Tag Archives: Twelve Steps

False Fronts

One person pretends to be rich, yet has nothing;
    another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth.
Proverbs 13:7 (NIV)

Looks can be deceiving.

It’s one of those basic truths that I find myself conveniently forgetting time and time and time again. That perfect image being broadcast for everyone to see on Facebook and Instagram hides the inner shambles of life. The billionaire turns out to be bankrupt. A child buries his poor, elderly parents and is shocked to find out from the estate attorney that they’ve had millions all along.

The amazing little town where we live in Iowa was founded by Dutch settlers. We celebrate the Dutch heritage to the point that visitors from the Netherlands regularly comment that we are “more Dutch than the Dutch.” If you do business in our town your building (even the fast food places and national retail chains) has to have what we call a “Dutch front” with decorative flourishes that fit in with the town’s Hollander motif. In some of the old buildings downtown, the cute Dutch front you see from the street might easily hide a ramshackle, interior mess desperately in need of updating and renovation. It’s not unlike a set on a stage that looks amazing from the audience but actually hides bare lumber on a hollow, dark backstage.

Over the years, the concept of “Dutch front” has taken on a deeper metaphorical meaning for me. Religion regularly puts forth a false exterior of purity, piety, and self-righteousness for the world to see, while the interior life hides all sorts of dark desires, appetites, thoughts, and deeds. It is the same thing Jesus addressed with the religious leaders and teachers (part of a religious faction called the Pharisees):

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

Matthew 23:25-28 (MSG)

In the quiet this morning, I’m finding it hard to look at the spec of dust in the Pharisee’s eye and ignore the log in my own. The truth is that I can be just as guilty of wanting to be seen by others in the best light while keeping my flaws, faults, failures, and foibles conspicuously hidden.

As I walk the spiritual path of the season of Lent, one of the key practices to which I’m called is honest introspection. For non-believers or the non-religious, it’s basically the same thing as Step Four of the Twelve Steps: made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

And so, I find myself desiring this morning to be authentic in how I present myself to the world. I don’t want to hide behind a facade of piety (projecting false spiritual wealth to the world while I’m actually struggling because my spiritual reserve account is overdrawn), nor do I want to hide behind a facade of false humility (projecting to the world that I’m spiritually destitute while having a spiritual inheritance as a child of the Creator). To be honest, I’m not always sure where that balance is, but I know it starts with me being authentic in how I present myself whether it be in my work, my neighborhood, my relationships, my social media posts, these blog posts, or among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers.

The prayer that is welling up in my spirit this morning is actually a show tune. Here’s the YouTube for you. (Shout out to our friend Brystal for inspiring us with this. Your message that morning still resonates!)

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

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.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Todays featured photo courtesy of ucffool via Flickr.

Wise Companions

Thus you will walk in the ways of the good
    and keep to the paths of the righteous
.
Proverbs 2:20 (NIV)

There was a client who I was mentoring some time ago. I went into our time together ready to discuss some of the career initiatives we’d been discussing in previous sessions. But before I could even get started the session took an unexpected turn.

My protègè told me that he had to share about a huge shift in his life since the last time we had met together. He had been living hard and fast outside of work with his friends. The effects eventually caught up with him physically, financially, and spiritually. He hit bottom and, like so many of us, found himself at Step One. He admitted that he had become powerless over his behaviors and his life had become unmanageable. He sought help, surrendered his life to Christ, and everything had changed.

As the story continued, he shared some of the lessons he had been learning. Chief among them was a discovery about those who he had long considered his “friends.” For a long time, he had been the one who always picked up the bar tab at the end of the night. Often, he was so drunk that he would wake up the next morning with no idea how much he had spent until he looked at the receipt. Wouldn’t you know it? As soon as he stopped drinking (and paying for the bar tab) his “friends” wanted nothing to do with him.

In today’s chapter, wise King Solomon covers the benefits of wisdom. Of the benefits listed was keeping one free from “wicked men” and the “adulterous woman.” In short, there is wisdom in being careful about the company one keeps and the effect that those companions have on one’s thoughts and behaviors. I am sometimes tempted to think that being influenced by friends with poor motives and peer pressure as something from adolescence. In reality, it’s just as relevant at any age.

The memory of my protègè’s story and Solomon’s words struck me this morning because Wendy and I have recently been discussing some things about my own life. Our discussion prompted me to quickly reach out to a couple of my closest friends and long-time companions with me on this life journey. These are friends who, I know from years of experience, are motivated to want me to be the best man, husband, father, grandfather, and friend that I can be. They each listened empathetically, they both extended grace to me, and they both gave me wise counsel that could be classified as King Solomon approved.

I am blessed to have their company on this sojourn.

In the quiet this morning I find myself whispering a prayer of gratitude for my protègè who “wised-up” and continues to experience the benefits of positive changes in his life and relationships. I find myself whispering a prayer of gratitude for my friends past and present who have motivated me to make wise life choices, not foolish ones. And, I find myself whispering a prayer for those I know who have yet to learn the lesson.

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

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.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Well…Sh!t

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.
Romans 5:12 (NIV)

I had a friend hit rock bottom. I’d suspected it for some time. In fact I had just mentioned my fears to Wendy a few days before. I could hear it in the voice and in the things that were said, and left unsaid, in our conversations. I sensed the spiritual tremors before the big one hit. I got the desperation call while I was standing on the jet bridge getting on a plane. My friend’s life was spiraling out of control.

Millions of people have reclaimed various forms of sanity, sobriety, and life through working what’s known as the Twelve Steps. It’s famous for people who are dealing with addictions in various forms, although I’ve known several people who have walked the Twelve Steps journey simply to experience it for themselves, and have found it profoundly profitable in their lives and relationships.

The first step of the Twelve Steps is simply this: “We admitted we were powerless against [insert your own tragic weakness here] – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

“Sin” is such a hard word to wrestle with in today’s culture of perpetual positive reinforcement. We like to gloss over, excuse, diminish, contextualize, ignore, and deny. Perhaps it’s the sense of judgment and the fact that it’s quite often been weaponized and used by the minions of legalism [see yesterday’s post] to assert power and control. Ironic, isn’t it? “Sin” can be leveraged for purposes that are, well, sinful. (I think there’s a good script waiting to be written on that theme!)

If it’s possible, I’d like to lay aside our preconceived notions of sin, for a moment. In fact, for the rest of this post I’m simply going to substitute the word shit for sin. Along my life journey I’ve found that the path of following Jesus and the journey of the Twelve Steps both ask of followers to begin by owning our shit:

  • I know the right thing to do, but I don’t do it.
  • I know I should quit, but I can’t.
  • As hard as I try to love him/her, I end up hurting him/her instead.
  • I’ve been hanging on to a secret that’s eating away at me from the inside.
  • I keep making the same mistake and ending up in the same shitty place.
  • I repeatedly use [choose from list below] like a drug to give me a moment of feeling good (or feeling nothing); Anything but the shit I don’t want to feel, face, or deal with:
    • Food
    • Alcohol
    • Drugs
    • Sex/Porn
    • Nothing: passivity, sleep, zoning out
    • Ceaseless entertainment
    • Acquisition of money and wealth
    • Acquisition of things
    • Acquisition of attention, popularity, and/or “Likes”
    • Success, career
    • Power and control
    • Anger
    • Relationships
    • Adrenaline and thrill-seeking
    • Vacations or travel
    • Hobbies
    • Sports
    • Religion
    • Appearance
    • Physical fitness, health

I could go on. Most of things on this list can be good, healthy, and Life-giving in proper doses and in a healthy context. I’ve observed along my life journey that most of the shit in our lives comes from taking a natural appetite and indulging it to unhealthy proportions.

So what do we do with the shit in our lives? Because we all have our shit. I can, perhaps, manage perceptions and appearances for a period of time, but the shit starts piling up and, at some point, life gets unmanageable. Which is when we have to honestly own our own shit, and admit that it’s not working.

Now we’re at the first step.

In today’s chapter Paul begins to help us understand how our shit fits into the Great Story and exactly why Jesus came and sacrificed Himself.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded of Jesus’ first encounter with Simon Peter on the shores of Galilee. Having experienced a miraculous catch, Peter falls to his knees in front of Jesus and says, “Stay away from me. You have no idea the shit in my life.”

And I imagine Jesus smiling as he whispers to Himself, “Oh yeah. I can work with this. He’s one of mine.”

Balak’s an Idiot (and so am I)

Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam. He struck his hands together and said to him, “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed themthese three times.”
Numbers 24:10 (NIV)

Yesterday morning, after writing my post and finishing my quiet time, I settled in at the breakfast table. Wendy was just finishing reading our previous chapter as she waited for me.

Balak is an idiot,” she said with a chuckle and shake of her head.

I laughed, and agreed with her. The narrative clearly portrays the Moabite king as not being the sharpest tool in the shed. Balaam the seer clearly spoke the terms up front to Balak. He would say only what the Lord told him to say, no matter how much treasure Balak offered Balaam to say what he wanted to hear.

Nevertheless, Balak makes Balaam view the Hebrew encampment from three different vantage points, expecting Balaam’s prophetic message to change with the view. When the prophecy doesn’t change to his favor, Balak tells Balaam that he’s not going to pay. Duh. Balaam reminds Balak that he knew that up front.

It is out of Alcoholics Anonymous that we got the popular notion that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It appears Balak could have benefitted from the Twelve Steps.

In the quiet this morning, however, I’m reminded that I can often find my own reflection in the individuals I criticize. There are stretches of my own journey in which I was looped in endless cycles of brokenness. Truth be told, I have found that significant spiritual progress usually requires breaking systemic negative patterns of thought or behavior. The further you progress the deeper, more intimate, and less obvious those negative patterns are to the casual observer. Recovering Alcoholics will tell you that they once thought drinking was their problem. Journeying through the Twelve Steps you discover that your addiction is just the tip of the iceberg.

This morning as I laugh at King Balak’s idiocy, I have to humbly confess that I am also laughing at myself.

Have a good weekend, my friend.

Spiritual Self-Examination

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.
2 Corinthians 13:5a (NIV)

I have basically gone to the same family doctor since I was twelve years old and he pulled a big chunk of a splintered, wooden skateboard out of my left thigh. He’s treated my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, and me for almost 40 years. He’s what I call an “old world doc.” He’s a great diagnostician, he takes the time to listen, and he’s a straight shooter to the point of being uncomfortably blunt.

As I grew up, Doc taught me a lot about self-examination relative to my own health. He taught me that a man’s periodic self-examination  for testicular cancer was every bit as important as women doing a self-examination for breast cancer. As I developed a number of moles on my body he took the time to teach me what to be wary of with the regard to skin cancer and encouraged me to pay attention to moles and spots as they appeared over the years. Based on my family history, he would grill me on warning signs for different things that run in the family. He told me of symptoms I didn’t have to worry about and the things I should definitely be worried about if I noticed them.

We all know that self-examination is important to our physical health. We want to catch small problems before they become big ones. In today’s chapter Paul reminds the followers of Jesus in Corinth that spiritual self-examination is critical, as well. I believe it has eternal consequences. Step Four of the Twelve Steps is that we “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Along life’s journey I’ve attended a host of Twelve Step groups and meetings, and I noticed that it is quite common to stall out after Step Three.  Self examination was a foreign spiritual (or moral) concept to me at first. It was scary, awkward, and uncomfortable. Searching myself fearlessly and making a thorough moral inventory felt like a lot of work and I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit to or deal with what I might find.

A self-examination of my skin might reveal a fast growing, oddly shaped growth than could indicate a more serious issue with cancer. Testing it, I might not like the blunt news from Doc, but addressing it quickly and early might stave off a premature death. In the same way, I found that a searching and fearless self-examination of the soul leads me to honest conversation, wise counsel, and to addressing relational and behavioral issues that just might stave off both spiritual and relational death.

This morning I did a search for “Step Four Questions” in my favorite browser and I quickly found a host of different lists of questions for adolescents, adults, and Twelve Step groups of different varieties. There is no one magic list. It’s relatively easy for me to pull one up and dive right in.

This morning I’m remembering starting down the path of Step Four for the first time. It was scary, awkward, and uncomfortable when I embarked on the process of writing my answers to the host of questions that had been given to me. What I discovered what that those questions led me to healthy, life-giving places. I’ve never regretted learning the process of self-examination.

Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 5

“When you are guilty, immediately confess the sin that you’ve committed and bring as your penalty to God for the sin you have committed a female lamb or goat from the flock for an Absolution-Offering.” Leviticus 5:5 (MSG)

A guilty conscience is a killer. It robs you of sleep. It ties your gut into knots. It gnaws at your thoughts. A person may be able to keep a lid on a guilty conscience for a time, but it will eat away at your soul until the guilt starts oozing out of your life in unexpected, often unhealthy ways.

When those burdened by addictions walk through the Twelve Steps, they are really walking through a systematic process of confession and atonement. The Twelve Steps are rooted in the understanding that our addictions are unhealthy ways we’ve habitually and ritualistically tried to medicate and cope with deeper guilt and pain. Through introspection, admission and making amends, we deal with the deeper issues which led us to our addictive behaviors.

The cool thing about the ancient law of Leviticus is that it presents and attempts to deal with core spiritual, relational, and personal issues with which we continue as human beings to struggle today. The prescription may look very different on this side of history, the sacrifice of Jesus, and the empty tomb, but the issues with which we silly humans grapple at the root of it are the same ones they were wrestling with 3500 years ago.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and evilerin