Defiling the Tradition

Pharisees really didn’t like Jesus very much. I suppose that’s an understatement. In reality, they actually seemed to hate him. I don’t know that the Bible literally says that, but it does say they wanted him dead. That, in itself, goes a long way toward hate.

It’s pretty obvious from the Scriptural narratives that they took every opportunity to show him up. For his part, Jesus was pretty good at turning the tables and giving them the kind of grief they deserved. On one occasion, they verbally attacked Jesus saying his disciples didn’t wash their hands prior to eating.

As we were growing up, my Mom and Dad were sticklers for making us wash up before we sat down at the dinner table. I still like to eat with clean hands. It’s just a good, healthy habit to practice. But I don’t think I would get on someone’s case for skipping a handwashing. I certainly wouldn’t jump all over a guy if I thought his friends were guilty of it. Those Pharisees were incorrigible.

“Because it was Jesus”

To be fair, they were living in a much different culture than we do. The Jewish dietary laws required the kind of cleanliness that the Pharisaical types were demanding of Jesus’ disciples. However, because it was Jesus, they were overly strident about it.

Jesus, as usual, was ready for them. He turned things around in a hurry by pointing out their own hypocrisy of picking and choosing what rules and regulations they followed. He capped off his tirade against them by calling the gathering crowd over to him and telling them, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:11)

The Pharisees’ initial complaint was that Jesus’ disciples were “defiling the tradition.” Handwashing was merely the practice they chose to highlight. It could have been almost anything. They were all about protecting the traditions. It sounds painfully similar to today’s church.

Modern Day Pharisees

Too many of us are so worried about our traditions, rules, and style of doing things, we forget about following Jesus. In that vein, we’ve become modern-day Pharisees. Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees that they were guilty of breaking God’s law in order to follow their traditions. They used their traditions as an excuse to avoid doing what the Lord would have them do. They were good at eschewing an attitude of compassion in favor of following any minor rule that proved to be more convenient for them.

We have the same problem today. We have set up little traditions that make us feel good. When we are successful at following our traditions, we feel satisfied. We become so satisfied, in fact, that we ignore the very things we are called to do.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in the social activities of the church that we disregard the Biblical mandates to feed the hungry, look after widows and orphans, and make disciples. Maybe it’s time to begin defiling tradition.

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

Learning the B-Chord

I’m what’s known as a frustrated musician. I can play a couple of instruments well enough to amuse myself, but not well enough to be of any real use to someone who’s looking for true talent.

One of the instruments I’ve fiddled with for years is an acoustic guitar. I know enough to play a few chords and sing a few tunes. Unfortunately, I’ve never learned to play a B-chord. C, D, and A came quickly, but B is a bear. I soon learned, however, that I could put a capo on the neck of my six-stringed friend and fake an easy B.

I Get By

Playing for as long as I have, I should have mastered that chord years ago. I haven’t, however, because I’ve been able to get away with less. That’s a lousy excuse, but it’s all I’ve got. Worse than that, it’ probably indicative of a lot of things in life. If we can get by while doing less, that’s just fine by us.

In some arenas of life, that’s okay. For example, I don’t need to learn a great deal about auto-mechanics, because I’m surrounded by good ones. If they’ve learned the B-chord of engines (so to speak), I can trust them with my street machine—far more than I can trust myself.

There are other capacities, however, which we can’t be so nonchalant about perfecting. This would include things like parenting for example. If we’re not willing to learn the B-chord of child rearing, we’ll mess up our kids. It’s one thing to be a frustrated musician. Being an unsatisfactory parent is a whole other ballgame. The consequences are far greater.

Play a Symphony

These principles apply to our spiritual lives as well. When it comes to our spirituality, we can’t rely on someone else to play the B-chord for us. We’ve got to do that for ourselves. There’s no capo to apply to our souls. We actually have to put in the time to pray, study Scripture, and apply God’s lessons to our lives. Our spirituality entails far more than a simple three-chord progression. By the end of our lives, we should be playing veritable symphonies.

There have been several times in my existence when I’ve decided that it was time to learn that B-chord on my guitar. Deciding was not doing, however, and I’m still a B-less strummer. Good intentions are no substitute for self-discipline.

It’s no different when it comes to our spirituality. We can desire to grow spiritually, but those desires have to be acted upon. There’s an old saying that, I’m sure, most of you have heard. It goes like this: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I was recently being fitted for a suit and, in the process, told the tailor I was intending to lose a little weight. His response was a chuckle as he said, “Yes, Dave. I’ve been intending to lose a little weight for the past fifty years.” He needs to learn to play a B-chord, too.

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

I Have Stuff

I’m at a stage in my life where I basically have all the toys. I’m aware that things can change in a New York minute, but for now, I’m set. It’s almost embarrassing.

These days, I’m not out looking to see what I can add to my accumulation of goodies.  I don’t need anything more. I have stuff. What I’m looking for now are experiences.

My lovely Bride and I just returned from a few days in Nashville where we spent a lot of time perusing shops of all kinds. We saw a lot of cool stuff. In years gone by, I may have dropped a lot of cash on some of those tidbits. As it was, I don’t think I frittered a dime on anything to bring home for myself.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t spend any money. In fact, I spent plenty. But almost everything I spent was on another experience. We took in museums, went on tours, and had some of that hot chicken for which Nashville is famous. To drink in the culture, we walked up and down Broadway, viewed the sights, and listened to the street musicians and bar bands. We met our adult children there, ate and drank together, and laughed until we cried (literally).

“I spent time…”

What I really spent was not hard, cold currency. I spent time—probably the most precious commodity we have. We only get so much of that, and these days, I’m attempting to spend it sagely.

Although our lifespans are uncertain, there are a few things about time that are a more defined. For example, we each are allotted twenty-four hours a day—no more, no less. What we do with those hours is often up to us as individuals. If we spend a third of it sleeping, that leaves sixteen to work, eat, and accomplish whatever else we’re inclined to try. When I think of it in those terms, it surely doesn’t sound like much.

We can’t bank any of it to spend in a week or two. We can use some of it to plan ahead, but even that is a gambling proposition. We’re not guaranteed any tomorrows.

Dying of Boredom

So, when I do get a little spare time, I shoot for an experience, a little knowledge, or some involvement. If I fail to do that, my time will be lost. I’ll never find it, and I’ll never get it back.

I was in a shop recently where I ran across a placard that had the following quote: “I’d rather die of excitement than of boredom.” I’m not sure if I want to die of excitement, but I’m reasonably sure I don’t want to die of boredom either. I’ve only got a few years left, so I’m determined to pack a few more enjoyable events into them.

Some of those events will be times of serving others. While doing so is not always exciting, it’s never boring. If I’m going to spend time, I may as well invest it wisely.

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

We Used to be Minimalists

Anita Renfroe is the comedian who said, “We used to be minimalists, but we called it poor.” That, pretty much, sums it all up. These days, we seem to rename everything. Sometimes we do it to be politically correct. Other times we do it simply to be cool.

You’ve heard lots of them. The folks we once called janitors are now sanitation engineers—pet owners have become human carers—bald guys are simply follicle-ly challenged. The list is never-ending.

We can complain about it, but the truth is, God started it. Think about it. Way back in the Book of Genesis, God began renaming people. Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, and Jacob became Israel. Their names were changed to give them a better fit. As an example of that, Jacob means “supplanter,” while Israel is quite another thing. It means, “May God prevail.” That’s what he got for wrestling with the Lord—and losing. At least, they used it to name his country.

I hope the Lord never renames me. My name, David, means beloved. Rowdy might be more appropriate, but I’d like to stick with the one I’ve had for the past sixty-eight years. It kind of grew on me (even though I’m probably not all that loveable).

I Am a Rock–Sort of…

But that was the Biblical point, I guess. The Lord renamed people so their handles would fit who they were (or who they were about to become). Take, for example, one of the original disciples, Simon. Jesus nicknamed him, Peter. It was a play on words. Jesus was referencing the statement Simon had just made (“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”) Jesus recognized that this spoken truth was something he would build upon. Then Jesus called him Peter (which means rock), and said, “Upon this rock, I will build my church.”

To us, he’s been known as St. Peter ever since. He didn’t start out that way, however. Simon means, “the listener.” That didn’t fit him at all. He was more adept at spewing words than listening to them.

Shakespeare once wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That line sounds great, but I suspect, if the original name of a rose had been “onion flower,” we would have changed the name by now. We like to call things for what they are. We’re not always successful in making the new monikers stick, but try we will.

With the advent of the new, social media outlets, we are seeing a rise of these attempts at rechristening everything. The new names are often more descriptive of the objects they label. An article by Dominyka Jurkstaite gives us some examples:

Killer Whale = Panda Fish

Water = Snowman Blood

Sheep = Land Cloud

Zebra = Prison Pony

Volcano = Mountain Fountain

Milk = Cereal Sauce

Bread = Raw Toast

Sun = Space Bulb

Giraffe = Stretch Leopard

I’m not sure any of these will ever stick, but I kind of like Stretch Leopard, myself.

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

The Annual Imposition of Ashes & Scourging

There’s a clergy associate of mine who leaves me in stitches practically every time I’m around him. He’s from a liturgical denomination and says everything with a very staid and serious tone, which makes him all the more humorous.

Recently, we were talking about the Lenten season beginning with the rite of ashes (Ash Wednesday) followed by several weeks of prayer, fasting, and introspection. He glibly called it the “Annual Imposition of Ashes and Scourging.” That nomenclature cracked me up.

In the more liturgical, High-Church denominations, Ash Wednesday is a huge deal (as you probably know). In many other traditions, it’s either optional or viewed with downright skepticism.

“Will it add one hour to your life?”

Lent is one of those liturgical seasons that many Christians would just as soon ignore (and often do). After all, why submit yourself to ashes and scourging (so to speak). Will it add one hour to your life? According to Jesus, it will not.

So why do we even observe Lent the way we do? This is an appropriate question in light of Scripture and our current practices (or non-practices).

To answer it with any kind of legitimacy, we should probably take a leisurely stroll down Liturgical Lane (I just made that up—I’m so proud of myself).

The so-called liturgical calendar begins in late November or early December each year. It’s a one-year cycle that ostensibly takes us through a historical remembrance of the life of Jesus. Its first season is that of Advent, which consists of the four Sundays prior to Christmas. It’s called Advent, because it’s a time of expectant waiting and preparation as we approach the birth of the Savior. Some folks celebrate it. Others endure it.

The one everyone seems to enjoy is the next one, which we call Christmastide (also the name of one of my favorite Christmas albums by Bob Bennett). Celebrating the Savior’s birth is something we all seem to relish—for one reason or another. Then we move into what many feel is a downhill slide into obscurity.

Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost, and Kingdomtide follow on the heels of Christmas. Although we make a big deal of Easter Sunday, every day is Resurrection Day for Christians. Plus, a lot of folks dislike the very term, Easter. It comes from pagan origins, so it can actually leave a bad taste in at least a few mouths.

Even the Pentecostals Don’t Celebrate

Pentecost should actually be one of our big celebrations. It is, after all, the birthday of the church. When the Holy Spirit shows up in a huge way, it should be recognized. Unfortunately, it often slides by without so much as a whimper. Even the Pentecostals among us don’t seem to revel in its power and significance.

Then the long season of Kingdomtide rolls in. It’s designated as the time for equipping disciples. It’s so ignored that many Christian groups simply call it “Ordinary Time.”

Maybe we could beef all this up by renaming our seasons. The Annual Imposition of Ashes and Scourging might be a good start.

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

Safe on that Far Shore

I recently heard of the passing of a dear friend. In my immediate sadness, I began thinking about the fact that she is now “safe on that far shore.” That euphemism is, of course, one of those comforting phrases we Christians have used since before I can remember. It expresses the belief that, one-day, we will “cross the Jordan” to be present with the Lord (another popular euphemism).

Betty’s death is a little different for me than many others whom I have known and lost. She was not elderly, nor even my age. She was, in fact, a part of a youth group I helped disciple during my early days in ministry. It was a formative season for many of us, and Betty’s distinguishable smile and dedication buoyed us during times that were not always the best and easiest. When her brother, Dave, “passed” at the age of twenty, she was a rock—and I mean that in the best possible sense.

“I was too inexperienced to realize…”

Coming from a stalwart Christian home, the depth of her spiritual maturity was incredibly well beyond her years. She had a steadiness that I will always admire. Looking back, it was a quality that I appreciate even more now than I did then (some forty years ago). At the time, I was too inexperienced to realize that people like her don’t come along all that often.

When we lose people such as her, we don’t like to say they’ve died. We use other terms—she’s asleep in the Lord; they’re in the sweet by-and-by; he’s in a better place. These are all little reminders of what Billy Graham once said about his own eventual demise. “I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address.”

One of my favorite singer/songwriters is a guy by the name of Steve Winwood. He once wrote a song that was, to a large extent, overlooked. It was one of those “deep cuts” on an album that contained other, more popular tunes. The composition was called “Other Shore.” The second verse and chorus said this:

On a new tomorrow cooling breeze shows a star
There can be so much sorrow, when you’ve traveled from afar
But there’s nothing that can harm you when the night’s closing in
In the bright lit heavens above us, you know we’ll meet there again

And sometimes the other shore is so far away
And that darker river’s edge is too far away
And across the waterline is far away

Right now, the distance between me and those who have already gone home seems incredibly remote. It’s a journey that I’m not all that excited to take, but one that is inevitable. I also know, deep in my heart, that it’s one worth taking.

Betty Schogren has joined the rest of her immediate family on that beautiful shore. I can’t even imagine what it must be like. All her trials are over.

You are deeply missed, young lady. Hope to see you soon.

You Pick the Line

When my lovely Bride and I go shopping together, we use a system. The technique works like this. I pick up the products, and she chooses the checkout line. We’ve developed his over a twenty-year trial period.

What we discovered over that time was this. Many times, my spouse would grab an item from a shelf, and when we arrived at the counter, there was no price tag on it. I’m guessing that’s because she doesn’t care what things cost.

On the other end of the routine, I can’t ever seem to choose the best checkout line. There could be one person in one line and four in the next. Naturally, I would choose the line that placed only one guy ahead of us. In the meantime, the other four would breeze through while we stood for an hour as the one person ahead of us was getting painstakingly processed.

More Aware of Her Surroundings

My wife, for whatever reason, has the knack of picking out the swiftest line. I think it’s because she’s far more aware of her surroundings than I (at least, that’s what she keeps telling me—and she’s probably right).

So, at some point, I said, “From now on, how about I pick the product, and you pick the line.” She quickly agreed, and thus we have a system. Astoundingly enough, it seems to work like a charm. Our efficiency rating is astounding.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that things work best when everyone involved in any pursuit does what they do best. Different folks have various talents, gifts and abilities. It’s only common sense that we should tap into their strong suits. Often, however, that’s not what happens.

The 80/20 Rule

Did you ever hear of the 80/20 rule? I’m guessing you have. But just in case you haven’t, it goes something like this. Eighty percent of the work is done by twenty percent of the people. If that’s true (and it often seems that way), that means we are way less efficient than we could be.

The church is no exception to this. What’s worse, there’s no excuse for it. The Scriptures are pretty clear. The Body of Christ is full of people who have been gifted by the Holy Spirit of God to do the work of the Lord here on earth. If the saints of the church are gifted as the Bible indicates (and I believe they are), we are, in many cases, derailing the God’s will for our congregations. Twenty percent of our congregants are doing eighty percent of the ministry.

There’s a reason we’re called the Body of Christ. I’ve noticed a few simple facts about my own, physical body over the years. When I overuse one part of my body (let’s take the feet, for example), I get blisters, cramps, and soreness. The Apostle Paul was quite clear about each part of the body doing its job—carrying out the function it was prepared to do.

Are you shouldering your part of the load?

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

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.]