Germ-Free Communion

I recently attended a meeting of several dozen clergy types from my denomination. When we gather like that, we almost always celebrate Holy Communion together. John Wesley was a stickler on that, so it has become a prominent part of our heritage. I won’t get into the theology, but suffice it to say, it’s a good thing.

During this past gathering, something grabbed my eye—something to which I hadn’t paid much attention prior to this. On the communion table were the normal trappings. Naturally, there was a loaf of bread, a cup, a couple of candles, and a Book of Worship. The table itself was covered with a white, linen cloth. In addition to all those usual items, however, there was another one that seemed enormously out of place. It was a large, plastic bottle of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer.

This Could Be a Good Thing

Prior to distributing the elements (the bread and wine), the celebrants pumped a glop or two of sanitizer on their hands and gave themselves a good sterilizing. Considering the fact that we were in the middle of flu season, this could be considered a “good thing” as well. Still, it just didn’t set quite right with me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not interested in ingesting someone else’s germs—particularly if they have some dread disease. I don’t want to see others get infected over someone else’s lack of hygiene. And even though it’s not totally Biblical, I can buy into the old saying that “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” My problem is not one of procedure—it’s one of imagery.

When I celebrate (or participate) in Holy Communion, I (without exception) picture Jesus breaking bread with his disciples during his last Seder Supper. The Jewish folks were clean freaks. Washings and anointings were in their rituals and probably in their DNA as well. Still, it’s really tough for me to picture Jesus sitting in front of a bottle of hand sanitizer. It somehow dampens the spirit of the sacrament for me.

Is Cleanliness Next to Godliness?

I’m probably all alone on this one, but I just can’t help it. I guess I’m old-school (first-century old). I have a long-standing practice of washing my hands prior to breaking the bread, but I don’t invite the congregation into the men’s room to watch me do it. I know I’m being picky, but the visual just bothers me.

The Apostle Paul warned the church not to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner.” Maybe we’re extending that thought to the preparation of our hands—I don’t know. I don’t want someone to pump gas then break my bread, but I don’t need to see them clean up. As long as they look uncontaminated, I’m good.

I realize all of this is rather superfluous, and I’m not really complaining (although, I’m sure it sounds like it). I’ll get over it by realizing that the presence of the hand sanitizer is an outward statement of love. “We care about your health—your body’s as well as your soul’s.”

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

You Can Take the Girl Out of the Country

Recently, my lovely Bride and I took a trip to Nashville. We met our adult kids there and celebrated my youngest son’s fortieth birthday. We had a fantastic time together on a vacation we’ll never forget.

Although we’ve never been huge country music fans, we still enjoy a good country tune and deeply appreciate the talent that goes into the production of that genre. Nashville is the perfect place to express that appreciation. Consequently, the first thing we did was head to places like the Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and Country Music Museums. We also toured backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium, and RCA Studio B (where Elvis and many others recorded).

She Was Ushered to Country Concerts

Above all, we noticed (the thing that most prominently stood out during the entire trip for both of us) was the nostalgia of it all. Both of us have deep roots in country music. When my spouse was growing up, not only was country music the household choice for leisure listening, her parents ushered her to big name country concerts as well.

On my Mom’s side of our family, it was all country all the time. I wish I had a ten-spot for every time my Mother sang a Hank Williams song to us (Senior, not Junior). One of the most vivid recollections from my youth is my aunts and uncles singing the old Jimmy Rogers tune, “Waiting for a Train.” There were nine of them. They grew up in an old coal-mining town, and lived in one of the company houses. For entertainment, they used to sit on their front porch in the evenings and sing all the old country hits to their neighbors. They learned them all from listening to the radio.

When we arrived back home, we spent the next few days pulling up old movies about some of the country stars. We watched Walk the Line (Johnny Cash), Coal Miner’s Daughter (Loretta Lynn), and Sweet Dreams (Patsy Cline). In addition, I’m pretty sure each of us pulled up videos and audio recordings of country songs that have influenced our past (independently of one another).

“They’re always buried in there, somewhere.”

There’s an old saying that goes, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.” I guess it’s true (probably for boys, as well). The things that go into the makeup of your life never really go away. They’re always buried in there, somewhere.

While in Nashville, something I realized is at least one reason why I never severed my ties with country music. That reason is its deep roots in the Gospel of Christ. As far as it may stray at times, country music has always been deeply entrenched in the belief that we need a Savior, and that Savior is Jesus.

I guess the Bible is true when it tells us to build good things into our children’s lives. Those things never leave, even if we attempt to run away from them (Proverbs 22:6).

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

Silence in Heaven

There’s a wonderful passage in Revelation where there is silence in Heaven for half an hour (Revelation 8:1). The occasion of this deep stillness is the breaking of the seventh seal. In case you’re not into eschatology, the seven seals are on a scroll that is opened as the end times are revealed and executed. If you can picture a moment like that, you can imagine its breathtaking gravity.

Most Biblical events seem to be times of shouting praises, passing along a good word, or lifting battle cries. Every once in a while, however, there are times that silence is demanded.

Chariots of Fire

Take, for example, the day Elijah was taken up into the heavens by a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11-12). His protégé, Elisha, was standing there watching. It was a moment of awe-inspiring quietude. Yet Elisha did what many people do in times like that. Not knowing what to say, he shouted out some meaningless words to no one in particular. For some reason, we often feel like we have to say something—anything. In actuality, we should just keep our mouths shut and observe what God is doing. There’s always time to give witness to it later.

Another of these times was on, what we call, the Mount of Transfiguration. During this event, three of the original Apostles were on a mountain with Jesus. As they watched, Jesus began to glow with a supernatural brightness. As he did so, Moses and Elijah appeared with him (Luke 9:28-34).

The awesomeness of that sight would be enough to shut anyone’s mouth—anyone except Peter. Peter was one of those guys who felt he had to say something at every turn. He blabbered something about building tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah (probably because this took place during the Feast of Tabernacles). Then God spoke from the heavens, and Peter finally shut up.

I’m usually the kind of guy who argues that we need to speak up. We need to witness to the goodness and mercy of God. I believe that, and I attempt to put it into practice. But every once in a while, the Lord does something so awe inspiring and breathtaking that we should simply stand back and let it speak for itself. Frankly, he doesn’t need our help.

Silence is Golden

I suppose this is one reason why we often quote the old saying, “Silence is golden.” Shutting down all the noise (especially that which comes from our own mouths) is a good thing to do from time to time. A good example of this is when we gather in larger crowds and observe moments of silence. It’s easier to remember important things without the cacophony by which we’re usually encompassed.

As another old saying notes, “Sometimes, silence speaks louder than words.” We tend to be so noisy, that we even have a hard time doing this in times of worship. If they can be silent in the joyous place we call Heaven, maybe we could try it more often ourselves.

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

Billy

On the morning that Billy Graham died, I was on my way to a clergy meeting when I heard the news. Somehow, that seems at least a tad appropriate (at least for me). His was an amazing life—one that I deeply respected and honored.

I was not ushered into God’s Kingdom by one of his evangelistic sermons as many people have been. I came in by hearing God’s voice from another source. Still, his message was a continual inspiration for guys like me.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels that way. By the time I was heading home from the meeting, one of the satellite radio networks had set up a temporary station commemorating his life. That says something about the depth and breadth of this man and his faith.

He once said, “The moment, you read in the paper that Billy Graham is dead, you’ll know that he’s more alive than ever before, and I’m in Paradise. And I’m looking forward to it.” That single statement speaks of a faith that has helped win and inspire millions of souls.

The Protestant Pope

Some people called him the Protestant Pope. I’m sure he adamantly rejected that effusive title. He was happy to simply be called Billy. Try calling a Pope by such a casual name as that. He was as humble and down-to-earth as he was famous.

Every once in a while, I hear someone ask this question. “If you could spend an hour with any person who ever lived, who would you spend it with?” That’s a tough question to answer, but I know that Billy Graham would make my top ten. In fact, I’m pretty sure he would make my short list of five or less. He made that kind of impression on me.

If you’re interested, you’ll undoubtedly hear and read many reports about his life over the next few days and weeks. I suspect there will be several documentaries and possibly a movie or two. If there is, I hope they call it, “Billy.” The simplicity of the name and commonality of its very pronunciation bespeaks of the straightforwardness of his existence. Unfortunately, that title has already been taken (by a comedy), so they might come up with something else.

A Singular Purpose

One of his greatest attributes was his steadiness. He was called to be an evangelist, and that’s what his being entailed. Once he heard the call, there was no turning around. He set his face toward the goal of his high calling and never looked back. He had a singular purpose, and he never wavered from it. That, alone, is enough to look to him as a role model.

I suppose the most important constant in Billy Graham’s life was the fact that he understood who he was. He was a sinner in need of the grace of Almighty God. He never forgot that. He embraced that grace and extended God’s offer of it to the rest of the world. We should do no less.

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

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.]