Tag Archives: Pastor

God Friended Me

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Then bring near to you your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.
Exodus 28:1 (NRSVCE)

Wendy and I watched the first season of God Friended Me when it came out a year or two ago. The show is about a preacher’s kid named Miles who is an atheist and has a podcast to discuss is unbelief. God mysteriously “friends” him on Facebook and each episode the “God account” introduces him to a person who Miles is supposed to help, all the while trying to figure out who is behind the God account.

One of the things that I thought was interesting in the writings was that his father is always addressed as “Reverend.” Miles tells people that his dad is a “Reverend.” Everyone addresses his father as “Reverend.” He’s never, that I can remember, referred to as a pastor, priest, preacher, or minister. Just “Reverend.” Which, I kind of found to be unusual to the point of being annoying and one of several reasons I quit watching.

In my experience, clergy across the various denominations, and even religions, are all lumped together in the minds of most people. Either they aren’t sure what to call you, or they simply use whatever word they know from their own experience. And yet, there are major differences in both meaning and role.

A “priest” is typically understood to be a go-between who represents humans before God. In today’s chapter of Exodus, God calls on Aaron and his sons to be priests in the newly established system of sacrifice and worship given through Moses. The chapter goes on to prescribe a very ornate wardrobe for them to wear. The high-priest will be the only one allowed in the “Most Holy Place,” essentially entering God’s presence and representing the Hebrew people before the Almighty. Everything described in the priest’s get-up says that this is a singular and important role. (You can see an artist’s rendition of it in the featured photo of the post, picturing the story of Hanukka.)

In contrast, the term “pastor” is derived from the idea of a shepherd who leads, guides, protects, and provides for the flock. Likewise, the word “minister” means to serve, address, and care for.

From a distance this may just seem like semantics, but it actually has pretty profound implications in one’s understanding of relationship with God. The fundamental question is: “Do I need another human being to be my representative with God?” Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Episcopal doctrine would answer “yes” to that question (though they might all have different takes on it). Most other Protestant categories of believers would answer “no.”

Here’s where it gets interesting. In the book of Hebrews, it is stated that with His death and resurrection, Jesus spiritually became the once-and-for-all High Priest who became the once-and-for-all go-between, intermediary, mediator for humanity. In the system of worship established through Moses in today’s chapter, it is establishing that only Aaron and his male descendants could be priests. According to the family trees given by Matthew and Luke, Jesus was not descended through Aaron but through the royal line of King David. Hebrews explains that Jesus was High Priest, not in the line of Aaron, but “in the order of Melchizedek.” Who’s that? A mysterious character who shows up in the early chapters of the Great Story in Genesis 14 as “priest of God Most High.”

King David would prophetically write about the coming Messiah (Psalm 110):

“The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind,
‘You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.”’

The cool thing established here is that Jesus unites what had previously always been separated. The monarchy and priesthood were separated. The royal line was from David. The priesthood was from Aaron. Jesus, as David himself prophesied, spiritually became both King and Priest.

As Paul wrote to Timothy:

“For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.”

With that distinction, there is no longer need for another human being to be the intermediary between me and God. I have direct access to God and all the love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness that flows to me through Jesus delivered by God’s Spirit.

As I read through today’s chapter in Exodus and the ancient, intricate system of worship prescribed, I find myself grateful to be living in this chapter of the Great Story. How cool that my relationship with God does not have to be complicated. John’s beautiful introduction to the Jesus story puts it this way:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

Simple.

God friended me.

All I had to do was accept.

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

Membership and Motivation

“We will not neglect the house of our God.”
Nehemiah 10:39 (NIV)

I had been serving as the pastor of a small church for about a year when I got a call asking for my presence at an emergency meeting of the church Elders. That’s never a comforting sign.

I arrived at the meeting to find that there was one major issue on the agenda: Me. Specifically, one of the Elders expressed grave concern that was not an official member of the church.

Big trouble.

“Um, you all called me to be your pastor. Doesn’t that, kinda by default, make me a member?”

Nope.

“So, what do I have to do to become a member?”

Write a letter requesting I be granted membership status, then present it to the congregation for a vote.

“Um…Okay.”

I happy to report that the vote was overwhelming in favor of me, the church’s Pastor, becoming a member.

Whew!” [cue: Wiping sweat from brow.]

What’s both funny and ironic is that the “membership” issue has arisen in almost every church I’ve attended and served. I admit that I am a bit of a maverick after having experiences like the one I’ve just related. It is a piece of the institution of church that is obviously very important to certain individuals. I take issue with it, however. Every church institution I’ve ever attended has had a large number of people who jumped through the institutional hoops to become official “members,” but they never come or participate in any way. No one ever complains or has a problem with this. Meanwhile, if I actively participate with my consistent attendance, service, and offerings but don’t jump through the institutional hoops to get a piece of paper telling me that I’m “in,” then certain people get their undies in a bunch.

Thank you for letting me vent.

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah records what amounts to a legal document that records the commitment of the exiles to follow the Law of Moses and to provide prescribed offerings that would be necessary for the carrying out of the sacrificial system of the Temple. This was no small thing. The sacrificial system established through Moses was an intricate, even burdensome, system of sacrifices that required a large population’s offerings to keep it moving as laid out. Their legal contract was signed and sealed. It is obvious that Nehemiah felt it important to make the people’s obedience to the sacrificial system legally binding.

Here’s what I find fascinating as I mull things over in the quiet. The sacrificial system had been in place for roughly a thousand years. Time and time again it fell apart and became given over to various forms of religious and political corruption. That was part of Nehemiah’s “recounting” in yesterday’s chapter. So, Governor Nehemiah decides to try a legally binding agreement to try and keep people in line.

It didn’t work.

Some 400 years later when Jesus arrives on the scene the Temple system had become a corrupt, powerful money-making racket run by Godfather-esque high priests bent on lining their pockets and controlling the system. That’s why Jesus went postal on the Temple’s currency exchange marketplace not just once, but twice. It’s why he brutally denounced and called out the priests and teachers of the law for their corruption (read Matthew 23).

It’s also why Jesus time and time again taught the masses by starting with “You have heard it said…” then “But, I say….” The crux of Jesus’ message was that God’s concern was not about rule keeping and legally binding adherence to prescribed religious practices. God’s concern was for a change of heart that motivates real, tangible change in the way we love, live, give, and relate to others.

As a follower of Jesus, that’s where I want to follow. I want to invest my time, energy, and resources through my local gathering of Jesus followers because the love of Christ compels me, not because I have a piece of paper telling me I’m a “member” of an institution subject to the responsibilities thereof.

For the record, I am an official member of my local church out of loving deference to my brothers and sisters who find such things important. But, that’s not why I serve, give, and support. My motivation for doing my part is a matter of the heart.

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. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Old Ways Die Hard

“Take the Levites from among all the Israelites and make them ceremonially clean.”
Numbers 8:6 (NIV)

When I was a kid, I remember the feeling that the Reverend of our family’s church was different. There was something special about him. He dressed differently, he was treated differently, and we children were told to be on our best behavior around him. If he came to visit our house it was a special occasion and we were give instructions that didn’t accompany any other visitor.

The idea of priests, pastors, imams and rabbis being afforded special status runs deep in us. In the Judeo-Christian tradition is goes all the way back to the days of Moses and the ancient religious prescriptions we’re reading about here in the book of Numbers. The priesthood was reserved for the descendants of Aaron. Assistance to the priests was reserved only for those men in the tribe of Levi. There were special rituals of consecration for both. The priests were made “holy” and, according to today’s chapter, the Levites were made “clean.” The priests took on special priestly garments, the Levites washed theirs. Blood was applied to the priests but just waved over the Levites. It is a spiritual caste system in the making.

God’s Message clearly points to a radically new paradigm after Jesus’ ascension and the outpouring of Holy Spirit. There is now no distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free. Salvation is offered to all without distinction. Each and every one is an essential part of the same body. Every member is part of a royal priesthood. Spiritual gifts are given to all without regard to age, education, status, maturity, or purity. Old paradigms have passed away, a new paradigm has come. The religious caste system is over.

Or not.

People are people. Deeply held beliefs and traditions are hard to break. Along my spiritual journey I’ve witnessed that we continually rebuild systems with which we’re comfortable. We make special schools for “ministry” and then pick and choose who may attend (by gender, by socio-economic status, by social standing, by educational merit, by perceived moral purity). We develop special rituals and hoops for individuals to jump through, and then we treat them special and “different” once they’ve successfully jumped through them.

Having spent time as both pastor in the pulpit and as (seemingly) peon in the cheap seats, I’ve witnessed our penchant for treating pastors and priests differently from both sides. Having a systematic process of education for leadership is not a bad thing, but when the institutional system begins affording special social rank and privilege (by design or default), then it begins to tear at the heart of what Jesus was all about.

This morning I’m thinking about how given we are as humans to accepting certain thoughts, beliefs, and social mores without question. I’ve noticed along the way that some people get less likely to question them the further they get in life. I’m finding myself becoming more inclined to question, to prod, to push. “Old things pass away, new things come,” it is said. But we only have room for new things if we are willing to let go of the old. The tighter we cling to that which is dead, the more impossible it is to truly experience new life.

Spiritual Misperceptions from Growing Up in Church

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Hebrews 4:15-16 (NIV)

I grew up in a relatively small neighborhood church. It was a Methodist church that maintained a fairly traditional, liturgical approach to faith and worship. There was an altar at the front of the sanctuary that was respected as a special, holy place. There was a huge, loud pipe organ. The minister always wore long black robes on Sundays. The choirs also wore long robes and marched down the aisle behind the minister to their hallowed place in the choir loft. As a child watching and participating in this pageantry each week, there were some things that I quickly came to assume about spiritual matters:

First, our minister was different. He (and growing up it was always a he) dressed differently both in the church service and during the week. I was expected to behave differently (as in, better than normal) whenever I was around him. I even noticed that adults behaved differently when they were around him. I came to the conclusion that he was spiritually better than me. He was certainly closer to God than me and had a particular spiritual authority no one else seemed to have. He certainly had a pipeline to God the rest of us didn’t have. You don’t mess up or behave badly around him.

Having observed this social and behavioral distinction between the Rev and the rest of us, I came to believe that there is a certain spiritual caste system in life. There was religious nobility (ministers) and everyday commoners (like me and my family). The social system within our church fed this notion fairly rigidly. Even when I joined the youth choir I had to dress myself up in fine robes each week to approach the altar (always behind the minister, our proper place), sit in the choir loft, and participate in singing of the anthem. If I was to participate in the divine then I needed to dress differently (better and more religious) and be on my best behavior (goofing off on the choir loft during the service was a damnable offense). To participate in the ritual of communion I had to be 13, take a year’s worth of classes, and pass the confirmation class test which got me to a higher spiritual level in the system.

Over time, this distinction between the spiritual pageantry of Sunday and the every day life in my neighborhood with my family led me to believe that there was a certain compartmentalization in life between the sacred and the secular. Sure my family said our rote prayers before meals and before bed, but every day life was where you gave a passing nod to the divine and prayed for the Vikings to win the Super Bowl. [The Vikings always lost the big game, of course, teaching me that our minister had, indeed, a better standing with God…he was a Steelers and Cowboys fan.] The real spiritual stuff was always on Sunday morning, for which we cleaned ourselves up and made ourselves presentable.

In today’s chapter the author of this letter to Hebrew believers begins a discussion of Jesus as “High Priest.” Having been raised in the Protestant tradition, I find myself a few steps removed from an experiential concept of “priest.” The priesthood became a theological line of separation between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the Reformation. Nevertheless, as I’ve progressed in my faith journey I’ve found it an important concept to contemplate and unpack because it goes right to the heart of some of the gross, spiritual misconceptions that even the Protestant church gave me growing up.

Even in the opening of the discussion in which we are introduced to Jesus as High Priest, He is not introduced to us on a higher spiritual plane confined to the holy altar of some Tabernacle on Sunday morning. Jesus is introduced as one who empathizes and has experienced our every day struggles and temptations. Jesus the High Priest is God with us, in our working and playing and eating and drinking. Instead of cleaning ourselves up and approaching God with fearful respect and awkward religiosity, Jesus calls us to approach with confidence, just as we are. Rather than approaching to earn some kind of merit badge in the religious pecking order, we are approaching to receive a generous gift of unmerited  mercy and grace.

This morning as I enjoy my coffee looking out over the lake, I am reflecting on the core misperceptions the church gave me about God as a child. It strikes me that these natural surroundings at the lake are a holier and more spiritual place than the altar of my old neighborhood church. In this “thin place” this morning I’m confidently approaching Jesus and asking for some increased clarity regarding my childhood misperceptions and how they might still be affecting me in unhealthy ways. I am asking God to reveal to me in the days ahead, in the following chapters, the important distinctions between the very human concepts of Jesus as High Priest that I am tied to by my human experience and religious traditions, and the true High Priest revealed in these chapters.

Sacrificing Family on the Altar of “God’s Work”

For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?
1 Timothy 3:5 (NLT)

Along the journey I have been involved in many different churches of different shapes, sizes and denominations. As a young man in a struggling marriage, I had the opportunity of being in full-time pastoral ministry for five years. I quickly learned that being the leader in a church can put undo pressure on a young husband and father to put up appearances as if you have everything together. It can also provide a young husband and father with a pious, self-righteous excuse to avoid the confusing and difficult complexities of budding relationships with wife and young children.

I have observed pastors and church leaders who, like many counterparts in the business world, are workaholics. Their car is in the parking lot early each morning and late into the evening. Because Sunday is the big day of the week for a pastor, they put in a full day on Saturday to prepare for Sunday services, then put in a full day on Sunday. That doesn’t stop them from putting in a full week. This devotion to “God’s work” is often cloaked in spiritual pride and piety while hiding incredible personal struggles. It looks good to the flock to have such a diligent leader who so tirelessly and publicly slaves away to serve God and the church. I even heard a pastor once piously boast from the pulpit about leaving his wife and small children to sleep in the church sanctuary.

The message I read in Paul’s description of a church leader is very clear. Whether a full-time pastor or a volunteer leader, the number one priority is spouse, children, and household. This is one of the many life lessons I learned the hard way. Sacrificing family on the altar of doing “God’s work” means my priorities are perilously out of whack.