Untimely Management

My lovely Bride occasionally tells me I have lousy time-management skills. These sorts of comments really torque me off, and I would muster up a vehement, opposition argument if it weren’t true. Alas and alack, it IS true.

My problem has always been this. The most important thing to me is what I’m doing at the time. I get totally focused, and you’d better not confuse me with priorities. That’s just irritating.

The thing that interests me most usually tops my priority list. The obvious problem with that sort of prioritizing is that the thing that interests me the most is often not the most important thing to accomplish. Anyone else have this problem? Of course you do. That’s why entire seminars and courses are offered in time management.

The old (and often true) statement relays the thought that “time is money.” If our time is mismanaged, we will lose money. Even worse, we’ll lose time—possibly our most vital treasure. As everyone knows, we cannot replace the time we’ve lost.

I say we know that, but we seldom act like we know it. We’re quite good at wasting time (at least, I know I am). It’s a sad fact, but an accurate one.

Happy New Year

So now, we’re heading into a New Year. If I live through the entire three hundred and sixty-five days, I’ll have a lot of time to waste (or manage). I don’t think I’ll be reading a time management book or anything, but I suppose a New Year’s resolution to be better about using my time would be in order. The big problem with that, however, is the fact that resolutions are a waste of time (specifically what I’m attempting to avoid).

Maybe the best thing for me to do would be to look to Scripture for a snippet that would prod me toward the greater good. Lo and behold, I know such a passage. It’s found in the Old Testament book of Esther.

Esther was Jewish and married to a gentile king. She was in a position to attempt to save her people from destruction. Even as queen, her standing was tenuous, and she would be taking her life in her hands to pursue such a venture.

Nevertheless, Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, urged her to use her position to sway the king’s hand in the matter. If she were successful, the Jews would be saved (possibly including her own life). In his argument for her intervention, he uttered this famous phrase—“And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

If I could adopt such an attitude, it might go a long way in helping me reform my bad, time-management habits. If I am born for such a time as this, my time must be rather important. If it’s that important, I dare not waste it.

As my Mother used to say, “Time’s a-wasting! Let’s get crackin’!” Apparently, she recognized my lousy time-management skills as well.

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

My Recent Adventure at the DMV

A few days ago I received a timely notice from the Virginia DMV. In case some of you haven’t had the pleasure, DMV stands for Department of Motor Vehicles. Anytime you want to strike fear into the heart of any individual who owns and/or operates a motorized vehicle, just mention the DMV (which is right up there next to the IRS).

They were requesting the honor of my presence at one of their “service” centers. I use the term, service, loosely here. My experiences over the years at those fine institutions have made my infrequent visits somewhat less than pleasant sojourns.

If you’ve never lived through such an occurrence, let me just say this. Visits there can be excruciatingly long and often arduous.

Knowingly, I girded up my loins, packed a lunch, printed off five fresh crossword puzzles, and made sure my will was in order. I arose early that day (before the sun) and prepared myself for the worst. When I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed two gentlemen standing outside the entrance. It was a very cold day, so I immediately assumed the line was out the door. UGH…

“My defenses immediately arose…”

Much to my surprise, I was able to walk right by them. As it turns out, they were merely conversing with one another (why they were doing it in the cold was beyond me). As I walked through the door, I was cheerfully greeted by a pleasant gentleman who said he wanted to help me.

My defenses immediately arose, and I prepared myself for the onslaught I knew was forthcoming. When I told him I was there for a vision screening to renew my license, he checked my credentials, handed me a paper to fill out, and said I would be served at window ten. He also handed me one of those deli numbers with a preceding letter that make you feel like you’re playing bingo. I was B34.

As I turned to take a seat, the automated system chimed, “Now serving window ten.” I knew that call couldn’t be for me, but my reflexes caused me to glance up at window ten. At that station, there was a pretty, young lady—and she was intently gazing in my direction. I attempted to stare her down, but she won. I pointed at myself and hopefully said, “Is it my turn already?” She nodded and I made a beeline for the window.

“I made an appointment…”

When I reached her position, she looked at my blank form and said, “Go ahead and fill that out. I’ll wait.” I”LL WAIT? I’ve never heard those words at a DMV in my life. I’ve only heard, “You’ll wait; wait over there; you’ll have to wait two weeks,” or other words to that effect. This was obviously a sign of the end times.

Not only did I enjoy a pleasant conversation and received an inordinate amount of help, she told me it was okay to say, “Merry Christmas!”

I made an appointment to go back next week.

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

The Dead Santa (and Other Seasonal Faux Pas)

My neighborhood (not unlike yours) has an interesting array of seasonal decorations dispersed among the homes surrounding my own. The most popular of these (aside from the colored lights) are the blow up Santas. There seems to be one particular model that has captured most folk’s fancies this year (which means they were probably on sale at Costco). Consequently, there are several of them scattered across the local hood.

These babies are gassed by electric air pumps that keep them inflated. Since most people put their lights (and, subsequently, their Santas) on electrical timers, the lights go out by dawn’s early light. This causes a disconcerting trend that I’d like to denounce at this time.

An Inordinant Amount of Dead Santas

Upon rising each morning, I look out across my neighborhood from the vantage point of my second story bedroom window. What to my wandering eyes should appear but an inordinate amount of dead Santas (at least, they look dead). Deflated, red-suited, elfin types are all over the region. It’s more than disturbing.

Our neighborhood is full of children. Seeing several dead Santas on their way to school has to have an indelible, psychological scarring effect on the poor little tykes. As for me, these deflatables look like so much trash littering the landscape. Such a seasonal faux pas cannot be ignored.

This just adds to the many faux pas we see and hear this time of year. For example: who are the “three kings” of carol fame? If you check Scripture you’ll find that not only weren’t they kings, there is no mention of how many there were numerically.

Still, we sing about three kings and put them in the manger scene—which is another gross faux pas. These guys wouldn’t have been at the manger, and yet, when was the last time you saw the baby Jesus unattended by the “kings” from the east? My own church has them out front as I write this little missive. Oh, the shame of it all.

But, it gets worse. For example: Jesus was quite probably NOT born on December 25. We don’t know the exact date, but the telltale Biblical clues do not point in that direction—more likely a springtime natal event.

Mistletoe to Make Things Bright?

Then there’s the mistletoe. What a lovely, romantic tradition—getting kissed and all. But the origins of this practice were not amorous in any way. It was to keep you from being killed. Who knew?

There are myriads of these seasonal faux pas. You can actually find them all over the web. And, of course, if it’s on the web, it has to be true. Here’s one final one to make your spirit bright.

Santa is not actually a Nordic type. He was from Turkey. His name was Nikolaos of Myra, and I doubt he wore a red suit. The New York Dutchmen called him Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas). And now the poor guy has died a thousand deaths (all over my neighborhood).

Aren’t you glad you didn’t know these things BEFORE December 25?

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

The Worst Christmas on Record

Well, here we are. It’s Christmas Eve, and all is right with the world (well, not really—but we certainly like to say that). I’ve already attended an early Christmas Eve candlelight service, and I’m ready to rock and roll (as we also like to say).

Anticipation of the next few hours is filled with joy, nostalgia, and wonderful memories. Yet, as I write these words, I’m reminded of my worst Christmas on record. I think of it every year at this time, as you might imagine. As the vivid images come rushing back, I always become more and more perturbed with myself. It taught me a good lesson, and I’ve lived by that lesson ever since.

The Christmas of which I speak occurred around the time I was ten or twelve years old. One day, my baby sister and I were left in the house unattended. Today, that sounds like child abuse (or, at least, neglect). Back then, it was common and customary. Twelve years olds were mature enough to babysit, and all was right with the world (well, more so than today as I remember).

“Christmas was quickly approaching…

“Since Christmas was quickly approaching, my sister and I went in search throughout the house for any hidden treasures that we might find to amuse ourselves. We got really bold and snoopy and checked out the forbidden back bedroom. Lo and behold, we unearthed the mother lode of snoop-dom. All our Christmas presents were stored there, wrapped in cheery paper and tied up with bows.

The wrapping couldn’t deter us from our appointed task (to have as much illicit fun as we could get away with). We carefully unwrapped our presents, played with them as much as we thought feasible (not wanting to break or scar anything), and then replaced the wrapping.

We were quite adept at our task at hand. That’s probably because our Mom had taught us to be meticulous wrappers of presents—a talent I seem to have lost in my golden years. We actually got away with it. My parents never knew until years later when, as adults, we confessed our misdeeds. They say confession is good for the soul. In this case, it was merely a time for a good laugh and the revelation of a bad memory.

“It was full of air…”

I say it was a bad memory because our sleuth-filled adventure led to my worst Christmas ever. Knowing what was in each and every secret box under the Christmas tree took all the joy out of that otherwise most mysterious and gleeful day.

I don’t remember the gifts except for one. It was a genuine leather, faux NFL football. It was full of air and everything (my parent had spared no expense).

It should have been the pinnacle of that bright and glorious morning. Alas, it was old hat. I opened it and attempted to act overjoyed and surprised. But I remember looking at it and thinking “Is this all there is?”

Lesson learned… Allow Christmas to be a surprise—every year.

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

Mariah Carey and My Grownup Christmas List

I have to admit I’m not a huge Mariah Carey fan. It’s not that I don’t think she has a good voice—she’s has a fantastic voice with incredible range. And it’s certainly not that I don’t think she’s good looking—she’s as cute as a button (as they used to say in the old days). It’s just that I’m not generally into her genre of music, so I don’t usually hear her stuff.

The exception to that, however, is during the Christmas season. Hearing her music is virtually unavoidable this time of year. One of her songs, in particular, gets more airtime than is probably allowable by law. Unless you’ve been living in a cave somewhere, you know that song is All I Want for Christmas is You.

One of the repeated phrases in that lyric is, “I don’t want a lot for Christmas.” If you watch the video, it looks like she doesn’t want a lot for Christmas because she already has everything. That, of course, is the plight of many of us who currently live in the good old US of A. In many cases, we have more than we need and really shouldn’t want a lot for Christmas.

Every year, my adult children ask me for my Christmas wish list. I always struggle to make one up for them, but I end up listing a bunch of stuff—none of which I need. Besides, they have kids of their own and other bills to pay. I would just as soon they spend their money elsewhere.

So, I’ve thought about it, and have come up with My Grownup Christmas List (which, of course, is another Christmas song played ad nauseam this time of year). My list includes the following:

World Peace

One more Pittsburgh Pirate World Series Championship before I die

One more Pittsburgh Steeler Super Bowl Victory before I die

A partridge in a pear tree

What makes this a “grownup” Christmas list is that no one on earth can realistically provide these things for me (except maybe the last one—but I just threw that in because it sounds cool). The more I think about it, however, I’m not so sure how grownup it is to wish for something you have little or no possibility of attaining—especially through wishing alone.

The irony of all this is the fact that we supposedly do it to honor the King of Glory–our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The line is that we are celebrating his birth. We don’t even know his actual birthdate (which is almost undoubtedly NOT December 25). Then we buy stuff we can’t afford to give to people who don’t really need what we’ve purchased. I’m guessing Jesus would just as soon we bake him a cake, sing happy birthday, and call it a day.

We don’t do that, of course, and we probably never will. So, if you can arrange for that partridge in a pear tree, I’ll patiently await its delivery.

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

Tearing Things Apart (Part Five)

[Continued from Tearing Things Apart: Part Four]

Today’s church is quickly fading into oblivion, obscurity, and uselessness. If we don’t shift gears soon, we’ll be reduced to an irrelevant social club. I believe we need to undertake a major overhauling, and return to our roots (which are planted in the Gospel of Christ).

It will take the faith as that of a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20) to believe we can tear our institutional structures apart with the positive intent of rebuilding them in a helpful manner. Even if we have the faith to believe it, we’ll need the courage to actually carry it out—even to merely begin the process.

Can We Divest?

Most of us won’t even consider such bold moves. We all have too much invested in today’s church. Paid clergy are invested in their retirement plans (that includes me). Congregations are invested in their buildings and other property. Denominations are invested in their territory. Most of us are unwilling to risk all (or even any) of it to undertake a real reformation.

Jesus said some rather interesting things about investment. In Matthew 6:19-21, he tells us that our investments should be made in the treasures of heaven rather than earthly ones. He added that our hearts would gravitate toward the things in which we’re invested. In other words, if we spend all our time accumulating things that will be gone some day, we’re barking down the wrong hole.

Don’t get me wrong. We have to invest in a few earthly things. I’m not interested in walking around naked or sleeping out in a field, for example. If I don’t invest in clothing and housing, I’ll be useless to anyone before long. If I read the Gospel correctly, it’s when we become consumed with these things that we head down the wrong path.

“The church should be a lifeboat…”

If we, as the church, don’t begin to change a few things soon, we’ll be forced into major changes later—drastic changes, unless I miss my bet. Floating along with the tide is casual, easy, and relaxing. But if we continue to do so, we’ll end up out to sea in need of rescue. Being rescued is great unless you’re the one who’s supposed to be doing the rescuing. The church should be a lifeboat, not a piece of driftwood.

I realize that what I’ve laid out in these past five blogs stimulates a whole lot more questions than answers. In fact, I’ve proposed no answers at all. I’ve got a few ideas, but I’m not putting them out there for one important reason.

Each of us as individuals (as well as each individual congregation) needs to follow Jesus where he takes us. What I might suggest could be an entirely different route than he’s laying out for you. Each of us must take the journey we’re called to travel. We can’t simply do what the guys down the street are doing. We’ve already tried that.

Trust Jesus to take you where he wants you to go. He’s actually pretty good at that.

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

Tearing Things Apart (Part Four)

I ended my last blog (Tearing Things Apart: Part Three) by saying, “I believe we serve a God who will not allow the church to die. I believe there will always be an ember somewhere—a remnant (as the Bible often puts it). I also believe that the church as we know it will be gone within a few decades. The question is, in my view, what will take her place? If we don’t opt for some major reconstruction, the Lord will have to do it for us.”

This reconstruction will cannot be superficial, and it will probably have consequential changes upon our outward appearance and practice. It will be done from the inside out. It will begin with a deconstruction, and continue with a rebuilding. The scary part, for some, is where we begin again (if we actually do opt for tearing things apart).

A Not So Novel Suggestion

I have a novel suggestion in answer to that. Let’s begin with Scripture. Part of our problem is we have, in many ways, moved so far from the Bible that Biblical Christianity has been obscured by our many layers of programming, theological introspection, and bureaucracy (just to mention a few). We have left the Biblical Jesus behind in exchange for a sanitized Jesus that looks (for all the world) more and more like us.

If we don’t return to the God of Scripture, I suspect the Lord will intervene and begin taking away our options. Let me give you one, small, simple, but important example.

A friend of mine pastors a small congregation of believers whose building is located just down the street from where I serve. He and his flock have run into a major problem with their building (one in which they’ve worshiped for decades. I won’t get into the details, but it’s become increasingly apparent that renovation would be expensive, untenable, and inefficient.

I suggested the possible solution of them sharing our space. It’s certainly not unheard of, and my congregation has done that very thing in the past. They took my suggestion under advisement, prayed about it, and (to their credit) decided to do it God’s way rather than mine.

Forced to Obey

They’re still early in the process, but it looks like they’re going to attempt to relocate to the midst of a neighborhood where they can serve the people who surround them. Instead of trying to get folks to come to them, they’re going to the folks. Interestingly enough, that’s exactly what Jesus did.

In a day when growing churches are moving out of town, further and further away from the crux of their ministries, this congregation is headed in the opposite direction. They’ve been forced into this situation, but (as I see it) that’s not a bad thing.

My question (to myself and to the church universal) is this. Do we have the courage (and, yes, the faith) to do such things before we’re forced into it? It’s scary to tear things apart. Are we willing to follow if God calls? (To be continued…)

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

Tearing Things Apart (Part Three)

Today’s church is deteriorating rapidly. She is closing down meeting places, losing clergy, and hemorrhaging members (see Tearing Things Apart: Part Two). We are quickly going the way of the dodo bird, and of the carnage, there’s no end in sight.

Probably worse than that (in fact, probably the cause of all that) is the fact that we’ve lost relevancy—at least in the eyes of the rest of the world. Few people can see any reason for us to exist anymore. Indeed, many in the church herself struggle to find a reason to stay.

“Take it all apart…”

People write blogs, columns, essays and books on this subject. Most of them have an idea or two concerning how we can go about fixing the problem(s). Here’s mine. Tear it down and rebuild (and I don’t mean the physical structures). Take it all apart, and start over.

Over the past two millennia, we’ve added so much excess to the church. We’ve added things that have become institutionalized and impossible to eliminate—things that are entirely unnecessary to the life of the church. We can’t seem to get rid of them because “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

I beg to differ. That’s NOT the way we’ve always done it. I suspect if Matthew, Peter, John, and the boys showed up today, they wouldn’t recognize the church as it now stands. I believe they would have a myriad of questions for us. “What’s this?” Why do you do that?” “Who told you to form that kind of association?” “Where’s Jesus in all of this?”

Because we’ve piled on so much excess baggage, we can’t carry it around anymore. We’ve become a mere skeleton of what we were meant to be. The last time I checked, skeletons without muscle and sinew can’t function.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we can’t seem to figure out what’s wrong. Everyone has a different opinion as to what our real problem happens to be. We see the symptoms, but the disease is not one we’re used to diagnosing. That’s one reason why I think we need to start all over.

Start Over

Let me be clear. I’m under no illusion that we’ll do this just because I say it’s the way to go. But it seems to me, some congregation somewhere needs to be an example of what I’m suggesting. Actually, there are several of them out there, but they are so few and far between, we seldom get a glimpse of them among the wreckage of waning flocks and failing institutions.

I believe we serve a God who will not allow the church to die. I believe there will always be an ember somewhere—a remnant (as the Bible often puts it). I also believe that the church as we know it will be gone within a few decades. The question is, in my view, what will take her place? If we don’t opt for some major reconstruction, the Lord will have to do it for us. (To be continued…)

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

Tearing Things Apart (Part Two)

In my last blog (Tearing Things Apart: Part One), I gave you a couple examples of taking things apart. In one example, a broken thing was reassembled (and functioned once again). In the other, it never worked again and got tossed. Disassembling something can be a very unnerving (even scary) prospect. That’s one reason why most of us avoid any kind of process where tearing something down to its bare parts is involved.

The things that always get me about the first example are the parts that are left over. How can something work when there are parts left over? The reasonable answer (at least to me) is that those parts were unnecessary in the first place.

Essential Personnel

It puts me in mind of our Federal Government. I live in the DC area, and every time there’s a big snowstorm, it’s announced that only “essential personnel” are required to attend work. Essential personnel? Why do we have non-essential personnel? I’d hate to deny someone a job, but if his or her position is an extra part, why does it exist? If we took government apart and reassembled it without those positions, it would still work just as well (and maybe more efficiently).

But all these things are mere examples and illustrations of what I’m really driving at—the church (surprise, surprise). After spending my entire life in and around the institutional church, it has become more and more evident that we need to tear it apart and reassemble it.

Why? I’m glad you asked. The answer is simple. In most cases, it doesn’t work anymore. If something doesn’t work in life, we have three basic options. Option one is to attempt to fix it. Option number two is to toss it onto the rubbish pile. Option number three (the one that most of us avoid at all costs) is to tear it down to its component parts and start all over again.

Insanity–Doing the Same Thing Over and Over

The first of those options is what we in the church have been trying to do for the past several decades. We attempt to get it fixed. We do this in various ways with various people and various methods. What we’ve found, in my observation, is that very little has changed.

Depending on which statistics you believe, four to seven thousand churches close down every year. Fifteen thousand people leave the ministry every month. And maybe worst of all, about 2.8 million church members fall into inactive status each annum.

In other words, somethin’ ain’t right, folks. It’s not working. The question becomes, should we keep trying to patch it up (which doesn’t seem to be helping at all—maybe hurting), should we chuck it all (which seems to be the option 2.8 million people are choosing each year), or should we tear it apart and use the viable components to build something meaningful?

Call me naïve, but I think option number three is the way to go. I know it’s scary, but what have we got to lose? (To be continued…)

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

Tearing Things Apart (Part One)

Did you ever tear something apart? I’m guessing you have. We all have. Sometimes we do it out of anger or frustration. Occasionally we do it with great trepidation. But tearing things apart seems to be at least a tiny slice of life.

Here’s a situation in which you may have found yourself. You have a small appliance you use often, but it begins to fail. Finally it totally goes on the fritz. It’s already outlived its warranty, and it’s too old to merit paying someone to fix it.

You try various things. You leave it alone for a couple of days hoping it will get better on its own. When that doesn’t work, you try turning its switch on and off…repeatedly…faster and faster. When that doesn’t work, you shake it, beat it, and throw it against the wall—all to no avail.

There’s Only One Thing Left

After a few days of this, you realize you may have to go out and buy a new one. You’re reluctant to do so, because you really like THIS one. There’s still one last thing you can try. You really don’t want to, but the only thing left is to tear it apart.

If you’re like me, you don’t know anything at all about how it works, what kind of parts you’ll find inside, or how in the world you’ll be able to spot the problem. Yet, when you have a few minutes to spare, you take the plunge and disassemble it.

When you do, your worst fears are realized. You now have a pile of parts—most of which you don’t recognize nor have any idea what they’re called. You don’t see anything that could be wrong. You’re clueless at that point, so there’s only one thing left to do. Attempt to put it back together again.

What Did You Do?

So… You restore it to its original condition (as best you can remember). You plug it into the electric receptacle, and you throw the switch. Lo and behold, it starts purring like a kitten—it works like it was brand new again.

The funny thing is, you have no idea what you just did to make it work again. Even more curious is the fact that you have a few parts left over. How can it be running without those parts? But it is.

Obviously, it doesn’t always work like I just described. When I was ten, I had a toy rifle. This wasn’t just any gun. It was a replica from the Rifleman. I loved that baby.

Lucas McCain used to tear his apart and clean it. I saw him do it on TV. So, one day, I decided to do the same thing. I tore my prize rifleman gun apart—and I couldn’t get it back together. I was afraid to tell my parents, so it sat in one of our back bedrooms for months. Eventually, it got tossed.

Experiences like that second example are what instill trepidation into our souls when we consider tearing something apart. (To be continued…)

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