We’re Now in Permanent Whitewater

white-water-rafting-rapids_03Most people love to go to the beach. Me? Not so much. There are three things at the beach that bother me—sand, sun, and water. These, of course, are the three things many people love about the beach.

First, there’s the sand. It gets into everything and is hard to clean out. It’s irritating, scratchy, and often too hot to cross—especially in bare feet.

Then there’s the sun. My pigment-deprived, northern Italian skin-type can’t take much of it. The process my outer membrane goes through is burn-and-peel (then repeat). I’m not sure whether I hate the burn or the peel more.

Finally, there’s the water. I dislike any water that is not controllable—i.e., puddles, ponds, lakes, and oceans. They’re great to look at, but that’s as far as it goes. I try to stick with faucets and showers. They’re more my speed.

I say, “Nay, nay!”

The one that really gets me, however, is whitewater. Some people spend a great deal of time and money placing their lives in danger to go whitewater rafting. For me, that does not compute. Would I ever go on one of these excursions? As the late John Pinette used to say, “Nay, nay!”

Still, I must admit that whitewater is quite useful in another way. In keeping with Jesus’ tradition of parables and poignant metaphors, whitewater is wonderful imagery. We are often negotiating life’s cascades. They consist of situations that put us in one kind of peril or another. And so, occasionally we find ourselves in the whitewater of human existence. As an extension of who we are, the church also must travel these less than optimal waterways. It comes with the territory.lake-placid

Unfortunately, the times in which we live seem to present us with more and more cataracts to maneuver. The waters appear to be growing extra treacherous while our raft seems to be collapsing. The torrents seem to be expanding to Biblical proportions. Instead of us shooting the rapids, they are shooting us.

I attended a clergy seminar recently during which the speaker said, “We are now in permanent whitewater.” That really hit me between the eyes. I think it would have bothered me even if I liked water.

“It feels apocalyptic.”

It bothers me because I believe he’s correct. The troubles and controversies never seem to end. We never seem to ease out onto the quiet waters of Lake Placid—with the warm breeze gently blowing and the soft beams of sunshine caressing our shoulders. Instead, it feels apocalyptic. Could it be the eschaton is near?

I prefer the relaxing sway of a hammock under a shade tree on a summer day. Being thrown into the chaotic mix of life is not always my first choice. Still, there is something to be said about the joy of the risk-taker.

Whitewater rafters seem to get a thrill out of navigating the unseen rocks through the foam and watery madness. Despite the turmoil, I must admit we are living in exhilarating times.eschaton

Still, I really hate water.

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

You Have to Stir Up the Dirt Before You Can Grow the Corn

I’ve never been a farmer, although I’ve had far away dreams of actually living off the land. Allergies and an aversion to doing mechanical things caused those dreams to be quickly waylaid. Still, I’ve had my turn at growing a few things over the years

I was reminded of this when I recently heard someone say, “You have to stir up the dirt before you can grow the corn.” I chuckled when I heard it. It sounds a little funny, a tad hick-ish, and very down-to-earth. Like all earthy sayings, there’s a lot of truth packed into it.03-chisel-plow

If you want to grow some corn (or almost anything else), you’ve got to plow up a measure of ground. Hard soil doesn’t cut it. You need a place to stick the seed. Otherwise, it will blow away or have no place to root.

When I heard this statement, however, it wasn’t in reference to farming. It was in reference to growing the church. That’s another reason why I laughed. I’ve been present to see a little stirring in my time. It’s not always pretty.

“Coasting is not the optimal existence…”

The easiest thing for any congregation to do is coast. There are certain minimum requirements that need to be met, of course. There must be a worship service of some integrity. The building should be in some semblance of upkeep. The flock needs to offer up at least enough money to pay the bills (winter worship can be rather cold).

Coasting is not the optimal existence for any body of believers, however. As you’ve probably heard, if you’re not growing, you’re going backward. Once coasting sets in, the proverbial ground gets hardened. No seed can be planted, and fruit becomes rare if not impossible.

Getting Our Hands Dirty

The ground needs to be tilled, the field plowed, and the dirt stirred up. This doesn’t come without effort and at least a few aching muscles. To make matters worse, it comes with a price—dirty hands.hands-holding-soil

Many in today’s church would rather not get their hands dirty. They like the way things are—clean and neat. What they often don’t notice is the dust that’s settling across the congregation. A white glove test would reveal a whole lot of non-movement. It’s a test we avoid like the plague—sometimes until it’s too late.

Stirring up the dirt requires change. It requires keeping up with the times. It requires some hard work and some step taking. It requires us to evaluate and re-evaluate what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what new pathways should be traveled in the future.

A Declining Church

The church in America is in decline. People are leaving by the droves. Some sit around and are puzzled by it all. They look at the way things are and think everything’s fine. Why would anyone leave?

Unfortunately, thing’s aren’t fine. People are leaving because the terrain has been hardened. It may be comfortable for you, but it isn’t for many others. It’s time to begin breaking up the fallow ground again.

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

Baking the Cake

brimstone-volleyIn his fascinating book, Brimstone, Hugh Halter puts forth the following scenario: “In a small town, there is only one bakery. Jesus is the baker. Two gay men walk in and ask Him to bake a cake for their wedding. Would Jesus bake the cake?”

In promoting the book, this question is asked. “Jesus was the least judgmental person the world has known, yet Christians persist in drawing lines in the sand. How can we tear down barriers that keep people from being drawn to us—and to him?”

“What Would Jesus Do?”

Of course, homosexuality and same-sex marriages are big controversial topics for Christians in our time. Still, they’re not the only ones. The underlying thread behind almost any controversy in the church becomes the wristband question: What Would Jesus Do?

Would Jesus bake the cake? Would Jesus baptize this person? Would Jesus enter that foul den of iniquity? Inquiring minds want to know.

wwjdThe truth of the matter is it’s seemingly impossible to know what Jesus would do in almost any situation. If Scripture is true (and I believe it is), it’s quite apparent that Jesus is the Lord of surprises.

People were constantly trying to back him into some philosophical or religious corner. It seems at these times he was his most unpredictable self. It was also at these times he seemed to do extremely well at turning it back around to the aggressor.

“Their hearts were hard.”

For example: When pressed about the topic of the divorce laws, he told the Pharisees, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” (Matthew 19:8) It didn’t matter that they weren’t around when Moses handed down those laws. He did it because THEIR hearts were hard.

Another time, when discussing loving their neighbors, Jesus was asked to define the term neighbor. He replied with the story of the Good Samaritan and asked his inquisitor who he thought the neighbor was. The now sheepish Pharisee had to answer in a way he would not have originally chosen. Turning the tables, Jesus suggested to the Pharisee that he should “go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

brimstoneWhile we can’t always know what Jesus would do, we should have a pretty good handle on how he would be. In any situation dealing with people, he would be loving, compassionate, and truthful. We could add a lot more descriptors as well, but I’m sure you get the picture. Jesus wasn’t about prescribing specific actions in specific situations. He was about living out certain attitudes that came from the bottom of his heart. He admonishes us to do the same.

Hugh Halter posted the scenario mentioned above on his blog site. He said within an hour over 4500 people responded. They were split down the middle.

The burning question for me is, “How could Jesus, who will be judge over all, be so non-judgmental in the way he lived? I, on the other hand, have no right to judge. Yet, I do it all the time. Lord have mercy.

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

Chasing the Wild Goose

st-brendan-the-navigatorSometimes, making decisions in the Christian walk can be excruciating. Should I go here? Should I do that? Would it be better for me to x or y? Would the Lord prefer me to be like this?

I suspect some of us overthink things to the point where we become powerless to do anything. Sometimes we “wait on the Lord” so intensely, we miss everything he seems to be telling us. We become frozen with inaction while we hesitate to march on. We are paralyzed by indecision.

The Wild Goose

I recently read of a group of Celtic Monks who were just the opposite. Their philosophy was to move ahead and expect the Holy Spirit to go before them and prepare the way. They fondly called the Holy Spirit the “Wild Goose.”

They lived on the small island of Iona off the coast of Scotland. They were fishermen, sailors, and missionaries. They survived raids by the Vikings.

It is said that they would get in boats and just sail. With no specific destination in mind, they would sail until they came to some land. Their assumption was that the Wild Goose would take them where they were supposed to be. When they landed, they would form a colony and do the work of missionaries. In so doing, introduced many to Jesus.

Since this occurred back in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., Christianity was not as widespread as one might imagine. Apparently, they were quite successful in their exploits as they chased the iona1Wild Goose.

The most famous of these monks was Saint Brendan. Legend has it that he actually sailed as far as North America. He was gone for seven years and returned with amazing stories of this new land. And while many think this story is the stuff of myth and legends, his tale is still one of mystery and fascination.

Brendan is still fondly remembered to this day. The progressive rock group, Iona, recorded an entire album inspired by his voyage (Beyond These Shores). Its haunting instrumentation and lyrics have made it one of my favorites for many years (it was released in 1993).

A New Sense of Adventure

These stories and music have piqued my curiosity about this group that was so willing to be adventurous for their Lord. It has also caused me to think more and more about how entrenched we can become as we live such sedentary lives in a century when everything is so comfortable.

gooseAs I attempt to do things the Lord’s way, sometimes I wonder if we miss the adventures he has created for us because we’re too quick to pass up anything out of our norm. If a million other people haven’t done it before, we’re not willing to step out in faith to test the waters.

We like to speak of being filled with the Holy Spirit of God and going where he calls us to go. Still, we are petrified of going on a Wild Goose chase. Maybe we need a new sense of adventure.

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

Potty Humor From the Lord

stone-toiletI just read an article about the archeological discovery of a public toilet. This would be less than fascinating were it not for the fact that it’s a find of Biblical proportions. It’s an uncovering of a physical event we see described in 2 Kings 10. In case you haven’t read that account lately, please allow me to elucidate.

There was a guy with the memorable name of Jehu. The prophet Elisha had Jehu anointed King of Israel. The story of the transition of power can be found in 2 Kings 9. I don’t have time to recount it here, but it’s definitely recommended reading.

Seventy sons had father Ahab…

Jehu was given the job of wiping out Ahab’s family. You may remember Ahab as one of the worst kings ever (not to mention his lovely wife, Jezebel—another story altogether). To do so, Jehu enlisted the services of the City Council of Samaria.

Ahab had seventy sons living in that city (apparently, he was rather prolific). Jehu ordered that their heads be cut off and arranged in two piles at the entrance of the city gates (quite the welcoming site upon entering, I’m sure). He then had the rest of Ahab’s family, friends, and political associates put to death as well. This is what we call, “Taking care of the loose ends.”and-ahab-the-son-of-omri

Now here comes the pièce de résistance. Ahab and Jezebel were big proponents of Ba’al worship. Ba’al was the god of just about anything the pagans wanted him to be (fertility, weather, agriculture—you name it, he was the god of it). You may recognize him better as Beelzebub.

“…converted to a public latrine.”

It was well known among the faithful that the true God of Israel did not take kindly to false gods like Ba’al horning in on his territory. The Israelites were to be loyal to Yahweh, and Yahweh alone. Being in positions of influence, Ahab and Jezebel had led much of the citizenry down the wrong spiritual path.

Once these two were out of the way, Jehu took the final step to remove their ungodly impact. He suckered the priests and congregants of Ba’al into their place of worship and wiped them out. Then he ordered the temple to be destroyed. The temple ruins were then converted to a public latrine (2 Kings 10:27).

jezebelThe more we dig out of the ground, the more the Bible is shown to be accurate. The actions described in this little piece of history are definitely not politically correct—just true. What took place there would be roughly akin to our president destroying a place of worship and replacing it with a manure pit. Those were obviously different times.

A little addendum to this revelation is that Jehu destroyed all the remnants of Ba’al worship from Israel. Yet, he overlooked a couple of golden calves that he salvaged for use as his own personal idols. I’m not sure why he didn’t take a lesson from the destruction of Ahab and Jezebel.

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

Detoxing From the Toxic Church

toxin I recently attended a three-day Christian Leadership Institute. During the time there, we explored our personal leadership styles and attempted to determine where each of us fit on the spectrum. I won’t tell you what mine was except to say I’m really anal. No big surprise there.

Part of what we looked at was the various categories of congregations that exist out there in churchdom. I guess we were trying to see where our styles fit the best. I’m not sure I really fit in anywhere particular, but that’s no big surprise either.

The Toxic Congregation

Interestingly enough, the leaders of the institute had narrowed the kinds of churches down to four. I won’t bore you with the details, but one of the categories was rather startling. That category was entitled, “The Toxic Church.”

Apparently, toxic churches are ones that have been around a long time and have actually produced a lot of fruit over the years (spiritually speaking). Then, somewhere along the way they became abusive. Congregational members of such churches are abusive to the pastors, abusive to each other, and abusive to their neighbors.

Occasionally, their abusive behavior is interrupted by a move of the Holy Spirit and things seem to be getting back to normal. Before too long, however, these acts of God are suppressed by more abuse, and they get back to normal (or abnormal if you will).detox

The strange thing about these congregations is their incredible ability to survive. One wonders why the Lord doesn’t just snuff them out, but I guess he’s put up with far worse. The Bible does say something about God being long-suffering.

Just before I sat down to write this blog, I did a quick check of my Facebook page. A short video jumped out at me about a guy who was detoxing from church. He was in his third year of doing so. The coincidence was rather startling for me.

The upshot of all this is that there are congregations out there that are downright poisonous. I guess I always knew this, but having it thrown in my face for the past few days has made it much more of a stark reality. It’s not something we like to admit, let alone talk about.

“Christians have ceased to darken the doors…”

I don’t know that I’ve ever been in such a church. I’m quite sure I’ve never been the pastor of one. Still, I suppose there are small pockets of toxins in every sizeable congregation. It’s just another reason why half of all American Christians have ceased to darken the doors of our church buildings.poison-danger-sign-s-0580

It’s incredible to me that anyone can know the love of Christ and still carry around the venom of Satan—ready to strike at any moment. In fact, it’s more than incredible—it’s unthinkable. Still, it apparently happens.

That kind of poison has to be far more toxic than most others. Otherwise, why would my friend in the video have to detox for three years and counting? Heaven help us!

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

The Back-to-Egypt Committee

camelIf you hang around pastor types long enough, there are certain phrases and concepts you’ll hear repeated. One of the sayings I like to use is, “It’s enough to make a preacher swear.” A short phrase often used to describe certain congregations is, “God’s frozen chosen.” Then there’s the ever-popular, “I’m too blessed to be stressed.” And of course, there’s the one you never want to hear—“God told me to tell you…”

If you overhear pastors complaining to each other about people who buck against everything they try to do, you may hear them refer to the “Back-to-Egypt Committee.” The Back-to-Egypt Committee is not a committee at all, but they seem to function like one.

It’s very Biblical

They usually have a leader (akin to a chairperson). The leader is usually someone well respected in the congregation and who doesn’t want to see anything change. He or she easily gathers a group around them who share the same perspective. Their attitude can be summed up in the phrase, “We’re agin’ it!”

The nickname for this faux committee comes from the Bible (sort of). You may remember the story of the Hebrew nation escaping from slavery in Egypt. Moses led them out, God parted the Red Sea to get them to safety, and they began to cross the wilderness back into the Promised Land.leeks-onions

The problem that occurred really began when the folks began to miss what they had in Egypt. According to the complainers, they had it made in the shade when they were slaves. They had pots full of meat, cucumbers, melons, garlic, leeks, and onions (and some good mouthwash, I hope).

“So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt”

In short, they wanted to go back to Egypt (hence the Back-to-Egypt Committee). It’s these kinds of ad hoc committees that keep congregations from joining the twenty-first-century church. They keep yearning for the “good old days.” Me too, I guess. But we have to come to a point where we realize the good old days are gone. We can’t go back to Egypt. Or, as Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.”

The late Keith Green wrote and recorded a great song about the subject (So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt). It’s a tongue-in-cheek rendition of the complaints of the beleaguered Hebrews. It ends with them listing the various ways they have come up with to prepare their daily manna (dishes like manna-cotti come to mind).

Going back to Egypt is always a great temptation. We remember how it used to be, and we long for those things (whatever they were) to be commonplace again.

As far as I can tell, however, the Lord isn’t parting any Red Seas for us to backtrack.slaves-in-egypt Once we got to the other side, the seawalls crashed back down to the seabed, and that was that. No more dry land on which to return.

We in the church can no longer afford to yearn for the past. The bridges have been burned. Let’s move forward with all haste.

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

Sound the Trump: Revelations of the October Kind

I usually try to stay away from political topics unless they somehow feed into the general life of the church. It’s not that the church is apolitical. It’s just that, as a pastor, I try not to enter that fray unless necessary. This time, however, I just can’t help myself.

A few days ago, someone “leaked” an old recording of Donald Trump making lewd statements. Like we needed more ammunition against either of these candidates. Everyone already seems to be sickened by this election cycle. So now, we’re going to empty the circular files of any garbage we can find.

tim-hartmans-trumpRegardless of the fact that this recording was done eleven years ago, all these October revelations seem pretty lame to me. It’s not that what The Donald said wasn’t “deplorable” (see what I did there?). It’s that half the country is acting shocked and surprised.

Who in the world has been walking around under the imbecilic delusion that Trump is a highly moral Boy Scout? Does this disclosure suddenly open our eyes to the reality that politics and politicians are slimy? Please…

“It’s just sex…”

On top of that, many of the people screaming bloody murder are the same ones who gave Bill Clinton a pass when he was involved in all his dalliances. Remember that? “It’s just sex. Someone’s private life has nothing to do with their performance in office.” As a friend of mine used to say, “Horse puckey!”

I don’t doubt that we have a few Hillary surprises in store as well. We really don’t need any more. We already have a pretty good record of the despicable things she’s said and done in the past.

So, we have two candidates who are despised by millions for various reasons. We have plenty of videos and news clippings to remind us of their past foibles. Any new revelations are virtuously superfluous. I suspect most of us have already made up our minds anyway.

hillary

The facts are these. We have two candidates whose records and statements are (shall we say) less than immaculate. If we’re going to attempt to elect one of them on the basis of his or her stellar reputation, good luck with that one. They both appear to be narcissistic loudmouths. Who wants that for the next four years?

“We’re going to be stuck with one of them.”

So, if we can’t go by reputations and personalities, we only have one thing left. We’ll have to vote according to their respective platforms (if we can figure out what they are). You may hate Hillary and Donald, as most people seem to do. But let’s face it; we’re going to be stuck with one of them.

I think we’re going to have to set aside their personae (if that’s possible) and elect the one we think will actually do what we’d like to see done (assuming we can place enough trust in one of them to do that).

It seems to be coming down to a roll of the dice. I just hope it isn’t snake eyes.

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

Living Out the Borrowed Vision

visionHow does your congregation decide what to do? If it’s a sizeable gathering, you probably don’t know the answer to that question. Somewhere along the way, someone (possibly the pastor) stood up front during worship and announced a new program. From that point on, you were clued in.

You didn’t have a part in the decision-making process, so you weren’t invested in the project. If the ensuing announcements, sermons, and promotions were appealing to you, you bought in—maybe. Even then, your big participation might have been to tell others, “Our church is doing this.” Quite often, that was the extent of your involvement.

I’m not accusing your or your church group of this kind of action (or inaction). But the sad state of affairs in today’s Body of Christ often leads to such a process. Consequently, many Christians become spectators rather than players. The larger the congregation, the more prevalent this route becomes. Eventually, it develops into ministerial paralysis for much of the laity.

vision-ahead-signUpon recognizing this downward slide, what often happens next is just as bad. When people realize they are being left behind in the mission of the church, they begin to search for things they can buy into. They see what another congregation down the street is doing and they want to do the same thing.

Borrowing the Vision

While that’s not all bad, it’s certainly not all good either. Just because the Christians across town are successful with a certain ministry, it doesn’t mean it’s your calling as well. Still, it’s pretty tempting to borrow someone else’s vision.

Borrowing the vision gets even worse when it becomes the standard operating procedure of the congregation. If we get lazy enough, we don’t even bother to explore the possibilities of ministry. We just look to another church’s program and say, “We can do that, too!”

The fact of the matter is every local expression of the Body of Christ should have its own vision. The Lord hasn’t run out of new things for us to do. The Apostle Paul once said, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ to do good works, which God prepared for us in advance for us to do.” Do you think he’s created some good works for his church to do in your neighborhood? My guess is, “Yes.”

The other side to that is we have been created in his image. Among other things, this undoubtedly means we have an element of creativity within us. Our God is creative–we are as well. We should attempt to discern his will for us in this area.

Grappling with the Vision

Sometimes we think visions are things that are quickly visited upon us. However, casting and living out a vision is the work of a congregation. The vision is something through which leadership and laity journey together. As we grapple with what the Lord has in mind for us, we learn to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God. It’s not always easy, but it’s the way to go.

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

Do’s and Don’ts and Have-To’s and Gotta’s

 

One of the most appealing aspects of Christianity is that there aren’t a bunch of rules to follow. We follow Jesus (who, according to the Pharisees, was a rule breaker himself). We live by the Spirit and attempt to go where the Lord leads us.

FollowMeThat’s not to say it’s easy. It, in fact, can be extremely hard. As a matter of fact, it can be so difficult that there are a lot of Christians who would rather follow some rules—and so they do.

As a result, we give the impression that everyone has to live up to our standards (whatever those might be). Unfortunately, wherever one goes, it seems like the standards are different. The congregation up the street probably emphasizes far different values than yours. It’s confusing enough for churchgoers. Imagine what it must be like for interested non-believers.

Consequently, a lot of people get the idea that they can join the church someday if they can just become good enough. If they can just follow the right rules, they’ll have it made in the shade. If they can be better than the bad guys (whoever they are), they’ll earn a citizenship in the Kingdom.

“Most Christians will deny this.”

The funny thing is, it doesn’t matter what kind of congregation you step into. It can be liberal, conservative, evangelical, liturgical, full of social justice seekers, or staunch peacemakers. We all have our own little rules to follow and specific values to uphold. We all think ours are the correct ones. Therefore, many of us frown on those who don’t share our way of thinking, acting, and living out the Gospel.

Most Christians will deny this, but their actions belie their words. The reason we deny it is because we know it’s wrong. Still, we get royally annoyed when others who call themselves Christian don’t see things our way.

With all these “do’s, don’ts, have-to’s, and gotta’s,” it’s no wonder why the church is losing ground. Statistics today show that there are at least as many Christians who avoid the organized church as there are who actually attend and belong. It sounds kind of crazy, but it’s true.

SpellPeaceThink about it. How many times have you felt like leaving the congregation to which you belong because of some ridiculous rule (stated or unstated)? People expected you to live a certain way. You didn’t care to do so, and you couldn’t find it in the Bible. You stayed because you were strong enough to ignore their attitude (or maybe you just figured you could outlast them).

The sad, sad story is this. For every one of you who stayed, there was one who left. It’s a tale told over and over again. It’s almost laughable.

Trying to follow the do’s, don’ts, have-to’s, and gotta’s has a name. It’s called legalism. Sadly, some of the best Christians I know fall into that trap. It’s easily done. I know, because I’ve done it too. I think it’s time to stop and reevaluate. It can’t hurt.

 

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