Saturday, December 30, 2006

Equipping the Saints? Or just Fleecing them.

I've noticed a trend that is disturbing to me. Actually, now that I'm nearly 40, most trends are disturbing to me. But that's beside the point. I am doing some preparation for my next sermon. I plan on teaching 1 Samuel 12:20-25. It has been a while since I have actually prepared for a sermon, having spent most of the last couple years teaching a spiritual formation class.

After some personal study and note taking, I headed out to the internet to get some insight on the passage from other pastor's sermons. No plans on theft or plagiarism, of course. I just wanted to see how others approached the passage. But I was dismayed at just how many sites affiliated with churches, a popular pastor, or just a clearinghouse for sermons, were charging for their transcripts. Two examples off the top of my head were PreachingToday'sSermons and CreativePastors. There were many more.

I don't know. It just doesn't strike me right. For what reason would they be charging their pastoral brothers for their work? It certainly couldn't be for the time and effort to come up with them in the first place - I'm assuming most of these messages were already created and delivered to the pastor's local congregation. So it has to be something else. Maybe they don't get paid enough by their congregation or denomination and they see this as a way to close the gap. Maybe they are simply taking advantage of a sweet situation - what a better way to make a buck then to sell something you had to prepare for someone else anyway. Maybe it's just plain greed.

In any case, I have a hard time reconciling the practice with Paul's words to his brethren in Corinth: "What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it." Or even Jesus' words to his apostles in Matthew 10:8 "Freely you have received, freely give."

Now, I'm not against selling a product to make money, or raising money to support your endeavors. But I don't think selling your messages is the way to do it. As a pastor myself, my naive perspective wants us to help each outer out from a heart of goodwill. From a desire to see our brothers and sisters grow, not to squeeze every last nickel out of them. And from a humble heart that should be amazed that others might find insight and spiritual growth from the words that God gave you.

Which is what I like what my friends over at SermonCentral have done. They haven't sold out - all the messages and illustrations are all free. But they offer a subscription-based "Pro" version of the site that gives you access to more functionality and better features on the website themselves, not more, different, or "better" sermons. I think its a great concept, and I call on more websites to think likewise. Let's quit commercializing every and all things under the sun and preach God's word free of charge.

God bless.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Cracked Vessels

"We are cracked vessels, full of glory, wounded healers."

Have you ever read something that just came out of nowhere and seemed to slap you in the face? I have been struggling much as of late over my place at work; specifically, how should I act as a Christian at my workplace. Or to be even more specific, how should I act when I don't feel very Christian-like inside. How do I show the love of Christ knowing the ungodly attitude I had that day, or not having made time for serious prayer or Bible reading that week. What's the use? What's my purpose? You'd think after being a Christian for 33 years I'd have all those stupid questions answered. Mid-life crisis on the horizon? Hmmmm. At least now I'll have an excuse to go buy that new motorcycle I've been wanting.

"We are cracked vessels, full of glory, wounded healers."

My workplace is in sort of an upheaval right now. Our founder and CEO, the soul of the company, suddenly decided to call it a day. He's worked 70 hours a week for 18 years to build our company and decided it was time to pursue other hobbies in life and to spend more time with his family (he has 2 young girls and a wife who is in remission from cancer). I've been with him for 16 of those years, being the first person that he hired. So it's been a bit of a blow to us. He'll still be around, but in more of a consulting role, and basically only when he feels like it. More power to him. He's put in his time, paid his due, and its time to reap the fruits of his labor. I have to give kudos to any business person who suddenly realizes life is short and family is more important than work. But where does that leave me? Out of my comfort zone with a whole bunch of unasked-for responsibilities. And for some reason, this turbulence has expanded to include some of the more personal questions that I referred to above.

"We are cracked vessels, full of glory, wounded healers."

I just finished a book called "The Challenge of Jesus". It's an awesome book, where scholar and theologian N.T. Wright (yes, his initials are NT) tackles the task of recasting Jesus in his true calling as the Messiah to the Jews in 1st century Palestine. He asks us to wrestle with getting a better picture of Jesus in that light, and then applying it to our lives, instead of trying to pigeonhole his life into our western culture. For instance, instead of trying to interpret Jesus' parables through a 20th-century American mindset, we need to interpret them through a 1st century Jewish mindset, and then figure out what THAT has to do with us. And what I love about Wright (something more scholars need to learn) is that he is not content to prove/disprove a theological position; he spends over 40% of the book clearly laying out the proper application of his position to our hum-drum, day-to-day lives.

There is so much in this application section of his book that hit me between the eyes. So much that I want to share with you, but if I started I would simply end up re-typing his last two chapters here. And I'm sure you're already thinking "does this rant have a point?"

"We are cracked vessels, full of glory, wounded healers."

Wright proposes that it is not always our job to resolve huge problems in society, or in our work, or even in our church. But instead to live humbly in prayer at the places where the world is in pain. To be to the world what Jesus was to the Jews and to the rest of the world. He was fully God, but fully human, and lived in the present, fully engaged with their pain, joy, and sorrows. But when the time came for the culmination of his purpose on earth, he ended up in Gethsemane, praying in soul-wrenching grief, asking his Father if he could avoid what was in store for him.

And that is often where we find ourselves. We are fully human, but full of his Spirit, and we are asked to live out our daily lives in this place of pain, hurt, sorrow, and hopelessness, providing a light in the darkness and telling the story of a Saviour who gave his all. But if you're like me, you often feel unworthy of that mantle, desiring that someone else should take on that responsibility instead. I feel unprepared to suddenly be in charge of a whole department of 30 programmers; and even more unprepared to do so as a believer, somehow conveying the hope of Christ to my co-workers through the daily grind of software development. And it was at that point that I came to the following paragraph in Wright's book. Please bear with me as I quote him here:

"We do not normally think of ourselves as [holy objects], and we impoverish ourselves as a result. We are so concerned to say at once, if anyone even suggest such an idea, that we are imperfect, weak and frail, that we fail and sin and fear and fall. And of course all that is true. But read Paul again, read John again, and discover that we are cracked vessels full of glory, wounded healers. God forgive us that we have imagined true humanness to mean being successful, having it all together, knowing all the answers, never making mistakes, striding through the world as though we owned it. The living God revealed his glory in Jesus and never more clearly than when he died on the cross, crying out that he had been forsaken. When we stand in pain and prayer, following Christ and reshaping our world, we are not only discovering what it means to be truly human, we are discovering the true meaning of being indwelt, energized, guided and directed by God's own Spirit."

When I read the part about cracked vessels full of glory, the tears came suddenly as God shot encouragement and hope into my heart. I can do this; I have to do this. Imperfect as we are, stumbling forward as we often do (and occasionally even backward), it is our purpose to be story-tellers for the Kingdom of God wherever it is that God has placed us. And I hope that is an encouragement to you. You don't have to have all the answers, you don't have to solve all the world's problems. You simply need to figure out, in your life, how to "show and tell" the good news of healing, redemption, and love to a world that knows only brokenness, fear, and suspicion.

God bless.