Tag Archives: Church

The Religion Game

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Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
    to those who go the right way
    I will show the salvation of God.”

Psalm 50:23 (NRSVCE)

As a child, my family regularly attended church where worship was held with lots of traditional, liturgical pomp. I even got to participate as I sang in the children’s choir wearing my robe. Looking back with understanding, I have an appreciation for the metaphor and intent of all the liturgical devices, even the way the sanctuary was designed and laid out.

I went through the motions like everyone else. Sing this. Proceed to there. Sit down. Stand up. Say this. Sing this. Sit down. Read this. Stand up. Sing this. Sit down. Listen. Stand up. Sing this. Proceed there. Done. It happened every week with very little variation other than the words that were said or sang.

It was regular. It was rote. It was religious.

The problem was, I never thought much about it at all. It was what we did. I checked off the box along with every body else.

As I have ceaselessly journeyed through the Great Story, I’m always struck by the rather exhaustive system of sacrifices, offerings, rituals, and feasts that God dictates to the Hebrews through Moses. As I’ve studied them, I’ve come to appreciate the reason behind them and how they fit together in a cycle that led the Hebrews through specific thoughts and lessons about their relationship with God.

Nevertheless, there is sprinkled through the words of the psalmists and prophets a recurring theme that the people are doing all the things, but they’re hearts aren’t in it. They are making the sacrifices, offering the prescribed things at the prescribed times, going through the rituals, and attending the feasts. It was regular. It was rote. It was religious. The problem was that they weren’t really thinking much about it.

Today’s psalm was written to be sung as part of worship in the temple, but the songwriter, Asaph, is calling God’s people out for their mindless, spirit-less dedication to going through the religious motions. The “thanksgiving” offerings are void of any real gratitude. The real sacrifice, the songwriter says, is a heart full of gratitude to God which motivates all the other rituals.

This was the same thing Jesus found in the religious leaders of His day. They were continually critical of Him for breaking the religious regulation they added to the ancient rules. Jesus repeatedly quoted God through the prophet Hosea to them: “Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said, “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Jesus was getting at the same thing as Asaph in today’s psalm. Mindlessly going through religious motions is of no real value, and I believe that this is one of the reasons why denominations are imploding and churches are closing in record numbers. Just minutes ago our daughter sent the family a photo she took of an old church she and Clayton visited in a remote area of Scotland this past week. It’s being turned into a brewery. The altar will be the bar. Some of my ancestors would have found that scandalous. I don’t at all. As I have repeatedly written, Jesus made it clear that it was never supposed to be about bricks-and-mortar, but flesh-and-blood. It was never about the ritual, but the relationship. An honest, transparent, love-motivated conversation over a pint might be the most spiritual, Christ-honoring thing to happen in that building in a long time.

Jesus completely changed the game.

We keep changing it back.

Want to Read More?

Click on the image, or click here, to be taken to a simple, visual index of all the posts in this series from the book of Psalms.

There is also a list of recent chapter-a-day series indexed by book.

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.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

“If I Really Believe What I Say I Believe…”

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O Lord, I love the house in which you dwell,
    and the place where your glory abides.

Psalm 26:8 (NRSVCE)

“If I really believe what I say I believe…”

I used this phrase a few weeks ago as the foundation for a message I gave about resurrection and eternity. It’s a phrase that I utter increasingly in my personal conversations with Life. Along my spiritual journey, I have observed that the institutions of Christianity to which I’ve belonged, along with their respective members, are faithful in reciting what we believe, but our personal beliefs and subsequent behaviors don’t always align with the recitations. Often, this is because of well-worn patterns of thought and belief that are embraced without question.

Jesus came to radically change the way we think about God and relate to both God and others. Instead of believing, embracing, and living out what Jesus taught us, the institutional church largely fell back into ancient patterns of religion. In short, we don’t really believe what we say we believe.

One of the more common ways I’ve observed “stated belief” being incongruent with “true belief” came to mind this morning as I read David’s song lyrics. David states that he “loves the house in which [God] dwells, and the place where [God’s] glory abides.” For David, he is referencing God’s tabernacle/temple which is the central location God asked the Hebrew people to worship.

Jesus changed that. Jesus changed that completely. Jesus tore down the established human concept of “temple” and told His followers to follow an entirely different train of thought.

The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

John 2:18-19

You realize, don’t you, that you are the temple of God, and God himself is present in you? No one will get by with vandalizing God’s temple, you can be sure of that. God’s temple is sacred—and you, remember, are the temple.
1 Corinthians 3:16-17 (MSG)

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NIV)

Jesus shifted the location of God’s dwelling on Earth from a physical building in a central location to the flesh and blood humans in whom His Spirit resides. For the first 300 years after Jesus resurrection and ascension, the followers of Jesus had no buildings. There were no churches. Believers met mostly in homes around a dinner table. God’s temple was the flesh and blood individuals who believed and followed Jesus.

So, if I really believe what I say I believe…

I don’t go to church, I am the church.

Loving God’s house means loving my own body.

When I don’t take care of my body, I’m not taking care of God’s temple.

Treating my body with contempt, neglect, or abuse is a spiritual issue in which I am profaning the dwelling place of God.

Acting one way on Sunday in a church building and another way all week at work or home is evidence that I really don’t believe.

In the quiet this morning, I get why followers of Jesus went back to the old edifice complex. For 1700 years we rebuilt temples made with human hands and ignored one of the fundamental changes Jesus came to make on Earth. We shifted the dwelling place of God from ourselves back to church buildings, cathedrals, and basilicas. In essence, we said:

“No thank you, God. Really. It’s nice of you to want to dwell in me, but I’ve come to realize that it’s so much easier the old way. I’m much happier if your house is a building down the street. If you’re dwelling in me, then there are so many strings attached. That’s a whole new level of expectation, and I’m not sure I’m up for that. I mean, there’s no escape. This whole COVID thing has taught me that sometimes I’m better off having my own space. Seriously, if you dwell in me, all the time, you’re always there. I have to be honest. I’m not sure you want to see me at my worst. I know I don’t want you to see me like that.

“In fact, God. I have to tell you. I’m not all that thrilled with this body you’ve given me. I despise it sometimes. And I know you created it, and that’s just not a conflict I really want to get into because I’m pretty comfortable being self-critical. It’s all I’ve really known.

“So, let’s go back to the old way of doing things, God. Hang out in that building down the street and I’ll visit you on Sundays and holidays. I’ll drop in, sing your praises, say that prayer you taught us, and recite the words on the screen. I’ll even give a few bucks. Is it still tax deductible? Whatever. I’ll give. Let’s just forget this dwelling in me and me. Let’s just keep our boundaries.

Trust me, it’ll be better for both of us.”

If I really believe what I say I believe. Then loving the house in which God dwells takes on a whole new level of meaning.

I’m headed to CrossFit.

Have a great day.

People Building

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They made the rosette of the holy diadem of pure gold, and wrote on it an inscription, like the engraving of a signet, “Holy to the Lord.”
Exodus 39:30 (NRSVCE)

As I’ve mentioned many times in these posts, I have been part of many different churches along my spiritual journey. I’ve been part of small rural churches, various types and sizes of denominational churches, and suburban mega-churches. It’s been fascinating to have a plethora of experiences.

I recall being part a very large church who was in building mode. There was a giant fundraising campaign, and I remember being invited to a big dinner where the plans for the building were announced. The plans were impressive to say the least. It would be the largest church in that state with state-of-the art everything inside. One might even say that it was opulent.

I remember speaking with one of the staff members and questioning the grandiosity of plans and whether it was necessary. He pointed me to these past few chapters of Exodus and the design of the Tabernacle with its gold diadem, the priestly breastplate of precious gems, the tent made of expensively dyed cloth, and the ark made of wood overlaid with gold leaf. His point was that God appreciates and desires his temple be richly fashioned.

But, Jesus both lived and taught a very different way:

“Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Luke 9:58 (NIV)

The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” John 2:18-20 (NIV)

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NIV)

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I believe that having a building to meet in is a good thing. I also believe that people across history have created beautiful works of architecture and artistry in a sincere attempt to honor and glorify God. At the same time, I can’t escape the fact that Jesus never once told His followers to build a building, temple, chapel, sanctuary, cathedral, or basilica. The only time Jesus mentioned building a church He was speaking metaphorically about Peter’s faith being the rock that would be the church’s foundation; Not bricks-and-mortar but flesh-and-blood.

In retrospect, I learned a huge lesson as I observed a pastor and staff driven by an edifice complex that they desperately tried to justify, an edifice they desperately made happen, and a church that eventually imploded from within. Last I knew, the edifice has sat empty and in disrepair for many years.

I keep coming back to the understanding of context as I near the end of this journey through Exodus. I’ve found a lot of spiritual lessons in the 39 chapters of Exodus, but much of the lessons come from understanding what God was doing with Moses and Hebrews in the context of their time and place in history. Like the good religious Hebrew, Paul, the best lessons are in how humanity has grown and matured; How God has matured the relationship and led to a much deeper understanding of the mystery. Exodus has reminded me just how dramatically Jesus changed things and how humanity, myself included, keeps getting stuck and falling back into our ancient patterns of religious thought. Just like that pastor justifying a building that no one needed.

I believe that this spiritual journey has a destination, and as I make progress on Life’s road I’m also supposed to also be progressing in my spiritual maturity and my relationship with God. As Paul wrote to the followers of Jesus in Colossae: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him” … the Son of Man with no place to lay His head. Jesus, who taught His followers to build people instead of buildings.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

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.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Sabbath

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[The Sabbath] is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.
Exodus 31:17 (NRSVCE)

One of the things that becomes really clear when you read through the Moses story is the emphasis that God placed on the idea of what’s called Sabbath. It’s one of God’s Top Ten rules and God keeps bringing it up, over and over again, and reminding the Hebrew people how important it is to knock off work every seven days. In concept, Sabbath is really pretty simple. The Creation story at the very start of Genesis describes God as having created the universe in six days. Then, on the seventh day, He took the day off and got some rest. Easy. Work six days, then take a day off. Get some rest. Be refreshed.

I have always scratched my head at what a sticking point Sabbath has been for people ever since. I mean, just a few weeks ago Grandma Vander Hart reminded me that God doesn’t want me mowing my lawn on Sunday, and she was quite serious. She also has a thing with tattoos, but that’s a post for another day.

When I grew up, my family were regular church attenders and sincere about God in a general sort of way. Going to church on Sunday was pretty much a given. We had rote prayers for family meals and bedtimes. During Christmas or Lent, mom might make us do the family devotion prescribed by our church which always felt a little awkward. The religious thing was always there, but it wasn’t a pervasive part of life. Sundays were always a restful day. After church mom usually made brunch, and then the rest of the day was spent chilling out. We kind of did Sabbath by default but nobody got uptight about it.

After becoming a follower of Jesus and becoming exposed to the traditions of other families and churches, I learned that this “Sabbath” thing was something certain churches and denominations took very seriously. Mothers prepared all of the Sunday meals on Saturday so they wouldn’t have to work. But that didn’t make sense because they still had to warm it up, serve it to the family, and clean up afterwards. So, I guess women still had to work, but less. I had friends tell me that they literally sat around in their living room with their family doing nothing. Some of them even had to be quiet. Maybe they got to read, but some couldn’t watch television because that meant you were making someone else work to entertain you and that was considered “conspiracy to commit Sabbath-breaking” in their religious code.

As I started to try and study and understand it, it got so confusing because the 7th day of the week was prescribed as the Sabbath. We read it again today! I knew my Jewish friends treated Saturday as “church day” but all the Christian churches I knew treated Sunday (which is the first day of the week) as the Sabbath day. When I asked about this I was told that when Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, the Sabbath changed to Sunday in the Christian tradition, but I knew for a fact that wasn’t anywhere in the Bible. After the resurrection, there’s not one shred of evidence that Jesus said, “Hey boys, we’re going to make an official Sabbath switch.” In fact, the record states clearly that the Twelve continued to follow all of the Hebrew traditions. So, these same people who were being ultra-legalistic and literal about obeying the Sabbath weren’t literal or legalistic at all about obeying the Sabbath on the only day prescribed for the Sabbath in scripture!

Sabbath confusion and conflict has been around forever. It started with the Hebrews and Moses and it was still causing conflict when Jesus showed up. Jesus was perpetually hounded by the religious leaders about keeping the Sabbath. If Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath He got in trouble. If His disciples picked a fig off a tree as they were walking by He got in trouble. And each time it came up, Jesus brushed it off. In fact, He made a point of healing someone on the Sabbath just to make it clear to the religious fundamentalists when He said: “The Sabbath was made to help humans. Humans weren’t made to serve the Sabbath.”

And, in the quiet this morning I’m reminded that this was the point. The Hebrews in Moses’ day had been slaves for hundreds of years. They never got a day off. The concept of a day of rest was foreign to them. They were an agrarian people with farms and livestock, and it’s easy to become a workaholic when there are fields and animals that need constant tending. When you’re so focused on your work all the time, you have very little physical, mental, or spiritual energy left. It’s unhealthy on multiple levels. What did Jesus say were the two commands from which all the others flow?

  1. Love God with everything you got. But if I’m working all the time then God ends up getting little or nothing from my depleted body, mind, and soul.
  2. Love others as you love yourself. But, if I’m working all the time then I’m really not loving myself well, and everyone around me gets nothing of me but what meager leftovers of self I have left.

I’m also reminded of observing how the legalism and fundamentalism I experienced early in my spiritual journey created really sad, angry, and bitter people whose lives, and even their worship, appeared to me to be void of anything close to resembling peace, love, or joy. I observed that what it did create were people driven to keep up religious appearances in public while sneaking around doing what they shouldn’t in secret.

This is exactly what Jesus came to free us from. And Sabbath is a great foundational lesson. It’s easy. We each need regular rest, relaxation, and relationship with our fellow sojourners on life’s road. We need to stop work for a day and fill the life tank with a good meal, some meaningful conversation, playing together, laughing together, and sharing of life together. Sabbath is about lifting the burdens and the drudgery of everyday life, not adding to it.

And, speaking of Sabbath, it’s the 4th of July holiday weekend coming up here in the States. Wendy and I will be doing a little extended Sabbath, exactly as I just described, with a couple of other families who are dear friends. So, I’ll be taking a few days off of blogging.

I hope you experience some Sabbath, as well, my friend. And, experience it in the fullness of the way God always intended it. Cheers!

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

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.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

The Church’s Blueprint

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You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly.
Exodus 27:20 (NRSVCE)

I was raised attending a Methodist church that many would describe as “high church.” The sanctuary was designed to reflect the ancient churches of Europe complete with stained-glass and a pipe organ. In the center was an altar raised so that one had to ascend to it. Above the altar hung a giant cross and from the cross hung what appeared to be a candle holder, but was actually an electric light bulb that was always illuminated.

In today’s chapter of Exodus, God continues to give Moses very intricate and detailed plans for the traveling temple that the Hebrews will build for worship and sacrifice. Todays chapter describes the altar on which sacrifices would be burned and an oil lamp that would be placed outside the entrance to the Most Holy Place where the Ark of the Covenant was held. The lamp was to burn continuously, an eternal flame.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. An altar? A lamp that burned continuously? Those were front-and-center elements of the church in which I grew up. And yet, when I became a follower of Jesus (in contrast to simply being a member of my church) and I read Jesus’ actual words, I found it interesting that Jesus never gave instructions for church buildings and altars and choir lofts and pipe organs. Nowhere in all the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and John are there Exodus-like instructions for the construction of a church, cathedral, basilica, sanctuary, altar, or an eternal flame.

In part, this is because the followers of Jesus were originally part of the Hebrew tribes and they continued to worship in the Hebrew tradition. But, as Jesus’ followers fulfilled their mission to take the message of Jesus to the world, the Hebrew believers became outnumbered by the non-Hebrew followers. Many of the letters that make up what we call the New Testament address the division and the conflict that followed. Nevertheless, the Jesus movement had no church buildings for the first three hundred years, though there were gathering places. It was only after the Jesus Movement became the institution of the Holy Roman Empire in the fourth century that churches were built for all the citizens of the Roman Empire who dutifully obeyed Emperor Constantine and signed up to become members of the new state religion: Christianity.

The Roman Empire then built churches, cathedrals, and basilicas and borrowed the basic elements of all the religions they knew including altars, lamps, candles, and incense. Fast forward 1700 years and we who belong to Christian institutions around the world continue to think of “church” a the local building where we sign-up for membership and gather to worship.

I can’t help but be reminded of the words of Jesus that I quoted in yesterday’s post in which He said that He would “destroy the Temple and raise it in three days.” That was the point of yesterday’s post, and the further I get into the description of the Hebrew Tabernacle the clearer it comes into focus for me. Jesus never gave His followers blueprints for building the church because the church was never meant to be a building. Jesus didn’t tell His followers to go to church. He told them to be the church.

Jesus promised to be wherever two or three believers gathered, which makes worship possible anywhere.

Jesus never gave instructions for lighting candles or having an eternal flame because He called followers to be the Light of the World through their acts of love for others.

Jesus never gave instructions for an altar because with His death the ultimate sacrifice had been made, once-for-all.

Jesus never talked about the designs for the central location where His followers would gather because the mission was not about gathering, but dispersing to bring God’s Kingdom to earth and to bring Light to dark places.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. A central meeting place for believers to gather and worship is a no-brainer. Jesus prescribed the sacraments. Music, liturgy, and traditions of worship began with Jesus and the Twelve and were part of worship for believers meeting in homes for hundreds of years.

In the quiet, however, I find myself feeling adamant about a few key points. Jesus didn’t ask me to go to church, but to be the church. An altar is not a table in my local church sanctuary, it’s my life itself at home, at work, and wherever I happen to be carrying my cross and sacrificially giving myself to bring God’s Kingdom to earth. The eternal flame is not a 40 watt light-bulb hanging over the altar in a church, it’s the Light of Christ that is supposed to shine through my words, actions, and relationships with others.

I’m back to where I ended yesterday’s post. Not bricks-and-mortar but flesh-and-blood.

If there was a blueprint Jesus provided for design of the church, it would look exactly like me.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

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.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Losing the Truth of Loss

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You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
Exodus 22:21-24 (NRSVCE)

I find it fascinating, as I read the laws of Moses in today’s chapter, that the Hebrews were commanded by God to take care of foreigners living among them, and to take care of socially and economically disadvantaged groups within their society. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene some 1500 years later, the Temple in Jerusalem had become a religious racket (which is why Jesus drove the currency exchange vendors out of the Temple). The religious system prescribed through Moses had become an institution that made money for the the chief priests and religious leaders who then leveraged their power and authority to line their own pockets at the expense of their own people, while they prejudicially looked down on anyone who wasn’t one of them. They religiously kept the rules that made them look pious while finding excuses for ignoring those that might require real compassion and generosity.

One of the reasons the early Jesus Movement grew so rapidly was the fact that Jesus’ followers were radically challenging the social structures of the day. There were no church buildings. They met in homes around the supper table and, at that table, everyone was welcome to sit together. Both women and men, Jews and non-Jews, and even slaves were welcomed to sit at the table with their master. Beyond that, the followers of Jesus took care of those who were socially and economically disadvantaged in the society of that day including widows, orphans, and lepers.

When Christianity became the state religion of Rome a few hundred years later, the Jesus Movement became a powerful religious and political institution almost overnight. The good news is that Christians would no longer be persecuted and fed to the lions in the Roman Circus. The way was paved for sincere teachers and theologians to meet together, debate, and establish core doctrines. With the authority of the Roman Empire, there was an opportunity for real change.

Interestingly enough, what followed was ironically similar to the very things Jesus criticized in the religious leaders of His own people. The movement moved from the supper tables in peoples homes to churches and cathedrals, which required a lot of money. Generosity to disadvantaged groups was curtailed as funds were shifted to lining the pockets of the church leaders and their churches and residences. Women were once again diminished as male dominance was established within the institution. Those who threatened the emerging orthodoxy, like the desert fathers and mothers, were branded heretics and either killed or forced to flee. Leadership positions in the church suddenly became positions of socio-economic and political power that were bought, sold, and traded by rich, powerful, and connected families. That’s how we eventually ended up with an eleven-year-old pope (Pope Benedict IX).

In the quiet this morning, I find myself asking a lot of questions. Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the last year grappling with the mega-trends we’re seeing in our culture and our world. There are fewer and fewer individuals claiming to be Christians. Churches, especially here in rural and small-town America, are closing for lack of members. Christianity is no longer accepted as the prevailing cultural worldview in our culture, and there is open and growing antagonism as the historic sins and failings of church institutions spark anger and resentment in many circles. Meanwhile, around the world, Christians are being persecuted and killed without earning much attention.

As a follower of Jesus, I find myself wondering if all of this is simply going to lead Jesus’ followers back to our roots. The history of the Hebrews and the history of Christianity both reveal to me that when the heart of God’s message to care for strangers, aliens, and disadvantaged groups is lost amidst the desire for social, economic, and political power, then there is a loss of spiritual potency and legitimacy. I can’t help but believe that the loss of cultural prominence is actually the road back to spiritual progress. The way of Jesus has always been about letting go, giving up, and leaving behind. The diminishment of self for the gain of others is not an optional path for those followers of Jesus who want an advanced spiritual placement. It’s foundational to being a follower at all:

“and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

-Jesus

I think that this has been lost. I confess that as I reflect on my own journey it’s clear that I am as guilty as anyone.

My heart and mind return to yesterday’s post. I want to stop being an ally to Jesus’ teachings and become an accomplice in putting them to work in tangible ways.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

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.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

The One-Person Org Chart

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Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good.”
Exodus 18:17 (NIV)

I have heard it said that there are three things that most commonly lie at the root of marital discord: money, sex, and the division of labor. Based on my own experience, I can believe it to be true. Each of them requires the negotiation of power and responsibility within the relationship. With the division of labor within a relationship and household, my experience is that it can take time to understand one another’s strengths, abilities, interests, disinterests, and quirks in order to get into a good groove.

Within any human system, there is a structure of power and responsibility. In some cases, that structure is well-defined and ordered like a community organization with by-laws run by Robert’s Rules of Order. Companies have organizational charts to define who answers to whom. My observation is that the more intimate and small the system, the more difficult things can get. And I’m not even talking about the passive-aggressive ways power can be manipulated within a system.

One of the fascinating things I find about the Exodus epic is that we get to observe the organization of a nation. From Genesis 12 through today’s chapter the narrative moves from one man, Abram, who becomes the father of Isaac and the grandfather of Jacob. Jacob then has 10 sons and two grandsons settled in Egypt during a famine. They are eventually enslaved but over hundreds of years grow exponentially into the 12 tribes who leave Egypt. They are now officially a large people group, a small nation, and they’ve got to figure out how they are going live and govern.

In today’s chapter, we find that the org chart for this emerging nation has just one box on it. Moses is a one-man show, and he’s handling everything. Now, along my journey, I’ve led small teams, a small church, a small community organization, and a small business. They have all been incredibly challenging experiences. I can’t even imagine the headaches Moses had trying to lead a million people and their livestock through the wilderness. That’s, like, a form of slow, painful suicide.

Moses’ wise father-in-law immediately sees that, too. He helps Moses get organized. There are capable leaders all around. Every human system is an organism with lots of individual parts with individual gifts and abilities to contribute to the good of the whole. So, Moses essentially adds four management levels to the org chart and appoints leaders for every five, ten, hundred, and thousand people complete with a multi-layered process of appeal. It works.

I’m reminded this morning of the early Jesus’ movement who organized in a similar fashion. The word picture given was that of a body. Each member is a part of that body and serves in an indispensable role in the healthy function of that body. No one person can do it all. Every person contributes to the whole just like every cell in my body plays a part in my health and life.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself looking back at various leadership roles I’ve had along the way. As a capable individual, there have been plenty of times in which I took on way more organizational responsibility than I should have. While it may have worked for a while, I eventually burned out and others missed out on using their gifts and the fulfillment that accompanies being a part. Of course, there are always issues and struggles that come along with any human system. They’re always messy. But, like Moses found out, a system always runs better when every part of that system knows its part, is in the right functional role, and knows that it is contributing to the life and health of something greater.

How am I doing in the various systems in my life? My marriage, my family, my job, my local gathering of Jesus’ followers? Am I in the right roles? Do I know where I best contribute? Am I contributing to the health and life of each system? Am I taking on responsibilities for which I’m not really suited? Am I finding purpose and goodness in them?

All good questions to reflect on as I enter back into another day in the journey.

Have a great day, my friend!

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

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.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Divine Call, Human Reluctance

But Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
Exodus 4:10 (NRSVCE)

The first time I publicly spoke about my faith I was just shy of 15 years old and had been a follower of Jesus for two months. I was young, uneducated, inexperienced, and naive. It was a church “youth” service and I was one of three young people who each had ten minutes to share. Within months I was unexpectedly given more opportunities to speak, which turned into even more regular opportunities. Again, this was not something I expected at all.

I made a lot of mistakes along the way, and I still do. I also learned a lot of valuable lessons in the process.

In the past few years, I’ve volunteered to lead and mentor others who give messages among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. The vast majority of individuals express fear when they start, which is natural given the fact that public speaking is one of the most common fears in all of humanity. There’s the fear of not knowing enough, saying something stupid, looking stupid, people pushing back, offending others, et cetera, and et cetera. It is not hard for people to find reasons to decline the opportunity.

I have always loved the story in today’s chapter. Moses, on the lam and living as a shepherd in the land of Midian, is confronted by God and called to return to Egypt and lead the Hebrew people out of slavery. As I have already noted in the previous chapters, Moses “has ‘hero’ written all over him.” In today’s chapter, we find our hero receiving a clear, miraculous “call” from God to lead a historic and heroic endeavor.

Moses doesn’t want to do it.

“What if my people don’t believe that you called me to this? What if I get pushback?”

“I’m not a great public speaker. I struggle enough in regular conversation. Speaking in front of a group of people would be a disaster!”

“Seriously. PLEASE call somebody else.”

It is such a human moment. Fear, reluctance, pessimism, and defensiveness are common human responses to the call. Moses is like all of us.

Along my journey, I’ve had three interrelated observations:

First, God’s Message makes it clear that every follower of Jesus who “answers the knock and invites Him in” is given a spiritual “gift” by the indwelling Holy Spirit with which they are to serve the larger “body” of believers and carry out Jesus stated mission to love everyone into God’s Kingdom. This is true of every believer regardless of age, gender, race, education level, social status, economic status, or experience. Peter called every believer a member of a “royal priesthood.”

Second, most human beings are, like Moses, reluctant to embrace the notion that they have any gift, talent, or ability. They are quick to decline any opportunity to take responsibility for serving the larger “body” or accepting the responsibility of loving others like Jesus in their circles of influence.

Third, for 1700 years the institutional church has largely entrenched the thinking that serving the larger body is almost exclusively a professional career for a select group of educated individuals who have successfully navigated the prescribed institutional education and bureaucratic hoops. Those who have not done so (all the rest of us) are, therefore, largely off-the-hook other than regular attendance and financial giving necessary to provide for the livelihood of the aforementioned ministry professionals.

That third observation is bovine fecal matter. And, I believe that it contributes to the impotence and decline of the Jesus Movement being witnessed in current society.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself appreciating Moses the reluctant hero. I also find myself appreciating the fact that God both made allowances for Moses to depend on the giftedness of his brother-in-law, Aaron, to accomplish the task. That’s the very picture of the “body of Christ” the Jesus Movement adopted. Everyone has their “gift” and contributes to the whole of the mission. Moses was a gifted leader. Aaron was a decent public speaker. They depended on one another.

I can always find an excuse to not serve. There’s always something that I can conjure up as an excuse that I am “lacking” (education, knowledge, experience, calling, opportunity, training, etc.). The truth is that all God requires is simple trust and obedience. Which brings to mind a song from many years ago…

Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at His feet,
Or we’ll walk by His side in the way;
What He says we will do, where He sends we will go;
Never fear, only trust and obey.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

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.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

A Good Day

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
Mark 10:35 (NIV)

Every parent knows a set-up question when they hear it.

“Dad? I’m going to ask you something and you have to answer ‘yes.'”

“Mom? Haven’t I been really, really good this week?”

The set-up question is intended to get the desired answer from the real question. I remember being a young boy playing this game in my prayers with God. If I wanted the Vikings to win the game or my older brothers girlfriends to simply “stop by” our house (they always doted on me, and I loved it), then I would barter with the Almighty to get my wish. I might make the case for my good behavior to have been good enough to “earn” what it is I wanted. I might have promised all sorts of obedient services I could render on the back-end of my fulfilled wish should my Genie-God grant my self-centered request.

Obviously, as a young boy, I had a lot to learn about God, prayer, the Great Story, and my role in it. I’m grateful that God is eternally patient and faithful.

In today’s chapter, I found my lesson wrapped in the layout of events that Mark includes as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem for the climactic week of His earthly sojourn.

First, Jesus sends a rich, young man away sad because the man was unwilling to do the one thing that stood between him and God: sell everything he owned and give it to the poor. In the post-event discussion with His followers, Jesus reminds them that in the economy of God’s Kingdom (the real one, not the false one that the institutional church created for 1700 years) “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

The very next thing, Jesus tells #TheTwelve for the third time exactly what’s going to happen:

“We are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Sometimes I’ve noticed that the chapter breaks and headings that modern scholars have introduced into the text keep me from seeing the flow and connections between pieces of the story. Today was a great example. Jesus reminds the disciples that the first will be last, and then He gives them the ultimate example: I, the miracle-working Son of God who heals, frees, feeds, and raises people from the dead, am going to submit myself to suffer and die in order to redeem all things.

What happens next?

James and John come to Jesus with a “set-up question!”

“Um, Jesus? We want you to promise to do whatever it is we’re about to ask you.”

What was the question? They were looking out for numero uno. If Jesus was going to die, then the brothers Zebedee just wanted to tie up some loose ends. They wanted to make sure that their eternal future was secure. They wanted to ink the deal with Jesus, once and for all, to make sure they ended up “Top Dog” on the heavenly food chain.

I can hear the echo of Jesus’ words from what seems like every single chapter I’ve read the past two weeks: “Do you still not understand?”

For the record, James and John got about as far as I did with the Vikings winning the Super Bowl.

In the quiet, on this Good Friday morning, I am reminded of all the ways I have cast myself in the role of James and John. It might have been cloaked in religious set-up questions, bartered goodness, and the economics of a worldly institutional kingdom dressed in religious robes. The truth is what I’ve been quietly contemplating this week. In so many ways, I know that I still don’t completely get it.

Good Friday. The secret trials. The kangaroo court. The beatings. The mocking. The jeering. The crowd screaming for blood. The scourging. The nails driven into wrists and feet. The hanging naked on a cross as public spectacle; Naked, bleeding and losing control of his bodily functions in front of His own mother. And, as He hangs there between heaven and earth on the cusp of death…

Making sure his mother will be cared for.

Forgiving His executioners.

Extending grace to a confessed and convicted thief.

“The first shall be last. If you want to be the greatest, you must become the servant of all.”

A good day to open my head and heart to continue understanding, to continue getting it, and continuing to let it change me.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Inside Out Transformation

[Jesus] went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Mark 7:20-23 (NIV)

I was a young man when I began my spiritual journey following Jesus. The community of believers I often associated with were very concerned about religious appearance and moral purity. My hair was expected to be short and my dress was expected to be coat and tie. My ears were to be kept pure from rock music, my eyes kept pure from looking lustfully at women, and my body to be kept pure from the usual vices of drugs, alcohol, and smoking.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these things. I’ll be the first to confess that I wasn’t perfect, but I’m also quite sure that adhering to the religious rigor kept me from getting into various kinds of trouble. As I progressed in my spiritual journey, however, I began to observe a few things.

First, my peers who were born and bred into the religious rigor as part of their strict family and faith systems were often big on obedience to the rules and traditions but really short on any real spiritual or personal maturity. They adhered (at least publicly) to the letter of the religious rules to keep the family and community appeased, but I never saw any real inner desire to pursue the things that Jesus was really getting at.

Second, the adults in these communities and religious systems were really focused on all of the easily recognized and visibly apparent illicit behaviors. People, especially young people, were publicly shamed for all the usual social vices. No one, however, seemed to care when it came to gluttony at church potlucks, gossip between the youth group member’s mothers, the man in the church with anger issues who used the Bible to justify the secret physical abuse of his family, deacon John who was not shy about his racism, elder Bob who was a dishonest businessman who’d filed for bankruptcy three times, or that the women of the church treating Ms. Jones like a social leper because her husband left her, filed for divorce, and so she must not have been the dutiful wife he needed.

Finally, I eventually found myself really dissatisfied. When I made the decision to be a follower of Jesus, it was about me being less pessimistic, impatient, immature, shallow, dishonest, inauthentic, and self-centered. It was about me wanting to grow into more self-less-ness and more love, life, joy, and peace. Checking off a bunch of religious and moral rules wasn’t addressing my desire to become more like Jesus. In fact, I don’t think Jesus would want to be with these people. I realized that Jesus would probably want to be with all the people that got shamed and kicked out of that church for their public mistakes.

In today’s chapter, Jesus is hitting this stuff head on. He gets in trouble with the religious rule-keepers because they didn’t ceremonially wash their hands before supper. He looks at the good religious people from His own religious system and explains that they are doing the same thing I witnessed among my own religious community. They were keeping all of the religious rules about washing your hands and eating only the prescribed dietary foods, but they weren’t doing anything about the anger, malice, judgment, critical spirit, discord, gossip, dishonesty, selfishness, racism, hatred, and condemnation that was polluting their souls.

This morning, I find myself contemplating the Jesus that I’m reading about in Mark’s account. I love that He was not about me keeping external rules and regulations, but about me getting my heart and life transformed from the inside out. I love that Jesus heals the daughter of a “sinful” outsider who His religious community would never have even acknowledged. I love that Jesus continues to compassionately pour out love, kindness, and healing even when He was tired and wanted to be left alone for a while. I love that He keeps telling people not to talk about the miracles because they weren’t the point; The miraculous physical healings of eyes, ears, and limbs merely pointed to the real miracle He came to perform: His love transforming me from the inside out as His life emerges from my dead, self-centered spirit.

That’s the Jesus I want to be more like, and keeping rules won’t get me there.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!