Tag Archives: Small Town

Living in Community

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. Deuteronomy 15:7 (NRSV)

Last week our daughter, Taylor, and I were having lunch together. Taylor returned from Graduate school in Scotland this past summer and has been living with us as she applies for jobs around the country. We talked about our move to the small town of Pella from the suburbs over a decade ago and how that move changed our lives.

Growing up in the midwest there is a spirit of community that still exists, even in the cities. When you live in Pella, however, the idea of community is taken to a whole different level. Neighbors look out for one other. Neighbors lend freely and return favors. Almost everyone is involved in volunteering in the community in some way. It’s a wonderful town. “There’s no town quite like it,” I said to Taylor as we ate our lunch, and she agreed.

I was struck this morning by the number of times the word “community” was used in the chapter. The rules and commands were really geared toward the concepts of how to live together in community. The overarching principles that come out of the chapter is goodwill, generosity and forgiveness. As I read, I thought of numerous examples of how I’ve experienced these principle with my neighbors and examples of how I’ve attempted to live out the same.

Today, I’m thankful for community. No community is perfect. We live in a fallen world and even the Hebrews who received the commands through Moses would find that reality always falls short of God’s ideal in this fallen world. Nevertheless, there are places where you find the spirit of community more than others. I live in one of those places, and I’m very grateful.

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Featured photo: Dutch Dancers (all volunteers) entertain crowds and teach traditional Dutch dances on the streets of Pella Iowa during that annual “Tulip Time” festival.


When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent in the land….
Deuteronomy 4:25 (NRSV)

It has been fascinating for me to live in a small town. Growing up in the city, I never had much of a sense of community heritage and generational patterns, but you see these things more clearly in a small town. Families stick closer together. Lives are more intertwined. Businesses and farms are generational. Faith is part of the fabric of both family and community. Traditions bind generations.

I have also observed that there is a subtle sense of complacency that sets in across generations, especially as it relates to faith. Rather than being the personal, intimate relationship Jesus talked about and called us to it seems to me that, for some, faith slowly becomes just another communal tradition. Go through the motions. Keep up the tradition. It’s simply what we do; It’s what we have always done.

The older I get the more I realize that it takes effort not to experience complacency in our spiritual journey. Moses warned the people about it in today’s chapter as they prepared to enter the promised land.  Along the way the patterns become habits, habits become traditions, and traditions are mindlessly acted out as they have always been done for generations. But, there’s no real investment of heart or mind in it. It’s Life-less. And then, bad things can happen.

This week I’m taking up the task of thinking about the things I continually do from work to faith to recreation and relationships. I want to be aware of areas in which complacency is setting in and try to understand how it affects me and those around me. Perhaps there are some changes I need to make to consciously re-engage my heart and mind.

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Hangin’ with the Homeys

“But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: ‘The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.’”
Ezra 9:10-12 (NIV)

I grew up in a great neighborhood on the northwest side of Des Moines. The neighborhood was packed full of young families, not only on our block but on the surrounding streets. There were a lot of kids running around the area, but you tended to hang with your homeys on the street you lived. You’d stick close to the kids on your own block. They were the nearest to you, you knew them well, and more importantly your parents knew their parents.

On occasion, kids from another street would migrate over to play and hang out. I can remember the rare occasion when my mom would tell me that certain kids were “bad news” and she didn’t want me hanging out with them. In fact, I was to steer clear of that kid altogether. Looking back, I know exactly why mom gave me the order and it was a wise thing to do. Some of those kids were, in fact, bad news.

In the melting pot of modern America, reading a chapter like today’s regarding the strict commands the Hebrews had not to intermarry with neighboring peoples can feel strange and prejudiced. “Pureblood” wasn’t an idea J.K. Rowling dreamed up for the Harry Potter series. The truth of the matter is that history is full of examples of peoples and socio-economic groups desperately trying to remain homogeneous; Sometimes rabidly so.

Ancient Egyptian royalty, who believed themselves divine, would sometimes only marry their own immediate family members to keep the bloodline pure. European royalty, who would only marry their children to other royals, became so intertwined that to this day the royal families of Europe are all related to one another. Living in a small Iowa town settled by a handful of Dutch families, I experience the same thing at any community social event as people constantly play a game we call “Dutch Bingo” discovering how community members are related to one another (and, they usually are).

I found it interesting, however, that as I read today’s chapter Ezra pointed to the motivation God had for telling them not to intermarry. Just like my mother back in the ‘hood, Father God knew that some of these other tribes were bad news. In many cases, the area religions were glorified excuses for sexual indulgence and got into some really nasty stuff including child sacrifice. The command not to intermarry was not some elitist attempt to keep bloodlines pure but about cultural and spiritual self-protection.

This morning I am once again reminded that reading ancient sections of the Great Story is often difficult in light of the immense changes of culture and civilization over time. As an adult, my parents would never tell me who I can and can’t hang out with, but as a child they knew that hanging with the homeys from our block was a wise thing and that I needed help in discerning that some kids were bad news. So it is that I believe God’s relationship with humanity changes as civilization matures and as the relationship itself has changed between God and humanity through the person and work of Jesus.

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featured photo: adwriter via Flickr

Sweet Corn: An Iowa Feast

Speaking of traditions, our friends came down from Des Moines last night to join us for Fiddler on the Roof and see Suzanna performing in the chorus. After the matinee performance we all came back to the house for a traditional Iowa summer cookout. Burgers on the grill and freshly picked Iowa sweet corn.

For those of you not from Iowa, late July and early August are a very special time of year around here. The sweet corn is finally ripe and the landscape in every community is dotted with pick-up trucks in lawns and parking lots selling beds full of freshly picked corn on the cob. I have often said that a pint of Guinness tastes different and better in Ireland than it does anywhere else in the world. So I would tell you that sweet corn on the cob tastes different and is better in Iowa than anywhere else in the world. It’s nature’s candy and it comes on its own ready-made stick.

Between my sophomore and junior years in college I interned as youth pastor of the Community Church in Kamrar, Iowa (population 110, SAL-UTE!). I lived that summer with a sweet retired couple named Stoffer and Vianna Gelder. I will never forget the late July weekend when the sweet corn was finally ripe. Vianna cooked up several big pots of sweet corn and we feasted on sweet corn on the cob. That’s all we ate for two evenings straight. Cob after cob of juicy, sweet corn dripping with fresh, melted Iowa butter and salted to perfection.

If you’ve never had it like that, just swing by in late July or early August and let us know you’re coming. We’ll buy a dozen ears of peaches n’ cream sweet corn out of the pick-up truck just off the town square. It’s the honor system, by the way. Just take a dozen ears and put your money in the box. Then we’ll boil ’em up to perfection and have a feast.

My Life: A Photo Abecedarius


P is for Pella, Iowa my hometown for the past decade. It is an amazing, beautiful, quaint, community and I never planned nor imagined myself living here. I have come to fully appreciate all that is special and absolutely unique about it, even those things that drive you absolutely nuts.

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Ham Buns and Potato Salad Downloads

Photo Pete Zarria via Flickr

Sometimes you have no choice but to go home.

When Thomas Prins was 18 his hometown of Hebron, Iowa (population 318) was boiling in  a scandal that was never resolved. He packed his bags and left for college in New York City. He went to school, found unexpected success as a writer and never looked back.

Twelve years later, after his parents lose their lives in a tragic auto accident, Thomas has no choice but to return home. The town prepares for the funeral and the local residents are atwitter that “Tommy” is coming home. With his return, heat is turned up on the old scandal which has quietly simmered in the town’s collective conscience since his departure.

Ham Buns and Potato Salad is a play about going home. It’s about grief and hope. It’s about confronting our past and stepping into our future. It’s about small town quirks and human frailties. It’s about fear and love and grace and forgiveness.

I’ve received requests from those who’d like to read the script and so I’m making it available for download in a PDF format along with a low-tech MP3 recording of an informal table reading of the script (in the event you’d rather listen than read). In addition, this post will remain as a page on my blog. Simply click on the “Ham Buns and Potato Salad” link in the header of my blog’s homepage for quick access. Feel free to pass it along if you know of anyone who’d be interested.

The Skinny on the Play

Ham Buns and Potato Salad is a full-length play in two acts.
Ten Characters:
Five Adult Males (Ages 30-60)
Four Adult Females (Ages 30-60)
One adolescent female (Age 12)
All action takes place in one setting and can be performed with minimal set.

All copyrights and production rights for Ham Buns and Potato Salad are held by the author. The downloadable script and corresponding audio recording are intended for private individual perusal and/or listening. They may not be copied, produced, performed or broadcast without the expressed, written consent of the author.

Please direct any questions or requests to tomvanderwell@gmail.com.


Ham Buns and Potato Salad.pdf

Ham Buns & Potato Salad Reading.mp3 (1 hr 40 minutes; 45 Mb)

Please note that the MP3 audio recording is of a table reading of the second draft of the script. Changes to the script were made after this reading.  Be advised that the audio version will not match perfectly with the PDF (but it’s close!).

Chapter-a-Day Luke 7

St. Mary Magdalene in the House of Simon the P...
Image via Wikipedia

One of the Pharisees asked him over for a meal. He went to the Pharisee’s house and sat down at the dinner table. Just then a woman of the village, the town harlot, having learned that Jesus was a guest in the home of the Pharisee, came with a bottle of very expensive perfume…. Luke 7:36-37 (MSG)

Having lived in a few different towns of different sizes and I’ve discovered that there are community archetypes. Within any community I find the respected local politician, the business leader/power broker, the local pastor or priest who is the community religious leader, the high school star athlete who never quite got beyond his glory days, the person with special needs for whom the entire community looks out, and etc.

Years ago I had the opportunity to walk through the ruins of some of the villages along the northern shore of Galilee where Jesus carried out his ministry. They were small fishing villages not unlike the small farming towns in which I’ve lived. Through today’s chapter I get a sense of similar small town archetypes to the familiar ones I know: the Roman captain who represented the occupational civic authority, the town’s poor widow for whom life has been an on-going tragedy, the proud and pious religious leader, and the town whore.

I can’t think of a more dramatic small town scene. A regional celebrity comes for a visit. The entire town is buzzing with news and gossip. The local coffee shop is churning with stories about this Jesus and what they’d heard about him. Jesus is scheduled to go to the house of Simon for dinner. Of course he is. Simon is the town’s religious V.I.P. He is wealthy, he is powerful, and when it comes to spiritual matters in the town he calls the shots. Simon is the final word; God’s local judge, jury and executioner. Of course Jesus would go to Simon’s house.

Then she walks in. They all know about her. In fact, truth be told, some of the pious men in attendance at this private dinner party know her, in the Biblical sense, if you catch my drift. Publicly despised, privately used, and generally dismissed as dirt, she is known by all the town as a simple whore. Then, in a bold move guaranteed to turn heads, the sullied slut walks right into the religiously scrubbed crib of the local holy man. Imagine the snickers, the glares, the gossip ready to drip off the small town lips of the onlookers.

She carries expensive perfume purchased with lust money (we all knew where she got the money for that), and she falls at Jesus’ feet. Her river of tears pour across her cheeks and drip onto Jesus’ feet. They mix with the perfume she humbly, and gently spreads with her hands across his toes.

For each person in that moment, and for each archetype, Jesus is present. For each there is a lesson. For each there is a blessing. For each there is a crossroads and a transformational opportunity. That’s the way Jesus is. No matter who we are or where we find ourselves on life’s road, Jesus dramatically meets us right where we are, turns us away from where we’ve been, and points us where we need to go.

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