Tag Archives: Progress

At Some Point, One Must Return Home

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Ezra 1:5 (NIV)

When I was a young man I spent five years in pastoral ministry. Three of those years were spent in a very small town here in Iowa. During those years I officiated a lot of funerals. Not only were these funerals for members of my congregation, but the local Funeral Home Director also called me when there was a family who had no particular faith tradition or church home. As a result, I spent a generous amount of time with grieving families.

During these funerals, I began to observe families in all of their glorious dysfunctions. I noticed, in particular, that these sad occasions brought prodigal children home, and that in many cases the children had not been home for many years. This taught me a life lesson: “At some point, one has to return home.” (By the way, this became the inspiration for my play, Ham Buns and Potato Salad.)

For the past few months on this chapter-a-day journey, I’ve been going through books related to what’s known as the “exilic” period when the Hebrews were taken captive and lived in exile under the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Mede, and Persian empires. Today I begin walking through the two books (Ezra and Nehemiah) that tell the story of the exiles return to Jerusalem and their work to reconstruct Solomon’s Temple and the protective walls of the city.

For the exiled Hebrews, their return had been something they’d longed for. Right at the beginning of today’s chapter, it’s mentioned that they’d been clinging to the prophecy of Jeremiah that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (Jer 25:11-12). The time for return finally arrives. At some point, one has to return home.

Reading today’s chapter, it’s easy to assume that Cyrus felt some special affection toward the exiled Hebrews and their religion. However, the decree and subsequent provision of temple articles stolen by Nebuchadnezzar represented a shift in Empirical policy. Earlier empires had ruled with an iron hand, destroying native temples and demanding that captured peoples adopt the culture of the conquerors. Cyrus, however, realized that allowing captured peoples to return to their homes and rebuild their native temples and shrines was good policy. He did the same for other peoples, as well. The move created goodwill with the people of his empire. In the case of Judah, the move also provided him with allies and a friendly outpost between himself and the yet unconquered kingdom of Egypt.

This morning I find myself thinking about returning home. It can look so different for different individuals. It might be a joyous reunion for some. For others, it’s a necessary immersion back into messy family dysfunction. There are those for whom the return home is a long-awaited return from exile. In many cases, it’s an important and necessary step in addressing past wrongs, emotional injuries, and spiritual blocks so that one can progress in his or her life journey. In many cases, I’ve observed that one can’t move forward until he or she makes the trek and faces the past. I, myself, discovered it a necessary stretch of my own journey.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself whispering a quiet prayer for those who have yet to return, those who have returned, and those who find themselves amidst the struggle of returning home.

Continue

…always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned….
2 Timothy 3:7, 14a (NIV)

When I am studying a particular passage I will, on occasion, go back and read these chapter-a-day posts to see what I wrote about the different times I posted something about that chapter. Inevitably, I can hardly stand to read some of my earliest posts. I’ve progressed through the years in life, in spirit, in thought, and in my writing. Going back an reading an early post can be like looking at pictures of myself in Middle School. Ugh.

At the same time, I realize that this is the point. Immediate perfection was never the expectation, no matter what a parent, pastor, or teacher may have seemed to communicate. “Pressing on,” “pursuing,” and “continuing” are the types of words used again and again in God’s Message. By the end of Jesus’ three years on Earth, His closest and best followers were still blowing it on a regular basis and they still didn’t get all that He was trying to say or accomplish. Eventually, after pressing on and continuing to progress in their understanding of what they’d been taught, they would “turn the world upside down.”

In this morning’s chapter, there is an interesting contrast that Paul gives to Timothy. He first speaks critically of those who are “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” They are running in place, going through the motions, repeating the rituals, but there is never any progress, growth, or maturity. Later in the chapter, Paul urges Timothy to “continue in what you have learned.” Timothy, in contrast to his earlier example, had been growing and maturing and Paul urged him to never stop.

In the quiet this morning I am thinking about my teenage self, my young adult self, and the person I was when I started writing these posts thirteen years ago. I’m glad I’m not in those places of life’s road anymore. I’m grateful for where I’ve come in life, and I’m determined to keep going. As Paul once wrote, Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”

Continue on, my fellow sojourners.

Have a great day.

Progress

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing.
2 Thessalonians 1:3 (NIV)

When I began working out regularly this past June, one of my instructors asked me if I had any specific goals in  mind. Without hesitation I answered, “To keep showing up!”

I’ve continued to show up for five months now, and in the past few weeks I’ve received a handful of unsolicited comments from people saying they’ve noticed a difference in me. It’s always nice to hear an unexpected “attaboy,” and it gives a little extra psychological push to keep going.

Today we’re starting Paul’s second letter to the followers of Jesus in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Just a couple of days ago as we made our way through his first letter to the Thessalonians believers, I called out verses in which Paul “urged” them to “more and more” live in a way pleasing to God and to love each other. I couldn’t help but notice that he starts his second letter with an “attaboy.” He calls out and recognizes the very things he urged them to do, saying their faith and their love for each other was “increasing” and “growing more and more.”

Visible, tangible progress.

Some mornings I spend time in the quiet meditating and pondering for some time what the Spirit has to say to me through the morning’s chapter. This morning the Spirit confronted me directly with this question: “Is my spiritual progress as evident as my physical progress?”

Certainly there is an ebb and flow to progress in this journey. Progress is always more evident in the early stages of a journey. The further I progress, the big, self-evident improvements give way to small tweaks in maturity. The small tweaks make a huge difference though they are not as evident to others as the early gains. And, along this journey I’ve discovered that progress does not happen at the same rate. I hit “set points” along the way in which I don’t feel as if I’m making any progress at all. I have to press on and persevere in order to experience the next breakthrough and realize further growth.

Nevertheless, the Spirit’s question is a worthwhile one. Late in his own life journey, Paul writes to his protegé, Timothy: “Exercise daily in God—no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever.” (1 Tim 4:8 MSG)

And so, this morning I’m taking a little inventory. Where am I physically? Where am I spiritually? Where am I mentally, emotionally, and relationally? Am I making progress? Am I slogging through a set-point? Am I resting in anticipation for the next push? Am I regressing?

All good questions for me to mull over as I head to work out this morning.

Thanks for “showing up” this morning, my friend. Have a great day.

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Note to my regular readers:
Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers is  spending most of an entire year (Sep ’18 through Jul ’19) studying the book of Acts. In conjunction with this study, I’ve decided to blog our way through all of Paul’s letters in chronological order. The exact chronology is a matter of scholarly debate. We began with Paul’s letter to the believers in the Asia Minor region of Galatia, then proceeded to his first letter to the believers in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Today we’re moving on to his second letter to the followers of Jesus there. Many scholars think these two letters preceded his letter to the Galatians.
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Old Habits Die Hard

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses,you cannot be saved.”
Acts 15:1 (NIV)

Yesterday I was with a young manager my client has asked me to mentor. The manager described a particular conversation they’d had with a peer in another department. The conversation was about some procedural changes that would affect both of their respective teams. The manager described their opposing views and the conflict that arose as the procedural change was not going to be universally popular.

The manager described the conversation and the slow descent they felt themselves falling into as they dug their heels in and felt stubbornness consume them. In that moment there was no possibility of compromise. The manager recognized what had happened, even felt it happening in the moment, but had been unable to stop it. The manager then confessed that this was a deep-seeded, long-recognized pattern of behavior. And, it was not a positive one. They even recognized the source: “That’s my mother!” the manager said.

Along life’s journey it’s become clear to me that old habits die hard for every one of us. If we are to make progress on our journeys, whether personally, emotionally, relationally, and/or spiritually, it will require old habits to pass away and new patterns of thought and behavior to come.

I found today’s chapter in the book of Acts to be an inflection point. Through the first fourteen chapters the explosive and expansive growth of the Jesus Movement had everyone frantically trying to keep up. When systems experience that kind of explosive growth, the system quickly goes into survival mode, setting aside minor and/or complex matters just to address the giant issues that are staring everyone in the face. As equilibrium is found, the long suppressed issues begin to surface. That’s what I see happening in today’s chapter.

The Jesus Movement sprung from the Jewish tribe with its centuries old set of religious and behavioral customs. It was, perhaps, inevitable that some of the Jewish believers were going to want to retain and cling to their Jewish customs. Old habits die hard. In today’s chapter a few of these habitual believers from the Jewish tribe tell a bunch of believers who weren’t from the Jewish tribe that they would have to adopt all of their old habits and customs in order to be a true believer in Jesus. Primary among these old Jewish habits was the rule that all men would have to be circumcised. Yeah, I’m sure that went over like a lead balloon.

So we have conflict brewing between believers from the Jewish tribe and those from non-Jewish (described as “Gentile”) tribes. While Dr. Luke describes a fairly well-mannered meeting of the minds and peaceful solution, Paul’s description of events is different. Paul describes conflict between he and Peter. He describes conflict in the relationship between Peter, believers from the Jewish tribe, and believers from Gentile backgrounds (Read Galatians 2). In Paul’s description, Peter said that he was all for Gentiles not having to adhere to Jewish customs, but then he hypocritically acted with favoritism towards the Jewish believers. Old habits die hard.

Then at the end of the chapter we find Paul and Barnabas in a sharp dispute about whether to take John Mark on their next missionary journey. The argument ends in the two friends and colleagues splitting up. What I observe is that Paul’s behavior and words in these conflicts with Peter and Barnabas don’t reflect the new code of love that Paul himself describes in his letter to the Corinthian believers, but reflects more of the old proud, arrogant, temperamental and fiery Pharisee who persecuted the church. Yep, old habits die hard.

As I wrapped up the mentoring session with my young business protege yesterday we discussed that recognizing negative behaviors and feeling the negative results from them is the first step toward positive change. The manager described the subsequent meeting between managers, their heart-felt apology, and the constructive progress towards compromise that followed. Well done. Old things begin to pass away as new behaviors and habits are formed.

This is a journey and old habits die hard, but I’ve perpetually found that they will eventually change when I surrender myself to Holy Spirit, when I diligently pursue the person I was created to be, and when I make my mission to be a person marked and controlled by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, perseverance, and self-control.

Have a great day, my friend.

Carrying Out the Filth

[King Hezekiah] said to them, “Listen to me, Levites! Sanctify yourselves, and sanctify the house of the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and carry out the filth from the holy place.
2 Chronicles 29: 5 (NRSVCE)

One of my projects this summer has been to get my garage organized. I’ve only gotten so far, however, because there’s some stuff in the garage that has been cluttering up the space and until I get rid of that I can’t move forward. I can’t get things moved around and bring in some organizational pieces that will make the garage a more workable space. So, I’m really excited today that I’ve successfully sold some things and they’re going to be gone today.

Here’s the simple, but profound truth I’ve learn along this Life journey: There are times when you can’t move forward and get where you’re going until you get rid of the stuff that’s in the way.

In today’s chapter we’re introduced to King Hezekiah who takes over the throne from the tragically flawed King Ahaz who we met in yesterday’s post. I have to remember that these stories don’t exist as independent silos or time capsules. They are connected. Hezekiah is inheriting the kingdom of Judah from Ahaz in a state of chaos, defeat, upheaval, and disunity. The place is a shambles.

I also have to remember that Ahaz didn’t follow God and instead basically followed every god available to him. He had no regard for Solomon’s Temple or the God of his ancestors. He not only took the utensils used in worship of God and had them cut up and given to the King of Assyria, but Ahaz also allowed Solomon’s Temple to become a worship center for other gods. It had become a pantheistic free-for-all with regional gods who practiced things like child sacrifice, temple prostitution, and a whole host of nasty stuff.

That is the state of things that King Hezekiah inherits. So the Chronicler is quick to tell us that Hezekiah’s first move is to tell the Levites (the Levite tribe was specifically tasked by God to be the caretakers of the temple) to go into the Temple and “carry out the filth from the holy place.”

Hezekiah gets the principle. Before they could move forward spiritually as a nation, they had to get rid of the crud cluttering up the place that was supposed to be holy and dedicated to God.

For followers of Jesus, this story has another layer of meaning entirely. Jesus was a game changer, and He taught His followers that the Temple, the holy place, was no longer a building in Jerusalem but it was his followers themselves. The night before He was crucified He told His followers that He would send Holy Spirit to “be in you.”

Game changer.

The “holy place” where God’s Holy Spirit descended and hung out would no longer be a small room in one temple in Jerusalem. The “holy place” would become human beings. God’s Message repeatedly tells me that my body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit” who is in me and that I am “God’s temple.”

There are times when I, Tom Vander Well, temple of God, cannot move forward spiritually until I clean out the filth from the “holy place” of my very own body and soul.

Ugh.

Today, I declutter my garage so I can move forward with making it a better space.

What “filth” needs to be carried out of my soul so I can move forward spiritually?

Initiative and Patience

“Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”
Jeremiah 33:3 (NIV)

Along my spiritual journey I’ve come to understand that progression in the journey requires a heady mixture of what, on the surface of things, seems contradictory ingredients. God asks me to develop both initiative and patience.

Jesus made it clear to any who would follow Him:  Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Asking, seeking, and knocking are verbs. They are actions initiated by the one who is doing the asking, seeking, and knocking. I also find it fascinating that Jesus did not mention one, but three distinct verbs with slightly different metaphorical meanings. I have learned along my journey that I have to be proactive if I wish to make spiritual headway. God doesn’t give passing grades for simply showing up at class and warming a seat. If I want to move to the next spiritual grade level I have to fully participate in each lesson, assignment, experiment, exercise, and practicum. Initiative is required.

In today’s chapter, God speaks through the ancient prophet Jeremiah and foreshadows Jesus’ spiritual lesson. “Call out to me,” God says. Take the initiative. Pick up the phone. Give a shout. If I do, then an answer is promised. “Great and unsearchable things” of which I am ignorant.

In the rest of Jeremiah’s message God takes responsibility for the judgement on the nation of Judah, but then spends the rest of the chapter giving a vision of healing, restoration, redemption, and blessing. “Yes,” God says, “I am letting my children experience this hardship, but if they take the initiative to seek me out and have patience they will ultimately find that this has all been part of a much larger plan.”

This is where I find patience required. I started my spiritual journey following Jesus almost 40 years ago, and there are things I’m only beginning to learn and fathom as I approach the 40 year milestone (which is full of all sorts of spiritual significance in the Great Story). If I had bailed out early, there is so much I would have missed.

This morning I find myself thinking of the times as a parent that I earned my children’s wrath for doing what they could not, would not understand in the moment. They only saw the surface of things through the immature lens of their immediate desires. Meanwhile, as a father I was more interested in their long-term character and spiritual development than in making my child momentarily happy. Even as a parent trying to raise spiritually mature children I had to take the initiative to do what may have been unpopular in the moment and have the patience that my children would someday thank me for seeking what was best for them.

At this, the beginning of another work week, I find myself once again taking the initiative to ask, seek, and knock what God would have for me in the days ahead. And, I patiently press forward one step at a time.

…and a Time to Return

Set up road markers for yourself,
    make yourself signposts;
consider well the highway,
    the road by which you went.
Jeremiah 31:21 (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I had the privilege of watching as a play I wrote was produced a couple of different times on stage. Having spent most of my life journey in the state of Iowa, I’ve observed a repetitive theme of those who leave our rather quiet, fly-over homeland for more exciting places. Yet, eventually, most every one returns home. The reasons for return are as varied as the individuals who leave, but for most every one who leaves there comes a time to return.

There is a good story there,” I thought to myself. And so, I sat down to write a play and tell the story of a small town Iowa boy who is forced to come home. In his returning he must confront his past and the reasons he left in the first place.

Over the past few chapters in the anthology of Jeremiah’s messages, I’ve mulled over the way the themes of wilderness and exile play into life’s journey. There’s a corollary theme in the return from wilderness and exile. Just as the hero of every epic spends time in the wilderness, so that same hero must return to carry out the purposes for which he/she has been prepared.

In today’s chapter, the theme of Jeremiah’s prophetic letter to the exiles living in Babylon is all about their homecoming. “Drop breadcrumbs along the road to Babylon,” he tells them. “Mark the way because the time will come for your return home.”

Sometimes on this life journey I’ve observed that the return home is long awaited and desired, just as Jeremiah describes in today’s chapter. Other times, like the prodigal son, one’s homecoming is filled with remorse and repentance. Then there are those times when the return home is part of a larger story about the necessary confrontation required in order to progress yet further on life’s road. And, I suppose, there are times when coming home is a cocktail of all these.

As this morning dawns, the little town where Wendy and I live is preparing for our annual Tulip Time festival. As happens each year there will be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of individuals who will return home to participate in the festivities (we’ll have some of them staying in our house!). I’m thinking about their respective life journeys, the varied stories they represent, and all of the emotions (and perhaps confrontations) that these homecomings will entail. There is a time to leave home, and a time for those living in exile to return.

I’m whispering a prayer in the quiet this morning for each of them, and for God’s goodness and mercy in each of their respective stories.