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.]

Billy

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

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

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

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

The Protestant Pope

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

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

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

A Singular Purpose

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

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

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

Ashes to Ashes

Last week, my lovely Bride and I headed for a few days respite in Nashville. The vacation was planned around a birthday celebration for our youngest son (he turned forty, which doesn’t bode well for me). It was a wonderful getaway.

Unfortunately, we got off the plane to some tragic news. A shooting massacre at a Florida high school had occurred. Like the rest of the nation, we watched the news coverage with emotions ranging from deep sadness to rage.

As we viewed the coverage, I noticed the black smudges on many people’s foreheads and quickly realized it had taken place on Ash Wednesday. One picture in particular stood out to me as it frequently flashed across the TV screen. A woman in tears, obviously distraught, stood with others after the slayings. On her forehead, ashes were displayed in the sign of the cross.

In case you’re not from a tradition that observes Ash Wednesday, it’s a reminder that the Lenten Season is kicking off a time of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. The imposition of ashes are accompanied by the recital of Genesis 3:19 which essentially tells us that we were formed from the ground, and to the ground we will return.

I doubt these were the words the killer had in mind, but the irony is mournful and stark. The mass death on this Ash Wednesday is a glaring reminder—especially when punctuated by the ages of the deceased. Prayer books of all kinds contain a committal service that reads:

O God, the great Shepherd of all sheep, receive now unto you our beloved brother/sister. As we commit his/her body to the ground—earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We commit his/her spirit to your eternal care.

We’ve all stood at grave sites to hear these (or similar) words read. Clergy types like me have been the ones, for the most part, to deliver these phrases. Such occasions are grim notices of our future physical demise. Old age is not guaranteed. As the worn Daniel Defoe quip says, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I’m not so sure about taxes, but death is absolutely inevitable.

As we celebrated my son’s fortieth birthday, it crossed my mind that I’m twenty-eight years older than he. That alone is a harbinger that my time is creeping up—or winding down. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…

Even with ashes as a backdrop, I still find it really easy to celebrate life—especially on the occasions of our children’s’ birthdays. It helps to walk in the promises of Jesus that tell us there’s more to our lives than this physical existence on earth.

I harken back to the ancient book of Job. The beleaguered man of faith asked a very pertinent question. “If someone dies, will they live again?” He answered his own question with the conviction of a believer. “I will wait for my renewal to come.” (Job 14:14) I’m with him.

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

No CD for Me

I recently heard the gloomy news that Best Buy was going to stop selling CDs. I didn’t see that one coming, but I guess it’s because I never thought about it. In truth, anyone could have actually seen it was inevitable. Everyone downloads their music these days if they want their own copy.

The rapid transformation of these things is rather amazing. Edison started the whole recording industry with a small, spindle-like thingamabob. It recorded and produced sounds for all posterity. From there, we went (somehow) to platters of vinyl with our fave recordings on them. These were the things everyone listened to when I was growing up. As I recall, we referred to them as records. Anyone remember them?

From there, we rapidly moved on to personal reel-to-reel tape recorders (both large and small), and skipped right on to eight track and cassette tape cartridges. These electronic beauties were great because they didn’t have to be wound around the reel. The tape was contained in a sealed, plastic container. These little inventions were fantastic until your favorite album got tangled in the tape player. Storage was somewhat of a problem as well (everyone’s back seat was full of tapes and miscellaneous empty tape cases).

 

“They were a no-brainer.”

When I was well into my adult years, someone came up with the CD (compact disc). They were like miniature records—flat, easy to store, and they had great sound. No scratches, no getting jammed in the player, no rewinding. They were a no-brainer (until they weren’t).

They went out of style when someone figured out how to download songs onto an iPod, electronic tablet, computer, or a magic chip embedded in your big toe. Now we can hear our music, but we can’t see it. Storage is a breeze (even compared to CDs). I have to say, however, I really miss album liners (most of you probably don’t even know what those are).

“I have no idea…”

My lovely Bride and I recently moved to a new home. In the process of unpacking, I discovered we had four hundred CDs—none of which we ever played (many we didn’t even remember we owned). In the spirit of downsizing, I gave away two hundred of them (don’t ask me why I kept the other two hundred—nostalgia, I guess). I also discovered a crate of vinyl LPs (otherwise known as records). I have no idea why I’m keeping those. I don’t even have a way to play them.

The scary thing is, most of this happened in my lifetime. I don’t remember Edison, but I did enter the fray shortly thereafter. I can’t even imagine where we’re headed from here.

There’s a passage in Ecclesiastes that indicates everything has its own time and season. A time to sow, a time to reap, a time for casting stones, and a time for CDs. I guess that time is hastily coming to an end. I suppose it’s now the season for me to transfer all that music to a hard drive.

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

“They Don’t Have Critical Mass”

When I first accepted the call to pastor my present congregation, a friend asked me how long I expected to stay there. When I told him I’d like to retire there, he just laughed. I asked him what was so funny, and he said, “They don’t have critical mass.”

As you may know, “critical mass” is a term normally associated with nuclear fission. But it can be applied to other things as well. The non-nuclear definition of critical mass is, “the minimum size or amount of something required to start or maintain a venture.”

I immediately understood what he meant. The congregation I was about to embrace had six active members. Most of them were beyond retirement age (and on fixed incomes). The prospects of maintaining a viable congregation there were not good.

They Burn Out or Die Out

For anyone who’s never considered such things, I will tell you that my friend’s insight was accurate from the perspective of most observers. Maintaining a building (two, in this case), caring for a 1½ acre plot of land, providing utilities, paying a pastor, supplying educational and worship materials, and meeting denominational obligations is a large task. And that’s only the financial aspect. On top of that, viable congregations do ministry. Tiny congregations like the one I was about to associate with are often dead ends. They either burn out from the overwhelming struggle or die out from old age.

People like my educated and experienced friend know all this. From their point of view, any workable congregation would need at least fifty to one hundred people or more. In addition, those people would have to give enough to maintain a budget of one to two hundred thousand dollars a year—minimum. Critical mass…

I’ve now been called the pastor of this little flock for almost twenty-three years. At times, we’ve come dangerously close to burning out and even dying out (I’ve had the privilege of presiding over the funerals of most of the original six). Interestingly enough, we’re still here. And unless things change drastically, someday I’ll retire from here.

We’re a Failure

The simple truth is this. We probably don’t have critical mass. By worldly standards, we are a failure. We are even a failure according to the standards of many leaders in the hierarchy of the church.

Here’s the deal. Jesus told us that he is there when two or three gather in his name (Matthew 18:18-20). For my money, two people plus Jesus equals critical mass. Frankly, Jesus reaches critical mass all by himself. He merely extends to us the privilege of being a part of what he’s doing. This is true, even for mega-churches.

The lives Jesus has touched through this tiny congregation is immeasurable. The glue that holds congregations like ours together is not willpower. The engine that drives us is not our own human energy. We derive those things from the Holy Spirit of God.

The Lord is our Critical Mass. We would be foolish to think and act otherwise. He is our future.

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