Total Eclipse of the Son

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a huge push to remove anything offensive from the public square. The primary and initial surge was to remove statues of Confederate leaders. It then moved to anyone who ever owned slaves. Now it has grown to include such historical figures as Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo to be more accurate).

I understand the angst caused by the presence of such objects. They are, after all, reminders of things in our past of which we’re not all that proud. Still, they are reminders of our history. As a former college history major, it grieves me that we would so carelessly toss aside what we’ve learned.

“An era of self-denial.”

I’m not going to use the old line, “If we fail to remember the past, we’re doomed to repeat it.” (Well, I guess I just did anyway. Sorry.) It seems we’re forgetting a lot of things these days. Maybe worse than forgetting them, we’re blotting them out. We’re making a concerted effort to enter into an era of self-denial. It’s like a total eclipse.

I understand the desire to avoid offending people. Unfortunately, the quashing of historical fact is an offense to all that is intellectually honest. We cannot retroactively relive our history. We cannot undo someone else’s wrongs through backdated denigration. Nor does it make us right and pure by destroying reminders of what occurred in centuries past.

As a Christian, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by what’s happening. Throughout my life, I’ve watched as the church has slowly gone through the same kind of systematic suppression in this country. We have slowly been marginalized to the point of historical, political, and cultural irrelevance.

This is a phenomenon that is beyond social affairs, however. It’s an occurrence of spiritual significance. The Bible tells us that many took offense at Jesus. The Apostle Paul referred to the “offense of the cross.” (Galatians 5:11)

If you look carefully, you may notice that various groups (such as pagans, atheists, humanists, politicians, and even many scientists) seem to have taken up an active crusade against us. In retrospect, I’m a bit surprised it’s taken so long. Ready or not, here they come. We used to attempt to tolerate one another. That no longer seems to be the case.

“The cross is a scandal.”

What will happen when all the offensive statues and monuments are gone? Will a truce be declared when all the names of towns and parks have been changed to something more palatable to the politically correct? I doubt it.

I think we may find that we’re next. The church, herself, is an offense. The cross of Christ is a scandal (1 Corinthians 1:23). Our very existence is viewed by many in society as a threat to their way of life.

If they could blot out Jesus from the pages of world history they would. Many have tried, and their efforts are ongoing. Look around you. They’re not nearly as subtle as they used to be. They’re aiming for a total eclipse of the Son.

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

A Time to Gather Stones Together

“There is a time for everything…a time to gather stones and a time to scatter them.” Long before Bob Dylan and the Byrds made this phrase popular back in the 60’s, someone else had penned these words. They are nestled in a book of Scripture named Ecclesiastes (see Ecclesiastes 3:1-14).

We usually forget (or never knew) that the title of the book literally means “gatherer.” We usually translate that word into English as teacher or preacher. You may recognize its root (ecclesia) which is a Greek word referring to an assembly. Bible readers generally think of that assembly as the church. This stands to reason since that’s exactly what the church is—an assembly.

So to put those terms in a modern day context, preachers are (at least to some degree) gatherers. They attempt to gather people to teach them. In their particular situation, the teaching of the assembly is centered on God’s Word—Scripture.

“Preaching is the easy part.”

In almost forty years of preaching, I’ve discovered (at least for me) that preaching is the easy part. Gathering… Well, that’s something different altogether. Not only can rounding up the stones be an arduous task, but keeping them together seems to be an impossibility—particularly these days.

Back in the mid 80’s, Marshall Shelley wrote a book entitled “Well Intentioned Dragons.” I never actually read it, but it was immensely popular among clergy types. The book was a treatise of sorts on how to minister to folks who seem to unconsciously undermine the ministry of the church. I guess the title says it all.

Even though I’ve never read it, I’ve often thought of that title. It seems to me, every one of us (at one time or another) becomes a well-intentioned dragon. We hit a blind spot where our prejudices or biases don’t allow us to see the big picture. We kick against the goads and the rest is history.

“The crux of the matter is forgiveness.”

Not having read the book, I’m not exactly sure what Shelley has to say about all this. But from my perspective, the crux of the matter is forgiveness. We need to extend forgiveness to our brothers and sisters who may, from time to time, fall into the dragon category. After all, we might be the next dragon in need of forgiveness.

Yet, there’s an even bigger reason to forgive them. When Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray, he taught them to ask for forgiveness. As he did so, he added this caveat. Forgive those who trespass against you. We ask the Lord to forgive us “as we forgive those…” The entire foundation of the church is built on mutual forgiveness. If we lose that, we’ve lost everything.

We are living in a time where gathering stones has become more important than it has been in a long time. Because of changes in our society and various culture shifts, most of us are at a loss as to how to do that. Forgiving each other might be a good place to begin.

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

I Left My Soul Back There

There’s this TV commercial that keeps popping up. I don’t remember for sure, but I think it’s a car advertisement. The thing about it that actually sticks with me is a character who’s impressed by the speedy pickup of the auto. He marvels at it and says, “I think I left my soul back there!”

Being a guy who’s been in the soul business for a long time, that line always catches my ear. Each time I hear it, I find myself swept into this weird train of thought. What’s it like if your soul gets left behind?

I’m not sure how to answer that. What I am sure of, however, is that we seem to be in a time when the church in general is getting that feeling. We’re empty, and our soul is somewhere else.

Life seems to be traveling at an unbelievable breakneck speed. In order to remain relevant, we do our best to keep up. There are days we’re overcome with the feeling that our soul has literally been left behind.

“It’s easy to get sick and tired.”

Because of that, I often find myself needing to hear someone (anyone) say it’s okay (or, at least, that it’s going to be okay). It’s easy to get tired and give up (or give in). Maybe it’s more correctly stated as, “It’s easy to get sick and tired. Going through difficult times has always caused us to use that old saying. Getting sick and tired has become commonplace these days.

Right now, the church is going through an amazingly difficult time. I hear Christians all around me making statements like, “None of what I used to do works anymore.” They’re right in saying those things. We live in a post-Christian world where we’re just another option (and not a very appealing one at that). I remember a time when simply being a pastor carried with it at least a modicum of respect. Those days are long gone (which actually might be a good thing).

“Many of us haven’t realized that yet.”

The point of all this is we’ve entered into a new era. It’s a new frontier (to employ an overused term). In a sense, we’ve reverted to a time (much like the time of the apostles) where we’re essentially starting all over again. The real problem is that many of us haven’t realized that yet. We’re trying to do the same old things and expecting them to produce results. (Kind of reminds you of the old definition of insanity, doesn’t it?)

Our first step appears to be for us to realize we’ve become irrelevant relics of a bygone era. The second is to realize we don’t have to remain so. The third is to understand that we are pioneers looking for relevance once again. This is such a daunting task, it would be easy to give up and give in—sick and tired of the way things are.

To you I would say, “Never give up.” You are God’s remnant! Your soul hasn’t been left behind. It just feels like it sometimes.

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

Walking on Water: A Great Gig if You Can Fake It

Several days ago, I had what many might call a “bad week.” Much of what was bad about it was self-inflicted, and it reminded me of the old phrase that affirms we’re “only human.” I hate it when that happens to me. I suppose you do as well. Sometimes, being human ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

In the midst of my turmoil, I texted a ministerial friend of mine and asked him to come over so I could “vent.” Fortunately, he was able to meet with me the next day. He arrived, I vented, and everything got better…sort of… I say, sort of, because venting only helps you on the inside. You still have the peripheral stuff to clean up and deal with.

Eventually, the knot in my stomach relaxed, the stress level dropped, and I returned to my normal, insane self. But the conversation with my friend stuck in my brain. It almost haunts me. It’s one of those things that I find hard to believe.
During our exchange, he conveyed a true story to me. He told me of a pastor who was instructed to go to a counselor for a variety of reasons. Among other things, the counselor told him that pastors have to “walk on water.”

“Lord, have mercy!”

I’m not sure why he would say such a thing, but apparently he believed it (at least figuratively). It’s no wonder so many preachers are on meds. We not only think we have to be perfect, so does everyone else. Lord, have mercy! Some of us are walking basket cases.

I don’t know if you’re keeping up with statistics these days, but 1500 pastors leave the ministry each month. Apparently a lot of our number has had more than just a bad week. They’re having bad pastorates and bad lives. Either we’re taking ourselves a tad too seriously, or someone else is. Probably a lot of both…

Though it may seem like it, this is not a complaint–merely an observation. If you’re one of those pastors who think you need to at least give the perception that you can walk on water, cut it out. You’re not helping anyone that way–not yourself, not your parishioners, not anyone. If you’re a parishioner projecting that onto your pastor, please reconsider. The preacher is just as vulnerable to human foibles as you are.

The pastor in my friend’s story told the counselor he spent most of his time under water (not on it), because that’s where the people who needed him were. He was correct, of course. Pastors don’t need pontoon feet. They need SCUBA equipment. Pretending we can walk on the waves is a killer. Please don’t fall prey to it.

Eventually you’ll convince yourself you can actually do it (or reasonably fake it). Somewhere along the way, however, you’ll discover you haven’t been walking on water at all. You’ve been walking on eggshells. Either way, you’re all wet (or at least you will be).

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

Some Things Make it All Worthwhile

At last count, my lovely Bride and I have eight grandchildren. Only one lives nearby. Our dream is to someday retire and become the proverbial snowbirds we keep hearing about. If that ever comes to fruition, we’ll be able to see them with much greater frequency.

At my age, there are days when I just feel like packing it all in and saying, “I don’t need this!” At that point, I’d be just as happy to sell most of my earthly possessions and head for the hinterlands. Unfortunately, there’s this little thing called earning a living. I’m sure you’ve heard of that.

From what I can tell, I’m not alone. Probably many of you fall into this category from time to time—especially you old geezers like myself. We look around at the way people treat each other, and we say to ourselves, “What’s the use?” It’s in those moments we’d trade it all for a one-way ticket to an island in the South Pacific.

Those moments are rather fleeting, however, because we soon crash land to the earthly reality that living in some exotic, faraway place would cost way more than we’ve saved up.

On the other hand, there are moments that seem to make it all worthwhile. Through the wonders of modern technology, we received a text from one of the kids recently. One of the little ones was celebrating a birthday. As usual, we couldn’t be there, so we sent a small gift to let her know we’re still alive and kicking, and that we still love her.

The text contained a video of her saying thanks to Gramma and Grampa. Not only did that make my day, I think it warmed my heart enough to last me for quite some time. Some things make it all worthwhile.

Sometimes, all we need is a little light at the end of the notorious tunnel. We need to know there’s some sort of reward for what we’re doing. I guess we could sum that up in one word—hope. We need hope.

I remember preaching at someone’s funeral years ago. There was another pastor at the service who approached me afterward and said, “You really did a good job portraying the hope.” I’ll never forget his words. We try to do a lot of things at funerals, but relaying our hope is probably paramount among those things.

“We need that hope.”

But that not only holds true for funerals, it applies to life in general. We need that light at the end of the tunnel. We need that hope. That hope is one of the greatest gifts of the Savior himself.

The Apostle Paul liked to speak of, what he called, “the hope of glory.” In Colossians 1:27, he says that Christ in us is the hope of glory. Jesus is the light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, he is the light—period. Without him, we live in darkness.

His promise is the one thing that makes it all worthwhile.

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

I Only Buy Heinz Ketchup

Recently, I was reading a blog written by Carey Nieuwhof entitled, “Why Attending Church No Longer Makes Sense.” In case you’ve never heard of Carey, I’ll simply tell you that his ministry is designed to help Christian leaders thrive.

Naturally, the title grabbed me (as all good blog titles should do). Being a blogger myself, it’s become quite apparent that posting an eye-catching title is at least half the battle. It’s also the part that can get you into a lot of trouble (but I’ll save that topic for another day).

His blogs are interesting (as was this one), but one particular line jumped out at me during this reading. The lead-in stated the concept we’ve all heard numerous times—we don’t merely attend church, we ARE the church. Then he wrote, “The reason you would go to church today is that you’ve moved from being a consumer to being a contributor.”

“You’ve moved from being a consumer…”

This is nothing new either, but we don’t always hear it stated in that manner. When I first became a Christian, a lot of folks used to put it this way: “Don’t go to church to see what you can get out of it. Go to see what you can put into it.” The concept is as old as the New Testament, but it’s one we need to restate ad nauseum because we often revert to being consumers rather than contributors.

Being consumers allows us great freedom. We are free to complain, cajole, and snipe from the back pew because we’ve got nothing at stake. We are free to pick and choose the church that placates our perceived needs. We can surround ourselves with people who think like us. We can avoid being challenged by the directions and foibles of people whose directions and foibles are not like our own.

“I only buy Heinz Ketchup…”

In short, we get to pick and choose. If, at some point, we sour on our original choice, we go make another one. It is, after all, the American way—consumerism. There are reasons why I only buy Heinz Ketchup but never buy any of their other products. That mentality is the same one we often bring to the church.

Nieuwhof follows up the earlier quote by saying, “You don’t just go to be served, you go to serve. There’s something deeply scriptural about that.” There’s an enormous problem with this, however. If we go to serve, that means we’ll be shoulder-to-shoulder with other folks. Other folks are often a problem because they don’t always fit into our way of thinking or our pattern of living.

Someone once said, “If you find a perfect church, don’t join it. You’ll ruin it.” While that’s mildly humorous, it’s also wildly true. There is, of course, no perfect church. I suppose that’s one of the reasons Peter called us living stones (1 Peter 2:5). Have you ever attempted to build something out of random stones? It’s no easy task.

Being the church is no easy task either. Give it a try.

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

Forgetting Who You Are

I recently read an article entitled, “Five Life Lessons You Can Only Learn by Getting Fired.” It was in Forbes Magazine, so it was centered on business. It caught my eye because I was once fired. I think I was twenty-one years old at the time, and I hadn’t seen it coming.

Looking back, I definitely deserved it; and it taught me a lot. Getting canned can contain many of life’s lessons. Learning from them can be a rough experience (albeit a very valuable one).

One of the “lessons” the article enumerated (the final one listed) was “You learn that you can survive getting fired without forgetting who you are.” I suspect that’s not always true. I suppose some people, upon getting the pink slip, try their darndest to forget who they are.

“Remember who you are…”

Still, I like what it says. If you can survive a firing and still maintain your true self in the process, you’re probably a stronger person for it (assuming your true self is worth maintaining). If we forget who we are, we can be set adrift in some really choppy waters.

I have a friend who once told me something his mother always said to him when he was going out on the town. As he headed for the door, she would look at him and say, “Remember who you are and who you belong to.” That’s pretty good advice. It’s when we forget who we are that we get ourselves into trouble.

If you’re a Christian, you are many things. Scripture tells us we’re “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, [and] God’s special possession.” (1 Peter 2:9) That’s quite a tall order to live up to. Think about that the next time you head out the door.

You might look at those words and say, “I’m not those things. I’m certainly not holy!” But don’t forget, that’s what God says you are. You are chosen to be those things.

Grow Into Your Name

Remember the story of Gideon (Judges 6-8). The angel of the Lord came to him and addressed him as “mighty warrior.” Gideon was down in a hole, shaking in his boots at the time. He was anything but a mighty warrior. Yet, he grew into his name and became one.

It’s similar to Christian baptism. When we’re baptized, we aren’t the people we will become in time. We need to live into our baptisms. People might look at you and say, “He’s not much of a Christian.” The answer to that one is (hopefully), “No, not yet. But he’s getting there.”

The fact of the matter is you’re going to screw things up from time to time. You’re not perfect, but you are chosen, forgiven and named by God. Part of your job from that point on is to remember who you are. If you don’t forget who you are, you can get a good handle on where you’re headed in life.

And you probably don’t have to get fired to learn that.

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

The Fear of Being Used

For some reason, an old thought popped into my mind yesterday. The thought was simply, “I want to be used.” I say this is an old thought, because this was my desire forty years ago when I entered Christian ministry.

As I pondered that, it quickly occurred to me that the concept of being used has changed quite a bit. These days, our mindset is often one of fear–fear that we’ll be used. We don’t want to be used. In fact, we guard against being used. “If you become a tool, you’re a fool.”

I guess I’m old school in many ways. This is one of them. I tend to buck against the trend that you have to be number one—that you have to be in total control of your own destiny. I’ve come to realize that very little of that destiny is in our control. There are too many outside forces at work.

Drifting with the Current

It’s not that I think we just have to drift with the current–far from it, in fact. It’s just that I think we need to take into consideration that our best-laid plans will seldom come to fruition in the ways we had foreseen. That’s where we see God at work.

When I first became a Christian, my favorite verse of Scripture was Romans 8:28. In this passage, the Apostle Paul indicates that God works in all things for us. That means (among other things), even when I screw up, God will be working in my circumstances for my own good. I suppose that was my favorite verse because it was back then that I first realized what a major screw-up I was.

Interestingly enough, the more I grow, the more I realize how often I fall short. Spiritual myopia can be a wonderful thing. As our spiritual eyesight gets better, we see things in ourselves that can be quite disturbing. If nothing else, it certainly keeps us humble.

“Just Use Me Up”

The amazing thing about all this is that God (despite the chinks in our spiritual armor) still wants to use us. I, for one, still want to be used. If the Lord wants to use me as an instrument of his compassion, his healing, his grace, etc., I want to be available.

Singer Bill Withers once recorded a song entitled, “Use Me.” That song just grabs me. It has nothing to do with God, but it’s his story about being used by a woman—and liking it. He tells her, “Just use me up.” That’s my desire as well (to be used by the Lord—not a woman).

Being used is a scary thing. Being used strongly implies we’re not as much in control as we’d like. We’re uncomfortable with that thought and certainly with that mindset and context. Even if the “user” is the Lord, it’s daunting. After all, Scripture tells us, “It’s a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31) Still, it’s the best place to be.

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

Stabbing Trash in the Rain

I have these insane allergies to almost everything (especially green stuff), and I get allergy injections every few days. Getting those needles in my arms is not necessarily the highlight of my week, but the alternative is a miserable existence. I’ve opted for the pain.

Today, I headed out for my weekly impaling, and it was pouring rain. As I pulled out of my neighborhood, I spotted a guy walking down the median strip with a stabber (you know–one of those sticks with a nail in one end). He was picking up trash amidst the downpour.

I’ve obviously seen many people like him doing that job. However (as far as my puny memory can probe), I don’t remember seeing anyone else performing that function in driving precipitation. My mind immediately traveled back to a time in college when I did that same chore. It was my part in receiving a track team “scholarship.” I guess it was actually called a “work scholarship” (which, when translated, meant, “We want you on the track team, but not badly enough to give you a real scholarship.”)

“I love that guy.”

It was somewhat of a demeaning job, I suppose, but I never really minded it. To this day, I love seeing things neat and in order. And that brings me back to the guy in the rain.

I love that guy. I don’t know him, but I love him. And it’s not just that we’re called to love one another (John 13:34). This guy was performing a function in my neighborhood that ultimately benefited me. I love him. The oddity of all this is the fact that there are undoubtedly many people driving by who look down their noses at him or anyone else executing such a task.

I think part of our problem is the difference between elite and elitism. I want to be in the elite category at what I do. Unfortunately, many who arrive in that category then become elitists. They’re good, they know they’re good, and they begin acting like those who don’t measure up to their elite status are somehow beneath them.

They not only enjoy their elite status, they abuse it. Whether it’s wealth, intellect, or talent, elitism is one of the banes of our society.

Lowering Myself

Once I was asked what I’d like to do when I retire from pastoral ministry. I responded that I might like to be a church janitor. They were aghast at my answer (presumably because they didn’t understand why I’d “lower” myself like that). Frankly, I don’t see that as a lowering at all. As Scripture tells us, “I’d rather be a gatekeeper in God’s house than live in the tents of the wicked.” (Psalm 84:10) Besides–wouldn’t it be awesome to have a janitor who could fill the pulpit when needed?

If there’s a congregation out there who needs a sanitation engineer, feel free to give me a call. I just might apply for the position. I’d rather not do it in the rain, however.

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

Where Have You Gone, Sean Rodriguez?

 As many of you already know, I’m a huge Pittsburgh Pirates fan. For better or ill, they are (and always have been) my favorite baseball club. Unfortunately, these days are not some of the better ones.

For the past couple years, they had a great little utility guy by the name of Sean Rodriguez. He could play almost anywhere on the field and do a good job. He always hustled and was often an inspiration for the rest of the squad.

Over the winter, Sean was a free agent, and the Pirates let him walk. I suppose it was due to financial considerations, but that’s an entirely different discussion. The point is this: he was gone.

Washed Up?

Recently, due to an odd set of circumstances, the Pirates were able to make a trade and reacquire his services. I was pleased to hear that he was back. I was also exceedingly surprised when I heard that a lot of folks were sour on the trade. Some called him a has-been. At thirty-two years of age, he’s hardly what I would call washed up.

I’m sure he and the Pirate management were highly gratified when, in his first game back with the team, he hit a walk-off homer in the twelfth inning to win the game. The drama had been heightened due to the fact that the Pirate’s celebrated closer (Felipe Rivero) allowed the San Diego Padres to tie the game in the ninth when they were only one out away from victory.

Sean reportedly had only gotten off the plane to Pittsburgh two hours prior to game time. He arrived in time to play, was inserted in the late innings, and went on to hit the game-winning homer. So much for being washed up.

It’s kind of amazing how quickly we write people off. After last season, Sean and his family were involved in a tragic accident. Due to that accident, he never got onto the field until recently. The perpetrator in the crime of a stolen car t-boned them during a high-speed police chase. The criminal died in the fiery crash while Rodriguez and his family sustained various injuries. His early season inability to play probably began a series of decisions that led to his trade earlier this week. After learning of the trade, he Tweeted the following:

“We often wonder, “Why Lord?” Trying to understand God’s purpose for our lives. Often not getting, what we think, is a clear enough picture of your destination. But God’s purpose is “Written.” God’s journey for us is “Righteous.” And God’s plan for us is “Perfect.” So we don’t need to ask “why.” Just trust in God, put your faith in God, and I have no doubt he’ll take care of the rest.”

I don’t know how well Sean (and his Buccos) will fare during the remainder of the season. I don’t know how long his career will be. But as long as the Pirates field players like him, I’ll remain a faithful fan.

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