Saturday, May 24, 2003

A SERMON FOR THE SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Text: John 15:9-17

A lot of sermons start off with "I have good news and I have bad news." I'm pleased to tell you this one is a bit different. I'm starting off by telling you that I have good news and I have better news.

The good news is, after many long nights of research, I have finally uncovered the true secret of salvation. It's not explicitly stated in the Bible, but it's kind of hiding in between the lines. You really have to dig for it. Well, you don't have to, since I've already done it for you. Are you ready? Can you stand the excitement? People spend their whole lifetimes looking for this sort of stuff, and here I am giving it away for nothing in the first 45 seconds of my sermon! Hang on, here it is: To get to heaven, all you have to do in your whole lifetime is ten good things. Ten completely altruistic, selfless acts, and you're in the clear. Your salvation is secured for the rest of your life; nobody can take it away from you, not even yourself. Ten simple little things. They don't have to be grand, they don't have to be acknowledged, shoot, they don't even have to be public. All you need are ten solid instances when you inconvenienced yourself at least a little to make somebody else's life simpler.

I can see the smoke forming in your heads. Some of you find this hard to believe, I know. But others of you are counting in your heads, "Let's see . . . 7, 8, 9 . . . hey, I did ten selfless things before I even got here this morning! Woohoo! I'm in!"

And that's the good news! So what's the better news?

The better news is, I'm lying. I've discovered no such thing, and the reason I've discovered no such thing is that there is, in fact, no such thing to discover. There's no secret Biblical formula for determining how many good things you have to do if you want to get into heaven. It might be ten, it might be four hundred, it might be a million--it might even be none. Nobody knows for sure--but that doesn't stop people from trying to figure it out.

But wouldn't it be a lot easier if we did know exactly how much good we had to do in order to make it to heaven? I mean, let's face it, we all can read in the Bible that we ought to believe and be baptized; we can at least get ourselves that far. And those of us who grew up Lutheran may have some vague recollections that the Ten Commandments are sort of important for some reason. But after that, things get a little dicey. It almost seems like God is afraid to say too much. What we get instead are vaguely threatening pronouncements like the one Jesus gives in today's Gospel--If you love me, keep my commandments.

Whoa. That changes everything. We're accustomed to a gracious, forgiving Jesus, who loves us just the way we are--and then he goes and says something like this? Can't you just hear those two unspoken words at the very end of that sentence: If you love me, keep my commandments--or else!

But, if you stop and think about it, there's more than one way to understand this saying of Jesus'. It could be an order, a demand, what the grammar people call an "imperative"--or it could be a statement of how Jesus' love changes us. Hear me out on this: This might not be Jesus telling us that the only measure he will use to determine the depth of our love for him is how well we keep his commandments. In fact, as you break down all the verbs and phrases in this Gospel, you see that in fact he's saying something quite different: that, as we continue to live in his love, God's will is done in us to a much greater degree than it is if we wander off from him and his love.

How can we know this is so? Think back to that bit of good news I said I had way back at the beginning of this sermon. I told you that all you needed to do in life was ten good things and you'd be saved. Now, if you knew that to be true, how many good things would you do in life? Certainly you'd do ten, because who doesn't want to go to heaven? I mean, no offense, but if you don't want to go to heaven, you're in sort of a strange place this morning, aren't you? So you'd do at least ten good things. And you'd probably do at least 12 or 13, just in case a couple of the things you did weren't quite as good as you thoiught they were. Maybe, if you were the really nervous sort, you'd do twenty. But would you do a thousand good things in your life? Or a hundred? Or even forty? If you didn't have to, and nothing bad would happen to you if you didn't do them? Be honest with yourself.

No! You wouldn't! You'd do exactly as many good things as you needed to do to secure your place in heaven, and then you'd get out of the good-deed business. Being nice to others would officially become someone else's problem, since you had no further need for being well-behaved. In other words, you would do just the absolute bare minimum you needed to do to get what you wanted, and that's it.

Would you want to live in a world where that's how God worked? Where you could secure your life's salvation by the time you were, say, 13 years old, and then get a free pass to be as big of a dingaling as you wanted for the rest of your life--and not even God himself could do anything about it? Maybe you'd want to live in a world where that worked for you--but would you want that to work for everybody? What would our society be like?

Thankfully, our God is smarter than that. If occasionally he's a little vague about just how exactly our salvation is secured, it's because he has good reason to be. He can see into our hearts, and he doesn't like what he sees. Even among the best of us. We may talk a good game about wanting to be good Christians, about growing in our faith--but he knows the truth. He knows that we're essentially spiritual slackers, trying to do the minimum we can to get by, doing what we think is just enough to get into heaven, but certainly no more than that because then, well, then, it might affect our lives.

You that are parents, whether your kids are in school or have been out for years--if they came home with a report card upon which was written "Your child is making a minimum effort, doing just enough to pass; but certainly he or she is not working to potential"--how would you react? Would you say, "Way to go, kid, it's wonderful that you're not wasting any effort trying to learn anything?" I mean, would that be OK with you?

It wouldn't?

Well, then, riddle me this: If God was giving you a spiritual report card, would he say you're working to your full potential? Or would he say you're just doing enough to get by?

You wouldn't accept a minimal effort from a child who was capable of more. I mean, not everybody's going to get an A in everything, nor do they need to. But if somebody who should be getting As and Bs is always getting Cs and Ds, you'd be concerned. Why should your heavenly father be any different?

And that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is why Jesus makes statements like this: If you love me, keep my commandments. He does so precisely because he knows they're frustratingly vague and never leave us feeling totally secure about where we stand with God. Salvation s not a destination, it is not something we achieve--it's something which is given to us before we deserve it. Why? Because if God waited for us to deserve it, he'd be waiting a terribly long time--and he'd be waiting in vain. So instead, he works backwards--rather than making the thing we most long for something we can achieve, if we just do enough to deserve it, he gives it to us and then lets us figure out how we can best live out our gratitude towards him.

And how are you living it out? Is God vaguely aware that you might be a little bit thankful that Jesus gave his life as a sacrifice for your sins? Or is there more, more you can point to and say, "Yes, Lord, I do love you, and I am trying my best to keep your commandments, to be your friend."

If you're still a little sketchy on the difference between just doing the minimum to call yourself Christian, and being Jesus' friend as he wants you to be, let me close with one little illustration. In most of this country, including right here, there's a magical cooking device in your kitchen. You pick it up, press a certain sequence of keys, say some ritualistic words, and 30 minutes later (more or less) a nice person shows up on your doorstep with a fresh, hot pizza. You give him or her just as much money as it takes to pay for the pizza, maybe you give them a dollar or two for their trouble, and then you don't think about the pizza deliverer until the next time you're hungry and don't feel like cooking.. You're certainly grateful to the driver for taking care of that nasty hunger problem of yours. And if you order enough pizza, you might even learn a thing or two about them--their name, what sort of car they drive, where they live, a few things like that. But you are never "friends" with the pizza person, unless you know them from somewhere else.

So who is Jesus to you? Your friend, who you relate to and who you apreciate for being the unique and wonderful person that they are, or is Jesus just your spiritual pizza guy? Jesus makes it clear--he wants to be your friend, and if you do what he asks of you--which is nothing more horrible or undoable than that you show to other people the love he's already shown to you--then it's inevitable that he will be your friend. And having the Son of God be your friend--your close personal friend--that's about one of the best things I can imagine. Sure, it takes some work, any friendship does--you've got to talk to your friend, you occasionally have to do things your friend needs you to do--but so what? This is your friend we're talking about! And who's going to be a better friend to you than Jesus? Nobody on this planet, I'll tell you that much.

So why would you ever treat Jesus like your pizza guy--you know, only calling on him when you really need him, and then just giving him as much of yourself as it takes to get him to go away until the next time you need something? Yet truly I say to you, I'll bet that is exactly what most of you do.
A STOMACH-CHURNING THOUGHT FOR SATURDAY

So . . . when's the last time you washed your can opener?

Friday, May 23, 2003

WELL, SHOOT

It was a nice run, but the Ottawa Senators were eliminated from the NHL playoffs tonight. So now it's New Jersey vs. Anaheim for the Stanley Cup. What a dilemma: do I root for the team that ruined hockey, or the team owned by the company that's slowly ruining America?

Oh, who cares? Arena football is really starting to heat up now.

HIERARCHY, AUTHORITY, AND REALITY

There's an interesting debate right now between the redoubtable Bryan and the folks over at Signposts regarding the nature of hierarchy and its function in helping (or hindering) the church's mission in the world. But they've finally come around to seeing the real problem: not the church's formal structure, but the laissez faire attitudes of people in the pews. Bryan points this out exceptionally well:
I agree that there are far too many people in churches who are not in a constant state of examination. I often wonder about that myself. But I have also been a part of churches that some would call "institutional" where such examination is occurring on a regular basis.

I think there are two possible reasons for what Dan alludes to:
A) many of the people who are involved in church are not really followers of Jesus Christ.
B) many of the people who are attending church are satisfied with where they are spiritually and socially and don't desire to gain further knowledge.
Give that man a cigar! That is exactly the problem. Every church has, among its number, these three basic constituencies: the core committed whom you can count on to be active in the life on the congregation, the "fanboys" (for lack of a better word) who will show up if something big or entertaining is going on (or unless they have nothing else to do on Sunday, which is common), but don't make any commitment to any sort of Christian walk, and the "phantom members" about whom all that can be said is that yours is the church they don't go to. And every church--every church, no matter how innovative it may be, no matter how little tradition it may have, will eventually be populated by all three categories. The first group, obviously, doesn't cause any trouble. The third group doesn't cause much--they mostly show up at church to have something thrown on them, be it water, rice, or dirt, and that's about it. It's that doggone second group that can drive a preacher berzerk. They are the source of your A) and B), Bryan.

There's much navel-gazing going on right now about the structure of the church, and you can go to this Signposts post to get a flavor of it. All I can really say is, there are few denominations more hierarchical than my own, and despite that, the amount of influence the national church has over individual congregations is really fairly minimal. My bishop knows me by name and can usually spare a couple minutes for me, but he doesn't have much input into the way I do things at the church I serve. Nor, I suspect, does he want to. But that probably has less to do with the structure of the church than it does with the fact that I'm consciously not very involved with the churchwide structure. Other pastors are more into such things than I am, and consequently, the national church has a bigger influence over them. But you can function as a minister in a strongly hierarchical church without getting excessively entangled, and, apart from a few liturgical terrorists who look askance at me because I never wear a clerical collar (and in fact don't even own one), there's less of a push for uniformity than might be expected. The real barrier to dynamic missions among older, established churches isn't their denominational and/or political structures. It's that they're largely populated with people who remember how easy it was to be the church in the 1950s, and they can't understand why everything now has to be so difficult. It's a case, really, of not understanding the difference between "the world is changing" and "the world has changed."
THE FRIDAY FIVE, SPECIAL MARKET RESEARCH EDITION

1. What brand of toothpaste do you use?
Tom's of Maine, peppermint flavor. After using that stuff for a while, any other toothpaste seems like brushing your teeth with a Popsicle. I could do without Tom's political screed, but it's fine toothpaste.
2. What brand of toilet paper do you prefer?
Irrelevant since, in telemarketer-speak, I am not the person in the household who makes the toilet paper purchasing decisions.
3. What brand(s) of shoes do you wear?
Rockport and New Balance, occasionally Thom McAn when I'm feeling stingy.
4. What brand of soda do you drink?
RC cola, Shasta root beer, really, anything but Pepsi. If I wanted to drink syrup, I'd go for Mrs. Butterworth's.
5. What brand of gum do you chew?
Beeman's Pepsin or Teaberry. Now go look those up.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE

Having seen it on every blog I've ever looked at (including this one), I hereby declare "Heh." to be the Official Interjection of the Blogosphere. Credit must go, of course, to the man who built our playground.

LONGING FOR TWO- OR THREE-DIMENSIONAL POLITICS

So I'm not alone in finding the traditional left-right binary political spectrum inadequate! Tiger is joining me in lamenting the two-party, two-wing system:
I wonder if this is not the inherent difficulty by having only two parties. If you are not of one, you have to be of the other. Competition: "The Old Team Spirit." But are we really all so cohesive behind each party's political lines?

I stand right behind the Republican line when it comes to family values. However, I think everyone has an opinion on abortion and it should be put up for Constitutional Amendment and let the issue be publicly decided once and for all. Of course, unless the swing turns the other way, and the populous again has to pass a subsequent Amendment to Repeal the previous Amendment.

I also believe in lowering taxes, although I think they could do more about lowering the taxes on the lower paid workers than those at the top of the food chain.

I want to see the sick, poor and injured cared for, but think charities are more able to provide effective and cost-conscious assistance to these groups than government bureaucracy.

I also would like to see jobs, real jobs, come back to America. How did we become a nation of McDonald's and Walmart employees? Where are the factories, the massive building projects? The country's infrastructure could use a major overhaul.

How do I stand politically? Am I Republican or a Democrat? YOU TELL ME?
Well, Tiger, the first part of our problem ties into my old logic teacher's pet peeve: our inability to distinguish between contradictories and contrapositives. We think in either/ors. Liberal OR conservative; Democrat OR Republican; Christian OR heathen; tall OR short; etc., etc., ad vomitum. But in all those categories we can easily see that those are far from the only two possibilities. Yet, it seems like it's only in politics where a dichotomous scheme is acceptable to us. Even though there's a huge percentage of Americans who don't identify with either of the political either/ors, the political meme is that all these folks are just petulant Perotistas still mad about '92 and '96. In other words, even the media's conventional wisdom says that there's no function difference between a Libertarian and a Socialist--they're both "independent," even though neither actually is. And the answer to your question is one you already know: You're neither Republican nor Democrat.

What has happened is that the conventional political model--with its left and right wings dating back to 18th-century French General Assembly--has failed to keep pace with the changes in our social and political institutions. Every institution, it would seem, except for America's two major political parties, who have no reason to change it, and every reason not to. Most of us find things about the left and/or the right with which we simply don't agree. In my case, I'm with the Democrats on the importance of civil rights and liberties; I'm definitely not with them on the role of federal government over against the states. (Why do we need a national Department of Education, anyway?) Likewise, I agree with the Republicans on the need for smaller, less intrusive government, but we part company over the staggering futility of favoring business interests over those of private citizens. And, though I agree with little else they hold dear, I'm totally with the Greens on their farm policy, which stresses small farms and sustainable agriculture.

You don't have a real place on the left/right spectrum, and neither do I. It's an old, outdated paradigm which, along with Les Miserables, is the only real remnant of the French Revolution we have left. It doesn't work. So let's change it.

The old model is merely one-dimensional. Think about that. How many other things in the world are one-dimensional? Nothing that isn't purely theoretical. But a person's politcal stance is hardly a theoretical thing, I'm sure you'll agree. The problem arises in trying to represent a multi-dimensional space in only one dimension. It's like trying to draw a cube on a solitary line. Can't be done.

Truthfully, we need at least two dimensions to describe ourselves politically. The World's Smallest Political Quiz tries to do this, but it ultimately fails because it assumes that all political philosophy falls into personal or economic categories. (The quiz tells me I fall exactly on the boundary between Centrism, Left Liberalism, and Libertarianism, so it's not entirely inaccurate, but still, I think it could be better.)

The very simplest model of political philosophy I can conceive, though, involves four dimensions:

--Role of government: Should the government control every aspect of society through the power to make laws, should it be restricted to a few essential functions like guarding the coast and delivering the mail, or somewhere in between these two extremes?

--Scope of private economic enterprise: Should businesses be regulated or unregulated? Should government favor small enterprises or big ones? Should corporations and their officers be exempt from personal responsibility for their actions?

--Individual self-determination: At what point is the government permitted to intervene in a citizen's life to prevent him or her to do something which may be harmful to themselves or others?

--Collective cultural morality: Should the government reflect the majority view of acceptable norms and standards, or should it remain neutral to permit the development and tolerance of diverse viewpoints, even if some of them are harmful to society as a whole?

Hard questions, all of these. Count me, for one, in favor of small government, a bias towards small enterprise, strong individual self-determination, but within a framework of a collective cultural morality. And if anybody knows what party that makes me, I'd love to know. Until such time as I get a satisfactory answer, count me a Mark-ist.
STAYIN' ALIVE

With a mighty trash goal over 15 minutes into overtime, my Senators beat the worthless New Jersey Devils last night to tie the best-of-seven series at three games a piece. The determination of who gets the privliege of being destroyed by Jean-Sebastien Giguere will come Friday night in Ottawa. The dream is not dead, but I am uncertain whether it would be better to win Game 7, or lose it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

COMING ATTRACTIONS

I am pleased to announce that, this fall, The Bemusement Park will become the official home page for my award-winning college football column, "Pickin' on the Big Ten/Big Twelve." The irreverent and usually wrong predictions will typically be posted on Fridays, except when some team's sold itself out to ESPN and winds up playing on Thursday night, which just could not be more wrong. And you can expect to see my special season preview sometime in August. For a taste of what "Pickin' on the Big Ten" is all about, you can read last year's special bowl-game edition here and here (it's a two-parter).

I'M WAITING FOR 'DRIVING TIPS FROM RICKY WILLIAMS,' PERSONALLY

Steve Casburn from The Temperate Zone has uncovered a bit of irony/hypocrisy regarding Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden's latest book The Bowden Way: 50 Years of Leadership Wisdom. Go read what he dug up; it's too good to ignore.
QUOTH THE BLOGGER: "w00t."

In the TTLB Blogosphere Ecosystem, I've worked my way all the way up to a "Flippery Fish." I am not sure what this all means, but a month ago I was an "Insignificant Microbe."

I'd better keep busy. It's not safe to be a fish in Wisconsin on Fridays . . .
WHY I'LL NEVER LEAVE THE MIDWEST, PART I

Today it's about 65 degrees and perfectly sunny, with air so clean the stuff across Lake Sinissippi (1.5 miles away) looks no further than a football field's distance. The geese are swooping over in lazy, curving paths; the wasps have taken the day off (apparently); the little traffic that goes by is going by slowly and quietly. Our trees are now in full leaf, swaying lightly in a breeze as gentle as an old friend.

Other places may have springs earlier and longer than the upper Midwest's, but nobody beats ours for intensity. So, forgive the light blogging. Some things have to be savored while they're still available.
IN WHICH THE BLOGGER EXACTS TERRIBLE REVENGE AGAINST THE MECHANICAL WORLD

So this morning the cold-water tap in the bathroom finally decided it would never completely shut off again. It's always been a bit touchy, but with enough futzing around, you could usually get it to shut off. But not any more. Visions of plumbers were dancing in my head.

That's when I remembered that, a couple weeks previous, I'd checked out a "do it yourself" book for the local library. Sure enough, there in the plumbing section was "How to fix a leaky faucet," complete with illustrations. So I undid the faucet, only to find that it looked nothing like the picture. The plumbers were dancing harder, figuring they were about to make this month's bass-boat payment. I wrestled with a wrench for a good 15 minutes before I finally thought, "I wonder if this little plastic thingy just lifts right out of the faucet body. Sure enough, it did.

Here's why you should always go to your friendly neighborhood mom-and-pop hardware store, instead of one of those "House Despot" kind of places: Instead of parking in a lot the size of the Louisiana Superdome, I parked two spots from the door. I walked in, handed the owner the little plastic thingy, and said, "I don't know what this is, but it came from a faucet, and I need a new one." She found one just like I needed, asked me for six dollars, and I was on my way. It slipped right in, I screwed everything back together, and the faucet doesn't drip any more.

HA! IN YOUR FACE, MECHANICAL THINGY! YOU'RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME ANY MORE!

But maybe I'd better just shut up while I'm momentarily ahead . . .

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

IN WHICH THE BLOGGED-ABOUT TAKE THEIR REVENGE UPON THE AUTHOR

I have had a variety of mechanical mishaps over the years--rats eating my K-car, 39 flat tires in 35 months, a wheel falling off my car at 65 MPH after midnight in the middle of nowhere--but today was a new one on me. I was heading towards the People's Republic of Madison to make a hospital call when I heard a loud KTHUMP from the rear of the car followed by an ominous judda-judda-judda that went away the moment I touched the brakes. I figured I just ran over something on the road and was dragging it behind me. Until the next time I touched the brakes, that is, and I realized that I didn't have any. I pumped the pedal a couple times and they came back, but there was a constant scraping sound coming from the back of my car.

Fortunately, I was right by a major nationally-franchised car care center when this happened, so I left my car with them, went across the street to have lunch, and came back only to be told what was amiss: My rear brakes had exploded. I didn't even know that was possible. Every mechanical part had to be replaced. Total including parts and labor: $371. Time out of my life: Five and a half hours. Cars currently for sale in the Hasty household: 1.

Monday, May 19, 2003

A DIFFERENT KIND OF GENESIS

Chris Boyd has a twist on the creation story. This one may be written more from God's point of view . . .
NO COMMENT

I don't know what the deal is with the comments; they've been on and off all afternoon. If you've got anything trenchant to say, e-mail it to me; the link is in the left-hand column.

I'd find a new comment provider, but it seems none of them are accepting new registrations.

Update!

Of course, the moment I post this, they start working again . . .

Update update!

. . . and then they stop working immediately.
IT WAS INEVITABLE, PART III

A reader asks what, for this blog, has to be considered The Ultimate Question:
"dude, nice site, but what is up with all the [adjective indicating a strong resemblance to fecal matter] cars?"

An excellent question, amigo, one which demands careful analysis and objective reasoning. Unfortunately, you asked me, so you won't get any of that stuff. But, forthwith, here's the rationale behind my fascination with the rejects of the automotive world:
1. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool car geek who caught the bug during the mid-70s, the low water mark of the American automobile industry.
The first word I ever learned to read was "Ford," because my dad owned one. (A 1970 Fairlane 500, if you must know.) There wasn't much to be enthusiastic about in those days; the vaunted muscle cars had been emasculated by insurance companies and government regulations. The typical American family car got between 15-18 MPG on the highway and Detroit's marketing gurus were convinced that you would buy something which looked like this, this, or even (shudder) this. These cars, retina-scarring though they may be, remind me of my childhood, sometimes even in a good way. And, though I hate to admit it, I even think this car isn't all that ugly. I mean, that's a great color.

Still, be glad you don't live in my head sometimes.
2. I'm a pastor.
That's important for two reasons: Firstly, ministerial salaries being what they are, it more or less determines that old, cruddy cars are all I can afford. I mean, I can afford a nice car (a Ford Focus); it's just that my wife drives it, that's all. And I'm hardly alone. Plenty of my colleagues go galumphing down the road in 20-year-old Volvos, or vintage AMC Concords, or, mirabile dictu, even cars like this. Secondly, I was taught in seminary to be especially respectful towards the forlorn, the outcast, the downtrodden and the hopeless. Even these. I think Ford was especially cognizant of this fact during the 70s; all their cars looked so sad, with big round headlights and pouting bumpers. They were just setting a trap for the clergy of the 90s and beyond.
3. Perhaps because of 1. and 2., I've developed an elaborate economic justification of my jalopy jones.
It's too long to post here, at least not now, but after years of bottom-feeding in the car market, I've discovered the secret to getting the most car for your dollar. One day I'll post my treatise "Hooptie Economics" on this site; suffice it to say, if you treat a car as a consumable item (like a bag of Fritos or, more tellingly, a bus pass), then there's definitely a price point where you get more bang for your buck--almost three times as much, according to my analysis. And, as you might guess, it doesn't involve buying three-year-old program cars. But . . . that's for another day.
GRATUITOUS POST

It's not like I've got anything meaningful to say at 7:15 on a Monday morning. It's just that, with this post, D****** S*****'s name will finally cycle off my main page. And that's fine. She's really not generating traffic any more.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

WARNING LABELS: SUCH LOW COMEDY

Seen on the side of a fire log:

WARNING: RISK OF FIRE

It better not be a risk. It better be an absolute dang certainty, or I want my money back.
HASTY'S LAW, NO. II

If you have to get up earlier than normal one day a week, every week, you will always struggle to get up that early, and you'll always feel as though you didn't sleep at all. But if, for whatever reason, you have a week where you don't have to get up that early on that particular day, and you can actually sleep in, you will awaken earlier than you usually do, without benefit of an alarm clock, feeling totally refreshed.


I usually get up about 6:45 on Sunday mornings, because I have to be at the church by 8. Today we're having a church picnic, and I don't have to be anywhere until 9:30. So what time did I get up this morning? Quarter after six.