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.]

I Could Write a Book

Recently, I invited a salesperson into my home to explain his product and give me an estimate. I don’t usually do such things, but this guy actually has something in which I’m really interested. The only reason I even mention this event is what he said during the time he spent in my house.

At one point, I engaged him in conversation about the clientele he has in our area. As he described some of the folks with whom he had done business, he exclaimed, “I could write a book!” This is an expression I’ve heard a lot over my lifetime, but not so much in recent years. I had, in fact, used it many times myself over the course of time—but not lately.

The Book Inside You

The main reason I’ve not used this expression in the recent past is the fact that I actually did write a book. It seems a little weird to say that when it’s already occurred. Still, it reminded me of something I’ve been saying since I wrote “The Last Wedding.” I believe that everyone has a book inside them. If nothing else, you could tell your own story. Biographies can make for interesting history.

I’m not suggesting that everyone author a tome. It takes a lot to get your book on paper (or even on a computer). It’s a major investment of your time. Along with that, you need to discipline yourself to sit down and actually produce something (life can be extremely distracting). Then, on top of all that, it helps to have a little writing talent.

Besides, there are about 80,000,000 books on the market at any given time. Guys like me don’t need any more competition than we already have. But, as they say, the more the merrier. Many folks merely publish a book to give to their relatives and friends, and that’s it. Others get one copy printed and set it on their coffee tables as a conversation piece.

It’s a Big Book

Then there’s the biggest competition of all. Of course, I’m referring to the Bible—the best-selling book of all time. It took a lot of patience, discipline, and talent to write that one—not to mention a couple of millennia and over forty authors. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the entire thing, but it’s a big book. Still, it could have been a lot longer.

There’s a passage in the Gospel of John (John 21:25) which indicates that many of the things Jesus did are not recorded. It goes on to say that if those things had been written down, there wouldn’t be enough room in the entire world to fit the books about his deeds. I don’t know if this is a bit of poetic license, but regardless, the Bible could be huge.

I suspect each of his deeds could have been expanded into a best seller. The wondrous and miraculous works of the Savior couldn’t possibly be contained in a volume or two. I’d love to read them, though.

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

Spring Snow, Fall Back

Here in Northern Virginia, we basically had no snow all winter. I never touched a snow shovel. I have several of them hanging in my garage and had considered relocating them to my basement. However, I told myself there was still a chance I’d have to use them. Plus, I figured I’d be forced to put them into service the moment I toted them downstairs.

Sure enough, on the first full day of spring, we had a significant snowfall. By significant, I mean I had to get the shovels out. Joy of joys…

“I needed the exercise…”

I don’t mind shoveling a little snow. Still, I’m always happy when I can avoid it. Since I’m in a brand-new neighborhood, I kept watching out of the corner of my eye to see if there was some overachiever raring to try out his new snow blower on my sidewalks. If there was such a guy, I never spotted him. No worries… I needed the exercise anyway.

Maybe next year, I can invest in a snow blower of my own. Then I can be the guy who trots around the neighborhood doing not so random acts of kindness. It would definitely be more fun than being on the taking end. I can be a gracious receiver, but the feeling of giving is far more rewarding.

I had to learn that lesson the hard way. I was always very happy to receive from someone else’s hand when I was young. Giving of what I had was not my strong suit. For a long time, I didn’t have much in the way of physical possessions, so I was overly protective of what I did have (sometimes to the point of stinginess).

It was even worse when I was a young pastor. By that time, I just figured everyone owed me. After all, I was in God’s service, you know. What a crock!

CHEAP, CHEAP, CHEAP!

Then one day, I attended a John Maxwell leadership conference. It was attended by pastors like myself for the most part. Maxwell took us to task. He flat out said that most pastors were cheap. CHEAP! For example, he talked about us all having alligator arms when we went out to dinner.

Normally, I would have gotten angry, self-righteous, and more than a little defensive at such a suggestion. This time was different. I didn’t know about anyone else in attendance, but I knew he was speaking directly to me. He had me dead to rights. That conference became a turning point in my life.

From that moment on, I’ve made a concerted effort to be more generous, gracious, and giving. Two things immediately began to change in my life. First of all, I became a much happier person. Maybe just as importantly, the Lord began to bless me in ways I hadn’t experienced up to that point. I say just as importantly because, the more blessed I was, the more generous I became. It was like a snowball effect—kind of like a snowfall in spring.

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

A Cry of Desperation

Many years ago, I accepted an appointment to a struggling church. The Lord turned things around for that congregation, but I realized early on that many of those folks hadn’t heard preaching like mine prior to my arrival. (I tend to get a tad excited when I orate.) One day, one of our guys approached me and said, “When you preach, you sound desperate.”

That statement caused me to pause a bit, but after thinking about what he said for a few seconds, I replied with a statement of my own. “That’s not desperation, Bill. That’s urgency.”

A Puzzling Thought

I understand that having the call in your life to preach is somewhat foreign to most. There are other vocations that are similar in nature, but being a preacher is a pretty lonely category. It is so because most people haven’t got a clue where you’re coming from. I guess I can understand the fact that they are puzzled by the very thought of it.

Why would someone study all week just to stand before a handful of people and expound upon a few verses of ancient text? Why indeed? It’s certainly not for the money. Most preachers make next to nothing—if anything at all. Some of the high profile folks rake in a few dollars, but with the kind of talent they have, they could be generating a much more sizeable income doing something else. So, even they are enigmas.

Today, fewer and fewer churches are getting turned around like the one I mentioned earlier. As a matter of record, most of them are now hemorrhaging members. For some clergy, it may be desperation that is, indeed, driving their preaching. If the congregation withers up and dies, so does the opportunity to preach on a regular basis. But our calling is not based upon dollars. It’s not even based upon the number of people with whom we share the Gospel. It’s based upon the urgency in our lives to do the will of the One who called us.

An Urgency to Share

Brother Bill thought I was preaching out of desperation. What he didn’t realize was that my desperation died the day I met Christ. On that day, my desperation began to turn to assurance. That assurance led me to the urgency to share the Good News.

Frankly, we live in a world that begs for urgency. People wander around in such spiritual darkness that they are often blind to their own needs. I’m not their judge, but I would guess that some of them never discover their need for the Savior. As Christians, we are given the responsibility and privilege of passing along the Good News of a Savior who loves us and came to make a way for us to be lifted out of our darkness.

I once read a bumper sticker that said something like, “Live your life such a way that the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.” If we all did that, it would certainly ease any desperation.

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

A Legal Colonoscopy

I was watching the news this morning and heard attorney Alan Dershowitz refer to an investigation as a “legal colonoscopy.” If you’re like me, much of what I see and hear on any given news program easily rolls off my back. That phrase, however, caught my attention.

This was spoken on a day when there was a suspicious package (thought to be a bomb) was found in Texas, and a school shooting occurred in Maryland (no fatalities, fortunately). Dershowitz’s little quip could have slipped by without a thought, but these cleverly phrased remarks usually grab my ear, regardless of what else is going on.

The idea of a legal colonoscopy is an ear opener. Having had a literal colonoscopy a few years ago, the graphic nature of this jibe presented me with a mental picture I had a difficult time shaking. He was referring to an investigation of microbial proportions, and I immediately felt bad for the guy on the other end of the exploratory colonoscope. Apparently, in this case, jurisprudence was being a tad intrusive—overly so, in fact.

The Barristers of the Bible

Being a student of Scripture, this imagery immediately brought the Scribes and Pharisees to mind. These barristers of the Bible seemed to be about the business of legal colonoscopies themselves. This was particularly true when it came to their dealings with Jesus. They were constantly on his case, in his face, and up his…(well, you get the picture).

Their motives were rather clear. They didn’t like him. Not that they knew him, or anything. They just didn’t like what he stood for nor the threat that he posed to them. If his teachings were true, they would be out of a job—or at least undergo a tremendous loss of power and prestige. They were legalists, and he was… Well, let’s just say he was a free-Spirit. This was something that was certainly not to their liking.

If they were into anything, they were into having all their beliefs wrapped up into a tidy, little system of laws. They had a law for everything. Unfortunately, they also had a convenient way of getting around any law they didn’t want to follow at the time (usually by citing a different law). This is why Jesus often ranted at them and called them hypocrites.

Control as Much as You Can

They couldn’t abide by a guy who wanted to simply follow God’s Spirit and live by the law of love. That was way too messy for their thought processes. Too much of that was out of their control.

That, of course, might have been their biggest problem. Their prestige, power, and status were based on the fact that they had great knowledge concerning the laws of Moses. Consequently, the common folks felt inferior to them. Jesus had no such inferiority complex. Even worse, the common folks loved Jesus. This caused the Scribes and Pharisees to view him as a menace. Thus, legal colonoscopies were in order as far as they were concerned.

Apparently, things haven’t changed very much.

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

The Sermonator

The father of a friend of mine recently passed away. He was a great guy, and I’m sure he’ll be missed. I hadn’t seen him in many years, but I remember the times I spent in his presence as well as the stories his son told me about him.

He spent many years as a chaplain in the armed forces. I recall his son telling me that his dad didn’t like being called, “Preacher.” His giftedness was in counseling, and that’s what he did well. Preaching was not his thing although it was part of his job description.

It’s sometimes curious to discover what we clergy-types are labeled by others. Personally, unlike my friend’s dad, I always liked being called Preacher. But that’s what I did. I attempted to do some counseling in my early days, but I was lousy at it. I don’t have the gift. I just pray I didn’t ruin too many lives before I came to that realization.

The Sermonator

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of nicknames that related to my vocation—Parson, Deacon, Rev, and Preacher to name a few. I occasionally preach at a Biker church where they have dubbed me, “The Sermonator.” Of course, I’ve been called a few other names I can’t print in a G rated blog. The one that’s been used the most, however, was Pastor.

Being called Pastor is okay, but it doesn’t really describe what you do or who you are very well. It’s become somewhat of a catchall moniker. Every pastor has his or her own gifts and develops them in different ways. Sometimes, the word, “pastor,” is actually a very poor description of who we are. I’m sure a lot of folks would argue with me about it, but having done the job for almost forty years, I think I’m correct on that one.

Actually, that may be the biggest problem. Pastor has become the title of the job more than the person. Because of that, it has been redefined to the place where it has lost its original meaning. The original meaning, by the way, was shepherd.

Spiritual Gifts

A shepherd, theologically, is one who cares for the flock. (Actually, that’s what a shepherd is in terms of literal sheep as well.) Shepherds are gifts to the church—spiritual gifts. They are gifts the same as evangelists, counselors, musicians, nursery workers, and a boatload of others. The Apostle Paul was careful to explain that spiritual gifts were given by God for the edification of the church—lots of gifts to lots of people.

The preacher is not necessarily the pastor, and even if she is one, there are quite probably several more pastors in the congregation. We don’t always recognize them because no one has placed the title of Reverend in front of their names. We need all the gifted folks we can get. Without them, the church is incomplete. Hopefully, we recognize them when they show up. People and their gifts are important for us all.

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

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.]