They call the birthday of Jesus “Christmas.” I call the birthday of the pastor “Pastormas.”
Bishop Lanre Obembe, Senior Pastor, El Shaddai Church, Lagos was the President of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Lagos State. Presiding over a meeting of pastors drawn from all over the state in preparation for the visit by Pastor Benny Hinn to Nigeria in 2005, Bishop Lanre looked out of one of the windows of his church and pointed to the array of Jeeps and posh cars parked outside. “We pastors are doing well,” he declared, to the approval of all.
The bishop had the privilege of introducing a select number of pastors who were of higher “timber and calibre” than others. Having gone through the ranks of the “front-row” pastors, whom he introduced grandiloquently like heavyweight boxing champions, someone drew the bishop’s attention to the fact that he had overlooked a person of great distinction; a lady pastor also sitting in the front-row.
The bishop quickly apologised for this oversight and asked the woman to stand up. Then looking intently at her, he observed to the gathering of pastors: “This woman is f-i-n-e!” As the rest of us burst out laughing in agreement, Bishop Lanre pressed on. “Are you married?” he asked the lady. More laughter from the “Men of God” present, with some quickly pointing out that the said lady was a married woman. But Bishop Lanre would not be denied: “I return your dowry,” he declared, as we all suitably collapsed in laughter.
“Men of God”
How can we listen to the teachings of Jesus and continue to entertain the pre-eminence of pastors in churches? How can we listen to him, and continue to accept such vaunted titles of pastors, bishops, cardinals and popes? How can we look unto Jesus and not see he completely disdained the honour and glory that come from men? (Jn 5:41).
Jesus is particularly scathing about the craze for public recognition and ostentatious titles among so-called “Men of God.” He says: “Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend’. Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates.” (Mt 23:5-8).
Nevertheless, in today’s Christian church, “Men of God” come by the trailer-load. You see us regularly on television. We are fixtures in newspapers and magazines. We always have something sanctimonious to say on the radio. We sit on the “high table” at every social gathering. We are the counsellors and prayer-gurus of Presidents, Governors and other high-ranking public officials. There is only one problem with “Men of God:” we are not likely to inherit the kingdom of God.
“Men of God” don’t go to heaven for one simple reason; the kingdom of God is not for “men:” the kingdom of God is for “children.” As a matter of fact, it is for “little children.” Jesus cautions: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” (Mk 10:15). Thus, he said to the chief priests and religious elders in his day: “I assure you, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do.” (Mt 21:31).
Even so, in the churches of today, we lavish honour and glory on pastors. Most churches celebrate two birthdays as a matter of compulsion: the birthday of Jesus and the birthday of the pastor. They call the birthday of Jesus “Christmas.” I call the birthday of the pastor “Pastormas.”
On the latter occasion, congregants are usually required to pay a birthday-tax as a “blessing” for their pastor. This is either given to him in cash, or used to buy him something “fantabulous.” A study-bible used to be adequate. But as the stature of pastors grew inexorably, so did their gifts. One famous Nigerian pastor was even given a Rolls-Royce car which he did not deem it prudent to reject. Let everybody shout hallelujah!
Why should a pastor’s birthday be celebrated in church? What is so special about him? Why is the pastor honoured and not the orphan or the widow who are so much dearer to God? Jesus says: “Inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” (Mt 25:45).
Should a believer even celebrate his birthday? Not according to the scriptures. Birthday parties are carnal and worldly; therefore believers are never seen having them in the bible. Citizens of God’s kingdom should not celebrate their lives in Babylon. The prophets hated their lives in this world. Like Jesus, they were “men of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” (Isa 53:3). Jesus warns: “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (Jn 12:25). However, the birthday party is a celebration of life.
As a rule, Jews did not celebrate birthdays. The Encyclopaedia Judaica is blunt and to the point. It says: “The celebration of birthdays is unknown in traditional Jewish ritual.” While the dates of the deaths of distinguished figures in Jewish history are recorded and commemorated, the dates of their births are mostly unknown.
Solomon says: “The day you die is better than the day you are born. It is better to spend your time at funerals than at festivals. For you are going to die, and you should think about it while there is still time. Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us. Yes, a wise man thinks much of death, while the fool thinks only of having a good time now.” (Eccl 7:1-4).
The faithful psalmist exclaims longingly: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (Ps 42:1-2). But the birthday celebrant rejoices that he has spent another year on earth away from God.
Every reported birthday celebration in the bible was ungodly; and it resulted in either mischief or disaster. As one of the special features of his birthday, Pharaoh had one of his servants, the chief baker, hanged. (Gen 40:20-22). In similar fashion, one of the highlights of Herod’s birthday party was the beheading of John the Baptist. (Mt 14:6-12).
The experience of Job should give further food for thought. Job was afraid the birthday parties of his children were prone to ungodliness. (Job 1:4-5). True enough, God allowed all his children to be wiped out in one disaster while they were celebrating the birthday of his oldest son. (Job 1:13-19). Thereafter, now fully cognisant of the futility of life, Job cursed his birthday. He said: “Let the day of my birth be cursed, and the night when I was conceived. Let that day be forever forgotten.” (Job 3:2-4).
Worship of pastors
In a big-time church in Lagos, a particular Sunday in the year is reserved for the pastor’s birthday celebrations. That Sunday is not about worshipping God but about giving glory to the pastor. Different people come forward to give testimonies about how wonderful the pastor is and how blessed they are to be in his church. Video messages are received from parishes at home and abroad, extolling the virtues of the pastor. These are then relayed on a big screen to the entire church.
Let me describe here an incident that occurred during one of these “Pastormas” celebrations, as recalled to me by a former member of the church. As the recorded video messages were being broadcast, with great hilarity by all, the pastor suddenly shouted: “Stop that film!”
A dark cloud immediately came over the entire proceedings. With great consternation, someone quickly went over and stopped the video. The church became deathly silent as all eyes turned to the almighty pastor in a bid to determine exactly what could have been to his displeasure.
The pastor got up and grabbed hold of the cordless microphone. “That man,” he said, pointing to the now blank screen, “was wearing an Arsenal Football Club t-shirt. I want you to know I am a Chelsea man.”