Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and the Countdown to Normalcy

Fat-TuesdayFat Tuesday—As you probably know, Fat Tuesday (otherwise known as Shrove Tuesday) occurs the day before Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday, of course, is the first day of Lent. For forty days (not counting Sundays), the liturgical calendar is purple and revolves around themes of sacrifice and repentance. So if we’re going to be extra sacrificial and sorrowful for six or seven weeks, we have to have a party to prepare for it. I’m not sure I get the real connection, but it seems like a good time would be in order. If I had planned it, however, I would have set the party date for the day after Lent—not the day prior.

So (until I get my way) Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, and all the fun, wild stuff will be just before Lent. I suppose it all makes perfect sense when you consider the day after Lent is Easter. While we want to (and should) celebrate The Resurrection, we certainly don’t want to do it with some of the traditions that have arisen surrounding Mardi Gras (I’ve heard about that bead thing).

Good Friday—This is kind of a strange term. I’ve heard it said, “We can only call it good from this side of the Resurrection.” I’m not sure why, but I have always found Good Friday to be the easiest day of the year to preach.  The hardest times for me to preach seem to be Christmas and Easter.  I can’t really explain that phenomenon, but that’s the way it seems to fall for me.ash-wednesday

If I could take an educated guess, I suppose it would be that Good Friday is so dramatic and stark. It provides it’s own tension and it can be viewed from so many angles. One might argue that Christmas and Easter do the same. In all honesty, I have to say it would be hard to refute that argument. I guess the main difference would be the apparent negativity of the Passion. Maybe I do better with negative messages than I do with positive ones. Go figure.

Easter—After we’ve woven through the days of eating fish, abstaining from sweets, and walking around with dirty foreheads, we get to the prize package. Easter is the best of all celebrations, because it’s for the best of all reasons. While we may not wish to celebrate it with bead necklaces and such, I’m not so sure eggs and bunnies are the way to go either. All of these things, when you get to the heart of them, are pagan symbols. While I’m not interested in ranting on the subject, I would still like to add that I always have a hard time biting into a chocolate crucifix. (This might be a good time to ask the now familiar question, “What would Jesus do?”)

Normalcy—As much as I like the whole Holy Week thing, I’m always glad when it’s over. There’s nothing like getting back to a normal routine (whatever that might mean).return-to-normalcy

Bad Tuesday in Brussels: Good Friday Around the Globe

By now, everyone has gotten an earful (as well as an eyeful) of the terrorist attack in Belgium. It’s a tragedy that many feared would happen. There were warnings, but connecting the dots and putting together all the puzzle pieces is rarely easy.

Whenever things like this occur, people are uneasy to the point of being afraid for their own lives. We were on a vacation in Florida when the Belgium attacks took place, and the flight home was a tad less than enjoyable. It was good to touch ground and even better to walk through our front door.the-cross

There are many words to describe such events. The adjective, bad, is possibly the most innocuous among them. Never the less, any event like that one is “bad.”

Interestingly enough, it took place during Holy Week. I doubt that was part of the consideration when the planning was done, but who knows? Holy Week is a mixture of good and bad occurrences including Jesus’ Triumphal Processional, his Passion, and concluding with his Resurrection. For a terrorist attack to be foisted upon us early in the most important week on the Christian calendar almost seems like appropriate timing (if anything like that could actually be considered appropriate).

“In a few short days, they changed their tune.”

During the early part of the original Holy Week, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowds were proclaiming him to be King and Messiah. They chanted his name shouting, “Hosanna in the highest!” In a few short days, they changed their tune.

On Thursday evening, Jesus hosted a Seder Supper for his disciples and instituted what many of us call the Sacrament of Holy Communion. He sent his betrayer out to do his worst and told everyone there to remember him after his body was broken and his blood shed for them.

“They didn’t connect the dots…”

Up to that point, he had been telling them he would soon die and rise again. They didn’t connect the dots or accept what he said (at least not in a literal sense). Because of that, they didn’t understand everything when it went down on Good Friday.

It was only after his Resurrection and subsequent appearances that it all finally sunk in. They consequently understood what he had been trying to tell them all along. They were set free from the consequences of their sin because of the sacrifice of their mentor who turned out to be God in the flesh.

emptytombBecause of his actions and completed work on the ross, Jesus neutralized the types of deeds perpetrated on us by the Belgium terrorists. It’s not that the loss of life and limb are any less real or horrific. It is rather that, in the grand scheme of things, we have been given ultimate victory over such evils.

Bad Tuesdays like the one we just lived through will always give way to Good Friday. The cross is the final death blow to any evil that may surround us. In light of his Resurrection, together we can shout, “Hosanna in the highest!”

 

Mailing It In: Knick-Knack Religion

IMG_1117I went to a major league, spring training baseball game in Florida recently. It was a lackluster
performance by the home team. The most exciting plays of the game were acted out by the team mascot (the Pirate Parrot). Let’s just say, it was rather disappointing.

I realize sporting events can be like that (especially games that don’t really mean anything like spring training games). As the old saying goes, “You can’t win them all.” That would be fine if I could go to “them all.” Unfortunately, I can only afford a few. When I dish out money, I usually hope there will be at least SOME excitement created by a hustling home team.

Fortunately, the home team in this case is quite good and promises to provide a lot of exhilarating moments during this coming season. It’s more than I can say for a lot of Christian congregations across the globe, however.

Discipleship is not sport!

I realize that comparing local churches to baseball teams is doing an apples to oranges thing. Discipleship is certainly not a sport, and it carries a lot more weight than any game. Never the less, the ministry of any church can either be a vital one or a lackluster affair.

When pro athletes just go through the motions, there is a phrase used to describe their efforts. That phrase is, “they just mailed it in.” Many of us in the church can often be described the same way. We just mail it in.

We can be very unenthusiastic about what we’re doing. We can simply go through the motions because we think it’s our duty, feel like we have to, or just don’t know what else to do. Mailing it in has become a way of life for many church folks these days.

Jesus becomes a relative knick-knack.

In the Book of the Revelation, Jesus tells the church in Ephesus they have lost their first love. In other words, they have basically put Jesus on the shelf and moved on to other things.

He’s still there on that shelf, visible and present. But he’s a relative knick-knack–window dressing for those who visit. He’s acknowledged, but he performs no other function than to be given passing ascent. He’s almost become a good luck charm for them.

Sadly, the church at Ephesus is alive and well today. So many of us give Jesus the nod as we pass by his shelf. He’s got his place, and he needs to stay there. We don’t want him getting involved and stirring the pot. You know how he can mess up our plans for a nice, comfortable life.

379479e20a3cd16e685fcb8ed7e1852cProbably the saddest part of all that is the phrase, “lost their first love.” When Christ is our first love–when he is our priority, when we are truly his disciples–we are a vibrant church.

When he holds any other position than number one, we begin to mail it in and put our energies toward other pursuits–namely our own. It’s clearly not the way to go.

Small Graces: The Little Things

pennyBack in 589 AD (as he lay dying), St. David of Wales said to his fellow monks, “Be joyful, keep the faith and do the little things.” I’ve heard it said that God is in the little things. I’m quite sure that’s true. I believe he’s in everything—big, small, and in between.

One of my favorite songwriters is a fellow by the name of Bob Bennett. He has a song (in fact an album) entitled Small Graces. The song is about the little moments in life that turn out to have a miraculous feel to them. It’s amazing how many of those there are in a day when we take the time to notice.

It wasn’t an earth-shattering miracle.

One day I was walking up the steps to the gym. For some reason, I glanced down just in time to notice a wad of chewed up bubble gum before I tramped on it. It seems like such a small thing. Yet for some reason, I stopped, picked up the wad, threw it into the trash and thanked the Lord for sparing me the ugliness of having to clean all that gum off my shoe.

That’s certainly not an earth-shattering miracle. Nonetheless, it wsmall coneas important to me at the time. Looking back, it seems obviously insignificant. Still, it mattered when it happened.

We are entering a time the church has labeled, “Holy Week.” It’s a week of large graces and the biggest miracle of all. The death and resurrection of our Lord cannot be surpassed in terms of importance. Without it, we are less than nothing.

Yet, we can often go through an entire day without thinking of the Easter miracle or the Passion of the Christ. We can quickly forget who we are in Jesus. We can drift off course due to the enormity of it. After all, we’re so small. How do we fit that magnificent event into our little lives?

Small graces are little signposts to remind us.

We can, of course, but we often allow it to settle into the catacombs of our minds. Sometimes it’s just too hard to think about. As people like to say these days, we can’t seem to wrap our heads around it.

That’s where, I believe, the small graces come into play. That’s where the little things begin to pop up. They seem to be little signposts along the way to remind us of what and who we are in Christ. They’re almost like guardrails along the highway of life keeping us on the straight and narrow.

small-dogIf you find a quarter on the sidewalk or experience a genuine smile from a stranger, it’s not something to be lightly dismissed. Life is too precious for us to fritter it away merely looking for the big things.

Jesus lived in a time when there was no TV, no major sporting events for the common folk, or no big purchase to hope for down the line. How did they do it? I think they got by on the small graces. Look for yours this week.

What Saint is That?

“Really interesting things happen at the gym.”

roman-baths-cartoon

My workouts aside, one place I invariably go is the steam room. I’m quite good at that, and I wouldn’t miss it. I’m not sure of the benefits associated with steam baths, but they sure make me feel good. No wonder the Romans built elaborate structures to take them.

One day, I headed into the steam room after a great workout. I was wearing a pair of trunks and had a lanyard around my neck with my gym ID and locker key attached (I know, I’m a dork—so sue me). I parked myself in my usual spot at the far corner of the steam room, opposite the door.

After I had been in there a few minutes, another gentleman popped in and sat down next to the door. He was about as far away from me as one could get and still be in the same room. That was fine with me. I’m not into sharing my steam space.

“I was a bit tense.”

After several minutes, he stood up, and I assumed he was headed to the door. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I saw him walking diagonally across the steam room—in my direction. To be honest, alarm bells started going off in my head.

By the time he got to me, I was a bit tense. I wasn’t sure what was about to happen, but I was ready for anything. Defending myself was foremost in my mind.

He leaned over me, looked at my lanyard, and said, “What saint is that?” By this time, my mind was racing. Sainthood wasn’t one of the topics I was pondering. I was so distracted that I didn’t understand what he asked. I maintained my outwardly cool demeanor and said, “What?”

 

“The guy’s lucky I didn’t punch him in the nose.”

Then he looked more closely at my IDand key and said, “Oh. That’s not a saint.” Then he turned to walk away. As he headed out the door, he said, “YOU must be the saint.” To that, I immediately replied, “Yes. I’m the saint.”

I admit; I didn’t FEEL like much of a saint. The guy’s lucky I didn’t punch him in the nose.

Yet, I told him the truth. I am a saint. I don’t say that very often, because a lot of folks misunderstand what that means. When the Apostle Paul wrote his letters to the church, he always addressed the congregants as “saints.”

Holy and set apart…

The Biblical word translated as saint literally means “holy one.” In the context of Scripture, “holy” simply means “set apart for God’s purposes.” For example: In the Jewish Temple, there was a “holy” knife used in sacrifices. How can a knife be holy? It’s holy when it’s set apart for God’s purposes.

That’s why you and I can be called saints. We’re set apart for God’s purposes. We don’t always act like it, but we are. So don’t feel too self-conscious about calling yourself a saint. Never the less, keep your eyes peeled in the steam room.

DCF 1.0

 

Back to the Gym: Five Baby Steps

elliptical I went back to the gym after a long layoff. Today was day two of my comeback trail. It’s an adventure in self-discipline.

The lack of self-discipline can screw up anyone’s life. That’s particularly true of a Christian life. If we’re going to “make disciples” as Jesus told us to, we’re going to have to be disciples ourselves. You can’t lead someone into Christian disciplines if you aren’t practicing them yourself. The best you can do is to tell them what you think it should look like.

You might be a Christian who has gotten off the beaten path (spiritually speaking). Maybe you’re one who never even got onto that path. Don’t feel too badly about it. It happens to the best of us. The good news is, it’s not all that hard to get pointed in the right direction.

Have you gotten sick of yourself?

I finally got back to the gym because I was sick of my rotund self. I didn’t feel good, I didn’t look good, and I didn’t have any good excuse.

It’s the same with our Christian discipleship. My bet is, many of you are sick of your lack of true discipleship. Some of you probably don’t even know what it means to be a disciple of Christ. When you hear the word, disciple, you think of twelve guys that lived 2000 years ago. Those guys were the first, but they were never intended to be the last.

Just take baby steps for starters.

When I finally decided to turn things around weight-wise, I just took a couple of small steps. I packed my knapsack, drove to the gym, and got on an elliptical machine. It was that simple. An hour or so later, I’m done at the gym. Yet it impacts the rest of my day.

Getting back on track as an everyday disciple of Jesus is no different. It’s simple self-discipline. While there’s a lot that can be involved with living a Christian life, let me give you five simple things to try that can get you on the right track.

  1. Read a Bible passage before you get out of bed in the morning.
  2. Use a devotional guide to get you started (there are a lot of good ones out there).
  3. Start a prayer journal. After reading the Bible passage and looking over the devotional, say something to the Lord about it. It could be a comment, a question, or even a complaint. Write it down in your journal and mark the date. In time, you’ll look back and be amazed.
  4. Read a good, Christian book (maybe a classic that will challenge you).
  5. Talk to a Christian friend about the things the Lord is showing you.

dare-to-be-a-discipleThese things are not the beginning and end of a life of discipleship. However, they’re good disciplines to help you back onto the path. The ball’s in your court.

You may not want to do any of these things. I didn’t want to get back to the gym either, but I’m glad I did.

Back to the Gym: A Biblical Mandate

                                    Not Me
Not Me

I went back to the gym the other day after a rather lengthy hiatus. My stomach has begun to protrude to the point where I am starting to lose track of my feet. On top of that, I just don’t feel good being overweight. What’s worst is that, when I gain weight, I snore at night. It’s just not good for marital relations.

As I look back over the past four months (the length of time I skipped out on my usual physical regimen), I’m trying to figure out just why it took so long for me to get back into the swing of things. As I take inventory, I note that I have many excuses—holidays; company; illness; undone tasks; errands to run; deadlines to meet; and the ever popular, “I’ll start back up tomorrow.”

“It felt good.”

However, the real and overriding reason is simply that I got out of the habit. Sadly, it didn’t take much. A few days of avoiding my healthy habits easily turned into a few weeks and then a few months. Now, I’m paying the price—big time.

The day I went back was just as I knew it would be. It felt good. The workout, itself, was not the source of my pleasure. The simple satisfaction that I was back on track was the prime reason for my gratification. The fact that I had finally taken the first step toward a slimmer me was a pleasurable thing in itself.

“Admittedly, I have a long way to go.”

Frankly, I got sick of not being able to zip up my jeans. One day at the gym is not going to fix that. Still, if I discipline myself to keep going back three or four times per week, I will slowly chip away at the spare tire I’ve built.

That, of course, is the primary goal. It’s not so much the reduction of my midsection (as important as that is to me). It’s the practice of self-discipline that is paramount. It carries a lot of weight (pardon the pun) because it bleeds over into every other area of my life.

Not Me Either
Not Me Either

That, in fact, is the area of life that most of us as Christians fail to address. For many of us, our lack of self-discipline is pathetic. Some of you may be thinking, “Speak for yourself, Zuchelli!” Okay, I will. But I’m sure I’ve got a lot of company.

You don’t have to stare at the word, discipline, very long until you notice the strong resemblance to another word—disciple. A disciple is someone who disciplines him or herself in the ways of another. As a Christian, I am called to discipline myself in the ways of Christ. Like my break from the gym, it’s easy to set aside the discipline of learning and living in the manner of Jesus.

The last thing Jesus told us was to go and make disciples. The way I figure it, we can’t make disciples if we’re not disciples ourselves…(to be continued)…

Traveling at the Speed of Dark

twisted clockThis coming weekend is (depending on where you live) marked by the need to turn our clocks forward. If my calculations are correct, we will lose an hour of sleep. At least, that seems to be how most folks view it. I, myself, never gain nor lose sleep. I put my head on the pillow, fall asleep in about thirty seconds, and wake up when I’m done. I don’t usually care what the clock says.

I love the change of time (at least the spring one), because I love daylight. I love sunshine. I love that extra hour of being able to do something outside without a coat or a floodlight. As my Dad used to say, “It’s comin’ our way!”

Every time I think about the time changing, I think about a precious saint who has now gone on to be with the Lord. Her name is Jane. If she was still with us, I know I could count on her to arrive at worship an hour late. When the time changed in the spring, she would slip into one of the back pews as we were singing the final hymn. I used to love the look on her face as I gave the benediction and the congregation would begin filing out.

As funny as that always was, she was even more amusing in the fall. I don’t know speedometerhow many times over the years she would show up, take her place in a pew, and begin a discussion with me.

Realizing what was going on (reminded by the fact that no one else was around), I would eventually say to her, “Jane. Do you realize worship doesn’t begin for another hour? The time changed last night.” Her face would get all twisted, she would make a noise of disgust with herself, and (as she walked out the back door of the church) she would say she’d return in an hour.

There are probably a lot of Jane’s out there. Those little foibles are amusing and not very important in the grand scheme of things. As annoyed as Jane always was with herself, no one loved her any less for it—in fact, her time-change antics probably endeared her even more to the rest of us.

Unfortunately, what happened to Jane seems to be a metaphor for how a lot of people live these days. So many individuals are walking around out there not realizing what time it is. Some of them are rushing to get somewhere they don’t need to be. Others are sleeping when they should be about their Father’s business. Many are walking around in a haze—somewhere between “it doesn’t matter” and “I’ll never make it!”

The apostle Paul once told us, “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14) It’s important for us to wake up and realize our time here is short. As my Mom used to say to me, “Time to get crackin’!”ClocksAhead

Get the Jesus Fix, Then Leave

tinychurchHow was your worship experience this week? Was it fulfilling? Was it exciting? Was it ho-hum? Did it have any meaning for you at all?

Worship services come in all styles from the very staid and formal to the flamboyant and lively. They are shaped by a myriad of variables, but most seem to settle into a fixed pattern that a particular congregation finds comfortable.

I recently read a rant by a Christian who, some time ago, had left the institutional church. He now worships at a house church and says he’s much happier.

Does worship make you weaker?

His primary complaint seemed to be launched against the general type of worship that has become a collective generality for most of what we call organized Christianity. He was speaking mostly about three hymns (or praise songs), some prayer, a collection, some responsive readings, and a sermon from a pastor (with no congregational interaction). After an hour or so, everyone leaves and feels like they’ve had a Biblical worship experience.

He saw several problems with this. I don’t have time to address most of them here, but one thing jumped out at me. He asserted that today’s church is designed to make folks weaker. If I understood him correctly, he felt that modern worship is constructed to treat people like children. Namely, congregants file in, take their places, listen to what they’re told, and never comment or ask questions.FollowMe

He further asserted that this kind of worship is not only unbiblical but also counterproductive. Instead of being inspired to learn from the Lord and become more active in God’s Kingdom, people are dumbed down and duped into thinking they’re good disciples of Christ because they were “in church” for an hour.

I read his screed with great interest. Being a pastor of almost thirty-six years, I’ve often struggled with these kinds of perceptions. It’s easy to find fault with almost any type of worship style, but is there one that’s better than the others? Is there one that’s truly Biblical? Should we endeavor to get back to first century Christianity and closer to the worship style we can glean from Scripture? Is that possible, and more importantly, is it necessary? My wordy friend seemed to think so.

The Jesus Fix

I’m not so sure he’s correct. But I certainly understand his concern. Too often people enter a worship service to get their “Jesus fix,” and then leave. Once they walk out the back door, Jesus becomes no more than a byword until the next time they occupy the pews. I hope that is not true in most cases, but sometimes it’s hard not to think otherwise.

When worship does become merely a Jesus fix, I’m afraid our verbose friend is correct. It does make people weaker. If we think we’ve somehow done our part because we showed up on Sunday (or Saturday night), we are no longer on a solid path to discipleship. Making disciples, after all, is the name of the game.  Mark of a Good Church

Don’t Interrupt!

“The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person who’s doing it.” I just heard this at the beginning of a TV commercial. I was so taken with the statement that I didn’t hang around to see what it was advertising.

mouseI don’t know if anyone has said this before, or it this was a new line produced by a Madison Avenue ad firm. Either way, it speaks volumes.

It’s amazing how many naysayers there are in our world. People can be on their way to great heights and still be bombarded with negativity from others who don’t have a clue.

Folks who think they know best when they don’t know anything intrigue me. There’s only one way to achieve something in this world. That “one way” is to try. Just try. Give it your best shot. Persevere! Be an overcomer. Push it to the end or at least as far as your energy will allow.

“Have you ever seen the video?”

In most cases, the worst you can do is fail. Ahhh! There’s the dark cloud. Many of us are deathly afraid of failure. We’d rather not try than to be viewed a failure. We’d rather pack away our dreams than expend energy on something that might fall short in the end.

Have you ever seen the video of the mouse attempting to move a cracker to its nest? Take a moment to watch it– Mouse vs. Cracker. The mouse attempts to scale that ledge over thirty times. There’s something to be said for trying again and again. If it doesn’t work one way, try another.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” We’ve all found that to be true when confronted with something we had to finish. Because it had to be done, we found a way (even though it first seemed impossible).

Even knowing that, many of us abandon our dreams because we think they may be impossible to accomplish. Jesus addressed this when he proclaimed, “with God all things are possible.”

Some might be quick to say, “Sure, but that’s only when the dream comes from God.” Believe me, there are many people out there bad-mouthing someone else’s dreams regardless of where the dreams originate. The fact is, sometimes you may not realize that dream is from the Lord until you follow it.TLW Angled Cover

I remember when I first had the idea of writing a book. It lived in the back of my psyche for a while until I finally snuffed it out. I had all sorts of excuses why I couldn’t do it. I was nineteen years old. Funny thing though—it never really died.

Despite all the negativity from others (and from myself), the Lord revived that dream and I finally realized it was from him. I was sixty-five years old when it finally came to fruition (see The Last Wedding). Now I’m working on a second and have the seeds planted for a third.

Just do me a favor. Don’t interrupt!