Tag Archives: Trust

Popcorn Prayers

The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king…..”
Nehemiah 2:4-5a (NIV)

I was honored a few weeks ago when I was asked to pray for our meal at my high school reunion. In part, I was honored because it has become increasingly common for prayers at public events to be ignored our outright forbidden. I also realize that I and my classmates grew up in a time when public prayer was hotly debated along with questions regarding whether it was appropriate for public school choirs to sing sacred music at events such as commencement.

I can remember during some of these debates about “school prayer” that it was humorously acknowledged that the school building will always be the center of a million prayers during finals week. Of course, there is a difference between a public prayer at a school event and the silent prayer students staring at the test that has just been placed before them.

For those who are not regular readers, I have been blogging through what’s known as the exilic books of God’s Message in recent months. These are the writings of the ancient Hebrews who experienced being taken into captivity by the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Medo-Persian empires. They eventually returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and restore their homeland. Being an exile, in its very essence, means living away from home, and being in exile often means a loss of power, control, and public standing. My local gathering of Jesus’ followers is currently exploring the notion that the people of God are, by nature, exilic and what that means for us in the 21st century.

Nehemiah was a cupbearer for the Persian king, Artaxerxes. In today’s chapter, Nehemiah could not hide his grief while serving in the king and queen’s presence. It was, in those days, deemed inappropriate to show any kind of negative emotion in the presence of the king. On a whim, the king could have his servant executed for such an infraction. So when Artaxerxes notices the depressed look on his cupbearer’s face, Nehemiah’s immediate fear was warranted.

What I found interesting is that the phrase “Then I prayed to the God of heaven” is sandwiched in between the king’s question and Nehemiah’s response. There is no way that Nehemiah said, “Can you hang on a few minutes while I get on my knees and pray for a while?” Nehemiah’s prayer to the God of heaven had to have been what I call a “popcorn prayer.” A popcorn prayer is the silent, sudden, internal exclamation of my spirit to God’s Spirit in an instant. It’s exactly what I did as a student before every Biology test (science was not my thing).

According to a 2017 survey by the Barna, 79 percent of Americans said they had prayed in the previous three months. Barna found prayer to be the most common faith practice among American adults, but it was also the most multi-faceted. In fact, the researcher concluded that “the most common thing about people’s prayers is that they are different.”

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve discovered that my own prayer life is much like Barna’s research. It’s multi-faceted. I do, at times, spend set periods of time in prayer. Sometimes, I audibly talk to God while I’m alone in my car driving. Wendy and I pray together before meals, and often we will pray together when it is just the two of us traveling in the car. I’ve sometimes described my life journey itself as one long, uninterrupted conversation with God. I’m constantly aware of God’s presence, and my “popcorn prayers” are popping constantly in the heat of Life’s microwave oven.

Our culture has shifted in the 35 years since I graduated from high school. I know some who see this as a source of grief, anxiety, fear, and even anger. Sociologists and scholars are calling our current culture the “post-Christain” world. Frankly, I’m not that worried about it. In fact, I think it might just be a good thing. Throughout the Great Story, it’s clear that God’s people flourish, not when they are in power, but when they live in exile. It’s a paradox that Jesus said He came to model and that He told his followers to embrace:

“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.”

Jesus (Matthew 20:25-28 [MSG])

Paul, one of Jesus’ early followers, put it this way:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul of Tarsus (2nd Letter to the Corinthians 12:10 [NIV])

In the quiet this morning I find my head swimming in thoughts of culture, and power, and exile, and prayer. Nehemiah found himself a servant to the King of a foreign empire. Artaxerxes had the power to execute Nehemiah for having a frown on his face, and yet his precarious position of impotence led him to depend on his faith in the power and purposes of God. Isn’t that the very spiritual reality that Jesus wanted us to embrace?

As I finish this post I’m saying a popcorn prayer for any and all who read it. Hope you have a great day, my friend.

“…Don’t Scare Worth a Damn.”

 Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building.
Ezra 4:4 (NIV)

I’m on the road this week for business. I rarely sleep well when I’m on the road. My brain is buzzing from long days of meetings with our client and it is often hard for me to shut down my brain long enough to sleep. I have found that one of the things that help me sleep is to have something familiar playing quietly near me like a favorite audiobook or documentary. Last night, it was Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War, that accompanied me to my dreams.

As I woke this morning the nine-part documentary was still playing as it told of how Ulysses S. Grant was able to finally defeat the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. Lee had successfully defeated a long list of Union generals before Grant. Lee’s army was severely outnumbered and his resolute strategy was to discourage the Union’s resolve to wage war. It was working. When Lee won a battle, the Union’s response had always been to retreat. When Grant lost a battle, however, he refused to retreat. Grant continued to march his army forward no matter the cost or casualties. As one of his soldiers said, “Ulysses don’t scare worth a damn.”

I then read today’s chapter. The Hebrew exiles have begun construction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the repair of the walls. Their regional enemies, however, fear a rebuilt and powerful Jerusalem. So, they set out to thwart the rebuilding. Their strategy? Much like Robert E. Lee, they set out to discourage the Hebrews and break their resolve to rebuild.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that God’s Message tells me, as a follower of Jesus, I am engaged in a Level Four spiritual struggle. With the resurrection of Jesus, my enemy’s defeat is made certain, but it did not break my enemy’s resolve. Along my life journey, I have found that the enemy’s strategy is basically the same as Lee’s and the same as the Hebrews’ neighbors in today’s chapter. The enemy wants to discourage me, to diminish my faith and break my resolve to trust and obey the One I follow.

Will I retreat like a long list of Union Generals who always backed down despite overwhelming odds in their favor? Or, will I continue to march forward in the face of an enemy who continually works to discourage me from that resolve?

As I ponder this morning, I can’t help but desire that it would be said of me in the spiritual realm: “That Tom Vander Well. He don’t scare worth a damn.”

The Story is NOT Over. The Story WILL Go On.

He remained hidden with them at the temple of God for six years while Athaliah ruled the land.
2 Chronicles 22:12 (NIV)

I am convinced that there are stretches along every person’s life journey in which the road descends into chaos. Things we trusted to remain solid fall apart. Tragedy strikes suddenly and without warning. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, another bomb drops. The compass we’ve always trusted to point true north spins out of control. We lose our personal bearing. Nothing seems safe. It is as if nothing will ever be “okay” again.

Ever.

For the people of ancient Judah, their unshakable faith in God’s promise to King David had provided them with a sense of peace. The Davidic line would remain as a trustworthy sense of stability. The throne would pass from father to son, from generation to generation. You can count on it.

Until things descended into chaos.

Jehoshaphat marries his eldest son, Jehoram, to Athaliah the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. Jehoram kills all of his brothers in a bloodbath intended to solidify his control. His reign implodes as enemies invade and kill his entire family with the exception of his youngest son, Ahaziah. The only viable heir of David, the young Ahaziah is placed on the throne. His one-year reign is a disastrous chain-reaction of events ending in his assassination. Ahaziah’s power-hungry mother, Athaliah, kills off the rest of the royal family to consolidate her own power over the nation of Judah.

The Davidic line wiped out. That which was trusted is lost.

The people of Judah had to be reeling in the valley of chaos. They trusted the Davidic royal line would be forever. A member of the reviled and evil house of Ahab and Jezebel is on the throne of their nation. The compass they always trusted to point true north is spinning out of control. Nothing seems safe. It’s as if nothing will ever be “okay” again.

Ever.

But, the story isn’t over. While the circumstantial events in the valley of Judah’s chaos seem eternal and inescapable, the perspective of history allows us to see that this is simply a dark chapter in the Great Story.

There is a woman. There is a baby.

(How often can we quote that line in the Great Story?)

The woman is a daughter of the king. She is the wife of the priest.  She has the courage to risk her life for what is right.

The baby is the son of the king.

In the moment, no one knows it. In the chaos they cannot see it.

The story is not over. The story will go on.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of the valleys of chaos into which I’ve descended. I’m remembering my own feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. And, I’m looking back from a waypoint further down Life’s road that provides me with a much needed perspective.

The story is not over. The story will go on.

The Implosion of Evil

The Ammonites and Moabites rose up against the men from Mount Seir to destroy and annihilate them. After they finished slaughtering the men from Seir, they helped to destroy one another. When the men of Judah came to the place that overlooks the desert and looked toward the vast army, they saw only dead bodies lying on the ground; no one had escaped.
2 Chronicles 20:23-34 (NIV)

In our modern, twenty-first century enlightened world we rarely talk about the nature of evil. I find that, even among those who are followers of Jesus, there is a reticence to even think of the concept of evil. Jesus quite regularly referenced evil. The word or variation is used seven times in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Over the years Wendy and I have noticed a theme among epic stories regarding the nature of evil: evil eventually destroys itself from within. Sometimes, left to itself, evil naturally implodes. Tolkien used this device multiple times in his stories and it came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter. As Merry and Pippin are captives of the Orcs it is an internal fight between factions of Orcs and Grishnakh’s lust that ultimately allow for their escape. Likewise, as Frodo and Sam attempt steal their way into Mordor through the stronghold of Cirith Ungol, a massive fight between two companies of Orcs destroy one another and allow the Hobbits to escape.

In today’s chapter we find a similar story from Judah’s history. A coalition of enemy armies are gathered to march against Judah and Jerusalem. King Jehoshaphat assembles all the people to seek the Lord. They pray, they fast, they humble themselves. God speaks through the prophet that the battle belongs to God and He will deliver. The people respond in praise. The coalition of enemy armies turn on each other and destroy one another so that when the army of Judah arrives, they find a field of dead bodies.

This morning in the quiet as I mull these things over I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ admonishment about the two mistakes one can make about the exploration of evil. One, he said, is to ignore it. The second is to get too deep and take it too seriously. The people of Judah didn’t ignore the threat facing them but focused their energies on seeking after God, trusting, and following. Before the threat could become a battle, the evil had imploded within. I never want to be naive, ignorant, or blind to the reality of evil that exists in our world. Neither do I want to give into fear or be overwhelmed by it:

This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.

A Faith Investment

Fields will be bought for silver, and deeds will be signed, sealed and witnessedin the territory of Benjamin, in the villages around Jerusalem, in the towns of Judah and in the towns of the hill country, of the western foothills and of the Negev, because I will restore their fortunes, declares the Lord.”
Jeremiah 32:44 (NIV)

A few years ago I read a couple of books about the Monuments Men. During World War II this small group of art experts were tasked with finding the hoard of European artwork that had been stolen, looted, and pillaged by the Nazis. Most all of the artwork had been taken from Jewish collectors, dealers, and artists as the Jews themselves were sent to Nazi ghettos and death camps.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a Jewish art collector living in Paris during the Nazi occupation. The round up of Jews has already begun and you’ve personally witnessed the homes of your Jewish neighbors and fellow art collectors being raided. All of their possessions, including their priceless artwork, has been confiscated by the Nazis while your neighbors have been loaded onto trucks and carried off to God knows where. You know that it’s only a matter of time before you hear the dreaded knock on your own door.

Then, an angel of God visits you in a dream and tells you to take all of your life savings and visit a local art dealer to purchase a rare painting by Van Gogh for your personal collection.

It doesn’t seem like a wise investment, does it?

In today’s chapter, it’s just that kind of investment that God tells the ancient prophet Jeremiah to make. The Babylonians have begun the siege of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the land around it, and every single thing that is within it will become the property of King Nebuchadnezzar. God tells Jeremiah at that very moment to make an investment in the purchase of some land.

We’re back to God’s favorite medium of communication: the world of word pictures and metaphors. Jews in Europe during the holocaust would be foolish to invest in artwork unless they knew for a fact that they and their artwork would survive. It is similarly foolish for Jeremiah to buy a piece of land when the Babylonians are clearly going to take it all for themselves in a short period of time.

But Jeremiah’s financial investment was not the issue in God’s . His people’s faith investment was. Jeremiah’s public purchase was made to be a message of faith and hope to his people in a moment of hopelessness and despair. “My people will come back to this land,” God is saying through Jeremiah’s metaphorical purchase. “All that you think is being pillaged, stolen and lost in this moment will eventually be restored.”

Jeremiah’s investment reminds me this morning of God’s faithfulness. 2 Timothy 2:13 says that “If we are faith-less God remains faith-full because He cannot disown himself” (emphasis added). Being faithful is at the core of who God is even when I have trouble seeing it in the blindness of my short-sighted humanity.

In the quiet this morning I’m grateful that The Monuments Men succeeded in finding and restoring much of the artwork stolen by the Nazis (It’s a good movie, btw). I also take solace in knowing that Jeremiah’s people did return to rebuild their city and their temple (as told in Nehemiah). Even in the darkest moments of the Great Story, when all seems hopeless and lost, I have to remember that it’s not the end of the story. I just have to have to make an investment of faith.

“Every Little Thing Is Gonna Be Alright”

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

Thirteen years ago today I was living in a personal exile of sorts. I was in the process of a divorce that I had once promised myself would never happen. Rumors were flying, most all of them untrue. I had become a social pariah among many whom I’d once considered friends. I remember at the time clinging to the fidelity of a few individuals who “had my back” along with a word picture of living each day like a turtle. I stayed within my self-protective shell and continued to press forward, slow and steady. Not only did I firmly believe that God had not abandoned me, but I had faith that there were redemptive purposes God has planned for me on the other side of this difficult stretch of my life journey.

Jeremiah 29:11 (pasted at the top of this post) is one of the most optimistic, Pinterest-worthy verses from the entirety of God’s Message (see the featured image, a screen shot from Pinterest). Yet those who quote this verse and post it probably have little or no understanding of the context from which it was originally penned.

Jerusalem is in ruins. Solomon’s Temple, once one of the wonders of the ancient world, is reduced to rubble. The treasures of Jerusalem have been plundered by the Babylonian army. The best and brightest of Jerusalem’s people (artists, artisans, musicians, writers, thinkers, teachers, politicians, prophets, and priests) have been chained and led back to Babylon to serve King Nebuchadnezzar and ensure that no one is left in Jerusalem to mount a revolt against him.

As you can imagine, those forced into servitude in Babylon are anxious and fearful. They find themselves in a strange land among a strange people with different culture, history, philosophy, and religion. Nothing is familiar. Nothing is safe. Nothing is sure. They just want to go home. Life in exile is filled with constant uncertainty.

Jeremiah, meanwhile, had been left behind. So the ancient prophet writes a letter from the rubble of Jerusalem to all of the exiles in Babylon. Compared to the doom, gloom and dystopian vision he’s always painted in his prophesies, his letter reads like a wise grandfather telling his grandchildren not to worry. He assures them God has not abandoned them. It’s all going to be alright. It is in this letter that Jeremiah pens the famous verse. While things may look dark and hopeless in Babylonian exile, God has a plan and a purpose for their good, and for their future.

I’ve come to understand that along life’s journey I will face personal periods of wandering, treks through wilderness, and/or stretches of personal exile. In wilderness, in exile is where I always meet Lady Wisdom. In hindsight I can see that she called out to me from the security and comfort of home, but I refused to listen. It is in exile I find her. It is in the wilderness, stripped bare of the illusions of my securities, that the ears of my heart are open to what she has to say. Her lessons are essential to God’s ultimate plans and purpose for me.

This morning happens to be my birthday. It’s the 52nd anniversary of the beginning of my life journey. This morning in the quiet I am thinking back to thirteen years ago when I woke up in a strange place of personal exile. What a different place on life’s road I find myself this morning. God’s plans and purposes are continually being revealed. I’m grateful for the things Lady Wisdom had to teach me back then.

One of the theme songs of Wendy’s and my life journey together is flitting through my head this morning. It’s a riff on Jeremiah’s encouraging letter to all those in exile from brother Marley:

Don’t worry about a thing,
’cause every little thing is gonna be alright.”

Don’t Walk Out in the Middle of the Movie

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch….”
Jeremiah 23:5 (NIV)

I have a vivid memory from about the age of 13. My mother sat me down at our family’s dining room table and explained to me that, financially, things were not looking good for our family. My father was in a business  that was not doing well and my father had decided to walk away from the partnership in order for it to survive. There was a possibility, my mother explained, that we would lose our house and have to move. She wanted me to understand that things were tight and there would be no money for extras. We all had to “tighten our belts.”

As is typical with children, I’d never given much consideration to our family’s socio-economic status. Our needs were met. We had a loving family. My parents were hard workers and things were always status quo. This message of doom was a shock for me.

I do remember a few lean years as my dad switched to a couple of different jobs and ended up commuting an hour each day to work. My folks plugged away to make ends meet. It was the years of the farm crisis of the late 70s and early 80s and, while we weren’t farmers, there were plenty of people struggling. As a teenager, I learned some important life lessons in those years about perseverance, hard work and simple faith. In fact it was during those years that I found my faith in Christ.

It is common, I have found, for casual readers to wade into the ancient messages of the prophets and find only doom and gloom. And, to be honest, there’s plenty to be had. There is a lot of violence from a very violent period of history. It’s easy to get weighed down by the negativity. But, if you’re not careful you’ll miss the larger story.

In today’s chapter, amidst a terrible siege and Jeremiah’s prophecies of destruction, death and exile, the message takes an abrupt u-turn. From the royal line of David, Jeremiah predicts, God is going to raise up a “Righteous Branch” to shepherd His people. From a macro-view, it appears that God is pruning back the royal line which has been bearing bad fruit for a long time. There will be lean years. Things look pretty gloomy. That’s what happens when you prune things back. But from that royal line a new Branch will spring which  will become the Vine from which the fruit of the Spirit and new wine will be produced. Matthew and Luke were careful to record Jesus’ family tree in their respective Gospels. They wanted everyone to know that Jesus’ sprung from David’s tree. The “Righteous Branch” had bloomed.

This morning  the chapter has me thinking about the doom and gloom of the prophets. Every great story includes conflict and a period of time in which everything looks bleak. The hero is a “goner” and it’s all going to fall apart. Then comes the eucatastrophy and the climactic moment when it all comes together and works out.

I’ve discovered that giving up on the prophets in the middle of the doom and gloom is like giving up all hope because dad’s job changed and things are going to be tight financially. It’s like walking out of the movie when the hero is tied up next to a bomb and the countdown timer is at two minutes. Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet” reminds me today to “wait for it.” There is hope, light, and redemption at the end of the tunnel, but I have to press on and persevere.