An Empty Slot in the Lineup

ClementeBy the time I was ten years old, Roberto Clemente had established himself as one of the premier players in all of baseball. There were a few players around with more talent, but none played with a greater flair than The Great One (the nickname given to him by then Pirate broadcaster Bob Prince). When I was twenty-one, he was still playing at a high level, but by the time I was twenty-two, he was dead. There are moments I still can’t believe he’s gone.

The Pirates have since inserted many other players into his slot in the batting order. He pretty much always batted third. They’ve found other guys to bat there, and the game goes on. Such is the way of major league baseball. There’s always a guy on deck.

It’s not always that way in the lower levels of the sport, however. I remember once, when I was playing in a boys’ league, only seven guys showed up for one of our games. For some reason, the opposing coach let us play with no penalties. I actually was positioned to play the first and second base positions as well as right field. Unbelievably, we won that day. We won because we had a really good team, and we were playing a really bad one.

Another big factor in our victory, however, was we didn’t play by the rules. The rules stated that if there was a player missing from the batting order, an automatic out would be recorded each time that slot came up. If the opposing coach had insisted, we would have had to endure two automatic outs during each rotation of the batting order. That would have meant we would have had some innings in which we only were allowed one out. That, my friends, is a big handicap.

In later years, I umpired a lot of baseball games and saw this rule enforced several times. It was often devastating to the shorthanded team as you may imagine. It was never much fun for anyone. It never seemed like a real game when that happened.

This phenomenon is one of the devastating things that has happened to the church over the years. Too often we have played with empty slots in the lineup. Those who show up have the weight of the team on their shoulders, and the imbalanced lineup spells out failure and frustration for everyone. It’s not pretty, and it sure isn’t any fun.

If you’re one of the no-shows, I would encourage you to get in the game. I know that’s a trite, old cliché, but it really fits. Not only do we need you, I suspect you’ll enjoy yourself a whole lot more at the center of the action than you would by watching from the bench. In fact, I don’t think there is a bench in ministry. Don’t you get tired just standing there?

I Used to Bat Cleanup

When I was knee high to a tsetse fly, I fell in love with baseball. There were a lot of reasons for that (which I won’t go into here), but it’s been a lifelong, love-hate relationship with what used to be the national pastime. When I was a kid, I built a makeshift wall of cement blocks and would stand for hours throwing a rubber-coated baseball against it so it would rebound in different directions back to my general vicinity.

I was too shy to try out for an organized team until I was fourteen. By that time, my love for the game (and the insistence of my friends) made it impossible for me to refuse anymore. I landed on one of the local Babe Ruth League teams (the Giants as I recall) and was an instant hit—the latest phenom—a big fish in a little pond—a star among…well…mostly less than all-stars (let’s just say, none of us were major league ready). We had a great time, though, and (as far as my baseball career goes) those were my glory days.IMG_0992

During the summers of my fourteenth and fifteenth years on this planet, I batted cleanup. For all you non-fans, that meant I was the go-to guy—the RBI man—the power hitter—the centerpiece of the line-up. I really thought I was something.

But then an evil thing happened. I turned sixteen and had to move on to play Junior Legion baseball. All of a sudden, everyone around me was a Babe Ruth League all-star. I was no longer cleanup worthy. I did bat in the leadoff position, but only because I could run fast and steal a few bases. I couldn’t hit a lick against the big boys. I could now drive a car but could no longer drive in runs. I was a has-been. By the time I was nineteen, my baseball career was over, and dreams of playing for my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates were a faded memory.

That extended experience, like a lot of others, prepared me for adult life. I have now been a pastor for thirty-five years. And guess what… As a pastor I could easily consider myself a big fish in a little pond and a theological star among people with a little less theological training. I don’t, however, because I never made it to the big leagues. I never played for the Pirates (or even the Durham Bulls). When I arrive early for services on Sunday, I’m not looking to tell someone else what to do or even what to believe. I’m usually sweeping the walks, adjusting the heat, or supplying the restrooms with toilet paper.

When it comes to serving Jesus, none of us are cleanup hitters. He’s the cleanup guy. We all do our parts, and we’re all important to the lineup. The cool thing is, none of us has to sit the bench.

SPF in Antarctica?

polar-bear-404314_1280As I write this, I’m seated on the balcony of a home in a tropical paradise. The house is located in a place called Duck Key off the southern tip of Florida. The sun is shining, the breeze is gently blowing, and I am doing the most relaxed work possible. This is the life. No wonder Earnest Hemingway lived near here. It’s a writer’s dream. I could really get used to this place and living like this.

But unlike Hemingway, I’m on vacation. I have to leave here in a few short days. If I had the money, I could buy a wild Hawaiian shirt, let my bead grow, and actually get a tan (if my pasty, white, Northern Italian skin would allow it). I could stay here, get to know the natives, and do some “beach ministry.”

Alas, I don’t have that kind of money. Even if I did, I’m not sure I would buy a wild Hawaiian shirt anyway. Maybe I would…maybe I wouldn’t… Either way, I’d be a tad out of place here. I don’t even swim. I suppose I’d have to learn if I stayed. When in Rome…right?

The truth is, I’m quite adaptable. I could live almost anywhere. The stark exception to that would be one of the Poles (North or South). You can have those. But if the Lord sends me there, I guess I would adapt to that as well (but He’d have to make it perfectly clear it was His will…my will is pretty strong in the area of weather—a sledge hammer might work). At any rate, the old saying is “bloom where you’re planted.” I just prefer being planted in a warm climate.UntitledThis whole planting stuff applies to a lot more than weather, however. Could you serve the Lord in the inner city? They need a witness or two there. Could you serve the Lord in the farmland of Pennsylvania where the farmhouses are miles apart? They could use a witness or two there. Could you serve the Lord among the Valley girls of California, the Hell’s Angels (wherever they ride), or the coal miners of Kentucky? They all could use a witness or two.

The point is this. Our travels, and the Lord, put us in a wide variety of places, cultures and mindsets. We’re not always as comfortable as I am in this temporary tropical paradise. In fact, when we’re doing the Lord’s work, we’re seldom comfortable at all. The only real comfort we have is in the fact that we’re doing what He has called us to do.

We often hear about getting out of our comfort zone to serve people (and consequently, the Lord). We hear it, give lip service to it, and often even believe it’s what we should do. But seldom do we actually follow through. It’s just not the tropical paradise we were hoping to be called upon to serve. Where (and who) are we called to serve?

The Scene of the Grime

bedroom-389254_640I live in a home that always looks like it’s  ready for an open house. Everything is in its place, there is no dust anywhere, and you could eat off the floor. It’s like that because my lovely bride, Denise, and I are anal retentive (I wish the psychologists would come up with a nicer name for that). In our worst moments, the place looks like a mess to us, but most anyone else walking in would die for that kind of neatness. We can have it all straightened out in about five minutes.

Of course I’m exaggerating slightly, but only slightly. We can be slobs just like anyone else (well, maybe not ANYONE else)…but close. I guess “messy” is a relative term—relative to the amount of mess we’re willing to put up with. I’m never really embarrassed about being such a neat freak. In fact, sometimes I’m downright proud of it. I’m a Zuchelli after all—my Mom and Dad would be proud.

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But I’m a part of the church. The church is messy in her best moments. In fact, neatness is a sign of a church that’s not doing her job. Think about it. Who do we deal with in ministry? Sinners! Sinners are messy. Dealing with sinners is a messy business. That’s because sin is messy. I suppose that’s why many local fellowships would rather bypass the whole dealing-with-sinners thing. Of course what they’re forgetting is this—they’re sinners too.

I’m not sure why we think we’re squeaky clean. But I AM sure we often do. That’s a really bad position in which to place yourself if you’re a church that wants to make a difference. Who in the world do we think we are? Not sinners, apparently.

The fact is, church, you’re full of sinners. You come from the same place the other sinners came from. Except for Jesus, you’re headed the same place you think they’re headed. What did you do to deserve the right to keep your hands clean? Why do you think you can ignore those who need your presence in their lives. Did you do something special to earn that little dispensation? I think not.

Jesus died for you to be set free. If I read the Bible correctly, you’re not the only one for whom he died. You are now a vehicle for his grace to arrive in the life of someone you might not like—or even detest—another sinner, perhaps. Heaven forbid! Actually, Heaven forbid we deny that little fact.

Time to get with it, church. Don’t you think?

Am I Okay?

OKOKIn my last blog, Are You Okay?, I referenced a little kid who looked like Renee Zellweger’s son in the movie Jerry Maguire. I saw him in the men’s locker room of my local gym. He put me to shame because of his caring attitude. What I didn’t tell you is why he was in the locker room.

After the interlude I had previously described, I continued getting dressed. When I was about ready to head out the door, I noticed he was still there—all by himself. Little kids in the locker room are not unusual sights. A little kid in the locker room all by himself IS. But even though it’s not something I normally see, I didn’t pay attention to the fact it was out of the ordinary. In short, I didn’t really care. He was outgoing enough to let me know the reason.

He asked if I had seen a guy that “looked like a beach boy with blonde hair.” At the time, I found the question a tad amusing, but I assured him I hadn’t. He then asked disgustedly in a loud and rather gruff voice for an eight year old, “Where IS he?” I could only assume at the time he wasn’t asking me since I had no idea who he was talking about. Then he ran out of the locker room shouting someone’s name at the top of his lungs asking where he was.

At that point, I began to care a little. It was only “a little” because I knew there were other adults around who could, and undoubtedly would, help him. After all, it was their job to do so. So I went home.

Yet, the whole thing continued to gnaw away at my psyche. What’s the matter with me? Am I okay? Why don’t I care more? I’m a caring Christian, right? Well, I call myself one. Unfortunately, all too often I don’t care. Actually, to state it correctly, I care, but not enough to do anything. Unless a situation catches me at the right time (what I often call a moment of weakness), I don’t care.

When I think of the moments I don’t really care, I try to assuage my guilt by telling myself about all the times I HAVE “made a difference in someone’s life” by his or her own admission. Then I mentally add a few more instances of my obvious caring by assuming people just never said anything. I haven’t broken my arm by patting myself on the back yet.

There are entire congregations that refer to themselves as “a caring church.” I hope they’re correct in their self-assessment. My hopes may well be unfounded. Too many of us care about ourselves. Some of us care about others within the fellowship of the church. Far too many of us leave our caring at the door on the way out of worship (which makes me wonder sometimes if it’s really worship at all).

Are You Okay?

I realize I don’t look like it, but I go to the gym at least three times a week (and yes, I work out when I’m there—quit laughing!). One day after my workout, steam room and shower, I was getting dressed in the men’s locker room. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a little boy. I didn’t pay any attention to him because there are always little boys around taking swimming lessons, etc. Sometimes they swarm the locker room like a bunch of termites.

So I was minding my own business when the little kid says to me, “Is that smoke?” I’m a little hard of hearing, so I turned to him, looked him straight in the face so I could read his lips, and said, “What did you say?” He repeated, “Is that smoke?”

kid-with-glassesI will always remember this kid because he reminded me of the little boy in the movie, Jerry Maguire. He was probably no more than eight years old. Everything about him emphasized his head. His body type, his haircut, and his big glasses all drew attention to his head, which seemed too large for him. I will also remember him for what happened next.

I finally realized what he was asking about. The steam room was only a few feet away, and one of the custodians was in there with the door open, hosing it down. The steam was barreling out and it, indeed, looked like smoke. I reassured him it was only water mist and steam (hot water) that he saw. I assumed that would allay his fears and went back to what I was doing.

A few seconds later, I heard him say to the custodian, “Are you okay?” He was genuinely concerned that the custodian was in trouble, and I immediately felt embarrassed. It wasn’t that I was uncaring in that situation, because there was nothing to worry about. It was that this little kid, in his innocence, was showing a deep caring about his fellow human being. In that moment I realized that was a side of me that didn’t show up enough—even in situations that demanded real caring.

The other thing that bothered me about all this was what will probably happen to this little kid in the future. We (meaning society) will probably teach him to curb the caring bit. We will squelch his caring with the “reality” that, if you care too much, you will get hurt or taken. We will teach him, at least to a large extent, not to care. We will do it, of course, “for his own protection.” It seems such a shame.

It seems to me that the church has fallen into the same trap. We’ve got too much to protect, so we protect whatever it is we think we have by not caring. I may be overstating that a bit, but probably not too much. Do you agree? Please prove me wrong.

Vanilla Coke Syndrome

VCI was recently on vacation and sharing a vacation home with a few other folks. We went together on things like groceries while we were there. One of the guys with whom I was sharing the house picked up a carton of Vanilla Coke. I had never tried it and was intrigued. I really like vanilla, and I can swig a can of Coke with the best of them, so I figured it was worth a try.

I didn’t like it.

Somewhere in the mix, it lost something for me. I could really taste the vanilla, and I could really taste the Coke. Usually, when flavors like that are mixed, they combine to form an entirely different taste. Not in this case—at least not for me. It was almost like I was drinking a swallow of vanilla extract with a Coke chaser. Not my idea of a refreshing drink. I’m sure a lot of you like it, and you can have it. I’ll buy you one the next time we’re together.

I don’t exactly know why it is, but the church tends to be like a Vanilla Coke. We’ve got all these different flavors in one big drink. One would think (at least this one) we would form a whole new taste. Maybe we do sometimes. But more often than not, we don’t like the new flavor, so we keep them separated. I like vanilla, I like Coke, but I don’t like Vanilla Coke. A lot of Christians like the various flavors of church, but we prefer not to mix them. We apparently don’t like the new flavor. We’d rather stick with our favorite. “Birds of a feather” and all that…

I know I’m mixing metaphors, but I hope you see what I’m driving at here. If our way (whatever our way happens to be) is more important to us than coming up with a new flavor, a different looking congregation, or a worship service that appeals to someone besides ourselves, is it worth keeping? I’ve noticed that some things don’t taste very pleasing to me the first go around. But the next time, if I’m really hungry or thirsty, the taste grows on me. Often I grow to like it—crave it even.

Oh that we would be so hungry and thirsty for God and His people that we would form a new flavor—a flavor that the world would want to seek after, taste, and be satisfied. Are we the salt or seasoning that Jesus said we would be? Or are we willing to dine alone on the same old fare? The world has been invited to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Are we blocking their taste buds or flavoring their food?

GOING TOPLESS

11781780_10153459508994631_8937820042308412817_nLike many people, I have a bucket list. Since I’ve entered my “golden years,” the “autumn of my life,” or “sunset valley,” (take your pick) I’ve become acutely aware of the things I’ve yet to check off. Well, I just checked another one. My wife has allowed me (she hates when I say that) to buy a Jeep Wrangler. I’ve wanted one for a long time, and now that I’ve retired from my day job, it seemed like the right moment to pull the trigger.

Not only that, it seemed like a good deal. She’s a cherry (at least that’s what the used car salesman told me). After looking for a long time and doing my homework, it appeared to be a good buy. Only time will tell. As far as I’m concerned, purchasing a used vehicle is always a crapshoot. At least this time, the price was right.

We picked her up on a Friday evening and didn’t have a good opportunity to try her out properly. Saturday was a different story. It was a beautiful day, low humidity, and a temperature of 88º. So we dutifully removed the ragtop from the Jeep and headed out for a spin.

We weren’t on the road very long before we realized we should apply a little sunscreen. Old Sol was bearing down, and there was absolutely no protection. So we stopped and picked up what we needed. Going topless, however, makes one thirsty. We also decided to pick up some chilled beverages. The trip was beginning to get a little expensive (after all, we had just purchased a vehicle and our funds were somewhat depleted), so we headed back home. Besides that, we were dog sitting for our daughter and her husband, and we didn’t want the poor pooch to go unattended for too long.

But for those few moments, we were exposed to the elements. We were experiencing the exhilaration of freedom, the wind in our hair, the thrill of the hunt (I just threw that last one in there to complete the triad). We now know what it’s like to go four wheeling (well, no we didn’t go off road, but there was a lot of traffic—it IS northern Virginia after all). Oh the glory of it all!11169484_10153461110469631_6431196354476680442_n

Now if we could just do that with our faith—go topless I mean. Expose ourselves to the elements of life…feel the wind of the Holy Spirit on our faces…become as free as Jesus wants us to be… But we seldom do that. We play it safe and easy. We hide in our little cocoons. We go where no one has gone before…NOT!

Ours was a short ride last Saturday. We only experienced a little of what the future may hold. But it was a start. There’s a great verse in Zechariah that admonishes us not to despise the “day of small beginnings.” Get out and do something small for Jesus. Who knows where it will lead.

The FB Challenge

Recently, the whole Bruce/Caitlyn/Bob/Carol/Ted & Alice thing has been big all over the news, and consequently, all over Facebook as well. Apparently one must have a strong opinion one way or the other or one isn’t cool (or something). Frankly, I could care (which loosely translated means, “I don’t care”). It’s not that I don’t care about Bruce (or Jennifer, or whatever his/her name is at this point)—I care very much. But I’m not interested in joining the fray. I’m interested in people, what makes them tick, and how they’re getting along in life and in their relationship with God. But as far as the public debate about someone’s personal life, leave me out of it.

jennerThere is one point people are making that does interest me, however. Several FB placards have shown up which basically state that Jenner is touted as courageous and a hero because of what he/she has done. That fact is juxtaposed against the fact that Tim Tebow was basically booed and scorned for stating that he loves Jesus. He was not touted as a hero or for being courageous. He was vilified for coming out of the faith closet.

I remember a few years ago when the Tebow thing was going on. Part of the complaint was that all people heard from him was Jesus this and Jesus that. He would be asked about a touchdown pass and part of his answer would be to thank Jesus. People just didn’t want to hear it. Well folks, what’s new about that?

Tim_Tebow_TebowingJesus was quite clear about people hating his followers because of him. I’m not sure why we’re surprised and offended. Jesus told us this would happen in no uncertain terms. If our culture lionizes people whose actions, lifestyles, or speech is questionable to us, we should be ready for the other side of the coin to be displayed.

The real challenge (and the reason for the title of today’s blog) is our response. Facebook is probably the most visible and visceral place for this to happen. The response of the church as far as I can see has been one of disgust, anger, and attacks on the person, the media, and the culture. While I think Christians should take a stance on the things they believe to be anti-Biblical, it would seem to me that ours could be a positive one. Instead of becoming venomous, let’s follow the lead of Jesus who sent out his disciples telling them they needed to be as innocent as doves and shrewd as snakes. In other words, do what I sent you to do, and do it in love.

The Facebook challenge (as well as the social challenge in general) is to be a dove without becoming a milquetoast. Take a stand without being ignorant about it. Believe and live the things Jesus taught and leave the other stuff alone. Is that so hard for us to do?

First Cousins

As I write this, I’ve just found out that one of my first cousins died in a fiery car accident. Early speculation is that he suffered a heart attack and crossed into the other lane, hitting anotherYukky vehicle head on. When something like this happens, a myriad of thoughts, memories, and feelings flood one’s soul.

He was seventy-one. Tragically, two other people died in the accident if I understand the early reports correctly. This kind of event really drives some things home for me (and I suspect for anyone who goes through them).

As a pastor of thirty-five years, I’ve done dozens (maybe hundreds) of funerals and memorial services. Beyond the ones I have led, I’ve attended many more. Times like these seem to bring forth a flood of clichés: He’s in a better place; He’s with the Lord now; At least he went quickly; He was a great guy; He would have enjoyed seeing us all together; and on it goes ad nauseum. I’m not sure how much comfort any of these sayings give to people, but I guess they became cliché for a reason.

I will say, however, the most memorable responses to anything I have ever done in these types of situations are the ones when people say, “I’m so glad you’re here.” It was not that I said the right thing (even when I was preaching the funeral). It was not that I waxed poetic on the subject of death and dying. A lot of those times, I basically said nothing at all. But the fact that I was there with a hug, and maybe a tear, seemed to make all the difference.

I guess it stems back to the incarnate Christ. What I mean by that is Jesus came to be with us. He shared our grief and misery. He could have done things much differently, but he chose to be one of us and to be among us when things were tough. Our own presence in someone else’s life mirrors the incarnation. We’re there in the flesh for each other.

It’s not that words aren’t important. Our words can certainly express our love and condolences. But our words will not be the most important thing. We can put our arm around someone’s shoulder and say, “Jesus loves you.” But even that wonderfully assuring statement can ring hollow at times.  So we gather together to be there for each other.  After all, we are one of them just as Jesus was one of us.

I said before that this kind of event drives some things home for me. One of the things it drives home is that I could be next. I’d like to hang around for a few more years, but I’m not assured of that. I’m reminded of another old cliché. Life is short. I suggest we go out there and live our lives like they mean something…because they do. Rest in peace Cuz…