Donkeys, Elephants & Sheep: An Unlikely Menagerie

DSC_0126 A couple days ago, I attended the 2015 Washington Prayer Gathering. Thousands of area Christians met that day to pray for the city, for our churches, and for revival.

I always enjoy seeing Christians of various stripes gathered together in unity. All colors, dissimilar theologies, and diverse styles of prayer and worship became an amalgam of church that day.

The entire thing lasted less than two hours. During that time there was great music, a lot of smiling, and some really inspirational prayer time.

DSC_0101One of the pastors who led in prayer that day was Steven King (no, not the famous author) of Cherrydale Baptist Church. He used a phrase that hit me and stuck with me. He said we’re not donkeys, we’re not elephants, we’re sheep.

He said that in prayer, and I laughed out loud—right there in the middle of thousands of people intent on seeking the Lord. I couldn’t help myself.

I laughed out loud…

I think I laughed because it was so clever. I also laughed (I think) because I wish it were true.

His statement was an allusion to the political proclivities of us all. He was making the point that this gathering was not a political one. It was a spiritual one.

The donkeys and elephants, of course, were a reference to the major political parties in this country. They are never quite so prevalent and present as they are where we stood (in the heart of Washington DC).

DSC_0238On that day, politics didn’t matter. On that day, there were indeed no donkeys or elephants. We who gathered there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were sheep. We were followers of Jesus Christ.

We were not there as voters. We were not there as protestors. We were not there as agitators or detractors. We were there as Christians wanting God’s best for our city and nation.

Would that were always true. But it’s far from true most of the time…or so it seems.

Political Leaners

In my limited experience, most Christians are such political leaners they can’t stand straight anymore. What I mean by that is we seem to have blinders on when it comes to our politics.

I know Christians who are Democrats and some who are Republicans. I know Christians who are political liberals and some who are conservative. Who I don’t know, (or don’t seem to meet very much) are Christians who try to be independent of politics. In other words, people who think for themselves—who act on things based on their knowledge of Scripture rather than their biases of culture or heritage.DSC_0203

I’m always amazed at the number of Christians who are Democrat or Republican because they were raised to be so. I’m sorry folks, but times and circumstances change. Maybe some of our affiliations should as well.

I’m sure a lot of you will disagree. But it seems to me, we need a few more sheep and a lot fewer donkeys and elephants in our menagerie.

The Nerd Strap (or How I Got My Groove Back)

My First Cell Phone 

Several years ago, I finally resolved myself to the idea that I should have a cell phone (like 95% of the rest of the population). It was an easy decision. My employer told me to get one. How important was I?telephoneThe company paid for it, so it was a no-brainer. I had resisted up to that point. I didn’t want to be that connected or that reachable. Nor did I like the idea that I could be interrupted at any time by a buzz in my back pocket. The fact that I didn’t want to spend the money probably played a large part in my obstinacy as well. I’m much cheaper than I look.

With these obstacles falling by the wayside, I was feeling more and more like it was time. Besides, I liked my job (the paycheck in particular). Like I said, it was a no-brainer.

I don’t remember too much about that phone. It was rather small, black, and fit easily into my pocket. I do remember, however, being deathly afraid of losing it.

There were several reasons for this:

A) I wasn’t used to carrying one and wouldn’t miss it for a while if I misplaced it.

2) I have a tendency to leave things lying around (like my car keys). The new cell phone was a prime candidate for this proclivity.

And D), I didn’t want the hassle of having to go through the bother of replacing it (or telling my boss I lost his phone).

One feature of this device stands out in my mind, however. It had this handy dandy cord that I could attach to it. So I did. I found that if I secured one end to the phone, I could wrap the other around a belt loop. Voila! No DSC_0086more possibility of losing that phone. What won’t they think of next!

This was all well and good until I spent some time with my oldest granddaughter. One day she looked at me rather curiously and postulated the following question (which has since been emblazoned on my mind). “Papa. Why do you have a nerd strap on your phone?”

Let that one sink in for a second or two!

Why indeed? I actually had what I thought were some pretty good reasons for this darling attachment. But somehow, they all faded into oblivion with that innocent, little query. Nerd strap?

Well… I have no desire to be geeky (or even emit a hint that there is the possibility of a nerdy bone somewhere in my slightly aging body). I didn’t let on that day, but shortly after I got home, the nerd strap disappeared.

These are MY end times.

The prophet Isaiah once said, “a little child will lead them” (Is. 11:6). I’m quite sure he was speaking about end times and not my life. However, these are MY end times. And so, my granddaughter led me out of my nerdy wilderness. Oh happy day!

Furries, Bronies, and Comic-Cons: My Return to Normalcy

Furry DuoIt seems like every time I leave town and stay in a different city for a few days, I run into a convention. Now, I’m not speaking about just any convention here. I’m not talking about Shriners, politicians, or doctors.

When I run into a convention, it’s not all that conventional. The pictures you see displayed here in this blog are all ones I took with my very own Nikon. I have dozens of these pix because I keep running into these people wherever I go.

These groups are Furries, Bronies, and Comic Cons. That doesn’t count the last group I ran into when I didn’t have a camera with me. I think they were super heroes, but I’m not all that positive.

In case you haven’t had the pleasure, allow me to explain what I know about these fine specimens (which frankly isn’t much). It’s not my area of expertise, but I’ll do my best.

Furries are people who have an interest in fictional anthropomorphic animal characters with human personalities. In others words, they like animals that act like humans. They come to their conventions dressed like their favorite characters. They call them their fursonas (catchy, huh?).Bronie

Bronies seem to be a little more bizarre by general social standards. I’ve heard them described as adult, male fans of “My Little Pony.” In case you’re not up on that product, it was a toy marketed back in the early 1980’s (primarily to little girls). It became quite popular and exploded into a phenomenon that included all sexes, ages, a TV series, and a movie.

Comic-Cons (derived from Comic Book Convention, I think) are similar to the first two in some ways. This seems to be a more popular, broader genre. These folks gather at comic book conventions and dress up like comic book characters. From what I’ve seen, it’s also a good excuse for some of the young ladies to dress rather provocatively (be still my heart).

While it all seems like good-hearted fun, there are apparently some darker facets to these groups (especially at convention time). I’m not going to explore those here, but it’s all on the internet. And as we all know, if it’s on the internet, it’s got to be true.

Whatever it is that turns these folks on, they seem to be everywhere I travel. Because I seem to run into them around every bend, I will occasionally engage one of them in conversation. I’ve found, on the whole, they seem to be likeable, even normal folks.

Mother GooseIt’s easy to look at these characters in full regalia and come to snap judgments about them. I’ve heard them called weird, perverted, and even sick. I choose to refrain from joining in on that bandwagon, however.

It occurs to me that a lot of the world looks at us Christians in the same light. All of a sudden, these folks are looking more and more normal to me.

Oregon: Can We Be Forgiven?

11221701_962362960506268_4206203523865959049_nThis sidebar discussion has arisen from the recent shootings in Oregon. Hypothetical: The gunman holds his firearm to my head and demands to know if I am a Christian. Fearing for my life, I say, “No.” My life is spared. Am I forgiven for my denial?

The immediate answer to this one is obvious. Jesus predicts Peter will deny him three times before the rooster crows in the morning. Peter swears this could never happen. Then it happens. Is Peter forgiven?

In the Gospel of John, chapter 21, it’s quite apparent he is indeed forgiven. Here Jesus takes Peter through a process of healing and restoration. In addition, he is urged to get back in the saddle. “Follow me.” “Feed my lambs.” “Take care of my sheep.”

Like all things Biblical, however, there is Scripture that seems to balance this out. In Matthew chapter ten, Jesus sends out his disciples to minister to “the lost sheep of Israel.” Before they go, he gives them some instructions.

“…Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown…”

Amid his words of wisdom, he says, “But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” Is this contradictory? It certainly seems to be. It certainly doesn’t sound as comforting as the restoration of Peter.

What are we to make of this? How do we handle this message? We’re not quite as quick to embrace this missive as we are the many stories of grace offered by the Savior of the world.

We can’t get around it…

We can’t get around it, however. Jesus said it. It is recorded in Scripture. We can’t (or at least, shouldn’t) ignore it. It poses a major problem for us, doesn’t it?

It poses a problem because every one of us has denied Jesus in some way, shape or form. We might not have told anyone we didn’t know him, but we’ve certainly done it in other ways.

When we refuse to feed the hungry, we deny him. When we ignore strangers, we deny him. When we fail to help the sick or visit the imprisoned, we deny him. If you think I’m exaggerating, check out Matthew 25:31-46 (his story about the sheep and goats).

So where does that leave us? Fortunately for us, that leaves us in good company—or if not good company, at least lots of company. Saint Peter is part of that company.

Jesus knows we all have and will deny him. He’s said as much. He also knows we need to be forgiven, healed, restored, and recommissioned for ministry—just like Peter. He came in the flesh, lived, suffered, died, and arose to fix us.

Come like little children…12096568_151475968534412_6291277078016278655_n

When he tells the twelve (Peter among them) not to deny him, he is obviously referring to a lifestyle of denial—a life of refusing to acknowledge his Lordship.

Jesus is not demanding perfection. He tells us to come to him in faith like children. He is cajoling us to live lives that witness to his glory—not reject who he is.

Oregon Revisited

XN DAVEIn the wake of the recent shootings in Oregon, a picture popped up on Facebook (and undoubtedly many other places as well). It was a photo of one of the current presidential hopefuls. He was holding a sign that displayed the ichthus.

In case that term is foreign to you, it’s Greek for fish. It was an early symbol used to indicate one’s Christianity. In those days, it was somewhat dangerous to be a Christian, so the simple fish sign was used clandestinely (kind of like a secret handshake).

“I am a Christian”

Printed above the ichthus were the simple words, “I am a Christian.” The point was immediately obvious to anyone who had been keeping abreast of the news in Oregon. The candidate was identifying with the victims of the shooting who had died because they admitted to their faith.

Upon seeing that image, many of us hastened to post our own such statement. I was no exception. Already on our way out the door to celebrate our eighteenth wedding anniversary, my young bride and I stopped for a few moments to post similar pictures.

I almost felt a little weird doing it, but it seems12105703_10153619627584631_6874127550738707742_n to be the thing to do these days. These pix (accompanied on Instagram and Twitter with #IamaChristian) are akin to faces with rainbows superimposed upon them—t-shirts that say, “I can’t breathe—bumper stickers that state, “It’s a child, not a choice.”

All these examples (and myriads more) are ways for people to somehow identify with a person or cause, make a statement, or simply be provocative. As I said, it seems like the thing to do.

I felt a little weird because I don’t usually jump on the bandwagon so quickly. I tend to be a tad more cautious. I follow the bandwagon at a safe distance until I think it’s safe, then I trot along until I can find an inconspicuous moment to climb aboard (which is probably why my clothing is always one or two styles behind the current fashion—much to my spouse’s chagrin).

“I felt compelled…”

For some reason, however, I felt compelled to go whole hog on this one. I shot from the hip. Not that I regret it, but it’s a little out of character for me. I’m usually much more deliberate.

The real reason I feel somewhat strange, however, has nothing to do with that. It has more to do with the feeling that I’ve accomplished nothing. What change was I able to institute? Have I advanced society and our culture one iota by posting my little pictorial statement?

12105907_151476265201049_300647793336067879_nDo the victims in Oregon feel better now that they know I’m a Christian? No. I’ll tell you who feels better. I do. But maybe better is not the right word. Stronger is probably more accurate.

The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 10:9-10 to declare, “Jesus is Lord” with our mouth. If a picture is worth a thousand words, I guess I’ve at least said something.

Oregon Raises Old Questions

Believe

Before it becomes blurred in our minds, we should ponder what we know about the recent shootings in Oregon. Soon, it will be just another senseless crime. The memory of it will be stirred in with others of its kind in the melting pot of our consciousness.

Stand and Declare Your Religion

Early accounts indicate the shooter told his victims to stand and declare their religion. If they admitted to being Christian, he shot them in the head. If they didn’t, he shot them in the legs.

During the Cold War, I remember hearing an apocryphal story about a group of Christians gathered for worship somewhere behind the iron curtain. As the story goes, a couple soldiers burst in the back door with machine guns and announced that all the Christians were going to die.

They told anyone who was not a Christian to leave immediately. Many people got up and left, no doubt scared out of their wits. When they had fled, the soldiers put down their machine guns and announced, “Now that the posers are gone, let’s worship together brothers and sisters!”

I heard that story told different ways in several different sermons. Whether it contains any thread of truth, I don’t know. I do know that a vile version of it was reenacted in Oregon (and in many other shootings recently). Except now, people died and no one worshipped.

The politicians are already scrambling…

The politicians are already scrambling to the nearest microphones. Their intent is to pounce on this moment for the advancement of their agendas. Meanwhile, the police are trying to make sense of this tragedy. The rest of us grieve and ask ourselves what we would have done. If I was standing before that young assassin, would I have admitted my belief in Jesus?

I ask myself that question every time something like this occurs. Would I have the courage to face a bullet for my faith? Or would I lie to save my own skin? It’s an impossible question. Hopefully, we will never find out the answer.

The fact remains, however, that we face these kinds of decisions every day. We do so in much smaller ways, of course. We don’t face death for our beliefs. We do face ridicule, prejudice, and condescension on many fronts.

We’re not face to face with a crazed young man or in the clutches of ISIS. We are not about to be shot or beheaded. We do sometimes face the possibility of being humiliated, ostracized, snubbed, or overlooked. Small taters by comparison, but real none-the-less.

Where do we really stand?

While losing some of my dignity may seem trivial compared with losing my life, the urge to back down is still there. Losing my status, standing, or position is still important. Having someone laugh at my beliefs or look down their nose at me is still uncomfortable in the very least.

While we hurt and grieve over the deaths of our brothers and sisters, let’s not forget to raise our own personal awareness. Where do we really stand?

 

“It Ain’t the Heat, it’s the Humility.”

1017564_10202142761008933_5541363459538107433_nA few days ago, the baseball world (as well as the world in general) lost one of her icons. I had the privilege of watching Lawrence “Yogi” Berra play ball when I was a young lad. He was, by all accounts, one of the true heroes of the game.

He was a Hall of Famer—one of the greatest catchers ever. More than that, he was a man of faith, a military veteran, a gentleman, and an all around good guy. From what I hear, he always had a smile and a good word for everyone.

He played for the hated Yankees (at least hated by me). Despite that, I always rooted for him. It was hard not to do so.

The Yankees won championship after championship during Yogi’s time with them. He won the Most Valuable Player Award three times. Only four other American League players ever did that.

After having beaten the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series a few times, the Dodgers finally outmatched the Yanks in 1955. After the final game, Yogi chided his teammates to go to the Dodger locker room with him to congratulate them. That’s the kind of guy he was.

But of all the accolades and accomplishments of his heralded life, he might be remembered most for his innocently comedic, off the cuff remarks. Everyone seems to know and remember at least one of his “Yogi-isms.”

Yogi-isms

He said things like, “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.” “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.” “The future ain’t what it used to be.” And of course, the ever famous, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Yogi seemed to deny many of these Yogi-isms. He once proclaimed, “I never said most of the things I said.” No comment…

I don’t know if I have a favorite, but I always go back to the time he said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Well, Yogi finally came to that fork in the road, and he apparently took it. Each one of us reaches that fork at some point. After all, “Even Napoleon had his Watergate.”

I guess the trick in life is to be ready for that fork. Too many of us meander around, never really finding our way. We head in various directions and hope things will turn out okay. Some of us never think about that fork. We think we’re invincible or immortal. They call that denial.

“It gets late early out here.”

There are those of us who find it relaxing to drift with the tide—even exciting. But wandering in the wilderness can get you lost. As Yogi once said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”

Time is running out for all of us. “It gets late early out here.”

REALLY Holy Communion: No Gluten, No Alcohol, No Risk

DSC_0644

I attended a clergy meeting recently (something I hadn’t done in a long, long time). It’s not that I don’t like other clergy folks. It’s just that my schedule for the past twenty years has not allowed it.

Being good Wesleyans (I’m a member of a little known sect called United Methodists), we celebrated Holy Communion together. This is a wonderful sacrament that John Wesley (the great pioneer of our denomination) urged us to celebrate every time we meet. Not a bad idea when you understand its deep meaning.

Being of the Wesleyan strain, we use grape juice instead of wine. Apparently this stems back to eighteenth century England. I’m told at that time, alcoholism ran rampant. Wesley (or someone) decided to avoid the possibility of some alcoholic convert falling off the wagon. So for the past 225 years or so, we’ve been drinking Welches to celebrate the Last Supper.

We take a lot of abuse for this practice as DSC_0650you can imagine. When Jesus turned water into wine at Cana, he made the good stuff (see John 2:7-10). So when we use the non-fermented version, many people think we’re turning our backs on Scriptural Christianity. Regardless of your view on this, I still love you.

At the clergy meeting, I encountered a new wrinkle. Since I’ve been out of the proverbial loop for some time, I don’t know how long this has been going on.

The meeting took place in a very large room. To be efficient as is often the practice, the elements (bread and wine grape juice) were offered on both sides of the room. But lo and behold, on this day there were three lines instead of two.

Front and center in the meeting room, there was a line with gluten free bread. Hence, the new wrinkle.DSC_0450

This took me quite by surprise. And while I totally get the concept, I had really mixed feelings about it. I began to imagine six or seven different lines enabling us to avoid other possible maladies contained in the bread and…whatever.

As I went forward to participate in the Lord’s Supper, I observed the proceedings. It was with keen interest I noticed the gluten free line (what there was of it).

Out of a crowd of maybe 100 clergy folks, I saw two go through that line. No problem, I guess, but I heard one of the two say later, “I went to that line so the servers in the center wouldn’t feel left out.”

I must say, I have no real opinion on this matter one way or the other. It’s a nice gesture, but how much gluten are we going to get from a tiny piece of bread? I really don’t know. If it’s that much of a problem, let’s use grape juice and gluten free bread for everyone.

As for me and my house, we’ve decided to use chardonnay and focaccia from now on.

DSC_0317

He Who Loves Not Women (or Some of My Best Friends are Lutheran)

“He who loves not women, wine, and song remains a fool his whole life long.”

Martin Luther once said, “He who loves not women, wine, and song remains a fool his whole life long.” Spoken like a true Luther(an). I assume he said that in German, so it probably didn’t rhyme like it does in English. Now that I think about it, everything in the German language rhymes (ein, nein, mein, stein) so either way it loses something in the translation (or should I say, the un-translation). Overkill is just as bad as underkill.martin-luther

The great thing about this saying is the context in which it was first uttered. As you probably know, Luther was the great reformer. In fact, the reformation pretty much began with him. The time was the early 1500’s. This was the early stage for us Protestants (apologies to my Catholic brethren who preceded us by a few years).

This is important because it was well before we began to add onto, and water down, the central package of what was the Reformation. My point is this—not too many in our day would have the hutzpah to say what Luther said in his day. It’s way too edgy sounding for us.

Most of our church leaders (particularly the Protestant ones) wouldn’t venture to make such a bold statement…even if they thought it. That’s because they would be reviled by at least part of the masses. And frankly, who needs that. So we just leave well enough alone and keep quiet.

“We are very dishonest.”

This points up a big problem in church circles. We are very dishonest. It’s not that we want to be deceivers, but we are not-so-subtly forced into it.

If we don’t line up with everyone’s thinking, we are criticized, ostracized, and scandalized. We have to please everyone, or we’re pigeon holed as heretics or worse.

Maybe the saddest part of this is how it affects new Christians. If they don’t pass muster within the first few days of their conversion, they are demeaned and branded as unrepentant sinners. So to avoid this albatross, they learn to be dishonest about who and what they are.

“…it happened to me.”

I know this because it happened to me. That was forty-five years ago, and I still remember the cajoling that took place to force me to toe the party line. It was a lesson I learned all too well.

Unfortunately, it’s a lesson I’ve tried to unlearn over the years without a lot of success. Even though I know better (at least I think I do), I still try to hide the worst parts of me from my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I try hard to be more open, and sometimes I’m successful. But much of the time, I’m still hiding in my closet (don’t jump to conclusions there—I’m speaking of my prayer close, of course).

The woeful equation is simple: No openness or honesty = No inner healing. That, my friends, doesn’t make for very good discipleship.

Infield Depth (A Guest Blog)

In Thursday’s major league baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs, the shortstop for the Pirates was violently injured. It was a routine

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 17: Chris Coghlan #8 of the Chicago Cubs slides into Jung Ho Kang #27 of the Pittsburgh Pirates resulting in injury in the first inning during the game at PNC Park on September 17, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA – SEPTEMBER 17: Chris Coghlan #8 of the Chicago Cubs slides into Jung Ho Kang #27 of the Pittsburgh Pirates resulting in injury in the first inning during the game at PNC Park on September 17, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

double play with a hard slide from Coglan, a player for the cubs. The hard slide into Kang (the Pirates shortstop) severely injured his left knee and fractured his leg putting him out for the season.

The Pirates are in a close playoff race, and Kang happened to be the hottest player on the field at the moment. This is a devastating blow to the left side of the Pirates’ infield, and even more so to their batting lineup. While losing Kang for the season will have its negative affect, the Pirates believe they have the infield depth to withstand such an injury. Quote: “ Our bench is definitely built for something such as this.”

Infield Depth

I don’t know for sure how the infield depth of the Pirates will pan out for them the rest of the season. Since I’m a big Pirate fan, I certainly hope it goes well. You can bet I’ll be watching! But what I DO know are these two things. One: “such is life.” Two: Depth is vastly important. We will have problems, setbacks, illness, etc. in life. So it makes me wonder what kind of depth I have.

For me, past sin and mistakes have brought injury, brokenness and weakly filled positions on my life’s playing field. It’s affected my team—as in my family and friends. It has, for sure, created enemies as well. My depth turned out to have been no depth at all. So what Now???

In Hebrews 4:15 it says this:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”

I’ve come to find out that there has been a plan from the beginning! That in Christ we have a high priest! One that fills the gaps… that is our strength when we are weak; He heals brokenness and is our shelter in a storm. Most amazing of all, He is the payment that I can’t afford before a Holy God.

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 17: Jung Ho Kang #27 of the Pittsburgh Pirates is injured in the first inning during the game at PNC Park on September 17, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

God calls us a new creature…

In Christ, God calls us a new creature before we even become one. We are adopted into a Kingdom that cannot be shaken! All this has not been done so we can simply become pew warmers, carry a name, and/or be placed in a category. It’s been done for us so we can become that new creature, to serve as Jesus did, and use the talents He has given us for his glory. As such, we can become tools to spread the gospel to our neighborhood and beyond.

What do I know? I know that in Christ our bench has depth and it is definitely built for something such as this! Play ball!

Damon Zuchelli (today’s guest blogger) is the eldest son of Dave (our usual blogger). He is a foster parent and deeply involved in prison ministry in the state of Florida.