Monday, February 19, 2024

NASCAR is boring now

I am currently watching the rain-delayed Daytona 500 NASCAR race and it has already made me think of an essay I wrote after the 2012 race. And though today's race is only a few laps on, nothing has changed since then. 

From 2012, with edits for today; let's see if it still rings true by the end of today's race:

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Saw most of the rain-delayed 2012 Daytona 500 Monday night, and I have to say that it was an incredibly boring race - except, of course, when driver Pablo Montoya blasted into a jet-engine-blower truck and everything blew up. No one was injured, incredibly, and so I can guiltlessly say that the episode was the only truly entertaining period of the race.

The problem is not new. NASCAR races became boring when NASCAR mandated that every Sprint Cup driver had to drive the "Car of Tomorrow" racer beginning in 2008. That means that all the Sprint Cup races - the big leagues of NASCAR - are basically just one big IROC series, a now-defunct racing series in which, "Drivers raced identically-prepared stock cars set up by a single team of mechanics in an effort to make the race purely a test of driver ability."

The problem with using the COT in NASCAR is that brand distinction (Ford, Chevy, etc.) now means nothing at all. It did back in, say, Richard Petty's day. The cars now are all the same except for very minor and immaterial differences. In Daytona there was a field of 30-plus cars that all had almost exactly the same performance envelopes and so most all the race looked like this [and this is exactly what I am looking at on the screen right now]:

This is only a giant clump of cars in which almost none of the drivers are actually racing except for the handful at the front. Inside the gaggle there is no real racing, just each driver awaiting a screwup by someone else to leave an opening. The problem is that the screwups turn out this way - this was on the 5th lap today:


In the 2012 race, there were several such wrecks. Again, no one hurt, thankfully. In the old days it was rare for NASCAR wrecks to wipe out eight or so cars at a time. It happened, but not much. Now, it's rare when wrecks don't do so. All this does is stop the race (well, what little racing there actually is) for many laps under the yellow. What it does not do is make the race a race when the green flag gets waved again. There are fewer cars to clump together at 195 mph, but it's still just a clump. And so: another such wreck. In fact, the last of these wrecks of the evening in 2012 took place mere minutes before the end, and when it started I thought for a moment that Fox was replaying a wreck from earlier in the race. 

NASCAR blames its multiyear attendance drop on the 2008 recession. Problem is that attendance peaked in 2005 and has shrunk every year since. Both 2009's and 2010's attendance were less than 2003's.

Why? Because the drivers aren't racing anymore; the winner usually just turns out to be the luckiest of the last men standing, having missed being wiped out in a pile up. That means the "race" is boring because viewers are not actually watching a competition, just a high-speed game of Russian Roulette.

Even the wrecks are not entertaining, not because drivers don't get hurt (that's a good thing) but because they are so predictable and frequent that there is no longer a surprise factor in them and all they do is interrupt what little racing there might be. "Look, honey, twelve cars are spinning out of control again. I'll go get that popcorn for you now."

Update: Surely to no one's surprise, this happened today with eight laps left in the race. Seventeen cars were removed from the race. As I said, NASCAR races are now just endurance and luck to be the last man standing. And there was another wreck with two laps to go, taking out four or five cars. 

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Let's hear it for hypocrites!

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar on how to connect with non-religious people. That's the new term for describing the folks we used to refer to as the unchurched. The presenter had arranged for four self-described non-religious people to form a panel for us. Curiously, to be called "non-religious," all but one attended a Christian church and the fourth followed Buddhism. In the Q&A they tried to clarify that what they meant, by calling themselves non-religious, was that they rejected the in institutions of religion, the formally-organized structures of denominationalism, and by strong implication, the basic tenets of historic Christian religion as well. Jesus, it seems, is whomever you wish him to be, rather than a first-century Jew of a particular context and religious heritage. (I wrote about that issue here.)

But at one point the panel and other attendees generally agreed that one of the main reasons the unchurched are well, unchurched is because church people are such hypocrites. I personally think that is maybe the oldest excuse in the book and I am morally certain that one day in Corinth a man approached Saint Paul and told him, “Well, Paul, the reason I won't join your new church here in Corinth is because there are so many hypocrites in it.”

And Paul probably replied, “Come on anyway. We always have room for one more.”

The hypocrisy excuse for staying away from church has got to be the oldest there is. Which only proves what Mark Twain observed, "When you don't want to do something, any excuse will do." And to borrow one of Yogi Berra's malapropisms, if people don't want to come to church, nobody's going to stop them.

But I say, "Hooray for hypocrites!" If you're a hypocrite, you're just my guy or gal. To reverse what Marc Antony said about Caesar, I come to praise hypocrites, not bury them. I am unashamed to admit that I am a Christian hypocrite, and furthermore, I hope every one of you are also.

"Hypocrite" is derived from the Greek, "hypókrisis," or "play acting." It was the description for actors in the Greek theater and refers even more specifically to the masks that certain actors wore to denote different roles, multiple roles being quite common in ancient Greek theater. Members of the chorus - a sort of on stage narrator group - also often wore masks to correspond with the mood, emotion or tome of what they were singing or narrating.

So a hypocrite is literally a "mask wearer," one who hides who s/he really is. It is, as the Greek denotes, play acting. Jesus had a lot to say about play actors, and none of it good. The Jewish prophets spoke against those who made sacrifices one day and cheated their neighbors the next. Isaiah 29.13 says, “The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men'.”

The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, part of the Western Wall of the Jewish Temple that was destroyed in 70 c.e. by the Romans. The Western Wall is all that remains of the Temple. Today, Jews of all religious convictions go there to pray. I prayed there, too, the same day I took this photo in October 2007.

 

Jesus preached stoutly against religious hypocrisy. For example, he said: "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others."

That is, Jesus denounced making a show of praying in public to gain status with others for being pious. We might call it, “competitive piety.” Jesus said to pray in private. Prayer should be meant for God to hear, not for others to see. 

The apostle Paul weighed in, too, in Romans 2.1: “Therefore, you have no excuse, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

The Bible offers many examples of the hypocrisies of a people of God, some examples are:

Professing love of God while holding bitterness toward persons (1 Jn 4.20)
Going merely through the motions of worship (Mt. 15.7-9)
Claiming the name of Christ without giving Christ true allegiance (Mt. 7.21-23)
Putting on religious airs in front of others (Mt. 6.1)
Professing faith in Christ while not doing the ministries of the church (James 2.14-26)
Placing money and things above God and persons (Lk. 16.13)
Not admitting of sinfulness (1 Jn 1.10)
Using the Scriptures to advance a personal agenda rather than God's (2 Peter 2.1-3)
Complacency in God's grace of forgiveness (1 Peter 2.16)
Not showing Christ in us by the way we live (Titus 1.16)
Seeking the esteem of other persons over obeying Christ (Lk 16.15) 

No matter how you cut it, the teachings of the Bible and of Jesus personally are harsh on hypocrites. So how can I say that I am here to praise hypocrites, not to denounce them? In fact, if non-religious people think you're a hypocrite, you're just my guy or gal.

Why? Because hypocrisy requires the hypocrite to believe in something or someone outside himself. Hypocrisy requires an aspiration to something higher or better than oneself. That is the meaning of the folk saying, "Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue." Hypocrisy is an imperfect, deficient attempt to be better.


Thankfully, I have known very few non-hypocritical people. They were insufferable. They were entirely self-centered, self-directed, self-oriented, self-focused and just plain purely selfish. They recognized no cause, entity or belief higher than themselves, their own desires, wants or needs. You can see, I'm sure, that it is impossible for such people to act hypocritically because they are always looking out for Number One in every situation. They never pretend they are acting in someone else's interests. They don't seek others' approval because they don't fundamentally care about others or what they think.

Very, very rarely is this kind of person found in a church. The church-attending hypocrites over which the seminar attendees clucked-clucked so sadly are not actually hypocritical in the usual meaning of the word: "a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess." Yes, they fall short of what they intend, but their striving is real, not phony, and they try to do better. If they are hypocrites, then so was St. Paul.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
It is deceit that makes hypocrisy what it is. Absent this deceit, there is no hypocrisy, just error or human frailty. That's what the hypocrisy-excuse people don't understand - or pretend not to understand - about church people. What may appear to be church people's hypocrisy is almost always just simple failure to meet the standards of our faith rather than deceit. Why? Because the standard is so high.

For example, Jesus admonished, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

Or, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … .” (Matthew 5:43-44).

There are many such examples. To attempt but fail to meet such a difficult standard is not hypocrisy.

When I tried to play football in high school, Coach Keaton was clear that to gain a place on the starting squad meant achieving a high level of performance. So, when I, a sophomore, could not run the 40-yard dash in under 4.5 seconds, did Coach Keaton yell at me, “You hypocrite!”? Of course not. He simply shrugged and said, “Work harder.” 

Jesus does not denounce us for trying and failing – if we really are trying. And I think he’s a little more compassionate than Coach Keaton was because while Jesus will tell us to work harder, he will also be our personal trainer – providing we are willing to be trained and submit to the training regimen.

All churches, including my own, are filled with Christians in training and worse yet, they all have Christians in training as pastors. Jesus told us to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. That sets the bar incredibly high. So, if in training to clear that bar we are dismissed by non-Christians as hypocrites, then I say be of good cheer. Rejoice and be glad and let’s have many more just like you!

Vice is easy, virtue is hard. It's no hypocrisy to fall short of a very high standard and such an excellent goal. And I would suggest that people accusing us of hypocrisy have yet to see the log in their own eye, choosing the easy way over the hard way, and pretending it is virtue. So, who are the hypocrites? Well, we always have room for one more.

We should not take religious hypocrisy less seriously than the Bible does, but "Christians are just hypocrites" is merely an excuse to reject the Gospel more than a reasonable observation. The church is a human institution. Name one large human institution that has always lived up to its standards. Law? Medicine? Banking? Politics? No, not even one. 


I also say that we badly err when we try to justify the church. We are not called to offer people the church. We are to offer them Christ. And we should offer Christ as Jesus did, in love of and care for the soul. After all, Paul’s reminder to the church in Corinth two thousand years ago applies to us today:
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what we were when Christ called us. Not many of us were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many born with a silver spoon. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that we are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption (1 Cor. 1.26-30)
And so to anyone who wishes to accuse me of religious hypocrisy, I can only reply as Paul did: 
I have not yet obtained perfection; but I am moving on to perfection because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Friends, I have not reached that goal, but I am not letting my past control me. I press on to what lies ahead, towards better fulfilling heavenly call of God through Jesus Christ.
So however we fall short of the standards of our faith, and fall short we certainly often do, we nonetheless seek a "more excellent way" and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on towards the goal.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

What's your pearl?

Here is a true story that I read a few years ago. An aging woman decided to move into the city to a retirement home. She had a big sale to downsize. One thing she did was slap a "for sale" sign on her late husband’s pride and joy – a 1963 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing that he had bought in 1972. She remembered that he had told her the Mercedes was collector’s item worth one hundred thousand dollars not long before he had died fifteen years ago, so that’s what she priced it. 

One shopper saw the for-sale sign in the car’s window, and he immediately wrote her a check for twenty-five hundred dollars to hold the car for him for the day. Then he went to the bank and opened a home-equity line of credit. On the way there he called his broker and cashed in mutual funds. Then he maxed out his Visa card on a cash advance. He wound up with a certified check for $100,000 and drove back to buy the car. He knew what the widow did not: in the years since her husband died the car had increased in value to $250,000.

That man was willing to take risks to obtain something of tremendous value. I knew a man in Nashville who told me a long time ago that he was offered the opportunity to become one of the original investors in the franchise license for all Davidson County for Wendy’s restaurants. He turned it down because he did not want to be diverted from the business he had already built up. Later, of course, he wished he had invested.

Would you pay a hundred thousand dollars for an ordinary orange? Eleven millionaires drowned when the Titanic sank in 1912. One who survived was Arthur Peuchen, who left $300,000 in a lockbox in his cabin. "The money seemed to mock me at that time," he said later. "I picked up three oranges instead." A hundred thousand bucks each.

What is of ultimate value to us, so much so that we would sacrifice almost anything else to obtain it? Jesus spoke about that Matthew 13.44-45:

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

In the ancient world a large, flawless pearl would have been something like the Hope diamond of its day. Ancient literature tells of single pearls worth millions of dollars in modern value. When this merchant found such a pearl, he cleaned out his stock and sold his personal possessions to buy it. The merchant apparently did not come out ahead financially; he just changed assets at even value. There is no hint that he sold the pearl later. For all we know, he simply kept it.

But this story is not really about an actual pearl, is it? What Jesus seems to be trying to communicate is the importance of knowing first, what is of ultimate value and second, what will it take to obtain it.

Contrast this parable with the story of a young man, also told in Matthew, who asked Jesus what he needed to do to gain eternal life. After a short conversation, Jesus tells him, "Sell everything you have, give the money to the poor, then come and follow me." But the man said no. Matthew says he went away sorrowful because he had “many possessions.” Jesus offered him ultimate value but the young man declined because, he thought, the price was too high.

Today is interactive sermon day. I would ask that everyone take a moment, turn to your neighbor and talk briefly about what this parable means for you. Pause

Matthew 13 is a series of parables, one right after another. Parables are narrative stories that set up a situation at the beginning, show a kind of “twist” in the middle, and end with a punchline. This parable does that, too, although not very obviously. In fact, I think that all of Matthew 13 from start to finish is one long parable about the kingdom of heaven and what it takes to be in it with the punch line in verses forty-nine and fifty, which tell of severe judgment at the end of the age. It’s quite grim.

So, for anyone who understands the parable of the pearl to mean, “The pearl is the gospel, and we should be willing to surrender everything for the sake of the kingdom,” I shall not disagree. But I also remember what our bishop, Bill McAlilly, likes to say about his son’s soccer coach, who would always ask his players after a goal was scored, whether by his team or the other: “So what? Now what?”

So, say the parable of the merchant is about doing whatever it takes to be in the kingdom of heaven. That’s fine. So what? Now what?

That is the hard part for me because it forces me to ask, “What is my pearl right now?” Because you see, everybody has a pearl. What’s mine? What’s yours?

What is it that I treasure more than anything else – so much that, like the merchant once he gets the pearl, I am not willing to part with it, ever? That’s my pearl. Everyone here has a pearl, also. So, take a moment now and think about the answer to this question: What is your pearl? What is more important to you than everything else? What is it that would make you give up almost anything else to keep? If you are inclined, turn to your neighbor and talk it over.

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When I served a church is west Nashville, I did some volunteer ministry at Lighthouse Ministries, a live-in center for men suffering from addiction issues or homelessness. I remember counseling a young man who just would not follow the rules of living there. He said in one session with the director and me that he really wanted to go home to visit his mother over Christmas but of course he had no money even to take a bus to Jackson, Tennessee, where she lived. The director said that funding could be provided, but it was not simply free. He had to follow the rules and go through the process of making his life better. He said that was too hard and there were too many things out of his control. I asked him, “You can make your bed tomorrow morning, right?” He nodded. “Well,” I said, “that’s in your control and it is one of the rules here. Don’t worry about what you can’t control. Do the things you can control.”

His pearl was to spend Christmas with his mother. It was a good goal. I remember a discussion about this parable by Vanderbilt Professor Amy-Jill Levine. She said that after class one day where they talked about this parable, a young female student came to her and said, I know what my pearl was. I did give up everything for it – all my money, all my possessions, I even ended my marriage for it. It was alcohol. I was willing to give up everything I had to get the next drink.

When I ask myself what my pearl is, I also cannot avoid asking, Is that what my pearl should be? Is my pearl a good one?

Professor Levine also talked about leading a Bible study at River Bend Prison and discussing this parable, where an inmate told her that his pearl was freedom, to be released from prison. Another said that his pearl was simply staying alive while he was in prison.

Viktor Frankl wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning not long after he was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp near the end of World War Two. The Library of Congress lists this book as one of the most significant books of the twentieth century. Frankl lost his entire family in the camps – his wife and children did not survive.

But Frankl wrote about all the things the Nazis, with all their evil designs, could not take away. He wrote of people who entered the gas chambers praying the Lord’s Prayer or the ancient prayer of the Jews, the Shema Israel. He told of starving prisoners who went through the huts giving their meager bread ration to others near death. Such acts convinced Frankl that a person’s ability to choose one’s attitude, to control one’s inner life, no matter the circumstances, was the single human freedom that no earthly power could ever destroy. So even the worst that this world can throw at us cannot take everything. Frankl did not talk about parables, but he did find his pearl, to be in control of his inner life. And that was how he found freedom in the camps, even surrounded by death at every hour.

What’s your pearl? Should it be?

The error I have made so far in talking about this parable is individualizing it, as if Jesus was talking to and provoking thought in individual persons. Yes, there is a lesson for each of us in this parable and my lesson and yours won’t necessarily be the same. But there is a lesson for us together also, with the same focusing question: What is the pearl of our church? What is the centering and central focus of our life together as the body of Christ? Is that focus what should be our focus?

So, I would ask each of us right now to answer this question: What is it that we do, that if we stopped doing it, would lead us to think we had surrendered a central, vital element of being a church belonging to Jesus Christ? Please discuss with your neighbor.

Here is a second question: Is there anything that we are not doing that, by its omission, is already surrendering central, vital element of being a church belonging to Jesus Christ?

And here is the third and final question, not for discussion but for answering for oneself: Does it matter – does it really, truly matter enough for all of us together – as a church – to do whatever must be done to take hold of that pearl?

These are hazardous questions. If we are honest with ourselves individually or with ourselves as a congregation, we would have to admit that, as W. Edwards Deming pointed out, the main purpose of human organizations is to maintain the status quo.

The first time I thought about this for myself, I came to understand that my pearl was just that: preserving the status quo. I understand that the prospect of change can be disturbing. At the outset it can seem like entering a dark room blindfolded. Yet as Sam Cooke sang in 1964, “A Change Is Gonna Come” whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, whether we are prepared for it or not. And there are only three ways to deal with change:

1.     Make things happen,

2.     Watch things happen, or

3.     Wonder what in the world just happened.

Over time, I came to realize that no matter how wonderful the status quo feels, it is not possible to maintain it. The only place the status quo is maintained is a cemetery. As Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead” and, “God is the God of the living.” To be alive is to change.

So, discuss briefly with one another this question: In the coming months and years, what changes to our status quo are coming? And what would we like the changes to be? Here is a template I use:

First, rediscover and renew our calling from God as Christian ministers and lay people, as individual disciples and as connectional Methodist church people. Jesus told Peter he would make him fish for people. Do we remember when we got hooked by Jesus? Is it still fresh? Or did we get stuck in a rut, which is to say, did we devote our energies to preserving the status quo?

Second, are we intentionally making disciples or just accepting people into membership? We should discern together and put into place together an intentional path to discipleship. It cannot be enough any longer simply to accept people into membership and leave them free lancing afterward. No longer can we say, “We have Sunday School classes and Bible studies and women’s groups and community ministries, and we hope that one of them is right for you.” Jesus did not give us the mission of making church members, but of making disciples.

Of course, we will have to figure out just what a disciple is, but I will leave that for another day.

Third, do we see all the people, including both the people of our fellowship, whether members or not, and the people of our larger community? William Temple observed, “The church is the only cooperative society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members.” I think that’s a bit of an overstatement, since I think we would agree that police, fire and rescue departments and the US military also exist for the benefit of non-members. But Temple’s point is still sound: Jesus didn’t begin the Church in order to convey member-benefit packages to church people.

Now, we do benefit, and very richly. But not in ways awarded by other organizations. Jesus put it this way to his disciples just before he was arrested: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. So, do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Fourth, how shall we preserve that of our church which is excellent and gives glory to God, of which there are many examples? It is true, that as Sebastian says in The Tempest, “What's past is prologue,” but it is also past. We cannot plan for the past, only for a church we will bequeath to our children and grandchildren.

Personally, I am optimistic! After all, Jesus said, "Do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For people who don’t know God wear themselves out themselves over such things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. So, seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, then all those other things will be given to you as well."

Good words to live by and plan with. Thanks be to God!

Rethinking Marriage

What the Christian religion has to do with marriage is a huge subject, so at best this is an overview. I call it Rethinking Marriage becaus...