Tag Archives: Questions

Moving Upstream

The simple believe anything,
    but the prudent give thought to their steps.
Proverbs 14:15 (NIV)

My friend, Matthew, likes to say that “everyone is having a conversation with life.” He describes it as an “inner conversation with your center as external circumstances beg for a response.”

Along my journey, I’ve come to believe that the quality and depth of that inner conversation is critical to my progress in Life, health, growth, and relationships. I’ve also observed along the way those who appear to choose not to engage in that conversation. Maybe they don’t know how to have that conversation. Maybe they really don’t want to have that conversation. The result, from my perspective, are lives that seem to run on uninterrupted cycles of appetite, impulse, reaction, and habit. Tragedy and/or life becoming unmanageable become the only way a conversation with Life might possibly get jump-started.

This morning I find my heart and mind still mulling over yesterday’s post and thoughts of introspection. I’ve always been a bit introspective, but I know many who aren’t and who don’t even know where to begin. Many years ago, when I worked with young people, I always tried to teach them both to be introspective and how to have conversations about those inner conversations. The lessons I learned I now apply in my relationships with clients, team members, friends, neighbors, and even strangers.

Typically, I would start with a simple ice-breaker type of question:

  • Good/Bad: Name one good thing and one bad thing from your week?
  • Where have you been? Where are you now? Where are you going?
  • What’s your biggest pet peeve?
  • If you had five other lives to live, what would you do/be?

Then, I would listen to the young person’s answer and begin what I call “moving upstream.” Moving upstream is really the process of introspection, but I find that one typically learns how to do it first by being led by a parent, friend, counselor, teacher, therapist, pastor, or mentor.

You know how the mouth of a river pouring into the ocean is usually really wide (and usually not very picturesque)? That is what a general answer to a general question is. That’s where introspection begins. Conversations with Life, for those who’ve never really had one, begin with a simple ice-breaker with yourself. But the really good stuff, the scenic views, the waterfalls, the natural springs, the crystal-clear mountain stream can only be reached by paddling upriver, then up a tributary, through a few locks and dams, then up another tributary, and another, and another. There will be a portage around a rapid or three, maybe some smaller dams, and then up yet another small stream. You keep moving upstream towards the Source.

Here’s how it sounded with one of the kids in my youth group as I tried to guide them upstream:

Me: “Name one bad thing from your week.”

Them: “Um, (young people always begin with “Um”) My bad thing this week was getting grounded by my parents.

Grounded? Okay, there’s a story there. Let’s move a little further upstream and find out what it is.

Me: “Ouch! How long are you grounded?”

Them: “Two weeks.”

I keep paddling. With each answer, I move a little farther upstream by taking what’s given to me and exploring further.

Me: “Two weeks!? That sucks! What on earth earned you two weeks?”

Them: (Head is down. Eyes stare at the floor. Shoulders shrug.)

We’ve reached our first dam. Sometimes the lock to a conversational dam is humor.

Me: “What did you do? MURDER SOMEBODY?

Them: (laughs) “No.”

Me: “ROB A BANK?!

Them: “No.”

Me: “Well, being late for curfew isn’t a two week offense. So it’s got to be somewhere between getting in late and murder.”

Silence. Silence is okay, even when it’s painful. Silence is a necessary part of introspection. As my friend Matthew says, “Let silence to the heavy lifting.”

More silence. Finally…

Them: (Mumbling after a sigh) “I got caught smoking weed.”

Hey! There’s a new tributary! Let’s move up that stream and see where it leads.

Hopefully, you get where I’m going. Keep asking questions. Look at the answer to those questions and let them lead you to the next question. The strings of questions and answers are the conversation with Life. The better I’ve become at having those inner conversations about my external circumstances, the further I get towards the Source and the more rewarding the journey has become.

In the quiet this morning, I’m whispering a prayer of thanks for the many friends, family members, teachers, professors, mentors, pastors, and therapists who helped guide me upstream at different stages of my journey. They taught me how to be introspective. Over the course of 50 plus years, my conversations with them taught me how to have a conversation with myself, with Life. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

Hope your own conversations with Life are leading you to good places, even when the portages, paddling, and dams are a pain.

Have a great day, my friend. Thank you for reading along with me on this journey.

<— 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

Time, Distance, and Perspective

[King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon] took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.
2 Chronicles 36:20-21 (NRSVCE)

Struggle, discouragement, loss, conflict, death, and divorce. Along my Life journey I’ve experienced both events and seasons I didn’t understand in the moment. I had no good answers to the “why” questions. From my vantage point on the road of life, the dark clouds surrounding me had no silver lining. Daily life became a slog through confusion, anxiety, grief, and even despair.

I know my experience is not the exception, but the rule. While the exact events and seasons may differ from person to person, I don’t know a single person who has not experienced at least a few “mountain top” moments in life, nor is there a person I know who hasn’t walked through what the Psalmist aptly describes as “the valley of the shadow of death.” Even Jesus in His earthly journey had His mountain top transfiguration contrasted with His guttural cry of despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In today’s chapter we finish the book of 2 Chronicles. It’s a Cliff Notes version of the final Kings of Judah who become puppets of both the Eyptian and Babylonian empires. The season of Judah as an independent kingdom is over.

What fascinated me as I read the Chronicler’s final chapter is how he left the story. It’s very different than the scribe who wrote a parallel history in the book of 2 Kings. The scribe of Kings was writing at the time of the Babylonian exile. The story simply comes to an end with the fall of the Kingdom to Babylon. He is writing in the dark cloud of defeat. He has no vantage point of time and distance. He has no answers to the “why” questions. He is struggling to make sense out of the circumstances.

The Chronicler, however, is writing post-exile. He’s is further down the road of life and history. Cyrus, King of Persia, has allowed the Hebrew exiles to return to Jerusalem and has made allowance for wall of Jerusalem and the Temple to be rebuilt. There is a new beginning. There is hope. The Chronicler looks back at the exile and sees prophetic fulfillment. He sees that the exile has allowed his homeland to experience sabbath in preparation for a new season, the planting of new seeds, and the anticipation of new life and possibility of a fruitful future.

This morning I’m thinking about the ebb and flow of our respective journeys and our stories. There will be mountain top moments. There will be deep valleys and despair. I won’t always have “why” answers in the moment. In fact, I come to accept that I may never have certain “why” answers that satisfy my heart this side of eternity. If I keep pressing on, however, I may be able to look back with much needed perspective. Like the Chronicler, I may see in retrospect that to which I was blind in the moment.

At the end of every valley is another rise, and that which lies beyond. I won’t see it until I get there.

Possibility. Anticipation. Hope.

Seed in the Chaff

“I will scatter you like chaff
    driven by the desert wind.
This is your lot,
    the portion I have decreed for you,”
Jeremiah 13:24-25a (NIV)

The community where Wendy and I live, and our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, is experiencing a season of acute grief. This past week a young man, the youngest son of our senior pastor and his wife, passed away unexpectedly. He should have been experiencing the prime of his life. It is unnerving when tragedy strikes like this. There are so many unanswerable questions.

In Sunday morning’s message the teacher gave us a word picture of a man who initiated a controlled burn of his lawn. The teacher watched as the fire spread across the grass turning the lawn into a field of scorched and blackened death. Confused, the teacher stopped and spoke to the man. “I don’t understand,” he said. “You’re killing your lawn.

Oh no,” said the man. “The seed’s already in the ground. Come back in a few months and you will see how lush and green it is with new life.”

I couldn’t help but think of that parable as I read Jeremiah’s prophetic poem this morning. He foresaw that God’s people would experience unspeakable tragedy. They would be conquered. Their city and their Temple would be destroyed. They would be “scattered like chaff driven by the desert wind.” This was their lot in life.

Why me? Why him? Why us? Why now?

So many unanswerable questions.

Then in the quiet this morning I pictured and watched the chaff driven and scattered by the wind. What Jeremiah did not see in his vision is that there is seed mixed in with the chaff. Jeremiah does not see Daniel raised to a position of unbelievable authority and honor within the Babylonian palace. Jeremiah does not see Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego standing with God in the flames of the fiery furnace without getting one hair of their head singed. Jeremiah does not see the repentance of Nebuchadnezzar, doesn’t read the handwriting on Beltshazzar’s wall, does not hear the beautiful lyrics of the psalmists’ lament from exile, and does not see the incredible ministry and visions the prophet Ezekiel will have in that land. Jeremiah does not see the return of the remnant under Nehemiah or the miraculous work of his people rebuilding the Temple and the walls of the city. The prophet’s does not foresee Jesus entering the walls of rebuilt Jerusalem, God’s Son sacrificed for sin once for all, and then resurrected to new and eternal Life.

We all experience tragedy along our our life journeys; We all will have times when we are shaken to the core of our souls. In such times our eyes become intensely focused on our lot in life and we ask unanswerable questions. In the moment, Jeremiah just sees himself, his people, and their lot in life; Their lot in life that cannot be changed any more than a leopard can change his spots. He stands and looks out and all he can see is dry chaff scattered on the scorching desert wind.

Look more closely.

There’s seed in that chaff.

The Sower is not finished with the Story.

 

The Slippery Sweet-Spot Between Acting and Waiting

Moses answered them, “Wait until I find out what the Lord commands concerning you.”
Numbers 9:8 (NIV)

There are many forks in life’s road. There’s no avoiding it. It just is what it is.

Where do I go to school?
Should I marry him/her?
Do I speak out or hold my tongue?
Should I take this job that’s been offered to me or hold out for the job I really want? 
Should we rent or should we buy?
Do I invest in new or get by with used?
Should we stay or should we go?

As we traverse the Book of Numbers there is a pattern or repetition that many readers don’t catch. The phrase “The Lord said to Moses” is used repeatedly. In fact, it’s used over 50 times. In today’s chapter, some of the people bring Moses a question about how to handle an exceptional circumstance regarding the Passover celebration. Moses simply says he’ll check with God and God provides a seemingly quick answer.

We then go on to read in today’s chapter that the decision of going or staying was miraculously provided for the ancient Hebrews. According to the story there was a cloud that hovered over their traveling tent temple which gave them indication whether God wanted them to move or stay put. When the cloud remained over the tent they stayed put. If the cloud lifted they broke camp and moved.

Wow, I’d love it if God’s guidance and direction were that easy for me to see. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that this may have been the only easy thing in the experience of the Hebrews. I’m quite sure I’d struggle living the life of an ancient nomad wandering in the desert with a couple million cousins.

I have discovered along life’s road that there is a slippery sweet-spot of tension between discernment and decision. We live in an age when time is measured in nanoseconds and we are used to getting things “on demand.” I perceive that the virtues of patience, peace and prayer are increasingly found in short supply in our culture. At the same time, I have known many followers of Jesus who take so long to “prayerfully consider” decisions that they make no progress in their respective  journeys.

This morning I find myself once again seeking to both find and hold the tension between acting and waiting. I don’t want to be so quick to make decisions that I forget to pray for guidance and to give wise consideration to options and potential consequences. At the same time, I don’t want to become paralyzed waiting for some divine sign when there is a clear need to act judiciously and with expedience.

“From a Distance”

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance….
Hebrews 11:13 (NIV)

Yesterday morning a woman came up to me amidst our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and shared with me some things that God has been teaching her of late. These things dove-tailed with some of the very insights God has been revealing to me in my contemplation.

I just wonder why it’s taken me 35 years to see these things,” I laughed, shaking my  head.

Because we didn’t need to see them until now,” she answered matter-of-factly. “They are for this time and place.”

I find it equally fascinating that I can read God’s Message over and over and over again, but there are certain things which leap off the page as if I’ve never seen them before. That’s what happened as I read this morning’s chapter, which is a very famous chapter about faith. The author of this letter to  early Hebrew followers of Jesus is a Hall of Fame walk through of the ancient heroes of faith. From Cain and Abel through Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho (I love that Rahab was included in the list), the writer shows how each of these ancients embraced faith.

What I had never seen clearly until this morning was that twice the author acknowledges that in many cases these heroes of faith did not receive what was promised during their earthly journey. First it’s mentioned (vs. 13) that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob believed that their tribes would become a great nation and have their own “promised land” to call home. The “promised land” was never established during their lifetimes. They lived in pursuit of a promise that they would not realize in their lifetimes.

At the very end of the chapter, the writer reiterates [emphasis added]:

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

I have learned in my own journey, particularly as Wendy and I have walked through the long valley of infertility, that there is a certain depth of faith that one only realizes when what is promised is not received (or not received as expected) in this lifetime. I have never understood why God answers the prayers of some and not others. I don’t know why some are healed and some are not. I don’t know why some get pregnant and we did not.

There are answers out there. My spirit sees them “from a distance” as the author of Hebrews wrote.

I have faith in that.

The Runaway Train of My Brain

we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
2 Corinthians 10:5b (NIV)

When I was in 8th grade I learned how to diagram sentences in English class and how great stories were structured. In high school I learned how to break down stories and characters into their component parts and how to construct a cohesive presentation. In college I learned how to critique, how to “beat” a script, and how to storyboard an idea. In my personal work with multiple counselors I’ve learned how to recognize my own patterns of thought and the conversations I’m always having with myself. I’m still a work in progress but I’ve been learning over my entire life journey how to meta-communicate. That is, to think not only about what is being communicated but how it’s being communicated.

I happen to be married to Wendy, who does the same thing. It makes marriage interesting.

Thus it was that when I came across the phrase above from today’s chapter what initially struck me was not the spiritual meaning of this phrase, but the fact that it is a recurring theme in conversation between Wendy and me. “Taking every thought captive” comes up regularly in our discussions as we process through patterns of thought and behavior. So, I’ve been thinking about that in the quiet this morning.

I’ve realized along my life journey that my thoughts are often a runaway train. My brains neurons, synapses and transmitters got wired a certain way like a set track and when particular situations or circumstances present themselves my thoughts mindlessly follow where that track leads. There’s no meta-communication. There’s no thought about my thoughts. I just follow the tracks and end up at the same stations of words, emotions, behaviors and situations.

When “taking every thought captive” comes up in conversation between Wendy and me, we are essentially referencing the process from the old Westerns of riding fast to grab control of the train engine and pull on the hand brake. We’re forcing ourselves to think about our thinking and then do something about it.

Wait a minute. I keep going to down this ‘train’ of thought and I never like where it leads me (or us). Why am I thinking this way? What situation/experience/circumstance/word triggered my brain engine to take off down this track? What assumptions have I made in thinking this way? What am I not considering? What am I afraid of? What do my thoughts, words, and actions reveal about what it is I really want or desire? What am I not seeing in my limited view of the situation? Is my perspective skewed, and, if so, by what?”

Forcing myself to consider and answer these questions put the brakes on the runaway train, take the mindless thoughts captive, and begin the process of choosing new paths of thought toward better places in life and relationship.

This morning I’m thankful for God-given brains that are naturally powerful at learning, adapting, and changing. I’m grateful for God who is infinitely gracious with this wayfarer’s life-long journey of chasing down runaway thoughts and laying down new tracks. I am equally grateful for the spiritual power that assists in the mental processing. I am reminded that Jesus great commandment includes loving God with all of my mind as well as my heart, soul, and strength.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a train to catch.

Content with What I Cannot Fathom

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
          declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)

When I was a young man I may not have thought I knew it all, but I was pretty certain I had a firm grasp on most of it. The further I get in my journey the more I am convinced that what I know, indeed what we know as human beings, is the visible and temporal tip of an eternal iceberg. I am increasingly captivated by the mystery of what I do not know, and what I can not fathom.

Embracing of mystery, or perhaps better said letting mystery embrace me, is not something I could really do when I was younger. I needed to feel the self assurance of having it all figured out, neatly ordered in my own intellectual box, and tied up with the ribbon of my institutional doctrines. And yet, if I am going to faithfully believe what God has said through His Message, then I must embrace the truth of Isaiah’s poetic verse in today’s chapter. God uses the inverse of my iceberg metaphor. God’s thoughts and God’s ways are light years above what I can see or seem. So, why would I want to even pretend otherwise?

I know what God has expressed through what has been made, which itself confounds the greatest of human minds in the ways with which it functions. I know what God has expressed through Jesus, which is rich in diverse metaphors and spiritual paradoxes that have kept better minds than mine debating since they were spoken. I know the Great Story as it has been told and handed down through the millennia. Chapter-by-chapter I continue my journey through it and find myself ever captivated by the depths of it that I continue to unearth. I have accepted that I will never stop finding new discoveries within it, and asking questions for which I do not know the answers. Still, it will speak to me anew each time I delve into it.

I remember hearing a respected teacher, Gordon McDonald, speak at a conference many years ago. He said he had something he wanted to share with us and then added [I paraphrase], “You may disagree with me. That’s okay. I’m too old to care whether everyone agrees with me or not.” As a young man who cared a great deal that everyone agree with my neatly packaged and wrapped box of knowledge, I was blown away by this statement. Today, I get where Gordon was coming from.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
          declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

More than ever, I’m good with that.