Ashes to Ashes

Last week, my lovely Bride and I headed for a few days respite in Nashville. The vacation was planned around a birthday celebration for our youngest son (he turned forty, which doesn’t bode well for me). It was a wonderful getaway.

Unfortunately, we got off the plane to some tragic news. A shooting massacre at a Florida high school had occurred. Like the rest of the nation, we watched the news coverage with emotions ranging from deep sadness to rage.

As we viewed the coverage, I noticed the black smudges on many people’s foreheads and quickly realized it had taken place on Ash Wednesday. One picture in particular stood out to me as it frequently flashed across the TV screen. A woman in tears, obviously distraught, stood with others after the slayings. On her forehead, ashes were displayed in the sign of the cross.

In case you’re not from a tradition that observes Ash Wednesday, it’s a reminder that the Lenten Season is kicking off a time of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. The imposition of ashes are accompanied by the recital of Genesis 3:19 which essentially tells us that we were formed from the ground, and to the ground we will return.

I doubt these were the words the killer had in mind, but the irony is mournful and stark. The mass death on this Ash Wednesday is a glaring reminder—especially when punctuated by the ages of the deceased. Prayer books of all kinds contain a committal service that reads:

O God, the great Shepherd of all sheep, receive now unto you our beloved brother/sister. As we commit his/her body to the ground—earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We commit his/her spirit to your eternal care.

We’ve all stood at grave sites to hear these (or similar) words read. Clergy types like me have been the ones, for the most part, to deliver these phrases. Such occasions are grim notices of our future physical demise. Old age is not guaranteed. As the worn Daniel Defoe quip says, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I’m not so sure about taxes, but death is absolutely inevitable.

As we celebrated my son’s fortieth birthday, it crossed my mind that I’m twenty-eight years older than he. That alone is a harbinger that my time is creeping up—or winding down. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…

Even with ashes as a backdrop, I still find it really easy to celebrate life—especially on the occasions of our children’s’ birthdays. It helps to walk in the promises of Jesus that tell us there’s more to our lives than this physical existence on earth.

I harken back to the ancient book of Job. The beleaguered man of faith asked a very pertinent question. “If someone dies, will they live again?” He answered his own question with the conviction of a believer. “I will wait for my renewal to come.” (Job 14:14) I’m with him.

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

No CD for Me

I recently heard the gloomy news that Best Buy was going to stop selling CDs. I didn’t see that one coming, but I guess it’s because I never thought about it. In truth, anyone could have actually seen it was inevitable. Everyone downloads their music these days if they want their own copy.

The rapid transformation of these things is rather amazing. Edison started the whole recording industry with a small, spindle-like thingamabob. It recorded and produced sounds for all posterity. From there, we went (somehow) to platters of vinyl with our fave recordings on them. These were the things everyone listened to when I was growing up. As I recall, we referred to them as records. Anyone remember them?

From there, we rapidly moved on to personal reel-to-reel tape recorders (both large and small), and skipped right on to eight track and cassette tape cartridges. These electronic beauties were great because they didn’t have to be wound around the reel. The tape was contained in a sealed, plastic container. These little inventions were fantastic until your favorite album got tangled in the tape player. Storage was somewhat of a problem as well (everyone’s back seat was full of tapes and miscellaneous empty tape cases).

 

“They were a no-brainer.”

When I was well into my adult years, someone came up with the CD (compact disc). They were like miniature records—flat, easy to store, and they had great sound. No scratches, no getting jammed in the player, no rewinding. They were a no-brainer (until they weren’t).

They went out of style when someone figured out how to download songs onto an iPod, electronic tablet, computer, or a magic chip embedded in your big toe. Now we can hear our music, but we can’t see it. Storage is a breeze (even compared to CDs). I have to say, however, I really miss album liners (most of you probably don’t even know what those are).

“I have no idea…”

My lovely Bride and I recently moved to a new home. In the process of unpacking, I discovered we had four hundred CDs—none of which we ever played (many we didn’t even remember we owned). In the spirit of downsizing, I gave away two hundred of them (don’t ask me why I kept the other two hundred—nostalgia, I guess). I also discovered a crate of vinyl LPs (otherwise known as records). I have no idea why I’m keeping those. I don’t even have a way to play them.

The scary thing is, most of this happened in my lifetime. I don’t remember Edison, but I did enter the fray shortly thereafter. I can’t even imagine where we’re headed from here.

There’s a passage in Ecclesiastes that indicates everything has its own time and season. A time to sow, a time to reap, a time for casting stones, and a time for CDs. I guess that time is hastily coming to an end. I suppose it’s now the season for me to transfer all that music to a hard drive.

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

“They Don’t Have Critical Mass”

When I first accepted the call to pastor my present congregation, a friend asked me how long I expected to stay there. When I told him I’d like to retire there, he just laughed. I asked him what was so funny, and he said, “They don’t have critical mass.”

As you may know, “critical mass” is a term normally associated with nuclear fission. But it can be applied to other things as well. The non-nuclear definition of critical mass is, “the minimum size or amount of something required to start or maintain a venture.”

I immediately understood what he meant. The congregation I was about to embrace had six active members. Most of them were beyond retirement age (and on fixed incomes). The prospects of maintaining a viable congregation there were not good.

They Burn Out or Die Out

For anyone who’s never considered such things, I will tell you that my friend’s insight was accurate from the perspective of most observers. Maintaining a building (two, in this case), caring for a 1½ acre plot of land, providing utilities, paying a pastor, supplying educational and worship materials, and meeting denominational obligations is a large task. And that’s only the financial aspect. On top of that, viable congregations do ministry. Tiny congregations like the one I was about to associate with are often dead ends. They either burn out from the overwhelming struggle or die out from old age.

People like my educated and experienced friend know all this. From their point of view, any workable congregation would need at least fifty to one hundred people or more. In addition, those people would have to give enough to maintain a budget of one to two hundred thousand dollars a year—minimum. Critical mass…

I’ve now been called the pastor of this little flock for almost twenty-three years. At times, we’ve come dangerously close to burning out and even dying out (I’ve had the privilege of presiding over the funerals of most of the original six). Interestingly enough, we’re still here. And unless things change drastically, someday I’ll retire from here.

We’re a Failure

The simple truth is this. We probably don’t have critical mass. By worldly standards, we are a failure. We are even a failure according to the standards of many leaders in the hierarchy of the church.

Here’s the deal. Jesus told us that he is there when two or three gather in his name (Matthew 18:18-20). For my money, two people plus Jesus equals critical mass. Frankly, Jesus reaches critical mass all by himself. He merely extends to us the privilege of being a part of what he’s doing. This is true, even for mega-churches.

The lives Jesus has touched through this tiny congregation is immeasurable. The glue that holds congregations like ours together is not willpower. The engine that drives us is not our own human energy. We derive those things from the Holy Spirit of God.

The Lord is our Critical Mass. We would be foolish to think and act otherwise. He is our future.

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

On Being Funny

Many years ago, a young man ventured into the sanctuary of the congregation I was serving at the time. He apparently enjoyed the service, because he returned the following week. At the end of his second visit, he asked me the following question. “Have you ever thought about becoming a Christian comedian?”At the time, I didn’t think about the possible implications of his question. He could have been saying, “Your sermons are a joke.” Most people aren’t that openly critical to the preacher’s face, so that thought never crossed my mind. I took him at face value and immediately answered that I had actually given it some consideration.

Apparently, I had been exceptionally funny during the two sermons he had experienced. That does happen occasionally. I can be very comical if the subject lends itself to humor and the mood is right. These moments had somehow convinced me that I could, indeed, do some standup comedy.

I said, “Yes.”

The young man was in charge of a fellowship of young adult Christians who met once a month for some entertainment at a planned social gathering. He wanted me to come and share my humor with the group. Being the glutton for punishment that I am, I said, “Yes.”

What I discovered the night of my (ahem) performance is that it’s one thing to preach a sermon and sneak some unexpected humor in on an unsuspecting congregation. It’s quite another to stand before folks who are expecting a few belly laughs. I did get a few chuckles that evening, but I suspect they were more out of politeness than unadulterated hilarity.

 

In showbiz terms, I bombed. Fortunately, I was merely warming up the crowd for the main event of the evening—a singing group. They saved the night and made it a memorable occasion for the attendees (and hopefully erased the memory of what I had done prior to their taking the stage). I wish they could have erased that evening from my memory banks as well. Unfortunately, I’m stuck with the haunting feeling of watching my “jokes” die in the lofty atmosphere of high expectations.

 

Skinning El Gato

If I ever venture into the land of comedy again (which I highly doubt), I will approach it in an entirely different manner. I won’t go into the logistics of it here, but suffice it to say, there’s more than one way to skin el gato (that was a little levity for my bilingual friends).

All this hilarity conjures up the old question, “Does God have a sense of humor?” I have always maintained the affirmative on that one. There are plenty of instances in Scripture that are humorous. Unfortunately for us, humor is usually cultural. Being Westerners, we miss out on all the fun.

The one exception to the cultural thing would be mother-in-law jokes. Apparently, these are popular in every culture. From what I can glean, however, there are no such gags in the Bible. The Lord had no mother-in-law, so there was no point.

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

Who Died and Left You in Charge?

There’s an old maxim that says, “There are two sides to every story and one side to every fact.” It’s a bit simplistic but very catchy. Truth be told, there can be many sides to a story. And while facts may be a tad more straightforward, they can often be viewed from several angles as well.

Indecision is part of the human condition. Problematically, we all see things a bit differently than the next guy or gal. We seldom view things from the same perspective. And, contrary to popular opinion, great minds don’t always think alike.

I have always been fascinated how Jesus dealt with these things. When confronted with issues that had at least two sides (as well as sundry facts), he was a master at handling them.

One Quick Example

Take, for example, the time he was teaching some people (as we often find him doing) when a couple of brothers showed up on the scene. When I say, “brothers,” I mean they were literally brothers—same parents and everything. They, apparently, weren’t interested in the topic upon which Jesus was expounding at that precise moment.

They were focused entirely on themselves. One of the brothers (presumably the younger of the two) wanted Jesus to order his brother to divide “the inheritance” with him. It seems these sorts of problems have been with us for a long time. This, of course, was prior to probate courts, so public opinion was highly sought.

I suppose they chose Jesus as their arbiter because he was quite popular during that period. He had been gaining a reputation as one with great authority, so who better to approach with a sticky problem like divvying up the estate? Well, not Jesus according to Jesus himself.

You interupted me for this?

Before he gave them a piece of his mind, he answered with a question (Luke 12:13-21). It was similar to today’s, “Who died and left you in charge?” I’m pretty sure this was quite unexpected—enough to shut them up long enough to allow Jesus to teach them something worthwhile. To be sure, the “something worthwhile” was pertinent to their situation, but wasn’t at all what they were looking for (at least, not consciously). Jesus seemed to do that a lot.

It was right in line with what King Solomon would do in situations like that. The famous example in his life as an arbiter was the instance in which two women claimed the same baby for their own. You may remember Solomon’s solution—cut the baby in half and give some to each claimant. The real mother, of course, pleaded with the King to simply give the child to the fake mother. Solomon recognized this as the love of a real mother and awarded her the infant (1 Kings 3:16-28).

It pays to have real wisdom in situations like these. Though many of us feel we lack such wisdom, we are instructed to pray for it (James 1:5). Not a bad idea. That’s how Solomon got his (1 Kings 3:7-12).

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

On Losing a Finger: An Addendum

In my last blog (On Losing a Finger), I told you about a friend who had an unfortunate run-in with a table saw. The saw prevailed, and he is sans one knuckle. As he now likes to say, “I fought the saw, and the saw won.” (He’s very clever that way.) I’m not sure how Bobby Fuller feels about him perverting that line, but I thought it was pretty funny.

As I chronicled in that now infamous blog, I’ve lost a few minor body parts myself. My losses were of the more normal variety, however. You know—gallbladder, appendix, teeth, etc. For me, however, additions have been far more important than extractions.

Take, for example, things like fillings, caps, and crowns. I would have considerably fewer teeth if it weren’t for these trimmings (although, the root canals that accompanied some of these items weren’t the most pleasant experiences). Add-ons like these, though sometimes attained through uncomfortable procedures, are welcome embellishments.

My Metal Ear

Then there is that little piece of titanium in my ear. Without it, I would certainly be deaf by now. If you ask my lovely Bride, she would tell you it didn’t help, but what does she know? She’s not a doctor (although she plays one in our household). Her claim to fame is plucking out my stray eyebrow hairs. Man, do I hate losing those things. Talk about painful!

When my buddy lost the tip of his finger, I looked at my own and realized I would have less pain in my life if I lost mine. I have arthritis there, and if it was gone… Well, you get the picture. Mind you, I am not making plans to have that procedure done anytime soon (particularly with a table saw). I’m planning to keep as much of my body intact as possible.

Then, of course, there was the Lasik surgery done on my eyes eleven years ago. They didn’t add anything, but they stuck a laser beam in my orbs and rearranged a few things. What an amazing transformation that was. In seconds, my world suddenly came into focus. As Johnny Nash once sang, “I can see clearly, now.”

What’s the Point?

The point of all this (if there is one) is that we don’t necessarily need everything with which we’ve been supplied. Plus, if we do need anything else, we can often add a few things to make up for any inadequacies. I don’t often cite Job (pronounced jobe), but an oft-quoted passage in that book says that the Lord gave and has taken away. To that, I would only add, “He sure has.” You may add a hearty “amen” if you’d like.

More importantly, I would like to stop here and say, “I give praise to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for all my additions and blessed subtractions.” The Bible says to praise and thank God in all things (1 Thessalonians 5:18). How can I withhold that? It’s been a great life (painful knuckles notwithstanding).

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

On Losing a Finger

A couple of days ago, a good friend of mine cut off his finger. He was laying some flooring in his home, which had to be cut with a table saw. He was almost done when, all of a sudden, one of his fingers ended up on the table, as it were. He was alone at the time, so he drove himself to the emergency room. Fortunately, he lives rather close to the hospital, so getting there wasn’t as traumatic as it could have been.

When I say he cut off his finger, I’m exaggerating a tad. He actually cut it off just past the first knuckle (or would that be the last knuckle). I’m not sure if one counts these things from the tip of the finger inward or from the palm outward. Suffice it to say, he has one less knuckle these days.

After he had been stitched up and bandaged and the ordeal was over, I jokingly told his wife that he probably wasn’t going need it anyway. She just stared at me like I was an idiot (in which regard she could be my own spouse’s twin sister). In her defense, it was somewhat of an idiotic joke, but think about it this way.

Fifty-Five Years of Disuse

Mikey (the dude with the missing body part) and I have been friends since junior high. We were about thirteen when we met. Over thepast fifty-five years, I can’t remember him ever using that digit. After all, it’s the pointer finger, and we learned a long time ago that it’s not polite to point. Additionally, he lost the one on his left hand. I’m pretty sure he’s a right-handed pointer anyway, so if the need arises for him to point something out, he still has his remaining good one.

Having heard his tale of horror, I got to thinking about the body parts that I have lost over the years. Outside of riding a Harley, I don’t do much to endanger “life and limb” as they say. I live a rather cautious life. Still, I walk around sans a few parts myself.

I’m missing a gall bladder, some teeth, a slightly used appendix, and a lot of hair (not to mention a couple of kidney stones—although, I’m not sure those could be counted as body parts). In my case, I’ve been more than happy to part with all those things (aside from the hair). Each one of them was causing me pain.

Some folks like to speculate that all our body parts will be restored in the hereafter. I’d like to think that’s true, but then there’s the example of Jesus. He still had holes in his glorified body (see John 20:24-29). That doesn’t bode well for people looking to regain fingers and such. On the other hand, Saint John tells us that, in the end, the old order of things will pass away and God will make all things new (Revelation 21:1-5). There’s hope for you yet, Mikey!

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

Old Age and Treachery

There’s an adage that says, “Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.” I’m not exactly sure what to make of that, but I suppose treachery does give one an advantage. The implication is that us geezers have been around long enough to learn all the tricks.

From what I can gather, this quote has been attributed to David Mamet (an American playwright). I can only assume this is accurate, because it truly sounds like a line one would hear in a play. No one I know actually talks like that.

I’m not sure why old folks would ever have to overcome skilled young people. Is someone planning an armed revolt of which I’m unaware? I hope not. I’m not all that good at treachery.

I looked up the term, treachery, just to make sure I completely understood what it means. It turns out I had a pretty fair handle on its connotation. Webster and the boys use terms like “deceit” to define it. That immediately causes a red flag to shoot up in my mind.

That Famous Decalogue

Being from the Judeo-Christian camp, I have been taught some rules for life. Among them is a little compilation we like to call the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-21). If you read that famous Decalogue, what you’ll find is that treachery is frowned upon by your Creator—big time.

I like to think I’ve never been much of a devious person (although, I allow for the possibility that others around me may have a differing opinion). Still, I tend to be one of those “live and let live” kind of guys. It’s not my inclination to lean toward treachery to get what I want.

As a matter of fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize I was much more prone toward treachery in my youthful days than I am now. If my life is somewhat typical, that means Mamet’s saying is highly suspect. I will readily admit that I’ve never been accused of being normal, but I don’t think I’m too far out.

“I’m not anxious to be overrun.”

Now, ponder that. If I’m correct in my thinking, young, skillful people given to treachery (possibly due to their youthful immaturity) are a danger to old, honest ones. No wonder Mamet implied we should turn to treachery ourselves (if, indeed, that’s what he was doing). I, for one, am not anxious to be overrun by these traitorous, youthful hordes.

Before I get too carried away with this paranoia, let me just say I have every hope that young people will not come after us. Part of their skillset (in direct opposition to our own) is the mastery of technology. My grandbabies are more tech savvy than I am. Heaven forbid they should turn on us. We couldn’t possibly muster up enough treachery to thwart their evil efforts.

Frankly, I’m probably making too much of all this. Another of Mamet’s famous sayings is, “Always tell the truth–it’s the easiest thing to remember.” So much for treachery…

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

The Fate of the Union Address

Just like clockwork, the president gave his State of the Union Address last night. The initial, constitutional requirement was a report. In the old days, it was an informal account given to the congress by the president in written form. Somewhere along the way, someone thought it would be a good idea to make a big deal of it.

Now there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance as the prez rides to Capitol Hill and presents it orally. Instead of a few pages that could be read at someone’s leisure, it’s now upwards of an hour and a half of politics presented for us all on national TV.

Every year I tell myself I’m not going to watch. Yet every year, for one reason or another, I still tune in. I’m always glad I did. The reason I’m glad is because of what follows.

Immediately following the speech, the political pundits begin to rate it, tear it apart, and moderate every sentence contained therein. If you flip from channel to channel, the stark contrast is nothing short of unbelievable. As I hear these guys and gals pontificate on the president’s verbiage, I’m often flabbergasted.

Which Version Did You Hear?

The reason for my amazement is the varied and multitudinous interpretations given. I’ve just intently watched and listened to every word pouring from our chief executive’s mouth, and now I’m hearing an entirely different version of what I thought I just saw. To make matters worse, each channel (and each pundit) seems to have heard an entirely different speech than the previous commentators.

Paul Simon once wrote a song entitled “The Boxer.” One of the lines in it has always stood out to me. It explains the phenomenon that follows the State of the Union Address each year. The line goes, “Still, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” That’s pretty much describes it.

As a tiny addendum to Simon’s axiom, I saw a brief news clip early in the week (a day or two prior to the State of the Union). A film journalist was doing person-in-the-street interviews and asking college students what they though of the State of the Union Address this year.

“I was embarassed for these people.”

Mind you, this was before the speech was given. The answers were incredible. Everyone claimed to have heard it and had an opinion on it. Most hated it. I was embarrassed for these people.

I guess this is what it’s come to. It doesn’t matter what you say (or, apparently, if you say anything). People are going to hear what they want to hear. If this was merely a once a year occurrence, that would be bad enough. The sad thing is, it happens all the time. I’ve seen it happen in my own life.

Maybe this is why the Lord had Isaiah say to his people, “Be ever hearing, but never understanding.” (Isaiah 6:9) If people are determined to put their own spin on someone else’s words, even God doesn’t have the stomach for it.

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

As I Mourn the Passing of Chief Wahoo

I heard breaking news this morning that left an empty space in my soul. The Cleveland Indians are finally succumbing to political correctness and scalping the Chief Wahoo logo from their caps and sleeves. It’s a sad day for many fans in the Mistake on the Lake (as it’s been called).

As for me, Chief Wahoo is all I’ve ever known. He was adopted in 1947 (three years prior to my birth). Seventy years is a long time, but it looks like our toothy, caricature friend is not long for this world. 2018 will be his final season as the face on the Indians’ uniforms.

The Whitest Guy Around

As you probably know, there have been several Native American groups protesting the logo’s presence for a long time. They see the image as demeaning. I’ve never viewed it that way, but I’m about as white as a guy could be, so I’m not sure my vote should count.

In my defense, however, I’m married to a gal who’s part Native American (from the Seneca Tribe, I believe). I didn’t realize it until we went to get the marriage license, and she tried to pay the clerk in wampum. She can get really torqued off about a lot of things, but Chief Wahoo is not one of them.

I have a couple of Indian caps with the Chief prominently displayed, so I went to my closet and donned one when I heard the news. I may have to purchase a few more items with his likeness, just for nostalgia’s sake.

The Chief isn’t actually being banned altogether—just from the uniforms worn on the playing field. So, for us Wahoo fans, we can still get our mugs, t-shirts, and banners with his depiction. Total eradication would be too much to take. I suppose the next generation won’t care, but we have to be weaned off.

Show Me the Money

This decision, of course, has not satisfied the protestors. They can’t understand why his pic will remain on the uni’s for another year. Why not change them now? I certainly understand that question. Could monetary considerations be the answer?

More importantly, (and I’m sure you could see this one coming) they want the entire name dropped and/or changed. The term, “Indians,” they say will still encourage fans to show up at the ball yard dressed in feathers and war paint. I’m sure they’re right about that. I’ve never been one to don face paint and weird headgear, but it does look like fun.

The whole thing causes me to wonder how long it will be before the Cleveland nine will no longer be called the Indians. The change seems inevitable. But what will they be named? The Rock-n-Rollers? It just doesn’t flow as well. Besides that, they’re surrounded by the Cuyahoga River, Lake Erie, and the state of Ohio (all named after Native American tribes).

I suppose they could revert back to one of their original names—the Spiders. Still, I shudder to think what THAT logo would look like.

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