feed more life in the system. Death feeds life.

God’s language is metaphor, and in the very fabric of creation Jesus tell us that He has layered the material, physical ecosystem with a spiritual reality: life comes through death. Then He surrendered Himself to give us the ultimate word picture of that truth. If you want to experience resurrection, you have to take up the cross.

I’ve learned along my journey the wisdom of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes (props to the Byrds for giving it a tune). “There is a time and a season for everything. A time to be born, and a time to die.” Sometimes things need to die in order for new life to come. A lost client makes way for new ways of looking at business. The end of a relationship leads to a different chapter in life. The death of a loved one makes room in time, energy and resources to be invested in new loved ones joining the family. Yes, Jerusalem would be destroyed, Jeremiah says, but a new Jerusalem would eventually be built. In fact, God says this process will be repeated: Revelation ends with yet another new Jerusalem, and new heaven, and a new earth. Old things pass away, new things come.

The second thought I’m pondering this morning is that the lifeline Jeremiah gave to the people of Jerusalem was to surrender. And so I’ve come to believe along my journey that sometimes the harder I fight and deny death and endings the harder my journey becomes. Learning the process of surrendering to God’s natural order of death-to-life, old-to-new, passing-and-coming flow has led me to deeper, fuller, more vibrant, and more peaceful life experiences on the journey.

Finally, I have to mention that U2’s Bad (which is good!) flowed through my spirit as I pondered these things this morning:

If you twist and turn away
If you tear yourself in two again
If I could, yes I would
If I could, I would
Let it go
Surrender
Dislocate
If I could throw this lifeless lifeline to the wind
Leave this heart of clay
See you walk, walk away
Into the night
And through the rain
Into the half-light
And through the flame
If I could through myself
Set your spirit free, I’d lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
And to the day
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
To let it go
And so to fade away
To let it go
And so, fade away
Wide awake
I’m wide awake
Wide awake
I’m not sleeping
Oh, no, no, no

 

Broken Down and Built Up Again

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
Jeremiah 18:1-4 (NIV)

Life is a series of screw ups. Let’s face it. I like to project an image of having it all together. I’ve spent most of my life thinking that there’s some acceptable level of life perfection out there (that everyone else seemingly has) while I quietly haplessly flail my appendages behind a series  of nicely painted stage flats. I’ve come to the conclusion along the journey that the real illusion is thinking that any one is any different than me. God’s Message is perfectly clear (in several different places) on this count:

  • No temptation has seized you except what is common to all
  • There’s no one righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”
  • All have sinned and fall short.”
  • Whoever keeps the whole law and stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

I’ve always loved the word picture God gave Jeremiah in today’s chapter. He tells Jeremiah to throw on his sandals because he was going on field trip. They end up at the house of the local potter who was working at his wheel. If you’ve ever tried your hand at a potter’s wheel you know how tricky it is. It looks so deceptively easy, but one slight miscue and the whole pot falls apart in your hands and you’re starting again from scratch.

I had a friend one time who was walking with me through a terribly difficult stretch of my life journey. I went through a litany of all the things that had gone wrong in my life, the mistakes I’d made, the consequences I was facing, and the stresses that felt as if they were tearing me apart. My friend smiled at me warmly and quietly observed that my life was breaking down, being “deconstructed” so that God could remake it like a Potter reworking the marred mess of clay in His hands.

It’s a good thing to have wise companions walking alongside you on your journey.

I find myself so drawn to this notion of the “one-and-done” transformation, the miraculous touch leading to a perfect ending, or God suddenly drawing my number in the Life lottery and suddenly everything is as it should be.

I’ve come to observe that the truth is a lot earthier, more substantive and repetitive. The word picture of the Potter and the clay is not a “once in a lifetime” deal. Rather, I find that life is a constant process of being broken down and rebuilt. My job is to allow Living Water to make me more pliable in the Potter’s hand, to release myself to the steady flow of the wheel spinning, to allow myself to be molded at the Potter’s touch; To stop resisting, even when life breaks me down again and the process starts all over.

Have a good week, friends. Here’s to being pliable.

The Critical Discernment of Criticism

Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the Lord and spread it out before the Lord.
2 Kings 19:14 (NIV)

When we left the story yesterday, the commander of the invading Assyrian army was talking smack at the gates of Jerusalem. The intent was the same then as it is today with smack talking on the athletic field, the playground, corporate offices, or elsewhere. The goal is to get inside the other person’s head, create doubt, instill fear, and win the psychological battle.

Over the past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity of working with a wonderful group of people in my local gathering of Jesus followers. These individuals are actively working to develop their gifts and abilities at communicating God’s Message in front of a large group of people. I have enjoyed the privilege of helping mentor them in their development.

Every communicator who regularly stands in front of a group of listeners must at some point confront unwarranted criticism. I encounter the occasional denier who shuns all criticism. I had someone who once told me, “the root word of ‘criticism’ is ‘critical’ which is inherently negative.” I chose not to respond, knowing that I was speaking to a person whose heart and ears were closed to the fact that “critical” is also defined as “skillful judgment” and “decisive importance.” Most individuals understand that fair, knowledgable, and objective criticism is a crucial ingredient to improvement.

I’ve come to understand, however, that some unwarranted criticism you receive is a lot like smack talking. Smack talking critics can be identified by their intent, and that’s where discernment is required. Their criticism is not an honest and loving response intended to help the recipient (as much as they will claim that it is). Their criticism is an emotional gut reaction intended to defend something that has been stirred or threatened within themselves.

In this morning’s chapter, I found King Hezekiah’s response to the Assyrian threats fascinating. He immediately took the text of the threats to the temple, to the prophet Isaiah, and “spread it out before the Lord.” What a great word picture. Hezekiah didn’t eat the words and let them sicken his thoughts. He didn’t completely and foolishly dismiss the words and the threat. His actions were a measured and calculated response. He “spread them out” with a desire to get a good, objective look, wise counsel, and divine wisdom. What is true? What is not true? What is the intent of the message? What should I take from this? What should I ignore?

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the amazing story that plays out in the rest of the chapter. The “word of the Lord” through Isaiah was that God was going to deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrians. Over night the Assyrian army was miraculously decimated and forced to withdraw. This was a historical event about which speculation and theories still abound.

This morning I’m reminded of my need of criticism, and the equal need to learn discernment with the unsolicited feedback I receive from others. I need to recognize and dismiss the misguided smack talk of people unconsciously reacting out of their own stuff. I also need to seek out and embrace the wise, honest and helpful reflections from those who love me and desire my continued, healthy development. It’s not just a good thing, it’s critical to the process of my maturity.

Spiritual Self-Examination

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.
2 Corinthians 13:5a (NIV)

I have basically gone to the same family doctor since I was twelve years old and he pulled a big chunk of a splintered, wooden skateboard out of my left thigh. He’s treated my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, and me for almost 40 years. He’s what I call an “old world doc.” He’s a great diagnostician, he takes the time to listen, and he’s a straight shooter to the point of being uncomfortably blunt.

As I grew up, Doc taught me a lot about self-examination relative to my own health. He taught me that a man’s periodic self-examination  for testicular cancer was every bit as important as women doing a self-examination for breast cancer. As I developed a number of moles on my body he took the time to teach me what to be wary of with the regard to skin cancer and encouraged me to pay attention to moles and spots as they appeared over the years. Based on my family history, he would grill me on warning signs for different things that run in the family. He told me of symptoms I didn’t have to worry about and the things I should definitely be worried about if I noticed them.

We all know that self-examination is important to our physical health. We want to catch small problems before they become big ones. In today’s chapter Paul reminds the followers of Jesus in Corinth that spiritual self-examination is critical, as well. I believe it has eternal consequences. Step Four of the Twelve Steps is that we “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Along life’s journey I’ve attended a host of Twelve Step groups and meetings, and I noticed that it is quite common to stall out after Step Three.  Self examination was a foreign spiritual (or moral) concept to me at first. It was scary, awkward, and uncomfortable. Searching myself fearlessly and making a thorough moral inventory felt like a lot of work and I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit to or deal with what I might find.

A self-examination of my skin might reveal a fast growing, oddly shaped growth than could indicate a more serious issue with cancer. Testing it, I might not like the blunt news from Doc, but addressing it quickly and early might stave off a premature death. In the same way, I found that a searching and fearless self-examination of the soul leads me to honest conversation, wise counsel, and to addressing relational and behavioral issues that just might stave off both spiritual and relational death.

This morning I did a search for “Step Four Questions” in my favorite browser and I quickly found a host of different lists of questions for adolescents, adults, and Twelve Step groups of different varieties. There is no one magic list. It’s relatively easy for me to pull one up and dive right in.

This morning I’m remembering starting down the path of Step Four for the first time. It was scary, awkward, and uncomfortable when I embarked on the process of writing my answers to the host of questions that had been given to me. What I discovered what that those questions led me to healthy, life-giving places. I’ve never regretted learning the process of self-examination.