Tag Archives: Wisdom

Crisis Through Agur’s Eyes

“Under three things the earth trembles,
    under four it cannot bear up:
a servant who becomes king,
    a godless fool who gets plenty to eat,
a contemptible woman who gets married,
    and a servant who displaces her mistress.”

Proverbs 30:21-23 (NIV)

I don’t believe that I can truly appreciate just how blessed I am in this world, and in this time, compared with the general state of human existence throughout history. There are daily necessities for survival that I take completely for granted like fresh water out of a tap, secure shelter, heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, and an abundance of food. There is also sanitation, security, safety, and health. Then there’s communication (I get to see and talk to my grandson on the other side of the world whenever I desire), transportation (I can fly through the air anywhere in the world), medicine, and the rule of law make living today easier, safer, cleaner, healthier, and more entertaining than any age in human history this side of the Garden of Eden.

In the ancient Middle East, a very high value was placed on social order. I’m not sure I can completely appreciate why it was so important. I do understand, however, that everyday life for the sage Agur (who wrote today’s chapter of wise sayings) was infinitely more tenuous than for me. His most basic needs for human survival (water, food, shelter) were never givens. If he got a virus, an infection, or had a heart attack he would die. His life expectancy was short. If there was a famine, a drought, or a flood there was no government assistance or subsidies. Agur would starve, or risk traveling to another country to beg, or his tribe might attack another tribe to plunder what they could. Life for Agur was not safe, not secure, and not easy. So, social order gave him and people of his day a sense of peace and sanity to an otherwise unpredictable existence.

Agur then speaks of “earth trembling” (think uncertainty, confusion, insecurity, and being out of control) when four things happen. The four things he lists might seem silly to us today, but they represented the social order of Agur’s world turned upside-down. They were things that brought unease, insecurity, and meant the already tenuous order of life was going to be even more out-of-sorts.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but find myself thinking of the “trembling” our “earth” has experienced in recent weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. The insanely easy and secure order life I enjoy has been briefly interrupted. I am inconvenienced. I will suffer a loss of income. But, as I meditated on what life must have been like for Agur, I imagined him traveling through time and arriving as a guest in my home. I imagine the wonder in his eyes as he sees how much room we have in our house (for only two people). I picture him walking around and seeing the food in my pantry (which could probably sustain us for weeks or months), our water faucet, the sanitary plumbing in my bathroom, the countless gadgets that entertain me, the library of books on our shelves, the safety of my nation and community, the modern apothecary and medical supplies in my medicine cabinet, the bed I sleep in, and the number of clothes in my drawer. I imagine him seeing all of this and taking it all in. Then I hear his incredulous scoff at my whining and complaints of the travails of quarantines, social distancing, and how inconvenienced I’ve been for a couple of weeks.

“Crisis” is a fascinating thing to experience. I find myself being continually reminded just how often Jesus told His followers not to be afraid, not to worry, and not to be anxious. And Jesus’ life was a lot more like Agur’s than mine. I find it ironic how easy it is to step into the fear trap, no matter how safe, secure, and well-provisioned I am.

Today, I want to keep seeing my life through Agur’s eyes.

I think the perspective will do me good.

<— 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

Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story (Part 2)

In this episode, we decode some of the basic confusion people have about the Bible and provide suggestions and recommendations for diving into the “shallow end” where you won’t drown in discouragement.

Wayfarer Podcast Episode 10: A Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story (Part 2)

You can subscribe to the Wayfarer podcast through Apple iTunes and Google Play.

More Than Words

Servants cannot be corrected by mere words;
    though they understand, they will not respond.

Proverbs 29:19 (NIV)

A while back my company performed a “pilot” assessment of a client’s Customer Service team. We assessed a couple hundred phone calls between the Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) and their customers over a four week period of time. As with most of our initial assessments, data revealed the team to be pretty good. There was certainly inconsistency across the team. Some team members were naturally better than others. There was also a tremendous opportunity for improvement. Even the best CSR on the team had room to grow.

When that assessment was complete, we presented the results to the team, and targeted five key service skills for improvement. We trained them how to demonstrate these skills, provided examples, and gave them tactics of how to begin demonstrating these skills into their conversations with customers.

The plan had been for us to immediately begin an on-going assessment of calls for the team, so we could track the individual CSR’s progress, provide data on their individual development, and coach each one towards improvement. The client, however, implemented a change in their telephone system which meant we could not access recordings of the team’s calls for three months. By the time we finally had access to the team’s calls, four months had passed since our initial assessment.

So, how had the CSR done with the information and training we’d provided four months earlier?

Of the twelve CSRs on the team two of them did a bit better, two of them did a bit worse and eight of them were statistically the same. It was a perfect bell curve. Customers had not experienced any meaningful improvement in service.

In today’s chapter, the ancient Sage says that you can’t correct a person “with mere words.” A person may get what you’re saying, but they’re not motivated to actually change their behavior. That is going to require more than mere words and information.

Once our team was able to begin on-going assessments, CSRs were able to see how their service compared to their team each month. They were held accountable for their performance, and given the opportunities to receive cash bonuses if they performed at a high level. Suddenly, change began to happen. I’m happy to say that the team eventually became top-notch in providing service to their customers.

There’s a tremendous life lesson in this for me. Being complacent is the norm. Living each day simply driven by my appetites, habits, instincts, and emotions is really easy. Being disciplined, transforming old, unhealthy habits into healthy new ones, and learning to respond in wisdom rather than emotion are things that require intention, attention, and accountability. The Sage is right. I can read every self-help manual on Amazon and listen to every motivational podcast on the planet, but it’s another thing to actually make a change.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself in self-evaluation mode. How am I doing with the things I wanted to accomplish? Have I been able to actually change my behavior in order to progress towards the internal goals I’ve set for myself this week, this month, this year, in life? Honestly, it’s a mixed bag. I’ve progressed well in some things and haven’t moved an inch in others.

In this season of stay-at-home quarantine, I have the time and opportunity to review, recalibrate, and renew my efforts. My Enneagram Type Four temperament risks letting Resistance drag me into shame for all the things I haven’t done, then sic pessimism on me to convince me I’ll never actually do it. But, I know from previous experience on this earthly journey that shame and pessimism are wasted emotions. I can’t do anything about the past.

I do, however, have today lying before me…

<— 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

The Adult Version

A ruler who oppresses the poor
    is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.

Proverbs 28:3 (NIV)

One of the great, untaught lessons in the entirety of the Great Story is a sad one. In fact, I don’t believe that I’ve heard it mentioned even once in any lecture or message in my entire lifetime. It is the story of wise King Solomon’s foolishness.

As a little boy growing up in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School I learned a lot about the Bible through simple stories taught in simple ways. I remember learning them with cheesy paper cut-out images of characters placed on a “flannelgraph.” In fact, if you look up “flannelgraph” on Wikipedia, the image they use is of a Bible Story. Today we do the same thing with colorful, bright cartoons that offer children’s versions of ancient stories.

As a young man, I became a genuine follower of Jesus and began reading the Bible for myself. I studied it in college and seminary classes. I’ve been perpetually reading and studying it for forty-years. Along my journey, I’ve worshiped, served, and taught in many different churches from diverse doctrinal backgrounds. I’ve made a couple of observations along the way.

First, I have observed individuals who never moved beyond the stories of the Bible being broad and simple morality tales for children taught in bright colors and cartoonish characters. Then, as young adults, they became easily dismissed along with the rest of the cartoon characters they grew up with. Second, I have known and observed sincerely faithful, adult believers who made a conscious, cognitive decision to accept the doctrinal beliefs of their childhood church or denomination. Still, they have little or no experiential knowledge of the faith they profess to follow, and their faith is based on a combination of Bible tales told to them as a child and a life-long habit of traditions and rituals.

So, now we come back to King Solomon, the son of King David who has been known for almost 3,000 years as the “wise” and extravagantly rich king. The simple Bible story goes like this: as a child, God offered Solomon either wisdom or great riches. Solomon chose wisdom and God blessed him with both wisdom and great riches. It’s a tale with a simple moral to teach our children. Solomon then went on to have three books of “wisdom literature” traditionally attributed to his authorship: Proverbs, Song of Songs, and the book of Ecclesiastes. And, I have observed that this is about all most people remember.

The extended, adult version of Solomon’s story is (much like my own story, btw) much messier and far more complicated than the simple, story-book version. Solomon was the offspring of David’s adulterous marriage to Bathsheba, the woman whose husband David had murdered. Being the last of David’s children, Solomon should have been last in the line of male children (from multiple women) to ascend the throne. Bathsheba maneuvered events to make sure David named Solomon king. Solomon conscripted labor to build all of his great visionary projects (Solomon’s Temple being chief among them), and even his fellow Hebrew tribes complained of being treated like slaves. Solomon also appears not to have passed his wisdom along to his own son, Rehoboam, who succeeded him. Rehoboam followed his father’s example, not his wise words, in ignoring the wisdom of the proverb pasted at the top of this post. Rather than easing the oppression Solomon had placed on his own people, Rehoboam promised more oppression and irreparably fractured the kingdom into bloody and contentious civil war.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reading Solomon’s wise words knowing that he, himself, foolishly failed to follow them. And, that is the lesson for me today. As I contemplate this fact, my thinking goes to two places. One, that it’s too easy for me to be critical of Solomon for his hypocrisy of famously saying one thing while doing another. The truth is that there are plenty of examples of the same types of hypocrisy in my own life and story. Second, I’m mindful of the fact that Solomon’s human failings don’t alter the wisdom of his proverbs in the same way my own human failings don’t alter Jesus’ message. Come to think of it, it only makes His message more relevant to me. After 40 years, I’m still just an imperfect human in need of both grace and mercy as I try to follow Jesus each day. I’ve left behind a lot of foolishness, but I have by no means attained all that Lady Wisdom is still trying to teach me.

<— 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

Poison on the Team

As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire,
    so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.

Proverbs 26:21 (NIV)

There is a client of mine who had a team that had been struggling for some time. While other teams around them were making great strides in their service performance, this one particular team languished in mediocrity. My quarterly training sessions with this team were sometimes painful. Silence. Arms crossed. No eye contact. No participation.

There was one member of this team who was, by far, the worst performer of the group. His performance on the phone calls we regularly assessed were so bad, that one almost had to willfully try to be that consistently awful to their customers. Over several years, the management team tried just about everything to motivate a change in this person. They tried offering cash bonuses for better performance, they provided remedial coaching (I had the joy of conducting many of the coaching sessions…ugh, also painful), they wrote him up on multiple Performance Improvement Plans with HR, and they made threats to fire him. Nothing worked. The longer this went on, I believe the more convinced he was that he didn’t really have to change and the more stubborn he became.

Coincidentally, I was asked at one point to mentor this team’s new supervisor. The newbie had been a member of the team for a long time and was promoted to his first managerial position. I watched him go through all of the same efforts as his predecessor trying to motivate behavior change in the team’s entrenched curmudgeon.

“What am I going to do with him?” the supervisor eventually asked me directly.

“Fire him,” I responded just as directly.

The supervisor seemed shocked by response. I explained.

Look,” I said, “Your management team has wasted their efforts for years trying to get this person to perform. There is a well-documented track record of a bad attitude, poor performance, and an unwillingness to do any more than the very least that is required to avoid getting fired. His attitude has poisoned the entire team and your team will never be healthy until you get rid of the problem at the source.

I had made this same suggestion multiple times to the supervisor’s predecessor and managers, but they could never take the final step of terminating his employment. I actually expected nothing different from the new supervisor, because he was new and firing a team member went against this client’s corporate culture.

I was, therefore, surprised to learn that my managerial protégé took my advice and fired the team member a short time later. Wouldn’t you know it? That year the team that had been mired in mediocrity reached their service quality performance goal for the very first time. I handed out more year-end performance awards to members of that team than ever. The team that had been so painful to train for so many years was laughing, cheering, clapping, and celebrating.

In today’s chapter, Solomon wisely says that a quarrelsome and contentious person is like adding wood to a fire. It spreads. My client’s entire team was stuck in their contentious mediocrity and poor performance because of one team member’s poisonous attitude. I wish I could say that this is the only example I’ve seen in my years of helping my clients improve the quality of their customer service, but it’s not. It’s actually fairly common. What isn’t common is a client’s willingness to do the right thing for everyone (especially their customers) and decisively extract the poison from the system whether it is firing the person or moving them to a different job with a different team that might be a better fit.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about other poisonous team members I’ve encountered in my vocational journey and the reticence, even in my own company, of confronting it. What I’ve observed over time is that these individuals really don’t want to be in their positions. Sometimes getting rid of a poisonous team member actually frees that person to find something better for themselves. I have followed the careers of a few fired team members on social media and it appears that they are much happier after finding a job that better suits their talents, desires, and personalities. And, some appear to be tragically angry and contentious people in any role no matter where they work.

At least a company can fire such a person. When the contentious and quarrelsome individual is part of a family system, it’s a far more difficult situation. Solomon had another proverb for such tragic circumstances:

To have a fool for a child brings grief;
    there is no joy for the parent of a godless fool.

<— 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

Up For The Fight!

Like cold water to a weary soul
    is good news from a distant land.

Proverbs 25:25 (NIV)

As I write this I am sweating profusely. With all the crazy of the global Coronavirus initiatives, my local CrossFit box had to close for a couple of weeks as mandated by the State of Iowa. So, my schedule is a bit off from normal and I worked out this morning at home. Now, I can’t get cooled down as I mop my brow with a rag and guzzle cold water.

What an apt metaphor for our current realities. As we struggle to figure out how to keep our daily routines and rhythms amidst working from home, mandatory lock-downs, and social distancing I can feel the corporate sweat we all feel with the unknown. I feel it in conversations with clients. I feel it in text conversations with our children. I feel it myself as I wonder how all of this will play out. The sweat of fear, anxiety, change, and confusion is something we’re all feeling one way or another.

I was reading my favorite Catholic mystic this morning and I loved what he had to say:

We are in the midst of a highly teachable moment. There’s no doubt that this period will be referred to for the rest of our lifetimes. We have a chance to go deep, and to go broad. Globally, we’re in this together. Depth is being forced on us by great suffering, which as I like to say, always leads to great love. 

But for God to reach us, we have to allow suffering to wound us. Now is no time for an academic solidarity with the world. Real solidarity needs to be felt and suffered. That’s the real meaning of the word “suffer” – to allow someone else’s pain to influence us in a real way. We need to move beyond our own personal feelings and take in the whole.

Richard Rohr

The (sweat-marked) t-shirt I’m wearing right now says, “Fight Pessimism” and I consciously chose it after my workout and shower. I have a feeling that we are just at the front-end of the “weary” we will experience in the days, weeks, and months ahead. Nevertheless, in the depth of every dark valley is the opportunity to ascend a new mountain.

The ancient sage Solomon tells me in this morning’s chapter that good news from a distant land is like the cool water I am absolutely loving right now as it refreshes my tired body. In the same way, I have an opportunity right now to be “good news” and refreshment to others in this moment of global insanity. I can offer to help others. I can share words of love, kindness, and encouragement. I can grocery shop for shut-ins. I can share toilet paper with those who can’t find any. I can reach out to old friends through social media to reconnect, share memories, and share a drink over FaceTime. I can get my mind off the sweat of my own fears and turn it into being cool water to another weary soul.

Fight pessimism. I’m up for the fight. You?

Let me know if you need a roll of toilet paper.

<— 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

Because I can, Doesn’t Mean I should

When you sit to dine with a ruler,
    note well what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat
    if you are given to gluttony.

Proverbs 23:1-2 (NIV)

When I was starting out in my career, we had miser in charge of our company’s travel expenses. It was dictated that we would stay in the cheapest places, rent the cheapest cars, and keep our meals to a minimum. In many cases, the cheapest alternatives were zealously investigated and it was required that we use them.

I still have memories of the hole-in-the-wall car rental place that this person found. It was a true “rent-a-dent” with a small fleet of small, two-door Grand Prix Pontiacs. They were almost all red and they had been purchased from other car rental places on the cheap because they had high-mileage, lots of wear, ran rough, and every single one of them had been the used by their previous owners as the cars designated for smokers. Even the $17 a day we paid was overpriced for these barely roadworthy pieces of junk. I now look back and laugh at those days like a veteran road warrior swapping battle stories, but it really was extreme.

I’m happy to say that after a few years the travel restrictions were eased. We were allowed to stay in mid-tier hotels and negotiated an account with one of the major car rental companies. Our per diem for meals was eased to a reasonable limit. Nevertheless, the standard had been set. We watch what we spend, what gets charged to the client, and always keep it reasonable.

A few years later, I was having lunch with the CEO of a large client we were privileged to serve for many years.

“You know why I love you and your company? Why I respect you and keep doing business with you?” he asked me unexpectedly in his thick New York Jewish accent.

I was honestly curious to know.

“It’s your expense reports,” he quickly said in response to his own question without waiting for me to answer, “You don’t try and gouge me. You wouldn’t believe what most vendors try and get away with. They expect me to pay for the magazines they buy to read on the plane and $200 bottles of wine at lunch. It’s ridiculous. Your team always just charges me for the basics, and it’s always reasonable. That tells me a lot about your company.”

I thought about that lunch, and that CEO, as I read this morning’s chapter and the sage saying of ancient Jewish wisdom at the top of this post. That lunch was an important waypoint in my career as I began to see myself through the eyes of the decision makers who hire our company. While the miser I first experienced as a corporate rookie took things to an unnecessary extreme, I came to understand the wisdom that motivated their frugality. Clients pay attention to what we charge them, and they make judgements about our integrity, our character, and our relationship because of it.

In the quiet this morning, I’m smiling and whispering a prayer of gratitude for the person who made me endure long road trips in a stale, smoke-smelling rust-buckets. It wasn’t fun at the time, but it taught me an important lesson. And, it became a really good story for those days when I find myself comparing battle scars with fellow road warriors at the airport.

Now that I find myself at the top of the company’s org chart, I know that there are clients who assume that I will expect a higher level of travel experience when I’m on business with their company. I’ve even had a few clients encourage me to stay in nicer places and/or enjoy a higher-ticket meal or two than what they see I charged on my expense report. I thank them, and then I purposefully and silently refuse to do so. When it comes to next year’s contract, I never want to give the client any reason, even a small reason, to suspend or end our relationship.

<— 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