You Can Take the Boy Out of the Country

If you were to ask me what my favorite music happens to be, I’d probably never reply, “Country.” But truth-be-told, it’s in my blood. I was reminded of that once again this morning. I saw the news that Randy Scruggs had passed away, so I began pulling up some of his music on the Internet. It took about four notes of “Passin’ Thru” for it all to come rushing back.

My Dad’s side of the family listened to polkas, waltzes, and obereks. My Mom’s side was all country all the time. My maternal side won. Even though my parents bought an accordion for me and paid for four or five years of lessons, that’s not where my heart ended up. I could play a mean Beer Barrel Polka, much to my Dad’s enjoyment. But when I turned twenty-six, I bought myself a guitar.

Guitars on my Wall

Today, I have two guitars hanging on my study wall. The accordion is somewhere in a back room. I keep meaning to drag it out to brush up, but I haven’t gotten around to it for a couple of years now. I play the guitars a lot.

To be totally honest with you, if and when I re-polish my accordion skills, it will probably be to play a little Zydeco. Anybody out there have a washboard? We can get together and perform a some Cajun.

Recently, XM/Sirius Radio aired a temporary Southern Rock station called “Free Bird.” If you’re a music fan, you can guess it features the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd. When I’m in my Jeep, I find myself flipping back and forth from the Beatles channel to Free Bird. Even though the Beatles are probably my favorite band ever, I find myself spending more and more time on Free Bird. I’m pretty sure it’s the country influence pulling me like a magnet.

Hey Good Lookin’

My Mom talked a lot about her childhood days. She grew up in a small, Pennsylvania coal-mining town. Aside from listening to country music on the radio, they didn’t have much in the way of entertainment. In the summertime, they used to sit out on the front porch and sing to the neighbors. When they finished a song, one of the neighboring families would sing another song back to them. From what I hear, a lot of those songs were Hank Williams hits (senior, not junior). I wish I had a dollar for every time my Mom sang Hey Good Lookin’ to me while I was growing up.

I guess it’s true what the Bible says in Proverbs 22:6. “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” I don’t know if country music is the way to go, but I know I’m spending more and more time listening to it.

I’m sorry to hear of the death of Randy Scruggs, but I’m sure glad for the time he was passin’ thru. He brought me back to my roots once again.

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

A Billion Here, A Billion There

Historians have estimated that there were about 2500 Christians in the world shortly after the Apostle Paul met his demise (circa 64 AD). To my recollection, I had never heard this figure before I read it in a recent newspaper article. It seems drastically low to me, but I guess we had to start somewhere. I’d love to know how they figured that out.

When Jesus died and rose again, there were about 120 followers cowering in an upper room in Jerusalem. The Messiah had promised to send the Holy Spirit, and He did not disappoint. Without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, there would have, undoubtedly, never been a church at all. We would have messed it up for sure. Hiding in a secluded room will never be the best strategy for spreading the word. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.

Something Went Right

Those historians say that by the year 350 AD, the number of Christians had swelled to thirty-four million. Today, the figure is somewhere around 2.3 billion (over 30% of the world’s population). Something went right somewhere along the way. The something that went right (aside from the indwelling strength of the Holy Spirit) was the fact that those believers left the room and began to spread the word.

As far as I know, the strategy has never changed. Well, let me revise that statement. The Biblical directive has never changed. We have often tried to amend, tailor, and obfuscate it, but it’s still right there in Jesus’ last words before He ascended. “Go!” (Matthew 20:19)

“Go” is the operative word. The following phrase, “make disciples of all nations,” can only be done by going. The 120 believers were forced go by the spark lit through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. In a few years, most of them got comfortable with their lives in Jerusalem. Once again, they were forced to go. This time, it was through the persecution that was brought against the church. The Apostle Paul (known as Saul at the time) was part of the persecution (see Acts 7:57-58). When he converted to Christianity, he became part of the persecuted.

Saul Became Paul

Christians at that time fled the persecution in Jerusalem and relocated to all parts of the known world. Saul became Paul and made missionary trips, establishing Christian communities wherever he went. He left a trail of converts, believers, and followers along the way. He wasn’t the only one, but he was definitely the most famous. By the time Paul was done, there were only 2500 Christians in the world. Now there are 2.3 billion. Somebody did something right.

The strange thing is this. While Christianity is growing around the world, many congregations in this country are dying on the vine. They’re growing old, shrinking, and closing up shop. Some are just getting disgusted and leaving. The number of clergy is shrinking.

Maybe we need to get out of the room in which we’re hiding. Jesus’ final words were important. It’s time to go.

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

Analyzed to Death

As of this past Tuesday evening, Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox had swung at 94 fast balls this season. Amazingly, he had not missed one—not one. What I find to be even more amazing than that stat is the fact that someone kept track of it.

Major League Baseball used to document things like pitch speed. Now when someone hits a ball, they can tell you the exit velocity, the launch angle, and the exact distance it traveled. Those are just a few of the statistics they measure in our high-tech sports world. Baseball always was a game of statistics, but recently, analytics seem to have taken over. The entire game is getting analyzed to death.

I’m really not sure how much this analysis adds to the game. It certainly fits into our techie world, but I have the distinct feeling it actually diverts us from the simplistic beauty of the sport. Someone throws a round ball, and someone else with a round stick attempts to “square it up.” Even when we didn’t know the exact speed of the orb, we had a pretty good idea when it was moving at a high velocity. It’s a game of visuals.

Statistics in the Time of Christ

I’m glad they didn’t keep stats in the time of Jesus. If they had, Scripture would be bogged down with things like the exact amount of water that was turned into wine at Cana. We would know the number of seconds Peter walked on water before he fell into Jesus’ arms. It would be a matter of record as to how many lepers, blind men, and lame folks were healed by the Savior.

As it is, there’s one odd statistic that is recorded in the Gospel of John. After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples while they were out fishing. Why they were fishing instead of making disciples, I’m not sure. Apparently, they were bored. They were fishermen, so they decided to go fishing.

After Jesus had given them a miraculous catch of fish, they hauled their nets ashore to meet Him for breakfast. Scripture then mentions (almost in passing) that there were 153 large fish in their nets. So, why do we need to know the exact number. Why didn’t John simply say, “There were about 150 fish,” or “There were over one hundred fish.” Instead, he recorded the exact number.

Counting Fish

It’s been speculated that John wanted to make a point. If he did, the point may have been this. The disciples were taught by Christ Himself to go make disciples—to become “fishers of men.” Instead of doing what He had trained them to do, they quickly went back to their old habits. In this case, their old habits included counting fish.

John makes it clear that these faithful disciples didn’t start out as faithfully as we tend to think. They were analyzing dead fish. Fortunately, they soon got around to hitting home runs. (Please pardon the obvious baseball reference. I couldn’t help myself.)

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

The Snowman on Third Base

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a big baseball fan. I played a lot of ball when I was a kid, and (at one time) I pretty much ate, drank, and slept baseball. If my favorite team (the Pittsburgh Pirates) was on TV, I planned my day around the telecast.

I’m not quite that bad anymore, but I still enjoy the game immensely. Thus, I’ve watched a few games the past several days. Opening day wasn’t that long ago (April 1, I believe), and I had the fever in no time.

Even though my team has won a majority of their games so far, there’s been somewhat of a damper on the young season. The damper has come in the form of terrible weather. I saw one game that was played (at least in part) in a snowstorm.

White on White

As much as I loved playing the game when I was young, I really disliked playing in bad conditions. A cold, rainy day was a grievous situation as far as I was concerned. A snowstorm would have been unbearable. The major leaguers this season have been playing every night in freezing temperatures. I guess getting paid millions of dollars helps.

The groundskeepers are earning their money as well. Sometimes, they have to remove tons of snow to make the fields playable. In the game highlights, I’ve seen more than one snowman in various stadiums around the league. Where’s global warming when you need it?

The long and short of it is this; snow is out of place in baseball. Just like there’s no crying in baseball, there should be no snow in baseball. Actually, snow seems out of place almost everywhere (unless you’re a skier). Even in Scripture, snow seems out of place. Of course, the Bible was written in dry, arid lands, so I suppose that only makes sense. Still, snow was at least mentioned.

Onion Snow

In Proverbs 26:1, it says, “Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, honor is not fitting for a fool.” Even the sage understood the necessity of keeping snow in its proper season. If fools should not have honor, baseball should not have snow. I might be taking that a bit out of context, but not much. It definitely is saying that snow doesn’t belong in summer. I realize it’s still spring, but we all know that baseball is for the boys of summer.

I presume the snow we’re experiencing this late in the season is that stuff Pennsylvanians often referred to as “onion snow.” As much as I love onions, I can’t get into the white springtime precipitation that interferes with my ability to enjoy one of my favorite pastimes. They may as well call it “baseball snow.” Snowmen on third base (or anywhere else at the ball yard) just aren’t kosher.

I guess I shouldn’t complain, but I somehow feel violated. Maybe I’m one of those fools who doesn’t deserve honor, but I still like my baseball hot and sunny.

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

A Rose by Any Other Name…

An elderly couple had dinner at another couple’s house and, after eating, the wives left the table and went into the kitchen. The two gentlemen were talking, and one said, “Last night we went out to a new restaurant and it was really great. I would recommend it very highly.”

The other man said, “What is the name of the restaurant?”

The first man thought and thought and finally said, “What’s the name of that flower you give to someone you love? You know, the one that’s red and has thorns.”

“Do you mean a rose?”

“Yes, that’s the one,” replied the man. He then turned towards the kitchen and yelled, “Rose, what’s the name of that restaurant we went to last night?”

What’s your name again?

That story would be a lot funnier if I wasn’t so close to being in that situation. Not too long ago, I was introducing my daughter to an acquaintance, and I forgot her name—not the acquaintance’s name, my daughter’s name. Oh, the humanity!

I’m not sure why us old geezers begin to lose our memories, but it can be a tad embarrassing at times. In fact, it can be a LOT embarrassing at times.

I’ve had considerable practice at this malady, however. I’ve been forgetful ever since I can remember. My Mom used to call me “the Professor.” She did so, not because I was smart or educated, but because I was absent-minded. I would walk into the next room to grab something and forget what I needed by the time I got there. I’ve been doing this since I was ten.

Memorizing Scripture

People like to encourage Christians to memorize Scripture. That sounds like a great idea until you try it. I’ve never been able to memorize anything. The possible exceptions to that are things like my Social Security Number, my birthdate, and my name—usually. Even those fall prey to occasional lapses of memory.

When I was young, I had a pretty fair voice. I never really sang much, however, because I couldn’t remember song lyrics. Some people have the lyrics to every song they’ve ever heard floating around in their brains. Me? Well, I’m lucky to remember a chorus here and there.

Just to give you a hint as to what this is like, I’m getting the feeling I’ve told you all this before in a recent blog. I can’t remember for sure, so I hope that’s just déjà vu kicking in. If not, I apologize to my regular readers for boring them with repetition.

The Jews had a great idea for avoiding this malady. Actually, it was God’s idea. The Lord instructed Moses to tell the Hebrew people to write His laws on their doorframes and gates as well as tie them on their hands and foreheads. That sounds a little strange, but it seems to have worked well. Many Jews still wear phylacteries to remind them of God’s law.

Maybe I need a phylactery to remember the names of my family members.

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

The Ultimate Thirst Quencher

I recently read that a study had been done which determined that milk is the ultimate thirst quencher. Frankly, that surprised me. I had always assumed it would be water (or in today’s high-tech world, something like Gatorade). Apparently, when someone drinks milk, they retain 75% of it after a two-hour recovery period. Only 60% of a sports drink is retained in a similar situation and only 50% of water. Who knew?

Despite all that, I believe that Jesus is really the ultimate thirst quencher. Just think about it. What was his first, recorded miracle? The Gospel of John says it was at a wedding in Cana. If you’ll recall that incident, Jesus changed water into wine. After all, who wants to drink water at a wedding reception? Certainly not the first century Jews.

Then there was the woman at the well (John 4). After asking her for water, he told her that He could supply her with living water. He added that, “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” Now, that’s a thirst quencher!

“Satiating hunger is a close second…”

Of course, there was the feeding of the five thousand. While there was no liquid involved in that miracle, the sustenance provided that day was closely akin to life-giving hydration. Satiating hunger is a close second to quenching thirst. In fact, they pretty much go hand-in-hand.

At the Festival of Booths one year, Jesus told everyone listening to His instruction that, if they were thirsty, they should come to Him and drink. He was, of course, referring to that living water again. But drinking in deeply of the Holy Spirit is slaking a thirst that no one else can touch.

A final example would be the one in the last book of Scripture—Revelation. There we are told to, “Come! Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.” (Rev. 22:17) That’s what I like—life! Jesus promises to bestow upon us the gift of life through his Spirit and the ultimate quenching of our thirst.

A Powerful Irony

This past Good Friday, some of my colleagues and I preached from the Gospel passages which reference the words of Jesus from the cross. One of them used the passage from John in which Jesus says, “I’m thirsty.” He made a point I had never heard mentioned prior to that sermon. He stated that Jesus’ declaration of His own thirst was one of the most “powerful ironies” of Scripture. How could the One who would quench the world’s thirst be thirsty Himself? One of the greatest metaphors in the Bible is Jesus’ ability to satisfy the thirst of humanity. How ironic that the Savior of the World, the Ultimate Thirst Quencher, would be thirsty Himself. The very process he used to alleviate our thirst made Him thirsty.

I was never a big milk drinker. In fact, I dislike it. It’s good to know the One who can supply the real milk of life.

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

An Appropriate Response

Bryce Harper (Washington Nationals’ outfielder) was standing at home plate with a bat in his hand. As the pitcher prepared to deliver, someone from the stands yelled out, “Overrated!” The meaning was obvious. That fan believed Harper gets more hype than is deserved. A second later, Harper buried the next pitch deep into the bullpen. (For you non-baseball fans, that means he smacked a long home run.) Now, that is what I’d call an appropriate response.

Appropriate responses are few and far between these days. In their stead, folks go on the attack. If they can’t come up with an intelligent comeback, they do what they can to humiliate the one with whom they disagree. It’s almost become the national pastime (which used to be baseball).

Coincidentally, there was a moment in the life of Jesus when he asked his disciples for a response. He was discussing his reputation with them and asked what the general populace was saying about Him. (Matthew 16:13) They filled Him in as best they could with what they’d heard—John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, etc. These disciples had been hanging around Jesus long enough to know that none of those answers were correct, but they hadn’t figured Him out yet either.

“How About You?”

Then Jesus put them on the spot. “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” (V. 15) The Bible doesn’t tell us this, but I’m guessing there was an uncomfortable silence for a while. Then, one of them spoke up. Naturally, it was Simon (the one we know more famously as Peter—Rocky). He earned his new nickname by making a statement that would be (in Jesus’ words) “the rock” on which He would build His church.

Peter was not always known for his appropriate responses. If you’ll glean the Gospels, you’ll notice that he had a propensity for firing out of his mouth. Today, we like to call it shooting from the hip. Some of the things that tumbled out of his oral cavity were, shall we say, less than kosher. This time, however, things were a bit different.

Shooting Off Your Mouth

His statement in response to Jesus’ question was, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” (V. 16) I assume that at least one of the other disciples was thinking to himself, “Oh no, Simon! There you go again!” I wouldn’t doubt that Simon, himself, clapped his hand over his mouth as soon as those words escaped his lips. But just then, Jesus surprised them all—including Simon, I presume.

The surprise was Jesus’ reaction to Simon’s declaration. He said to his brash apostle, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (V. 17) As it turns out, this very appropriate response came not so much from Simon, but from the Holy Spirit.

If we would limit our responses to those we receive from God, I’m sure we’d hit a lot more home runs.

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

The Uptown Peep Show

I was taken back a bit when I ran across several posts on Facebook about some upcoming events. There were four of them in one pop-up. At first glance, it appeared that one of my daughters was interested in attending the Uptown Peep Show.

Normally, I would have quickly moved on. My interest was piqued, however, by the possibility that my daughter was considering going to such an affair. As it turns out, I had conflated a couple of the events (as wandering minds tend to do). The first event was “The Revival at Uptown Alley.” This, upon further review, was a musical event featuring rock, blues, and metal.

The event in which my daughter had an interest was the “Occoquan Peep Show & Easter Bunny Visit.” I’m guessing this was with an eye toward pleasing my two-year-old granddaughter. The “uptown” from the former and the “peep show” from the latter got melded in my mind’s eye—an interesting mind meld to say the least. Sometimes it’s fun getting old.

“You can do a lot with a good title.”

So, as it turns out, the Uptown Peep Show was only in my feeble brain. I kind of like the title, though. One can do a lot with a good title (peep shows not withstanding). Some of you probably were drawn to this blog simply because of the title itself.

All this got me to rationalizing about my life. Since my brain seems to be ebbing away by dribs and drabs, maybe I should come up with a good title for my memoirs. Even though I may never get around to remembering them (let alone writing them), at least I’d have a good title for the accumulated experiences I’ve faced while on this earth.

So far, I’ve come up with a few I thought were substantial. “I Preacher.” “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow.” “The Art of Nonsense.” But the one I’ve settled on is, “Dave is a Four-Letter Word.” It has a certain ring to it, don’t you think? I doubt I’ll actually be writing any memoirs, but I just might find a place for that title.

“It was a heady moment…”

When it gets right down to it, a lot of folks get hung up on titles—especially their own. That may be true these days even more than ever. But, I think it’s been true for centuries—even for millennia. I remember the first time someone referred to me as “the Reverend.” It was kind of a heady moment, but it didn’t take the Lord long to humble me. Titles aren’t always deserved.

I suspect some people never get past the need to have that ego boost. The Pharisees were known for it. King Herod dug it. Guys like Saul and Ahab took advantage of it. Titles certainly attract attention, but they need to be seen through the prism of practicality and humility.

Over the years, kings have come and gone. As it turns out, however, the only one who ever really deserved His title is King Jesus. Yet, He shunned it for us.

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

I’ve Been Beaten by Better than You

“I’ve been beaten by better than you!” Have you ever heard anyone say that? I’ve heard it a lot over the years, and I’ve got to say I’ve never understood it. Why would you say that? In essence, what you’re saying is, “You’re not as good as the last guy who beat me, so it won’t be a big deal when you beat me too.”

First of all, I’m not sure I’d be all that eager to admit I could be beaten by anyone. Secondly, I’m not interested in giving my adversary any extra incentive to kick my butt. We say some really, stupid things sometimes.

I, for example, have often said, “I could care.” I’ve used this phrase all my life. When I say it, I really mean, “I don’t care.” I don’t use that terminology, however, because it sounds harsh, and, in fact, it’s not sarcastic enough to suit me. “I could care” just sounds right—even though it doesn’t literally say what I mean.

“Get lost!”

The Apostle Paul ran into this sort of thing on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece. Some philosophers had gathered there to hear Paul speak about the Resurrection. After hearing what he had to say, they considered it to be total nonsense and babble. Scripture tells us that “some of them sneered” at him. However, others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” I’m told that this was a culturally polite way of saying, “Get lost.” So, that’s exactly what Paul did. He parted company with them.

I don’t suppose you can really blame anyone for not believing in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. How many people have seen a dead person come to life again? We should be able to understand their skepticism.

As Christians, we celebrate the Resurrection every Sunday (which is Resurrection Day). We get particularly excited about it on the day we refer to as Easter Sunday. (The name, Easter, is somewhat of a misnomer, but we’ll save that discussion for another day.) The day that Jesus arose from the grave is the day the world changed forever.

Regardless of when it’s commemorated or what we call it, it’s certainly something worth celebrating. People don’t simply rise from the dead with regularity—especially ones who have been in the tomb for a day or three. That’s one of the reasons we Christians make it a point to gather together to vocally proclaim the Resurrection. We have the need to remind ourselves of the miraculous nature of the Savior and his wondrous works. If he’s going to take the sin of the world upon himself, rising from the dead is what really seals the deal. Without it, we just have another burial place to visit—another gravesite to care for. Plus, we’d have no proof that Christ’s sacrifice is viable.

The empty tomb provides evidence that Jesus’ claims are true. There is no one behind the tombstone marked “Jesus of Nazareth.” He is risen! He is risen, indeed!

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

The Seder Moon

For centuries, the Jews have observed the Passover by celebrating a Seder Supper. Many Christians (including me) do the same. The reason we (as Christians) also share in this feast is simple. The famous dinner Jesus hosted for his disciples on the evening before his death on the cross (the one we like to call “The Last Supper”) was a Seder. It was at this meal he instituted the rite that has become a sacrament in today’s church—Holy Communion.

Over nineteen hundred years after Jesus celebrated his final Seder, two young astronauts landed on the moon. Their names were Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Buzz was an elder at a Presbyterian church back home in Texas. When they landed, one of the first things Aldrin did was give thanks to God and celebrate with some bread and wine he brought with him from his congregation. He wrote about this experience in a Guideposts magazine article. He told his story in these words:

“You can do nothing…”

“In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup.  Then, I read the scripture: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit … Apart from me, you can do nothing.”  He then said:

“I had intended to read my communion passage back to Earth, but at the last minute, they had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew’s reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly.”

“I ate the tiny toast and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the Intelligence and Spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon and the very first food eaten there were the ‘Communion Elements.'”

“And, of course, it’s interesting to think that some of the first words spoken on the moon were the words of Jesus Christ, who made the Earth and the moon – and who, in the immortal words of Dante, is Himself the “Love that moves the Sun and other stars.”

One of the most beautiful things about celebrating the Lord’s Supper lies in its simplicity. The elements (bread and wine) can be found almost anywhere. They’ve been around for thousands of years and have been basic staples in most cultures—definitely in the Jewish one. It was just like Jesus to take the unpretentious things to highlight the deep, spiritual truths in life.

He lived a humble life, but brought the profound truth of God to us. Jesus, the Passover Lamb, conveyed hope and salvation. For that, we are eternally grateful.

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