Smile: Here Comes a Visitor

When I was a newbie Christian, I worshiped with a small congregation. The highlight of most months was to have a visitor stop in to worship with us. Any strange face would cause a stir and at least a modicum of excitement. The younger the visitor, the more it would ratchet up the ante on our excitement. Half the congregation would be beside themselves at the site of an entire young family walking through the back door.

I’m sure this is how it is in most small church families. Visitors are few and far between, and they represent new fodder for a variety of possibilities—evangelization, greater vitality, and (of course) more money for the mission (and upkeep) of the church.

fake-smile

It’s kind of amazing how that works. Even in our small burg, a few thousand people surrounded us. Yet, for the most part, we sat in our little, isolated building and hoped everyone would come to us.

I’ll bet you’ve heard Einstein’s definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. By that definition, we were insane. In fact, by that definition, most congregations are insane.

Of course, we would stand on our heads if we thought it would bring better results (at least I think we would). Naturally, we don’t think it would do any good; so we don’t stand on our heads. Since we don’t think anything in particular would do any good, we do nothing. How’s that for logic? So now we’re both insane and illogical (a good combination, don’t you think?).

Many of us are part and parcel of insane, illogical congregations…”

And so it goes… Many of us are part and parcel of insane, illogical congregations going about the Lord’s work (as long as that work doesn’t take us beyond the four walls of the sanctuary). Unfortunately for us, we keep forgetting that the Lord’s command is to “Go!” Remember the Great Commission?

Just before he left us behind to fend for ourselves, he gave us this parting gift. “Therefore GO and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” Don’t you just hate that?

If only he had said, “Stay where you are, build nice, comfortable buildings with really modern accommodations, and I’ll funnel some awfully cool sheep in your direction.” Maybe it does say that in some lost gnostic gospel somewhere. If so, it’s just our misfortune that it never made it into the final canon. Drat the luck!

Emoticon making a point

Hence, we’re stuck with the command to go (not stay). We’ve been commissioned to make disciples of people out there in the nations. Man, that’s a lot of territory. And to think, Jesus started with twelve close disciples, seventy-two short-term missionaries, and one hundred twenty frightened rabbits in an upper room. How in the world did we get this far? A little insanity, a dearth of logic, and a whole lot of the Holy Spirit…

Don’t look now—here comes a visitor—everyone smile!

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

Just Call Me Hair

As I was driving to work today, a distant memory popped into my mind. I hadn’t thought of this in years, and I’m not sure why I did so today. It was undoubtedly some strange chain of thought (one which I can’t seem to trace back like I so often do). Regardless of where it came from, it took me back quite a ways.

When I was a freshman in college, I lived in a dorm with a lot of guys (before the days of coed dwellings). As fate would have it, I my coif was a bit longer than the rest of them so they started calling me “Hair.” I hated that nickname. That’s probably why I suppressed the memory for so long.SamHair

I guess I hated it so much because they used it as a derisive term. They didn’t like my mane, they let me know as much, and they disdainfully named me Hair. I was vastly outnumbered, so I never said much (a lot of them were football players—big football players). The next year I moved off that floor and the name quickly faded away.

The funny thing is, as that I think back on it, I kind of like that nickname now. I think if someone called me that today, I would embrace it. If you look at a picture of me, you’ll see that it fits.

In an odd twist of history, I ended up becoming a United Methodist pastor. If you know much about our history, you’ve probably heard that the term “Methodist” began as a derisive one. John Wesley’s detractors sarcastically called him and his followers Methodists. Wesley, rather than fight it, embraced the name and adopted it.

Coincidentally, Wesley had long locks flowing over his shoulders. I’m glad his detractors didn’t call him and his followers “Hairs.” United Hair doesn’t flow quite as well as United Methodist (at least not for a Christian denomination).

JohnWesley
John Wesley

I’m not totally sure what the point of all this is except to remind you that we are in the midst of a presidential campaign. So far (and I’m quite sure this will continue), a lot of derisive nicknames have been tossed around. While I don’t expect the candidates to embrace any of them, I sure wish they’d back off from using them. Our society is contentious enough without our presumptive leaders showing us the way toward bad behavior.

Unfortunately, I suspect there’s little chance of them cleaning up their act. We, as a society, will probably follow suit; and our culture will become even more belligerent. It’s almost become a sport.

During the current national convention, there seems to be a lot of booing, shouting, and name-calling—and these guys supposedly like each other. I know that some families like to fight, but most of them don’t do it on national TV (except maybe the Kardashian’s and such).

I hate to be a pessimist, but I think we’re doomed. Just call me Hair!

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

Bailing Out the Church

church on rockI don’t think I’m revealing any secrets when I say the church as we know it is in trouble. For the most part, today’s church is not much different than it was in the days of Martin Luther. We had a Protestant Reformation, and that was that.

It’s almost as though we entered into some sort of denominational dispensation and immediately adopted the new status quo. Certainly we’ve had a history of schisms, mergers, and controversies since then; but by and large, we’ve not changed all that much since the sixteenth century…until now.

When I say we’re in trouble, I’m not decrying that fact. Trouble might just be exactly what we need. Trouble is what caused the church to gather in an upper room to pray on the day of Pentecost. Trouble is what caused the early church to leave Jerusalem and ultimately spread the Gospel throughout the world. Trouble is what causes Chinese Christianity to form house churches that fan the flames of revival all over a nation that has attempted to eradicate them.

“I doubt most of us will recognize the church in fifty years.”

I’ve heard in recent days that there are as many people now living active Christian lives outside the walls of the institutional church as there are within. This is the current trend, and it’s been gathering momentum for quite a while. In other words, the day of what we call the Christian denominations is waning.

TrustHimThe way things are changing, added to the rapidity of that change, will undoubtedly bring a new era—dare I say, a revival. I doubt most of us will recognize the church in fifty years. She will be unrecognizable because she is being transformed into something we’ve never seen before (or at least something we didn’t anticipate seeing).

If all this is true (and I believe it is), a new question arises. What will be our reaction to the change? I’ve been a pastor in an institutionalized denomination for over thirty-five years. As such, I have a pretty good idea of what our initial reaction will be. In fact, I think we’re already seeing that response take root.

“It’s not about us!”

Our first response will be to bail out the church. We will do everything we can to maintain the status quo as we know it. We will seek to bolster our programming, inject new life, and find new members to keep what we hold near and dear. The problem (probably to our chagrin) will be that new life and new members will be different than what we expected and hoped they would be. When that happens, change will roll over us like a tsunami.

BailoutWhat we will probably discover is what we often hear these days. Namely, “It’s not about us!” The sooner we learn that, the sooner we’ll realize our need to get on board with what the Lord is doing. We’d rather try to get him to bless our own plans.

Could the best course of action be to see what the Spirit is doing and join in?

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

Ninety-Nine and 44/100ths Impure

sleeping in pewRecently, I was perusing the more astute pages of Facebook when I ran across this quote. “The Body of Christ will not become mature while 99.9% of its members are passive pew sitters. We need every part to go live out its created purpose and contribute to the overall wellbeing of the body.” ~Oliver Day~

I was struck by Oliver’s comment for a couple of reasons. The first is the percentage he chose. As a pastor of some thirty-five years, I’ve seen my share of “passive pew sitters” (if I correctly understand his terminology). There are certainly a number of people who merely want to be observers of the festivities for whatever reason.

“We’re in much bigger trouble than I had imagined.”

I don’t know the actual percentage of such folks, but I sure hope it’s not anywhere near that high. I don’t know Oliver, so I’m going to venture a guess that he was exaggerating (at least slightly). If he wasn’t, we’re in much bigger trouble than I had imagined (depending on his accuracy). Regardless, it certainly speaks to a rather low view of the majority of churchgoers.

The second reason his statement struck me is his feeling that every person in the proverbial pew must live out their part for us to be mature as the Body of Christ. I really hope he’s wrong about that. It seems to me we’re never going to have 100% cooperation from even the most mature members of the Body. It’s called being human.

sleep1I might be taking his thoughts out of context (primarily because there was no context given). Still, the Body of Christ here on this earth is never going to be pure. We are, after all, a human institution—even if we are a spiritually directed group. The Lord often seems to use imperfect and impure people to do his work. Even a cursory reading of Scripture will bear me out on that one.

Still, I fully understand Oliver’s sentiments. It must be extremely frustrating for someone who is totally committed to the Lord’s work to see so much passivity. It would be exasperating to be surrounded by others whose zeal is limited to something less than God’s will.

“There are now just as many Christians outside the buildings…”

A lot of people have left the institutional church because of such passivity. I’ve heard there are now just as many Christians outside the buildings we refer to as churches as there are within those hallowed halls. Many of them left, not because they no longer believed. They left because they felt like they were the only ones who cared.

There was an old soap commercial many of you may remember (I think it was Ivory). It stated that the soap was “ninety-nine and 44/100ths percent pure.” I always found that to be a bit hard to accept, but maybe it was true.Ivory

Today, many people like Oliver are saying that the church is now ninety-nine and 44/100ths percent impure. I find that just as hard to accept, and I sure hope THAT isn’t true.

 

 

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

Spiritual Free Agents

In the major professional sports, there is a magical phenomenon call “free agency.” This appeared on the scene when I was a young man. Up to that point, players were basically tied to their team for life (unless the team traded them).

unrestrictedThat kind of servitude doesn’t fly in our modern world. Some say it’s akin to slavery. While that’s probably a bit exaggerated, it is nevertheless on point.

Now, when a player’s contract is up, he gets to offer his services to the highest bidder—advantage; large market teams. But that’s the way the ball bounces (excuse the pun). Now (unlike the old days when a player often played for one team his entire career), it’s not uncommon for an athlete to play for half a dozen teams or more. Some guys change teams so often I can’t keep up.

“I was baptized Presbyterian.”

During the same time free agency began to take root in sports, it started to emerge in the life of the church. In the old days, it was not uncommon for someone to say, “I was baptized Presbyterian.” You don’t hear stuff like that much anymore because folks just don’t care where they were baptized, married, went to Sunday School, or took their first communion.

People nowadays flit from congregation to congregation on a whim—they’re free agents. The name on the sign seldom matters anymore. If you were raised Baptist, no problem… That was then, this is now. It’s a new day, and this group over here has something to offer that I happen to want at this moment–period.churchglasses

A lot of the old timers decry this sort of behavior. They used to call these kinds of folks all sorts of names like “lone ranger Christians” and “charismatic butterflies.” Let’s face it. They’re just free agents.

I always hated free agency in baseball. I hated it because my favorite team is from a small market and can’t afford to compete with the big boys. I can usually count on my favorite players leaving for greener pastures sooner or later.

There’s probably a similar sentiment underlying our disdain of spiritual free agency. If we don’t have what the congregation down the street has, we’re going to lose some of our best people sooner or later.

So let’s face it, folks. That’s just the way it is in twenty-first century America. We can either go with the flow or hang on to the old school way of doing things and get plowed under. Frankly, things like membership vows are now an exercise in futility (if you can even get people to take them).

“The Spirit is doing something new…”

freeagentI’m not whining about this overwhelming wave of spiritual free agents. That’s just how it is these days. Still, I’m at a loss to know exactly how to relate to people who are parishioners one day, gone the next, and back again a year later for another short stint with us.

The Spirit is doing something new. We’ve just got to figure out what it is.

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

Coming Alive in the Twenty-First Century

DoveCross

As Christians, we are called to subvert the world. That’s what Jesus did, and (if I read my Bible correctly) that’s what we’re supposed to do as well.

I use the word, subvert, because we don’t like it. We’ve been trained to think that anything subversive is automatically bad. Remember what it means. To be subversive (among other things) is to be revolutionary. It means to cause destabilization. We REALLY don’t like that definition.

But isn’t that exactly what Jesus did? He destabilized an entire way of thinking because he was so radical—revolutionary. We hear it all the time about Jesus but seldom think how that should translate for us. How could such a concept work its way into our lives?

“The world needs people who have come alive.”

The late Baptist minister and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, once said this: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” Ponder that one for a while.

Jesus didn’t show up merely to meet the needs of some people. He certainly did that along the way, but what he ultimately came to do was inject life where there was only death. He was (and is) the most “alive” person ever. He was alive to his

Official game balls for the NFL football Super Bowl XLIX sit in a bin before being laced and inflated at the Wilson Sporting Goods Co. in Ada, Ohio, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. The New England Patriots will play the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1 in Glendale, Arizona. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski) ORG XMIT: OHRO1

Heavenly Father, alive to himself, and alive to those around him. His aliveness resulted in the gift of life and salvation that he offered to the world.

What really makes you come alive? What turns you into a vehicle for joy and excitement? How often do you actually do it?

I suspect Jesus really enjoyed the majority of his time on this earth. He was doing something he loved—something that made him come alive. And while his greatest gift to us is that of salvation, his greatest example may be that he did what he was born to do. How many of us actually do that? How many of us even try? How many of us even think about it?

We are so caught up in our daily struggles to put bread on the table, fight traffic, or maintain a certain standard of living that we ignore who we’re meant to be. What important desire has gone unfulfilled in you? What should you be that you would never become? It’s probably not as impossible as you think.

“You are a world changer…”

If the Lord has planted a dream inside you that has thus far gone unfulfilled, maybe you should look into pursuing it. Some dreams lie dormant for years until the Spirit of God motivates us to give it one last shot.

excitedfaceI didn’t become a preacher until I was thirty. I finished seminary when I was thirty-five. I became a Harley-Davidson owner and rider when I was fifty-five. I published my first book when I was sixty-five.

You are a world-changer—a subversive. Don’t give up on that thing that makes you come alive. Walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

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

“I’d Kill for a Nobel Peace Prize!”

murderComedian Steven Wright has said he’d “kill for a Nobel Peace Prize.” That’s funny in the context of his stand-up routine. In our current state of affairs, however, people are killing for a lot less than peace prizes. Obviously, there’s absolutely no humor in any of these shootings, bombings, and other sundry techniques people have dreamed up to destroy human lives.

We wake up almost daily to the news of another insane act of violence. Some of the perpetrators seem to have a sliver of reason for their evil deeds, but none have a truly rational one.

Pokemon Strikes Again

To make matters worse, there seems to be no solid pattern. They can happen in gun-free zones or at heavily guarded events. They can be in high crime areas or in neighborhoods where police are seldom needed. They can be well-planned acts of terror or spur of the moment snaps.

You may have heard recently about the Pokémon Go App craze. It’s a reality game played using cell phone technology. I don’t understand it exactly, but I know it’s been used to lure people into isolated traps where they are vulnerable to armed robbers (or worse). We can’t even trust games anymore!

The first telling of this sort of thing is in Genesis. As a matter of fact, that’s where cainandablewe hear of many of our “firsts.” You may remember that Adam and Eve had a couple of sons named Cain and Abel. For flimsy reasons (mainly jealousy, I suppose), Cain killed his brother Abel.

As the account goes, God called Cain on the carpet and asked him where his brother was. Cain commits the pitifully naïve act of lying to the Lord and tells him he doesn’t know. God’s reply is, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” We would do well to evoke this little bit of history from time to time.

It’s enormously incredible to me how cheap life seems to have become these days. Even many who decry these senseless acts turn around and support other acts of violence on humanity. They call them by other names and find high and mighty excuses to defend them, but they are no less heinous.

“Thou Shalt Not Kill”

If Abel’s blood cried out to God from the ground, I’m pretty sure modern day victims spill blood that does a considerable amount of screaming to the heavens as well. In the end, God will have the final say. We can argue and fuss as to what we’re going to do to prevent unwarranted slaughters. Nevertheless, history shows we will never stop them all—not that we shouldn’t try.

As for Cain, God cursed him. He spared his life, but Cain’s reaction to the curse was, “My punishment is more than I can bear.” Whatever punishment waits our modern day Cain’s, it’s undoubtedly more than we mere humans will ever be able to mete out. I pity those in defiance of God’s simple command—“Thou shalt not kill.”Ten commandments

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

Perichoresis: The Divine Dance

perichoresisThere’s a Greek word that’s used to encapsulate the relationship between the three persons of the Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). That word is perichoresis. It’s a compound word often simply defined as “rotation” or “a going around.”

The literal makeup of the word is peri (around) and chorein (to give way or make room). The idea (in relation to the Holy Trinity) is that each person of the Trinity moves around and makes room for the others. Some refer to this as the “Divine Dance.” The same term is often applied to the two inherent natures of Jesus (human and divine) as well as God’s relationship with creation. Simply put, there’s a never-ending dance going on, and the Lord is always a part of it.

I don’t mean to dazzle you with fancy terms here (I, too, had to look it up). However, I ran across this term recently and its definition sparked a whole different train of thought for me.

This past week, five policemen were shot dead in Dallas, Texas. If you haven’t heard about this, you are about as far off the grid as one can get. It’s an understatement to say that it was a horrific crime and a despicable act. I won’t attempt to add to the thousands of words written and spoken about it except to say I am numbed by the news.

At the memorial service for the five policemen, former President Bush delivered blackofficera six-minute oration. It was one of the best six minutes I’ve heard in a long time. In it, he made this statement. “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” He, accordingly, received a goodly amount of applause for this particular sentence. He did so, I’m sure, because it hit the nail on the head and put a lot of things in a nutshell (if I may mix metaphors).

The violence in Dallas (as well as what’s been happening in many related incidents in this country), is a result of our failure as God’s creation to join in the dance. We have neglected our partner in the perichoresis if you will. God has asked us to dance, and, for the most part, we have refused.

This, of course, is nothing new. Adam and Eve got us off to a good start (or maybe I should say a bad start). Cain later killed his brother, Abel, and we’ve been headed down that path ever since. Dallas is another chapter in our long story of sin. (Whoops! I used the “s” word. At least it doesn’t have four letters.)

DANCE OF GRACEIt is sin that brings about sagas like the Dallas murders. Our sin is our refusal to “dance with the one who brung us.” If we continue to refuse his invitation, we will undoubtedly see more violence, brutality, and out and out madness.

We’ve been RSVP’d to the perichoresis. We might want to respond while the offer still stands.

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

Rules for the Seventy-Two

72There’s a fascinating passage in the Luke chapter ten. It’s the portion of Scripture where Jesus is described as sending out seventy-two of his disciples. They were to travel to the towns and into the countryside where he would be teaching.

The captivating part of the story is the instruction he laid out for them. In twenty-first century America, we would expect that he was sending them out for some promotional work. You know—a little PR. That didn’t seem to be the case, however.

His first instruction was not surprising. He told them to pray. The prayer, however, was for them to ask God to send workers out into the fields for harvest. We’re used to this kind of prayer, but here it seems a little out of place. Weren’t the seventy-two (and more importantly, Jesus) the workers going out to harvest souls? Apparently, more than seventy-three were needed.

His second instruction was much stranger. They were not to take any baggage. That little omission would leave them more than a bit helpless. They were forced to depend on the provision of the Lord (and the people whose lives they encountered). They were vulnerable. Interestingly enough, this instruction was preceded by the statement, “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” I’ll say!

The third instruction deals with their behavior dusty feetwhen they stay in other peoples’ homes. This strongly implies that they were to go into villages and towns and get to know the people, work for them, help them out, and gladly accept what they are given. Part of their work among the people is to heal the sick and relay to them that the Kingdom of God is near.

Their final instruction deals only with those places that reject them. If that were to happen, they were to shake the dust of the town off their feet. As they left, they were to issue a sharp warning that the townsfolk were on the wrong spiritual path.

A thoughtful look at this passage reveals a startling truth. What Jesus instructed them to do was pretty much the opposite of what we in the church do today. They were to go as strangers looking for people who would welcome them into their lives. The church today settles for staying at home readying herself to welcome the occasional stranger should one wander in.

The seventy-two had nothing to offer outside of themselves. They had nothing, brought nothing, but sought refuge and community. Out of the relationships they formed came healing and salvation. They had to depend on God to prepare the way, and they had to offer only what God gave them.strangers

There were no programs, buildings, rallies, or children’s ministries. There were only strangers looking to belong. Have we gotten it all wrong? Are we doing it backwards?

Becoming the stranger in the crowd can be a scary thing, but it might be something we should do a little more. Can we find ways to do that?

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

Father McKenzie

cemeteryI serve a small congregation on the outskirts of a village in Northern Virginia. To describe the churchyard as picturesque just doesn’t do it justice. There are towering oaks on the property that are as old as our little chapel (125 years). It’s quiet and peaceful, belying the fact that it’s a suburb of DC.

On the southern edge of the two-acre plot lies a fifty-foot strip of land dedicated in 1891 to be a cemetery. Although I don’t have time to do it often, I love to putter around the property doing a little groundskeeping every now and then. It’s quite therapeutic.

I was doing just that a few days ago when I discovered a song rattling around inside my head. I realized immediately that I subconsciously hear it every time I work in the graveyard. The song is the old Beatle tune, Eleanor Rigby.

The composition is about lonely people in general. But there’s a specific part of the number dedicated to a fictitious clergyman by the name of Father McKenzie. The particular line I always think of at times like those says this:

“Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave. No one was saved”McCartney

Said dirt was from the grave of Eleanor Rigby—one of the lonely people mentioned in the song. As I wipe the dirt of our cemetery from my hands, I often think that (in some small way) I’ve become Father McKenzie.

It’s not that I’m lonely—far from it. But I’m now sixty-six years old. The majority of my life has passed (I assume), and I find pleasure and solace in trimming trees at gravesites. Father McKenzie I presume.

Maybe the saddest line in the song is the phrase that asserts, “no one was saved.” It’s almost a throwaway line, but it stands out to me. I think it says more about the Beatles than it does about lonely people. Since the people mentioned in the song are fictitious, it’s easy to say they weren’t saved. It’s their song, after all.

Still, there’s an underlying current that smacks of hopelessness. It seems to strongly imply (if not downright proclaim) that Father McKenzie is wasting his precious time. His life amounts to nothing, and his ministry is bogus. Obviously, I disagree.

FatherMcKenzieThe Beatles have been one of my favorite bands since they burst upon the scene in the sixties. I love their music (their judgment of other peoples’ usefulness not withstanding). They helped to shape my teenage years. Hence, they made me feel really bad for the lonely priest in their song. Now, in some ways, I’m him.

The Father McKenzie of song darns his own socks and writes sermons that no one will hear. I haven’t gotten to that point yet, and hopefully never will. Still, that day may be on the horizon. In the meantime, I’ll find fulfillment in writing, preaching, and cleaning up around the tombs. Someone may even be saved.

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