What is this?

What is this Spiritual Journey? Maybe I should start by telling you what it is not…..

This journey is not:

  • An effort to find my faith. My faith in God remains strong, in many ways it is stronger than it has been. But more on that later.
  • An effort to follow in my father’s footsteps. I greatly respect my Father and in the 53 years that I was able to do this thing called life with him, I was blessed in many ways to be “that” preacher’s kid. However, I am not my father, I am not intending to try to be my father. Instead, I’m attempting to take the blessings and the wisdom that he has shared over the years and tell the stories and share the insights through the lenses of my life, my experiences and the impact of things and people who have influenced my spiritual journey.
  • A recopy of what he wrote, preached and shared during his ministry here. It will be very deeply influenced by his work and will be extensively quoted, but it will be my writings in response to what The Bible and my Dad say and have said.

This journey is:

  • A journey back through the spiritual life and the work of a man who followed Jesus his entire life. Through it I expect to see many things. Some of them that we knew were important. Some of them we didn’t remember them as important then and we probably don’t recall them now. God used his words time and time again and I believe that God will continue to use them.
  • The Pastor at my church has said that God is wanting all of us to ask ourselves what we have to do to make more space and listen to Jesus more. My prayer is that God uses this and the time people spend reading it to open hearts and to allow us to see God – even through tough times. Especially in tough times.  But even more, my prayer is that God uses this in me.  Because I know I need to hear it and live it more.  I suspect we all do.
  • A study of the Bible through the sermons of Howard Vanderwell. I will be taking each of his sermons, reviewing them, pondering them and writing about them. I’m not going to attempt to set a goal as to how many I’m going to do a day or anything else like that. Why not? Because this journey isn’t being led by me. This journey is being led by the Holy Spirit, and if I set a goal on how many I’m going to do a day, I’m limiting God. I’m learning not to do that.

How will it come “out”? The plan at this point is that they will show up on http://tomvanderwell.net and there will be a sign-up form on there soon where you can have them delivered straight to your e-mail and can read them there. Eventually, someday, we hope to be able to publish them as a devotional book or series of devotional books that people can continue read and to live into and learn from God’s word through this effort.

So, if you want to be notified every time a new one gets posted, sign up on the A Spiritual Journey sign up form and that will keep you informed.

I feel a bit like a hiker who is about to head into a beautiful forest. We know it’s beautiful, we know that we will see some amazing and wonderful things. But we also know we might stub our collective toes. We might get lost and wander off the path. We might get chased by a wild pig running loose. But in spite of this, we can move forward because we know:

“I am not my own but belong, body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.” Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 1

I hope you’ll join me on this journey.


Another Lap Around the Sun

As we move forward, I look in the rearview mirror, what do I see?

⁃ I see church people being the hands and feet of Christ. In real.tangible.immediate.ways.
⁃ I see an ICU nurse who still asks how I’m doing every time she sees my daughter, the pharmacy tech, at the hospital.
⁃ I see “not so random” acts of kindness that can never be repaid but will someday be paid forward.
⁃ I see many people who think they can “make it better” by saying something (Hint – you can’t – but more on that later)
⁃ I see many people who know that the best thing they can do is “sit with you” in your pain. Whether it’s pain over medical issues or pain/grief over the death of a Father or a combination of both. Those who just were there and said, “I hear you.” They are more valuable than gold.
⁃ I see the silent hug of a church friend in the church aisle while I walk back from an emotional communion service and feeling the pain of it all.
⁃ I see a society with a lot of hidden pain. There’s a lot of visible pain but there’s a large amount of hidden pain that people rarely allow out to see the light of day.

I could go on and on about all of the ways that I’ve seen God at work since then. Frankly, one of the ways I can see God at work is by the fact that I’m here.

We all have a story. This AVM has been a part of my story for the last 40 years. In many ways I didn’t truly appreciate how much of an impact it had on my story, how big of a part it is in my story. It has been woven throughout my story and yet in many ways it’s possible to see God working through it and impacting our lives.

I’ve mentioned it on here before, but the musician TobyMac shared a quote that has been extremely meaningful to me:

“God is still writing your story. Stop trying to steal the pen.”

In the last few days, I’ve told you a brief overview of some of the chapters of my life. I have been blessed beyond measure and those chapters do not define who I am.

The chapter called 2018 is one I don’t want to come back to, but I also believe that we’re going to eventually see that God uses the events in a way that we’ll look back and say, “Okay, God, I see……”

It’s one thing to know that, it’s another thing to wait and wait and wait for the answers.

It’s going to be an interesting journey.


January 30, 2018 – A Day of Good and a Day of Struggle

It’s hard to believe it’s a year already.

It’s hard to believe it’s only a year.

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the doctors reduced my risk of a brain bleed
And for that I’m grateful

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the doctors greatly increased my opportunity to grow old with my wife. And for that I’m grateful.

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year that we’ve been dealing with the side effects that rarely ever happen. And for that I’m often frustrated, often disappointed, definitely closer to God and a lot more aware of the struggles other people face.

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year and I still feel like I’m getting used to living with “it.”

It’s hard to believe how incredibly complex and intertwined our brains and nervous system are. And for that I’m amazed at the God who created them.

I could go on and on but I won’t, at least not now.

On January 30, 2018, I went into the hospital to get the AVM in my neck and brain treated. I expected to be back on my feet and moving in at most a week or so.

When I came to in the recovery room, I could tell something wasn’t right. I was in a post anesthesia fog but as that cleared, a couple of things became obvious:
⁃ I could not hear anything out my left ear.
⁃ I had a nasty headache (something I’ve never had coming out of anesthesia before)
⁃ My throat was really sore. I mean really, really sore.

Over the next days and weeks, there became a growing realization that the problems weren’t temporary and weren’t going to go away – at least not soon and not on their own.

For a while, I could say that pretty much every week I felt better than I did the week before. Often it was small things but it was still improvement. About 3 to 4 months into the recovery, that pretty much stopped.

So where do I stand right now?
⁃ With approximately 40% of my hearing in left ear and that hearing is distorted so if I hear something only in my left ear, it sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks.
⁃ Noise in my head. The technical term is tinnitus – I prefer to describe it as 3 hours at a Rolling Stones concert 10 ft from the speaker.
⁃ My left vocal cord, part of my throat and left side of my tongue are paralyzed. This gives me swallowing, speech clarity, speech volume and speech quantity issues.
⁃ Virtually non-stop headaches. I say virtually because I don’t know if they go away when I sleep. They vary in intensity depending on a lot of factors – mainly what I’m doing, how noisy, busy, visually distracting things are.
⁃ With eyes that are attempting to adjust to the “mixed signals” that they are getting.

I’ve got a great and very large team of medical people that I’m working with trying to get as much improvement as possible. But realistically, as we cross this one year mark, the odds of a major change lie less in modern medicine and more in God doing something outside of the scope of modern medicine.

Where does that leave me?
⁃ Grateful to be here. Pastor Darrell often says from the pulpit, “God woke you up and brought you here for a reason. Let’s figure out why.”
⁃ Grateful for my wife – you know that “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health” part of marriage vows? Yeah, that’s her. I wouldn’t be here without her.
⁃ Grateful for the kindness and the prayers of people known and people not known.

January 30. I don’t think I’ll ever look at that date the same again. Much was lost on that day. But much was also gained. I have learned to see the battle between the devil pushing the “much was lost” attitude and Jesus pushing the “much was gained” attitude.

God is at work.

Jesus hasn’t finished writing our stories. Not yours. Not mine.

On January 30, he turned a page. A lot of the next page I can’t read yet.

But I know he’s got the pen.


The Clock Moves Forward to 2009

Okay, we went from 1986 to 2009 without a problem, that’s a good thing, right? Well, yes and no. Yes it is in that the AVM did not “reform” in a way where doing something was riskier than doing nothing. And no because some of the symptoms – sore neck, shoulder pain, ear issues were still there and gradually getting worse.

In 2009, it felt like I pulled a muscle or pinched a nerve in my shoulder, went to the doctor, did physical therapy, and it kept getting worse not better. So we ran the tests that confirmed that it was a vessel from the AVM pushing on a nerve in my shoulder. Once we realized that, it did not take long for the doctors here to say, “back to Mayo with you.”

So, we go back to Mayo and they run some more tests and look at things and they said, “we can do this.” The plan was to plug up some other small veins to change the blood flow so that it isn’t pushing on the nerve any more. I distinctly remember coming out of the post-procedure fog and saying, “I feel better already.”

So back to a busy life. There was always that “storm cloud” on the other side of the horizon – you couldn’t see it, but the radar said it was there and it was potentially a problem that could come your way. But most of the time, you didn’t give it much thought.

Until 2014 when it started to rain. Not rain a lot, just a slow steady drizzle. I started having some hearing issues. And some sensory issues on the left side of my tongue. On the bright side, it never hurts to get a flu shot – the upper part of my left arm is numb. Never feel a thing.

It was a slow gradual thing, so it’s harder to judge what happened when, but by the second half of 2017, it was determined that the risks of waiting and doing nothing were less than the risks of doing something.

What were the risks? The risks of waiting were basically two very simple but nasty ones – brain bleed or stroke. The outcome of either one of those would most likely be bad, very bad.

So the decision was made to do an Embolization. What’s that? It’s basically where the doctors use small coils and super glue to plug up the blood vessels that are a problem. Oh and somehow they manage to do it from an artery in your leg. Yeah, go figure.

I’ve had numerous of those procedures done over the last 40 years, I really wasn’t that nervous about it. The medical team left us feeling very confident that this would go well and with a couple of days off, I’d be back at it.

If this were the script to a movie, about now is when they’d play the ominous, scary music……


Jump Forward by Jumping Backward

So, I told you about this “thing.” This AVM thing, this strange blood vessel thing. This thing that I had to go to Mayo Clinic to get taken care of because no one around West Michigan knew what it was. Let that sink in for a second……

You’re in 8th grade.

You live near the second largest hospital in the state of Michigan.









I honestly don’t think, for many years, that I ever really came to grips with the emotional toll that this blood vessel “problem” took on me. But we’ll talk about that more later.

Now I want to jump from 1978 to 1986. Once again, we had reached the tipping point where doing nothing (meaning just watching things) was more risky than actually treating it. And guess what, the doctors in West Michigan said, “It’s different this time.”

Word of warning – if anyone ever says, “it’s different this time,” be afraid.

Be very afraid.

They mapped out a plan where they were going to go in and basically plug up some of these extra blood vessels – a little at a time – over the course of 6 sessions – one per month. Now mind you, when they plug up these little blood vessels, sometimes they are blood vessels that really don’t go anywhere so it’s sort of like putting a road block at the end of a cul-de-sac. So what?

Some of them do go somewhere and when you cut off blood flow to muscles, well, Mr. Muscle ain’t very happy.

Let’s just say that there’s more than one reason I can’t hit a golf ball nearly as far now as I did back before 1986. Each of those 6 sessions was very painful.

But there were two that were special. There’s one where, if I hadn’t been able to hear the doctors shouting at me, I would have thought I was going to die. Honestly. Here’s what happened. The way that they did these sessions was by going up through an artery in my leg and going all the way up to my neck. Well, something happened and normally they would put a small drop of a local anesthetic in before the “super glue” to make it a little less painful. Well, there was a drop of it that had a mind of its own. And that mind of its own wanted to go on a tour of my mind. Suddenly, my world was turning bright green and it sounded like a freight train was running right through the middle of my head. Yeah, probably one of the scariest situations I’ve ever been in. I don’t know whether it was 10 seconds or a minute or how long but it calmed back down and I was fine – but I was extremely exhausted for the next couple of weeks.

I don’t remember if it was the next one or the one after that, but we were back for another session and we had another problem. They would use coils/springs to help the super glue plug up the blood vessels. One of those springs got stuck halfway in and half way out of the tube they were using to insert it. It was stuck.

So rather than a “yucky” outpatient procedure, I ended up with major inpatient surgery and they had to essentially go chasing that coil more than halfway down my leg. Not a good thing. When I went in, I expected it would be a couple of days off, I ended up with 3 weeks off and totally wiped out from it. Not what I had planned at all.

After some hard discussions with the doctors here and doctors in other places around the country, we ended up flying to San Diego to spend some time with Dr. Charles Kerber. He finished up what the doctors here in West Michigan started.

Now I will be the first to admit that I am carrying too many pounds around, 20 years in the banking world and 5 kids don’t help a stress eating habit, but when this whole process was done, I weighed over 100 lbs less than I do now.

I need to lose weight. But not that much weight.

But we finished this up shortly before March 24, 1987. What’s so special about that date? That’s the date that I became a dad.

I’ll probably say more about that later.

For now I’ll just say that being a dad has been a blessing, a challenge and everything in between. I am proud of all 5 of my kids and the unique individuals they are. I love them all dearly.