Just Say an Act of Contrition

I grew up under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. I can remember, as a youthful sinner, being in the confessional and saying a prayer aptly named the “Act of Contrition.” Being in that box all alone with a priest on the other side of the thinly veiled, sliding window was intimidating enough. Reciting that prayer, which I had meticulously memorized, seemed to add to the aura of godliness on the other side of the wall. Everything was magnified in that humbling situation, of course, because I was guilty as sin. (I suppose that’s where that expression originated.)

Asking for forgiveness from God is one thing. Having to ask for it from a living, breathing, human being is quite another. It’s not something most of us jump at the chance to do.

“I hadn’t seen a need for an apology.”

Keeping that in mind, I found it to be humbling and astonishing at the same time when (on three separate occasions over the past year) different individuals came to me to ask for my forgiveness. I suppose this actually happened to me more than three times during this period. However, those three particular incidents were extremely memorable, because (in each of those situations) I hadn’t seen a need for an apology. None of those folks had offended me in any way (at least not in a way that I had recognized). Still, they each felt the need to come to me face-to-face and ask for forgiveness.

Of course, I forgave each of them and assured them there was no need for an apology. But the result of their actions caused me to take pause and reflect on our reticence (and occasionally, our inability) to humble ourselves enough to approach others with a penitent attitude.

A Contrite Heart

What I immediately noticed was that my respect for each of these individuals grew dramatically. It’s not that I disrespected them before the fact, but my level of admiration for them rose significantly. It seems to me it takes a real man (or woman) just to admit one’s wrongs. But to then approach the wronged individual with a contrite heart would take real humility. It’s a hard thing to do and a hard lesson to learn. That kind of character cannot be found in just anyone.

The other side to that type of occurrence happens when people forgive someone before it’s requested. In Scripture, we see Messiah doing just that. You may remember the passage that describes the scene where a paralytic was lowered through someone’s roof to bypass the crowds around Jesus (Luke 5:17-26). As far as we can tell, the paralyzed man never asked for forgiveness. Despite that, Jesus forgave his sins anyway. The reason given for the Savior’s forgiveness had nothing to do with the man at all. Jesus forgave him when “he saw their faith”—they being the paralytic’s friends.

All in all, forgiveness seems to be a rather complicated subject. We should probably give it a little more consideration in our daily lives. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]

I’m Sorry. Oh, Wait! I Take it Back

The infamous Kathy Griffin has done an about face. You may remember her from her decapitated president stunt. Following that fiasco, she apologized profusely. Now she wants to take the apology back. I suppose that’s somewhat akin to a golfer taking a mulligan.

She has begun to make the rounds on her new Taking It Back Tour. She says she is “no longer sorry” and has accused the president of committing atrocities. She has added that her previous faux pas was totally “blown out of proportion.” On top of that, she is now complaining that she lost friends over the incident.

“It’s never easy.”

I’m guessing most of you have had to tell someone you’re sorry. It’s never easy. Sometimes it can be the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do (at least it can feel that way). And sometimes, you can’t avoid losing friendships. It’s part of the price we occasionally pay for screwing up in the first place.

Griffin, however, has taken things a step further. She is now shifting the blame to… Well, I’m not sure who’s she’s blaming. The media, I guess. The media has blown it all out of proportion. Of course with today’s social media, that pretty much includes all of us. We’re to blame. Sorry Kathy. We didn’t mean to ruin your life.

Her turnabout has caused me to wonder. Is this, now, a new strategy we can use? Apologize one day, set the record straight, then take it back after the dust has settled. I don’t think I’ve ever tried that one. Actually, I’m not sure I’d want to do so. Still, it should be interesting to see how it works out for her. I assume there will be plenty of folks who will sidle up to her and tell her she’s right.

From personal experience in these matters, it would seem to me that she was never really sorry in the first place. I certainly can’t read her mind, but I don’t ever remember feeling remorseful over my sins then feeling all that good about myself later. That’s just me, I suppose.

Doing a 180

There’s an important Biblical concept we find throughout Scripture. The word for it is “repentance.” It means to turn 180 degrees or to change one’s mind. Ms. Griffin did her one-eighty a while back. Now she seems to be repenting of her repentance. I’m not sure you can actually do that.

I can’t imagine looking to the Lord, asking for forgiveness, saying I’m sorry, then later saying I’m not really sorry at all—I take it back. The big problem with that, of course, is God would know I didn’t mean it from the beginning. The Lord would know I was merely attempting to cover my tracks.

Kathy Griffin lays no claim to being a Christian—quite the opposite, in fact. So her reversal is quite understandable. Those of us who do claim to follow Jesus need to heed her example and do the opposite. You just can’t take back genuine repentance.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]

If it Weren’t for Double Standards…

Recently, I heard someone say, “If it weren’t for double standards, we’d have no standards at all.” This was on a political talk show, so the reference was to the political class and the blind spot they have for their own evils. The speaker was noting how politicians are quick to demonize someone else’s presumed wrongs while soft-soaping their own. I believe the general adjective for such actions is “hypocritical.”

I’m assuming the quote was a takeoff of the old saying, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” That’s reminiscent of the old, Albert King, blues tune, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Sometimes it seems like an all-or-nothing situation.

“Vote them all out…”

Unfortunately, double standards are not limited to politicians. If they were, we’d vote them all out of office. We keep them, however, because we’re just like them. It seems to be part of the human condition.

As Christians, we also are plagued by the human condition. I suppose it’s part of the “old man” to which the Apostle Paul liked to refer. We, too, are prone to double standards. Because we are, we protect and defend the parts of our lives that are suspect. At the same time, we attack the standards of others (or lack thereof) with almost no compunction. We do this while giving it virtually no thought whatsoever.

Jesus was constantly running afoul of the Sadducees and Pharisees over this very matter. He didn’t like their hypocritical attitudes. On one occasion, he invited any of them without sin to cast the first stone at another sinner (John 8:7). At least none of them had the hutzpah to take him up on it. They didn’t seem to learn from it, however. Hopefully, we have (or will).

I have watched over the years as some of my clergy colleagues have been raked over the coals because they, somehow, have not measured up. Not only is this done by the laity, often it’s at the hand of their peers in ministry. Much of the time, the passage of Scripture used for this treatment is 1 Timothy 3:1-12. In this pericope, Paul lays out some guidelines for anyone aspiring to be an overseer or deacon. Such positions in those days were generally held by men, so Paul adds a line or two about women being “worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.” In short, these were standards that Paul believed we should all attempt to attain in our daily lives.

“Try not to taint them.”

I use the term, “we,” because these attributes were not a set of double standards. Overseers and deacons were not the only Christians being challenged to reach for these benchmarks. Over the years it has become a double standard because we have made it so.

Most of us have a hard time just living up to the phrase, “temperate and trustworthy in everything.” The rest is almost icing. If you meet someone who’s attained all those attributes, try not to taint them.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]

Hanging Out with the Hoi Polloi

The words, hoi polloi (hoy palloy), are a transliteration of a Greek term that refers to the “common people.” Literally, the phrase means “the many.” It points to the masses or the majority of people who are not rich and famous.

Over the years, it has come to be used as a somewhat derisive term. Elitists like to use it to separate themselves from “ordinary” people. Other phrases have been used as well—phrases such as “the unwashed masses” and “the riff-raff.” The hoi polloi, of course, have countered with equally demeaning terms for the elitists such as “hoity-toity.” We just love to separate ourselves, don’t we?

“A popular sport…”

This separation seems to be a popular sport among people in our society. From lofty politicians down to the man on the street, folks have a tendency to hang out with those who bear the greatest resemblance to themselves. This behavior has come to be expected and even normal. It has become so commonplace that it is prevalent in the church as well.

This is extremely curious when we consider the actions of Jesus. Think of who he is—Savior God, Creator of the world, owner of the cattle on a thousand hills, Master of everything. If there was ever an elite person, it was Jesus. And yet, with whom did he hang out? The hoi polloi… If he was here today, there are many Christians who wouldn’t hang out with him because of the company he would inevitably keep. They would find it (shall we say) less than tasteful. Can we say, “Pharisaical?”

Attend almost any Sunday service in America. What you will often find are a group of people who are less about following Jesus than they are about being “birds of a feather” flocking together. It’s about as un-Jesus-like as you can get. Still, we do it without a thought.

“I didn’t realize you were rich.”

I remember years ago, a friend of mine joined a particular denominational church. When his father found out, his statement to his son was, “I didn’t realize you were rich.” We all have our perceptions, and we often hold to them without variance—right or wrong.

I’m under no grand illusion that writing this little blog is going to change our gathering habits. We should at least think about it, however. A brown man in a tux should be able to sit next to a yellow woman in cut-offs. A white ditch digger should be able to sit next to a red salesperson. In true worship, these differences should not be mutually exclusive. The black preacher should not be surrounded by faces that only resemble his own.

I know this all sounds extremely idealistic. But if the hoi oligoi (the few) cannot be part of the hoi polloi, we are little better than the American Nazi’s and the Anti-Fa’s of this world. If we fly under the banner of Christ, maybe we should associate with the rest of his people. That whole “love-one-another” thing is pretty clear.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]

Poor Me (Well, Maybe Not So Poor)

I’m a servant of God in one of the more affluent areas of our country (and, I suppose, of the world itself). One of the most challenging tasks here is to preach to, and teach, some of the most well heeled people in the world. When Jesus spoke of the difficulties of rich people entering the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:24), he wasn’t making it any easier. As we all know, however, “rich” is a relative term.

When are people dripping in opulence surround you, it’s easy to get caught up in the trappings and leave the Gospel behind (or, at least, move it down on your list of priorities). It can be a very slippery slope. To make matters worse, living in such an area affords you the opportunities needed to become prosperous yourself. Accumulating the “toys” can be heady stuff.

“Spritual smelling salt…”

In the middle of all that, occasionally I’ll run across something that is akin to a spiritual smelling salt—something that jogs me back into Biblical reality. That happened to me recently when I read a short article about Francis Asbury. Asbury was an early leader of the Methodists in the North American Continent.

His earthly possessions were few (rarely owning more than he could carry with him). There is no evidence that he ever took a vow of poverty, but you couldn’t prove it by witnessing his lifestyle. Once, on a trip from New York to Boston, he took a sum total of three dollars to spend. Even in the eighteenth century, that was quite a stretch.

“We’ll keep him poor.”

There’s an old joke about a Methodist prayer that says, “Lord, we want a pastor that’s poor and humble. You keep him humble—we’ll keep him poor.” There was no such need for that prayer as it concerned Asbury. He kept himself poor. As Methodist pastors slowly became more and more affluent, his voluntary poverty kept him above the fray.

Despite having no money to speak of, he traveled extensively. He preached everywhere including remote parts of the American frontier (which in those days was considerable). It is said that he was readily recognized in his day. Someone spotting him on the street was more likely to know who he was than if they saw George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Hundreds of children born in the colonies and early states were named after him.

Asbury was instrumental in aiding in the empowerment of people of color. This was no small feat considering the times. Many people in those days were not living as free men and women. Early Afro-American branches of Methodism arose to prominence in no small part due to Asbury’s fight for equality among all people.

He did all this, and more, without the aid of huge sums of money. In fact, he did it with little money at all. In a day when we measure the success of our congregations by the size of our Sunday offerings, we may want to take note of his example.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]

Glass in the Street: A Repeat

[This incident was replayed in my neighborhood recently, so I assumed it was a sign from God to repost this old blog from a couple years ago.]

It was recycling day in our neighborhood this past Thursday. I put our oversized bin out to the curb early in the day like a good doobie. I had missed the week before for some reason and we were full to the brim.

Later in the day, I headed out to retrieve the bin and saw the recycling truck out front. I didn’t want to be pushy, so I waited in the garage until I figured they were done. Then I headed toward the curb.

I stopped short when I saw the RD (recycle dude) busting his buns to pick up odds and ends off our street. Apparently, he overestimated his reach or underestimated the distance. Either way, he was in a hurry to cover his tracks.

When the truck pulled away, I moseyed out to the curb to finish retrieving my bin. It didn’t take me long to see why the RD was busting his buns to get out of there. What I saw was broken glass spread across the street in front of our home.

I was a little torqued off, but I kind of blamed myself for missing the week before and having so much stuff in my container (even though it wasn’t my fault). So I picked up the largest pieces by hand and then grabbed a push broom from my garage to quickly get the rest of the thoroughfare cleared away.

I got to thinking later how much like life that little incident was. For example: we always talk about congress hurrying to pass laws that have unintended consequences. They want to clear up a little problem that made big news, so they pass a statute to fix it.

In their hurry to do so, they fail to think through the possible results of their little fix. Consequently, they end up causing more problems than they solved for a lot more people than were helped in the first place. Like my recycle dude, they make a hurried mess for someone else to clean up (like another congress down the road).

These things happen all the time in life on a smaller scale. A driver swerves to miss a squirrel and hits another car. A cook takes a shortcut to move a heated dish and burns her hand. A pastor preaches a sermon to address what he thinks is a problem in his congregation and drives ten people away (woops).

A decision made in haste, a thoughtless action taken, a reflexive word spoken without consideration… Each of us has done all these things. Each time we’ve done so, we’ve made a mess. On top of that, sometimes we can’t stick around long enough to clean it up. Other times we’re unable to clean it up. Occasionally we don’t even know we caused the mess in the first place.

In each of those instances, someone else has to clean it up (or at least help). I really hate glass in my street! Don’t you?

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]

 

Messenger: The Biblical Facebook Tool

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but Jesus didn’t give us a lot of rules to live by. His teachings were usually centered on attitudes, concepts of living, and compassion for those around us. That’s probably why Christians differ on so many peripheral topics. There’s no set rule for them.

There are some exceptions to that, however. In Matthew 18, there’s a powerful passage where Jesus lays down the law (so to speak). He tells his listeners to go in private if you have a problem with someone. It’s really good advice and would also pass for common sense—even if it wasn’t Biblical.

“Air your grievances…”

If someone does something that offends you, go to him in person, let him know what you’re thinking, and air your grievances against him. Jesus goes on to say, if that doesn’t work, bring one or two other folks with you the next time in order to convince the offender of the error of his ways. If that doesn’t bear fruit, widen the circle of witnesses. As the circle continues to broaden, eventually everyone will be in the know and will be able to minister to the offending brother.

This seems to be good, sound, obvious advice. Unfortunately, it can also be time consuming and a lot of trouble. I’m pretty sure Jesus knew that when he laid it out for us. If you think about it, going that route can save a lot of problems—like mistakenly accusing someone or crudely returning one offense for another.

Another problem with this process is forgiveness and repentance. If the offending brother immediately recognizes the error of his ways, asks for forgiveness, and repents, we have nothing left to hang over his head. If we forgive him, we necessarily forfeit our holier-than-thou attitude (if we had one). What’s the fun in that?

21st Century FB Christians

I dare say, most Christians know that passage (or at least understand the concept). Still, many Christians forego this teaching and jump immediately to the last step (which is basically to air these things in public). This is especially true of we twenty-first century, Facebook Christians. It’s easy to post something condemning your offending brother. Who needs those first few steps? The answer is simply, “We do.”

The strange part about this is that it’s so easy to follow Jesus’ rule here. Facebook gives us this awesome tool named Messenger. On Messenger, we can immediately speak directly to people in private. The implications for someone attempting to live a life of Christian discipleship are obvious. It’s one of the easiest avenues for living out Matthew 18.

If a brother offends you, Message him in private. We do it in all sorts of other circumstances. Why wouldn’t we do it in these instances? My guess is, for the most part, it would only take one quick message to get your point across. Your brother would correct his error (or sin, or offense), and we could all go home.

Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg (or whoever invented Messenger).

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]

Generation Z

The sociologists, politicians, and many educators are really good at dividing us up into various groupings. According to them, I’m a Baby Boomer. My kids are Gen X-ers and Millennials, and my grandbabies are labeled Generation Z (or iGen, or Centennials). My parents were Traditionalists, otherwise known as the Silent Generation.

All these subdivisions are interesting, but offensive in many ways. The groupings are distasteful because we all get stuffed into one category or another and explained away. We are virtually told what we believe, why we believe it, and what our courses of action will be. I’m going to do a sit-in protest against these alignments (which, of course, is coincidental with my generation).

We’ve Taken it to an Extreme

A cursory knowledge of these things is all well and good. We should have a general understanding of what makes us tick. The problem that seems to have developed is we’ve taken this to an extreme. We know the studies, the assigned characteristics, and the expected actions and reactions of each generation. We know them so well, we’ve begun to pigeonhole people before they’ve had a chance to become who they really are (or are going to be). We’ve already written them off as a necessary product of their respective times. So much for diversity…

When I first landed in pastoral ministry, it was a big deal to study personality types. For a while, everyone was walking around talking about sanguine or phlegmatic types, introverts and extroverts, type-A’s and type-D’s. We were all giving tests to see if we were putting the right people in the best positions for their types. We were attempting to get a good personality mix on the church board.

I discovered that I am type A+. Oh, wait—that’s my blood type. But, I suppose, (since the church often expects blood) we should know that as well. In short, we got carried away. As wise people often say, “A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.” We finally stopped doing that, but not before we ruffled more than a few feathers.

We Are Individuals

We should have learned from that But alas, now we’re doing the same thing with generational types. Though people are influenced by their society, culture, and environment, they are not merely the sum and total of those things. People are people. They are individuals. Wrapping them up in a nice little bow for presentation to the work force, the university, or the church just doesn’t cut it.

We are selling each other short with these overdone brandings. I challenge you, as I’d challenge anyone, to break free of the labels that bind. You are God’s creation. God does not make any two things alike. Even “identical” twins are not identical. Two peas in a pod may resemble each other, but they are not the same.

I refuse to be defined by my generation. I fight against the notion that I’m bound by the year in which I was born. I am a unique child of God. So are you.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]

Total Eclipse of the Son

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a huge push to remove anything offensive from the public square. The primary and initial surge was to remove statues of Confederate leaders. It then moved to anyone who ever owned slaves. Now it has grown to include such historical figures as Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo to be more accurate).

I understand the angst caused by the presence of such objects. They are, after all, reminders of things in our past of which we’re not all that proud. Still, they are reminders of our history. As a former college history major, it grieves me that we would so carelessly toss aside what we’ve learned.

“An era of self-denial.”

I’m not going to use the old line, “If we fail to remember the past, we’re doomed to repeat it.” (Well, I guess I just did anyway. Sorry.) It seems we’re forgetting a lot of things these days. Maybe worse than forgetting them, we’re blotting them out. We’re making a concerted effort to enter into an era of self-denial. It’s like a total eclipse.

I understand the desire to avoid offending people. Unfortunately, the quashing of historical fact is an offense to all that is intellectually honest. We cannot retroactively relive our history. We cannot undo someone else’s wrongs through backdated denigration. Nor does it make us right and pure by destroying reminders of what occurred in centuries past.

As a Christian, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by what’s happening. Throughout my life, I’ve watched as the church has slowly gone through the same kind of systematic suppression in this country. We have slowly been marginalized to the point of historical, political, and cultural irrelevance.

This is a phenomenon that is beyond social affairs, however. It’s an occurrence of spiritual significance. The Bible tells us that many took offense at Jesus. The Apostle Paul referred to the “offense of the cross.” (Galatians 5:11)

If you look carefully, you may notice that various groups (such as pagans, atheists, humanists, politicians, and even many scientists) seem to have taken up an active crusade against us. In retrospect, I’m a bit surprised it’s taken so long. Ready or not, here they come. We used to attempt to tolerate one another. That no longer seems to be the case.

“The cross is a scandal.”

What will happen when all the offensive statues and monuments are gone? Will a truce be declared when all the names of towns and parks have been changed to something more palatable to the politically correct? I doubt it.

I think we may find that we’re next. The church, herself, is an offense. The cross of Christ is a scandal (1 Corinthians 1:23). Our very existence is viewed by many in society as a threat to their way of life.

If they could blot out Jesus from the pages of world history they would. Many have tried, and their efforts are ongoing. Look around you. They’re not nearly as subtle as they used to be. They’re aiming for a total eclipse of the Son.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]

A Time to Gather Stones Together

“There is a time for everything…a time to gather stones and a time to scatter them.” Long before Bob Dylan and the Byrds made this phrase popular back in the 60’s, someone else had penned these words. They are nestled in a book of Scripture named Ecclesiastes (see Ecclesiastes 3:1-14).

We usually forget (or never knew) that the title of the book literally means “gatherer.” We usually translate that word into English as teacher or preacher. You may recognize its root (ecclesia) which is a Greek word referring to an assembly. Bible readers generally think of that assembly as the church. This stands to reason since that’s exactly what the church is—an assembly.

So to put those terms in a modern day context, preachers are (at least to some degree) gatherers. They attempt to gather people to teach them. In their particular situation, the teaching of the assembly is centered on God’s Word—Scripture.

“Preaching is the easy part.”

In almost forty years of preaching, I’ve discovered (at least for me) that preaching is the easy part. Gathering… Well, that’s something different altogether. Not only can rounding up the stones be an arduous task, but keeping them together seems to be an impossibility—particularly these days.

Back in the mid 80’s, Marshall Shelley wrote a book entitled “Well Intentioned Dragons.” I never actually read it, but it was immensely popular among clergy types. The book was a treatise of sorts on how to minister to folks who seem to unconsciously undermine the ministry of the church. I guess the title says it all.

Even though I’ve never read it, I’ve often thought of that title. It seems to me, every one of us (at one time or another) becomes a well-intentioned dragon. We hit a blind spot where our prejudices or biases don’t allow us to see the big picture. We kick against the goads and the rest is history.

“The crux of the matter is forgiveness.”

Not having read the book, I’m not exactly sure what Shelley has to say about all this. But from my perspective, the crux of the matter is forgiveness. We need to extend forgiveness to our brothers and sisters who may, from time to time, fall into the dragon category. After all, we might be the next dragon in need of forgiveness.

Yet, there’s an even bigger reason to forgive them. When Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray, he taught them to ask for forgiveness. As he did so, he added this caveat. Forgive those who trespass against you. We ask the Lord to forgive us “as we forgive those…” The entire foundation of the church is built on mutual forgiveness. If we lose that, we’ve lost everything.

We are living in a time where gathering stones has become more important than it has been in a long time. Because of changes in our society and various culture shifts, most of us are at a loss as to how to do that. Forgiving each other might be a good place to begin.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]