Tag Archives: Spiritual

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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Change, Action, and Reaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arriving

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
Acts 10:34-35 (NIV)

Wendy and I have been enjoying photos and videos that Taylor has been sending us this weekend from Stockholm, Sweden. She, Clayton, and Milo are visiting the Scandinavian city with their friends and, according to the visual evidence, having a marvelous time.

I’ve been thinking this morning about the experience of travel. When going to a new place, one can learn many things about the destination. You can learn about where you will be, you can be told about it, but until you actually get there, you don’t really experience it for yourself.

In today’s chapter, Peter is called by God to visit the home of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. The resurrected Jesus had told Peter and the rest of His followers that they were to share Jesus’ story and their first-hand accounts of their experiences with Him to “the ends of the earth.” Nevertheless, the followers of Jesus had remained a Jewish sect. While there may have been some Gentile (that is, non-Jewish) converts, the twelve had continued to be headquartered in Jerusalem and they still centered their activity around the Temple and the Jewish community.

Now God calls Peter to visit the home of a Gentile, which was against Jewish custom and law. To enter the home of a Gentile was to make oneself spiritually unclean. It was a strictly taboo in the Jewish religion and culture of the day. Not only was Cornelius a non-Jew, he was also a Roman Centurion, which added an entire layer of political and social stigma on top of the religious prohibitions. The Romans were military occupiers of Judea. They were hated and they were detested by the Jewish people.

Now God is once again blowing-up human division and Jewish tradition by sending Peter to visit the unclean home of what a good Jewish man would have considered a “vile and detestable” Roman officer. Cornelius and his entire household believe Peter’s stories about Jesus, and Holy Spirit pours into them. Peter says, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

Peter had witnessed Jesus breaking social barriers. Jesus made friends with a Samaritan woman and healed a Centurion’s child. Peter had been told by Jesus that they were to take the good news of Jesus to the “ends of the Earth.” I’m sure that the earlier believers had already been talking, even debating among themselves, whether they should accept non-Jewish converts and how that was going to work. God had been leading Peter and the other believers towards this reality in their journey. At Cornelius’ house, Peter finally arrived and knew for himself where Jesus had been leading them. It was waypoint in Peter’s journey that would change the course of the Jesus movement and human history.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about our lunchtime conversation yesterday with a friend. She shared about a major spiritual break though that she’d been moving towards for four years. It finally arrived this past week and we all shed tears hearing about her experience. It was not unlike Peter’s experience. She’d been moving toward this spiritual reality for years, but didn’t really experience it until she arrived at that waypoint.

This is a spiritual journey. We don’t experience things once and for all. We experience things progressively as we continue to press on in faith asking, seeking, knocking. In my experience it can be frustrating, but it also exciting to look ahead and wonder what God has in store there on the horizon.

Have a great week everyone. Time to press on.

 

Human Endeavor vs. Divine Direction

“Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
Acts 5:38-39 (NIV)

When I was younger I had all sorts of ideas of things that I could do for God. I was part of a number of groups and fledgling movements and ministries that I, and/or others, were convinced were going to be “big.” Looking back, I confess that I regularly confused what I was going to do for God with what God wanted me to be doing. I’m pretty sure that my motivations were often the same as Peter and the boys when they were selfishly vying for positions of power and prestige in Jesus’ earthly administration.

What a contrast in today’s chapter to see the change in Peter and John now that they find themselves immersed in what God intended, as opposed to what they were envisioning they would do for God just a few chapters back.

I have always loved the simple wisdom presented to the Jewish leaders by Gamaliel (who, btw, was the Apostle Paul’s teacher and mentor). If what is happening is a human endeavor motivated by human desires under human power, then it will fade and fall apart. If, on the other hand, it is something divinely directed by God and part of what God is doing, then no one can stop it.

I long ago gave up my efforts at spiritual prognostication and looking for ways to predict and be in on the “big” thing that God’s going to do. I find that God is constantly doing a lot of really awesome and powerful things through a lot of amazing, faithful people. That’s cool, but it doesn’t mean it’s what God is divinely directing me to do. I discovered long ago that it is easy for me to become enamored by the desire to be part of the next “big” thing God is doing and ignore the “little” menial acts of daily spiritual discipline that make up the core work of being a follower of Jesus. If I focus on the latter, then the former takes on a completely different perspective.

I sometimes hear prophetic words given that God is going to do this or that. I think it’s awesome and I believe that nothing can stop God from doing what God is going to do. I’ve simply come to the place in my journey where my core desire is to be discerning between human endeavor and divine direction.

I simply be where God wants me to be, doing what God wants me to be doing. The rest will take care of itself.

Exercise and Add

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 1:5-8 (NIV)

I was standing in the bathroom yesterday getting ready and Wendy came up behind me. She reached down and slid her hand across the side of my thigh. “Wow, look at that muscle!” she said. “That wasn’t like that a few months ago!

Nice. I’ll take it.

I mentioned in previous posts that I began going to Crossfit earlier this summer. Now, as the summer season comes to an end and schools are back in session, I’ve quietly been doing a little personal inventory of how I’m doing. I’m not exactly a spring chicken, so I admittedly took things pretty easy when I began the workouts in June. It took a few weeks before working out began to get a little easier. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve found myself slowly adding weight to some of the exercises. I’m getting stronger. I can feel it, and apparently Wendy can see it.

Today I began reading Peter’s second letter to first century followers of Jesus. He was writing to encourage veteran believers, people who’d been part of the movement for sometime. It struck me as I read that passage pasted at the top of this post that Peter’s encouragement reads like a spiritual Crossfit “WOD” (Workout Of the Day):

  1. Warm-up with stretching your faith.
  2. Now that you’re warmed up, add goodness by reaching out with some random acts of kindness.
  3. Great, now we need to build up the brain to approach this thing holistically. We’re going to do a little study of God’s Message to increase knowledge.
  4. Keep going! We’re still not seeing the spiritual health gains that are possible. Time to curb those out-of-control appetites that are keeping me fat. We’re going to exercise our self-control.
  5. Excellent! I see you wearing down. Don’t give up! At this point you need perseverance. You’re stronger than you think you are! Keep going! You can do it!
  6. Alright, a little rest and then we’re going strengthen godliness by practicing good decision making form.
  7. Great workout. Now show a little mutual affection and give a high-five to your brothers and sisters sweating along side you.
  8. Now you’re stronger, smarter, more flexible, more healthy and ready to live out our ultimate goal: active love.

I’m reminded this morning that there are several allusions in God’s Message to the connection of spiritual workouts and physical workouts. If I watch my diet, workout daily, and maintain optimal health but my spirit remains anemic and weak, then I’m not truly healthy.

This morning I’m feeling good about the changes I’m seeing in my body (and having Wendy notice) from working out physically. Yet, here in the quiet I know that the same workout ethic should apply to my spiritual health. God cares about both my physical health and my spiritual health.

One without the other is incomplete.

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?

When Trouble Unexpectedly Blows In

In his time of trouble King Ahaz became even more unfaithful to the Lord.
2 Chronicles 28:22 (NIV)

Just a few weeks ago a tornado descended on the small community where Wendy and I live. That day there were some 27 tornadoes that ripped through Iowa. The tornado here in Pella hit a local manufacturing company, wreaking havoc on multiple plants and turning cars in the parking lot into a pile scrap metal. Since it happened in the middle of the workday, it seems to me a miracle that no one was killed. Only a handful of people were injured, and none seriously.

In the weeks that have followed, it’s been fascinating to watch the community mobilize. The business that took the brunt of the damage is already in the process of rebuilding. Churches and charities are working with those in need. In a time of unexpected trouble, I can see the strength and faith of our community and its people. We’ll be alright.

Along my journey I’ve observed that times of trouble and unexpected tragedy are windows into Spirit. When trouble and tragedy unexpectedly descend like a tornado and blow through our lives, our response reveals what kind of spiritual foundation lies beneath the surface of our lives. It makes known how deep our spiritual roots descend into Life’s soil.

In today’s chapter, the story of King Ahaz reads like a spiritual tragedy. Not only does Ahaz not follow God, but he seems willing to follow any god, any time, any where. He goes from god-to-god sacrificing and paying tribute. When trouble hits Ahaz reaches out to Assyria for help, only to be double-crossed. Ahaz dishonors some of the articles of Solomon’s temple to try to buy his way out of trouble. It doesn’t work. When defeated by Damascus, Ahaz worships their gods in hopes that it will help. It doesn’t.

Ahaz is so willing to believe anything that his troubles reveal that he believes nothing. He has no spiritual roots. He has no foundation. His life was one of constantly grasping for anything only to be left with nothing. He was such a tragic failure, that the people of Judah refuse to entomb Ahaz’s dead body with the other kings.

I’m reminded this morning of how James put it: “the one who doubts is like the wave of the sea, blown about and tossed by the wind.” I’m also reminded of how the Psalmist contrasted the righteous and the wicked in the lyric of Psalm 1. The righteous are described as strong trees with deep roots that continually produce good fruit and don’t wither in trouble. The wicked, however, are like dust blown helplessly in the wind.

On this life journey, I believe almost every one of us will experience trouble and tragedy unexpectedly descending into our lives like a tornado. In that moment, I find out what kind of spiritual roots I’ve developed. If my roots go deep then I will weather the storm, get back to work, and come through the experience even stronger. If I have no spiritual roots then I think I’m going to be more like Ahaz, blown about, grasping for something, anything to hold onto.

(Thanks to everyone who reached out to make sure Wendy and I were alright. We live on the opposite side of town from where the tornado struck and were not in harms way.)