Tag Archives: Systemic

The Question That Makes All the Difference

All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord.
Exodus 35:29 (NRSVCE)

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When I studied acting back in high school and college I was trained to repeatedly ask the question “Why?”

“Why is my character saying this?”
“Why is my character doing this?”
“Why is my character so fond of that character?”
“Why is my character being such an ass in this scene?”

The most common and classic question that has often been parodied is, “What’s my motivation?”

Here’s what I learned in the process. The question is more important for me in life than it is as an actor on stage.

“Why do I repeatedly do the thing I say I don’t want to do?”
“Why am I staying in a job that I hate?”
“Why has my marriage been an interpersonal war for fifteen years?”
“Why do I go to church if I don’t even believe?”
“Why am I always buying stuff I don’t need just to fill my life with things I don’t use?”
“Why do I feel such rage all the time?”

Notice that all of those questions are reflective of negative feelings and behaviors, but the same question of motivation is important for the positive things we think, say, and do as well. Jesus was constantly pointing out that pious, religious people who were doing things with all the wrong-motives weren’t part of the Kingdom of God while humble, sinful outsiders with all sorts of baggage who lovingly sacrificed themselves for others were.

In today’s chapter, we find Moses and the Hebrews still camped at Mount Sinai. Moses has spent a total of 80 days (and we’ve spent a total of 15 chapters) on the mountain with God downloading God’s vision, instructions, and commands. Now it’s time to implement the vision and actually construct this traveling tent temple called the Tabernacle. So Moses calls on the Hebrews to pitch-in, donate the materials needed, and help with the labor of construction.

What struck me was the repeated phrases that spoke of the motivation of those giving of their time and resources:

  • “…let whoever is of a generous heart bring the Lord’s offering…”
  • “And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing…”
  • “So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart…”
  • “…all the women whose hearts moved them to use their skill…”
  • “All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord.”

For me, the message was loud and clear. God wanted those who were motivated to help, not those who were doing it under duress like the slaves they were back in Egypt. For the thing God was doing among them, God wanted those who were genuinely generous of heart, willing spirit, stirred within, motivated and compelled by souls open to God’s Spirit.

If I’m doing it for all the wrong reasons I need to just stop. I need to walk away. Doing the right thing with all the wrong motivations is not what God’s Kingdom is about. First, I must honestly and sincerely deal with the “Why?” Did you know Jesus actually turned away would-be followers? In each case, it was never a matter of sin, but of motivation that He questioned.

So, in the quiet this morning I find myself taking a spiritual step back and asking myself “why” I do the things I do. Why do I follow Jesus? Why have I spent my time and energy writing these posts for almost 15 years with nothing of any worldly value to show for it? What is it that Wendy and I do with our time, energy, and resources on a daily basis, and why the heck are we doing it?

Along this life journey, I’ve observed that it’s quite common for humans to live on auto-pilot. Life is a series of rote words and actions motivated by nothing more than base human appetites and a lifetime of the systemic conditioning of family, education, and local culture. When I decided to follow Jesus (not just be a religious church member, but really follow what Jesus lived and taught) and then when Jesus led me to follow the stirring of my heart to study theatre, I was taught to honestly ask the question that has made all the difference in my life:

“Why am I…[fill in the blank]?”

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

Escalation, Truth, and Discomfort

“[The teachers of the Law] devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
Mark 12:40 (NIV)

Over the years I have had the privilege of serving certain clients in the monitoring, coaching, and providing Quality Assessment (e.g. “Your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes.”) for their collections teams. The process of working with customers who owe you money can be a sticky wicket. We’re not talking about third-party collection agencies who just want to bully people into paying so they can quickly get their cut and make their margins. My clients are businesses who want to collect the debt, but also want to keep most of their customers knowing that the lifetime value of that customer’s business far exceeds the amount they are past due in the present moment.

As I always remind both my team members and my clients: “When you are dealing with people’s money, the conversation takes on additional layers of complexity and emotion.”

In today’s chapter, Mark continues to share episodes from Jesus’ final days. There had always been conflict brewing between Jesus and the religious power brokers and rule keepers in Jerusalem. Most of His ministry, however, had been in the region of Galilee far from Jerusalem. Now Jesus is in Jerusalem and is teaching in the temple during the most crowded week of the year. Three times in previous chapters Jesus has told #TheTwelve that He was going to Jerusalem to be arrested, beaten, and killed, and then He would rise from the dead. The episodes Mark relates in today’s chapter illustrate the escalation of conflict between Jesus and the institutional religious powers.

In the first episode, Jesus tells a parable that metaphorically states what He has said plainly before: The religious rule-keepers killed the prophets that God had sent in the past, and now they’re going to kill God’s own Son. The parable antagonized Jesus’ enemies who have already been looking for a way to make sure Jesus “sleeps with the fishes.” Ironically, Jesus said that, like Jonah in the belly of the fish for three days, He would spend three days in the grave. [FYI: That’s a reference from The Godfather for those of you who didn’t catch it.]

What follows is three different attempts to trip Jesus up with religious questions that were political hot potatoes. The intent in at least two of the three questions was to try and get Jesus to say something that His enemies could either spin to diminish His approval rating or condemn Him. Each time, Jesus deftly handles the question and leaves His enemies flummoxed.

On the heels of these trick questions and attempts to trip Him up, Jesus speaks critically of His enemies and warns His audience to “watch out” for the teachers of the law. He then offers a curious accusation that is lost on modern readers. Jesus says that the religious power brokers “devour widows houses.”

In most cases, women had very poor legal and social standing in Jesus’ day. This was especially true of older widows who might have been left with her husband’s debts. With limited means and a social system that made it virtually impossible for her to produce an income, the widow was incredibly vulnerable. Unless she had an influential and/or wealthy male advocate, the widow fell prey to wealthy and powerful men (remember, the religious power brokers were “Teachers of Law” (aka lawyers) within the Jewish religious, legal, and social system. These lawyers would use the law to seize a widow’s home and assets, leaving her destitute and living off the mercy of others. Even though the Law of Moses demanded special consideration for the defenseless (including widows), the “Teachers of the Law” found legal loopholes to justify their greedy victimization of these women.

What was most fascinating for me in today’s chapter is the very next episode. Right after criticizing the Teachers of the Law for their treatment of widows, Jesus leads His followers to the place where people came to give their “offerings” to the temple treasury. Wealthy Jews from around the known world were in town for Passover, so there were certainly many wealthy travelers using the annual pilgrimage to give generously (and publicly). Jesus sits and watches the riches being offered to the temple coffers. Then an old widow (I wonder which Teacher of the Law there at the temple now owned the home she once shared with her husband along with all of its possessions?) steps up and puts in two pennies.

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

Two things stuck with me this morning. The power brokers in this world have their way through systemic advantage, intimidation, instilling fear, dishing out punishment, and eliminating the opposition. This is true of any number of systems including criminal, political, governmental, organizational, business, financial, social, educational, legal, military, familial, and even religious systems. It is obvious in the episodes Mark shares that there is rapid escalation between Jesus and His enemies, and His enemies have political, religious, social, legal, and financial systemic power. They want Jesus dead, and Jesus knows this. In fact, He knows that they will kill Him. Nevertheless, Jesus continues to fearlessly speak spiritual truth that both condemns His enemies and pushes the buttons that will ensure the signature on His death warrant.

The second thing that struck me is that I have infinitely more in common with Jesus’ enemies than with the widow whom Jesus praises.

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded,” Jesus said, “and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

In other words, Jesus is in the Collections business.

Most days the chapter and my meditation leave me encouraged, challenged, inspired, contemplative, and even comforted.

Today, I leave my quiet time very uncomfortable.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

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. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Open Spiritual Eyes

Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him.
Luke 19:47 (NIV)

I’m am spending a couple of days this week working on-site with a client. I will meet with members of my client’s inside sales team and talk to them about the service they’re providing customers on the phone, which we have assessed. We’ll listen to calls together and I’ll share tips and strategies for improving the customer’s experience in those “moments of truth.”

Over the years I have learned, however, that there is something much broader that is always going on when I’m on-site with a client. The agents I train don’t work in a vacuum. There are all sorts of things going on around them, systemically, that affect their behavior and attitudes which spill out, often unintentionally, in their conversations with customers. Office environment, corporate policies, relationships with managers, and crazy-makers on the team can all have a significant impact on an individual agent’s thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. If I don’t have my antennae up to understand the larger picture, I’m going to be ineffective at helping my client focus on what he or she needs to do.

When reading through a chapter, it is so easy to focus on the individual stories and lose sight of the larger context of what is happening. In today’s chapter, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for His final, climactic week.

Politically, the hottest issue of that day was Rome’s occupation of Judea. There was constant tension between Rome and the Jewish leaders. The temple was more than just a religious center. It was the epicenter of power and finance in the area. The religious leaders of Jerusalem who held sway had a very lucrative racket going.

Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the biggest religious festival of the year. The Passover attracted tens of thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem and the temple. Jewish faithful were required to offer sacrifices and offerings while they were at the temple. Often those sacrifices and offerings were sold outside the temple, but the temple had its own currency. Pilgrims first had to exchange their currency before they could buy their sacrifices. The leaders were making money on both the exchange rate and the sacrifices and offerings they were selling.

As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, He tells a parable about servants who are given money by their employer to invest while he’s away. It’s a parable that Jesus has told before, but on the eve of His arrival in Jerusalem He changes it. In this telling, the employer leaves to be made King, much like the local monarch, Herod, would have traveled to Rome to be given authority for the area by the Roman Empire. The pending ruler’s people in Jesus revised telling do not want this person to be King. Nevertheless, he returns as King and pays back his followers based on how they’d invested what had been given.

Jesus immediately heads into Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling an ancient prophecy, as His followers proclaim Him as King. The religious leaders vehemently complain much like those in the parable who did not want the protagonist of the story to be King.

Upon His arrival, Jesus goes to the Temple and drives out the money changers and vendors selling sacrifices. Again, it relates directly to the parable Jesus just told. Those leaders of God’s people who had been entrusted with oversight of God’s people and God’s law. Rather than investing in love and generosity, the leaders perverted it for their own self-centered power and personal wealth while treating others with self-righteous contempt and condemnation.

Jesus was not the first “messianic upstart” the religious leaders had dealt with. They had a well-worn playbook of getting rid of anyone who threatened their power and wealth. Jesus was in their sites. Jesus knew it.

As He entered Jerusalem, Jesus offered a lament for the city and its religious leaders. They didn’t see, perceive, or understand what God was doing and saying through Jesus. Like the parable, they would suffer the consequences. Within a generation, the political resistance to Rome would boil over. Rome will surround the city and fulfill Jesus’ prophet words. The city and the Temple would be utterly destroyed.

On Sunday Wendy and I were traveling. We were talking about our “word” for the year, and conversing about where we find ourselves in our spiritual journeys and our life journeys. We don’t want to live in a vacuum, unaware of what God is doing in us, through us, and around us. We prayed together, seeking for those things to be revealed and not hidden.

This morning I’m praying for spiritual eyes that are open to see what’s happening systemically in my client’s office, to see the subtext of what’s going on in today’s chapter, to see the bigger picture of what God is doing in and around me and Wendy as we walk this journey together.

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened…

Ephesians 1:18a
Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!
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!

Bad Blood Boiling Over

All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.
Esther 3:2 (NIV)

I recently read a fascinating op-ed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali by birth who became a member of the Dutch Parliament. In the article, she shares about her journey of understanding that she was culturally and systemically raised to hate Jews and blame them for everything, and how she overcame that hatred.

Feuds are as old as humanity itself. Whether it is unresolved interpersonal conflict, blood feuds between familial tribes, or long-standing hatred between people groups, there are countless examples of systemic hatred and generational conflict throughout history.

For the casual reader, there exists in Esther an underlying conflict that is not easily detected on the surface of the text. Mordecai was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. The tribe of Benjamin had a famous ancestor in the person of Saul, the first King of Israel. Saul had warred against the Amalekites and their King, Agag. Saul’s disobedience to God’s command in the battle against King Agag led to Saul’s downfall which, in turn, brought shame to the tribe of Benjamin. Haman was an Agagite, a descendant of Saul’s famous enemy. There are over 500 years of bad blood between Haman and Mordecai’s tribes.

This adds a whole new layer of understanding to the story. Mordecai had thwarted an assassination plot against Xerxes in yesterday’s chapter, and yet he received no real reward for his courage. Haman, in contrast, is elevated to a place of unprecedented power within Xerxes administration and no reason is provided to explain why he was deserving of such favor. The King demands that everyone bow before Haman. Bowing and kneeling before others was a common form of public respect in ancient Persian culture. It would be similar to shaking hands in our culture or taking your hat off in respect. Mordecai’s refusal to offer this basic courtesy to Haman was not treated as treasonous, but as culturally impolite and disrespectful. Mordecai was scolded and lectured, but still, he refused to bow. Each day he stood as Haman passed by and each day the insult pricked Haman’s ego and pride. With each passing day the 500 years of cultural bad blood between Benjaminite and Agagite, between Jew and Amalekite, slowly simmered to a boil. Haman plots to have Mordecai and all of his people annihilated.

This morning I find myself contemplating Jesus’ command that I forgive my enemies. This not only includes the interpersonal conflicts or wrongs which I have suffered, but I believe also includes the deeper cultural, ethnic, moral, and religious prejudices I may hold against other people groups; Prejudices that I may have been systemically and culturally taught without even realizing it.

Which brings me back to Ms. Ali, a woman from a different culture, tribe, and religion than my own. I found her willingness to confess her hatred of the Jewish people and turn from the cultural enmity she’d been taught a shining example of what Jesus asks of me. I find myself taking an honest inventory of my heart this morning. As King David (ironically, God’s replacement for the disobedient King Saul) wrote in the lyrics to his musical prayer, “Search me, God, and know my heart.” Addressing prejudice and cultural hatred has to begin with me.

When Systemic Power is Threatened

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
Acts 4:13 (NIV)

There’s a lot of talk these days about “the swamp.” For Americans, this typically references what is perceived as the professional political class who corruptly rule from Washington D.C. oblivious to the day-to-day thoughts and concerned of the millions who carry on life outside the beltway. In the days of Jesus, Jews could easily have called the Temple in Jerusalem “the swamp.”

For Jewish people living in and around Jerusalem life revolved around the Temple. Not only was it the center of their religion, the only place where sacrifices and offerings were made, but it was also the center of political power. Life was dictated from the religious ruling class of priests and leaders in the temple who interpreted the law of Moses and told people what they could and couldn’t do. These priests, rabbis, lawyers, and scholars ruled over the people and claimed God’s authority for doing so. In reality, these guys had a great racket going. It was a system of power and corruption. They used their power to make themselves rich, lord over the common people, and consolidate their power and positions.

So it was that in today’s chapter, Peter and John’s healing of the crippled man and their bold proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection created a threat, a political threat, to the ruling religious class.

First, it threatened the priests own power and authority to have “unschooled, ordinary men” preaching so boldly. The religious leaders wanted common people thinking that only the educated and extraordinary teachers within the powerful ruling class in the Temple could speak for God.

Second, the miracle of the healing of the crippled man by such “unschooled, ordinary men” went against the narrative that God only works through the religious Temple system and its priests. They, however, had no similar miracles to point to showing that God was doing such things through them. If the common people began to think that the priests and teachers of the law were impotent it threatened their systemic stranglehold on power.

Third, the fact that Peter and John were speaking about this pesky teacher, Jesus, and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead stirred dissension within the religious ruling class itself. Resurrection was a theological topic of hot debate. Those who believed in resurrection and those who didn’t were bitter rivals. You’ll note that it was the Sadducees (an anti-resurrection faction among the temple scholars) who had Peter and John arrested. The high priest is not going to want this miracle business to create an internal rift within the swamp.

Finally, the high priest and his cronies had to have been frustrated that this Galilean rabbi, Jesus, kept coming up. “Didn’t we execute him weeks ago? Can’t somebody figure out what they did with his body so we can be done with this?”

When you threaten a powerful system, that system will act to stamp out the threat to its power. The story of Peter and John healing the crippled man is like the pebble that starts an avalanche. This conflict is just getting started.

This morning I’m thinking about the many times in my life when I’ve watched systemic and institutional authority feel threatened and the ways that authority reacted to consolidate power and diminish or eliminate the threat. I’ve seen some doozies in families, schools, businesses, churches, and civic organizations.

In the quiet I’m mulling over my own circles of influence. In some I am the systemic authority. How do I respond to threats in a positive way, recognizing that my discomfort just might be reluctance to change in ways that would be positive for the system? In other cases, I’m an anonymous cog in a larger system with a penchant for initiating change. How can I do so in ways that are honoring to God and authority?

The Embrace of Interconnectedness

I offered my back to those who beat me,
    my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
    from mocking and spitting.
Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
    I will not be disgraced.
Isaiah 50:6-7 (NIV)

The ancient prophets wrote in poetic form. The verse of today’s chapter is a poem, though it is nothing like the pithy rhyme of a Hallmark card, which is about the only poetry consumed by most people I know. Nevertheless, knowledgable commentators have called Isaiah’s poetry “unsurpassed” among the ancient writers who penned the poetry in God’s Message.

This is, perhaps, one of the reasons that the prophets get scant attention and appreciation among contemporary believers. A verse quoted here, a Pinterest-worthy line there, and maybe a cross-reference for study. That’s about it. I get it. Poetry isn’t exactly a popular art form in today’s contemporary world of force-fed sound bytes. Add to it the complexities of translation and both historical and cultural context, and it’s a lot to wade through.

We’re now 50 chapters into Isaiah’s works (16 more to go). As I read this morning, I could feel the “voice” of his poetic verse change at verse four. Isaiah started off with “This is what the LORD says” but then in switches into the voice of the “servant” who says “The sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue.”

Wait a minute. If it is the Lord saying this to Isaiah, then who is the “Sovereign Lord” to which the verse refers and who is the person speaking to the “Sovereign Lord”?

There answer is that there are four “Servant Songs” penned by Isaiah (they are in chapters 42, 49, 50, and 54). They are unique in the exhaustive book of Isaiah’s prophetic works. They are the only place that Isaiah uses the exact Hebrew term for “Sovereign Lord.” The “Servant Songs” are the scripted words of Messiah.

In today’s chapter, the servant song prophetically prefigures the trial and suffering of Jesus at the hands of both the religious and political powers of His day. Read through the verse I’ve pasted at the top of this post. It’s as if Isaiah is storyboarding the scene of Jesus’ trial before the religious leaders and the Roman governor, and he’s writing this over 500 years before it happened.

This morning I am thankful for a Creator God who is artist, story teller, and poet. I’m appreciative of ancient prophetic poems that preview future events. I’m reminded once again of the eternal epic in which I find myself living. This Great Story is so much larger than the ice storms, business travel, and task list of my day, yet it systemically wraps the most minute and seemingly insignificant pieces of my day into the embrace of its interconnectedness.