Tag Archives: Theme

Running and Return

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish.
Jonah 1:2 (NIV)

Running away is a common theme throughout the Great Story. It takes many different forms. Call it running, hiding, fleeing, wilderness, or exile…

  • Adam and Eve hid from God in their shame.
  • Cain was doomed to be a restless wanderer.
  • Abraham was called to leave his home and people.
  • Jacob fled after deceiving his father and brother.
  • Joseph was sold into slavery and exile.
  • Moses fled to Midian after committing murder.
  • David fled to the wilderness from Saul.
  • Elijah fled to the wilderness after defeating the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
  • The Hebrews were taken into exile in Babylon.
  • Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted.
  • The prodigal son took the money and ran to a distant country.
  • The disciples fled to Galilee after Jesus’ crucifixion.

Today we start back into the story of a prophet named Jonah. He is called by God to go to Nineveh, a provincial Assyrian city about 550 miles to the northeast of Jonah, and prophesy against it. Instead, Jonah books passage across the Mediterranean to Tarshish, a city on the southern tip of what is now Spain, 2500 miles to the west. At the time of Jonah, Tarshish would have literally been considered the end of the world and as far away from Nineveh as one could possibly get. Jonah was running from his calling. He was fleeing his destiny. He went on the lam from God.

I have found that a great many people have periods of their life journey in which they flee something. It’s part of the human experience. There are things one learns, experiences, finds and/or acquires only in the wilderness. Perhaps that is why wilderness is a part of every mythical heroes journey.

I have my own period of self-imposed running earlier in my life. I ran from a lot of things for a lot of reasons. I wandered to places I should never have been and did things I should never have done. I now consider that stretch of my life journey “the dark years.” And yes, looking back with hindsight I see how it was critical for me to experience it.

In Jonah’s case, we find him trying to run away from God. I couldn’t help but hear King David’s lyrics in my spirit as I read the chapter today. Lyrics, by the way, with which Jonah would likely have been familiar:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about both the pain of my dark years and once again grieving the injuries I caused to those I love. I’m once again reminded that I was always aware of God’s presence, even in the darkest of places. I’m also thinking about the purpose that the dark years served in the long run of my spiritual journey.

You see, just as the wilderness is a consistent theme, so is the return.

The “Divine Right” (to Be Equal)

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
1 Corinthians 1:26-29 (NIV)

Wendy and I have a guest room that we’ve been decorating with a UK theme. We’ve loved our trips to the UK and thought it would be kind of fun (“cheeky,” even) to channel that into our home. On one of the walls we’ve hung portraits of royalty as well as some of our favorite British writers and actors. Of course, we felt the need to separate the portraits with the royals (and a couple of Prime Ministers) on one side and the those low-life, “commoner” artist types on the other 😉

Having grown up in a representative republic like America, the notion of royalty is a bit of romantic idea and the stuff of nostalgia for us. For most of human history, however, the idea of people being better than others simply because of the blood in their veins and the family into which they were born was part of the fabric of every day life. And, going all the way back to ancient rulers, it was commonly believed that there was some sort of divinity that marked the distinction. Rulers often claimed to be gods themselves. The idea of monarchs ruling by “divine right” was popularly held (mostly by the royals themselves) until recently.

Even in the times of Jesus and the early Jesus Movement, the notion of “divine” rulers was popular. One of the reasons the early believers were executed or thrown into the Roman circus to be eaten by lions for the sake of entertainment was that they refused to swear that Caesar was god.

In today’s chapter Paul is quick to reference that the believers in Corinth were not people of wealth and influence. For the most part they had little status in the eyes of the world. He reminds them, however, that they are highly esteemed by God.

We easily forget that one of the things that made the early Jesus Movement so radical was that everyone could freely accept the gift of salvation offered by Jesus. Everyone was equally a member of the body of Christ. Spiritual gifts were bestowed on every believer by Holy Spirit, and when the Spirit came upon a group of believers everyone manifested the experience regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, or social standing. When believers met together for a love feast and to share in the ritual of the Lord’s supper everyone was welcome at the table. If a slave and the slave’s master were both believers, they had equal status at the table of Jesus’ followers.

This morning I find myself meditating on the reality that as the Jesus Movement became the institutional church and gained both power and influence, it quickly abandoned its egalitarian roots and developed rigid systems of hierarchy and status that exist to this day. In personal practice and in my, admittedly small, circles of influence I am consciously trying to lead us back to the egalitarian spiritual roots of the Jesus Movement where everyone is of equal status in the body of Christ and where everyone is welcome at the table. We’ll let the ancient notion of “divine” rulers  or those of higher or more noble “status” be simply a bit of nostalgia on our guest room wall.

Speaking of that. One of the decorative touches we want to make to our guest room is a collage of postcards from the UK. If I have any readers from across the pond who would like to contribute, we would be both humbled and blessed to have you send us a postcard (or two, or three!). Simply drop it in the mail it to:

Tom & Wendy Vander Well
c/o Intelligentics
801 Franklin St. #526
Pella, IA 50219 U.S.A.

Tomorrow begins the Thanksgiving holiday here in the U.S. Please know that I am truly thankful for you who faithfully, or occasionally, (or even rarely) read my posts. Cheers!

The Dude Abides

[The man of lawlessness] will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.
2 Thessalonians 2:4 (NIV)

Yesterday, as I was getting ready, I had the Cohen brothers’ classic movie, The Big Lebowski, playing in the background. It’s become one of my all time favorites movies. What most people don’t realize is that The Big Lebowski is basically a classic 1940s film noir detective story set in the early 1980s with an unlikely stoner named The Dude unwittingly placed in the role of the protagonist detective.

I grew up watching a lot classic films and the hard-boiled detective movies (e.g. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade) of the film noir genre were among my favorites. In The Big Lebowski you have all the classic detective movie motifs: the old millionaire, the millionaire’s daughter with whom the protagonist falls in love, blackmail, rabbit trails, crime lords, a secondary detective, and the protagonist detective getting “slipped a Mickey” (drugged with a drink).

I’ve observed that most people watch films in a vacuum, as though each film sort of stands alone. The reality is that all good stories and films borrow themes and motifs from one another. All of my favorite epics, for examples, have the overarching theme of good versus evil. Usually an epic story is about an ancient struggle coming to a climax. There’s always a prophecy woven into the storyline, as well. In Harry Potter there is the prophecy Harry retrieves from the Ministry of Magic. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe there is the prophecy and deep magic of the stone table. In The Lord of the Rings Aragorn is led to take the Paths of the Dead because of the “words of Malbeth the Seer.

I say it fairly regularly: “All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story.” Our stories reflect our own humanity. Deeper still, I believe that human history is a Great Story being told across the ages. I believe that evil exists and there is a very real struggle between good versus evil. I believe in the prophetic.

Along my life journey I’ve experienced the prophetic. I have found it to be both mysterious and messy and therefore quickly dismissed by many. I have come to believe that tragedy lies on either side of the tension between two possible errors: Dismissing the prophetic altogether or drowning too deeply in the mystery. I’ve always tried to hold the tension between the two.

In the early years of the Jesus movement there were many prophecies given concerning where the plot line of the Great Story was going. This led to many arguments and mistaken assumptions.  In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing some mistaken assumptions  in today’s chapter. Without drowning too deeply in the specifics, I find myself being reminded of two things.

First, there is evil, and evil opposes good. Jesus was very aware of the evil opposing Him. He knew that His coming was prophesied (He proclaimed Isaiah’s prophetic word in His first sermon). He cast out demons throughout His ministry. He knew He was being tempted by the evil one to abandon His sacrificial mission. We don’t like to think too much about the reality of evil, but it exists.

Second, evil cannot create but, instead, it always counterfeits. Tolkien clearly picked up this theme in his epic stories. Orcs were counterfeits made in opposition to elves. Trolls were counterfeits made in opposition to ents. Paul says there is prophesied a counterfeit messiah to come whom he calls the Man of Lawlessness. The Greek term he uses is anthropos (man, mankind, humanity; as in anthropology the study of humanity) anamos (opposition, lawless, wicked; from which we get the English word animosity). Paul explains that it has been prophesied that this counterfeit messiah will come before Jesus’ return in a climax to this Great Story.

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering all of these mysteries. I don’t want to get lost in them, but neither do I want to dismiss them. Again, I find myself trying to hold the tension. I believe my life journey is part of the Great Story. How it fits and weaves into the larger plot lines is a mystery to me. I’m just trying to stick to the path appointed for me, to follow the steps I’m led, to do the good God calls me to do, and to be shrewd as a serpent and gentle as a dove, aware of both the evil and the good around me.

Or, as Jeffrey Lebowski would put it: “The Dude Abides.”

Abide well today, my friend.

Life, Death, Sacrifice, & the Multiverse

However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
Acts 20:24 (NIV)

Over this past week Wendy and I watched the third season of the Amazon Prime original, The Man in the High Castle. Most every television or movie drama hinges on some kind of threat to life. Someone’s life is in danger. Someone is trying to escape those who seek to end his or her life. Someone’s life had been taken and the protagonist must find out who did it before more people die. In The Man in the High Castle the writers throw in the twist of the multi-verse, the theory that parallel realities exist and people known as “travelers” can slip between them. Nevertheless, seeking to stay alive and striving to avoid the threat of death don’t change. They are always the common themes.

As I read today’s chapter, the themes of death and life are just as prevalent as they weave themselves through Paul’s story. The Jews plan another attempt to assassinate Paul, so he changes his travel arrangements. A boy falls from a third-story window and dies, but Paul miraculously brings the boy back to life. Paul then declares to the elders of the believers at Ephesus that he will not see them again on this earthly journey. Even though Holy Spirit has continually revealed that prison and persecution await, Paul is ready to face it: “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.”

Here we have yet a different twist on the theme of life and death: the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a higher purpose. Paul has faithfully followed the footsteps of Jesus. Self-sacrifice is the way of Jesus:

  • “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
  • “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
  • [Jesus] said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
  • “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

In the quiet this morning I find myself wrestling with the themes of life, death, and self-sacrifice. In a relatively safe midwest American existence the threat of death is incredibly low. The odds for a long and relatively easy life are incredibly high. So, what does the way of Jesus, the way of self-sacrifice mean for me on this journey? In a culture that values a “better life” as defined by the acquisition of things and the accumulation of bucket list experiences, what does it mean to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow? I live in a completely different reality that Paul, Luke, and the Ephesus elders. I know what self-sacrifice looked like for Paul, but what about me in this place, in this century, in this reality?

Monday morning. More questions than answers. I’m gonna keep wrestling with this one.

Have a good week my friend.

Children’s Stories, Powerball, and a Really Good Question

“Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people.”
2 Chronicles 1:10 (NIV)

Yesterday Wendy and I had the joy of hanging out with our niece, Lydia, who is three years old and our grandson, Milo who today marks six months on his fledgling earthly journey. Wendy’s family gathered at her folks house in Ankeny for dinner and an afternoon together.

One of the things I’m looking forward to in the years ahead is reading stories to my grandson. I’ve always loved story-time. When the girls were young it was my favorite parts of the day. Just this morning I was thinking about the theme of “ask whatever you wish” weaves its way through our stories, myths, legends and (perhaps most commonly) jokes. We have a friend who told us that when she buys a Powerball ticket she just considers that she’s spending two dollars for the fun of asking herself, “What would I do with all that money?” It’s an adult variation of the genie in the bottle who grants the bearer three wishes. They beg the question of us: “What would I wish for?”

This morning our chapter-a-day journey embarks through the book of 2 Chronicles. We pick up the story at the beginning of the reign of King Solomon. Solomon was heir to the throne of King David (of David and Goliath fame). David has united the twelve tribes of Israel under one throne (they could be an unruly and contentious lot) and created a strong, if small, regional empire. Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba, the woman with whom David had a scandalous affair and eventually married.

At the beginning of Solomon’s reign he journeys to Gibeon where there was a huge tent, called the Tabernacle, which Moses and the people Israel used for their traveling worship center when they fled Egypt. The Tabernacle was a traveling temple and it’s where the sacrificial religious system was centered. If you wanted to make an inquiry of God, you went to the Tabernacle. So, Solomon goes there to worship God as he embarks on his reign. There, God asks of Solomon that familiar question of children’s storybooks: “Ask anything you wish!

Solomon, in this now famous story, asks for wisdom and knowledge to rule his people. God (who is used to Powerball wishes for wealth, power, and possessions) is so blown away by Solomon’s request that He grants the wisdom, but also the wealth, power, and pessessions.

And so children, what’s the moral of the story?

It is a simple question and seems the stuff of children’s books, but children’s stories often communicate the very questions I need to keep asking myself as an adult. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you can never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (emphasis added).

What is it I truly want?
What is my heart’s desire?
What is it I would honestly desire of God above all else?

Not bad questions for a children’s story. Not bad questions to mull over at the beginning of my day, and my work week. Along my life journey I’ve discovered that (unlike Aladdin or Solomon) these are not one-and-done questions. They are questions I need to ask myself over, and over, and over, and over again. The answers to these questions clarify things, help set direction, establish priorities, and often motivate the changes to which Jesus referred.

So, I’m asking them again this morning.

Have a great week, my friends.

 

Stories, Themes, and Waypoints

“Do not be afraid, Jacob my servant;
    do not be dismayed, Israel.
I will surely save you out of a distant place.”
Jeremiah 46:27 (NIV)

We just finished our Memorial Day weekend at the lake with friends and the kids wanted to watch Star Wars’ Rogue One. As I watched I thought about the underlying story of the hero, Jyn Erso. The movie starts with Jyn as a young girl being separated from her parents (particularly her father), which is infused with all sorts of psychological weight. We quickly meet the adult Jyn, and we find her in prison (in more ways than one) and adrift in life. Through the entire movie we accompany her on her journey to be reunited with her father and reconciled to the larger purpose their own journeys play in the larger story. The last words she hears before that final, fateful moment: “Your father would be proud of you.”

Exile and being “on the run” is a common theme in stories. The Star Wars universe uses it over and over again. In the original Episode 4 we meet Luke in exile with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine along with a mysterious old wizard, Ben Kenobi, also living in his own exile. They leave the planet with Han Solo who is on the run from Jabba the Hut and the bounty on this head. In The Force Awakens we meet Rey living in exile on Jakku where she meets Finn who is… wait for it…on the run from the evil Kylo Ren, who in his own self-appointed exile, having run away from home to join the dark side.

Why do stories, novels, movies, and plays use these same themes and devices over and over again? Because they touch something deep inside us. We identify with them in our own respective journeys. When I listen to people tell the story of their life journey and/or their spiritual journey I’ll commonly hear people speaking in terms of “running,” “getting away,” “thrown out,” “straying,” “rebelling,” “distancing,” or being “far from home.” We get it. We connect with it. It’s part of our common humanity.

With today’s chapter we’re entering the final section of the anthology of the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s works. This final section is a series of prophetic messages Jeremiah made against the nations that made up the socio-political horizon of his day. The messages were seemingly arranged geographically from west to east, beginning with today’s prophetic word against Egypt.

After waxing apocalyptic against Egypt, Jeremiah speaks to his own people, promising them both exile (citing punishment for their idolatrous ways) and the eventual return and reconciliation of their descendants.

Exile and return. There’s that theme again.

This morning I’m sitting at the lake watching the morning fog roll through the trees across the cove. It’s the same view my parents enjoyed for so many years before me. It’s the same view our girls enjoyed growing up. It’s the view I get to introduce to our grandson in a few weeks. There something special about the places that become waypoints in the journey of multiple generations. Generations and their respective stories of being home and being on the run, of exile and return, of separation and reconciliation. The common themes that become a different kind of waypoint, connecting us to the larger story.

…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.