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Sometimes Kent just has to get something off his chest.

 

Standing on Shoulders

We all stand on other people’s shoulders. We all benefit from the boost offered by those who came before. There is a sense that this dependency is to be despised – that greatness is defined by an absolute inventiveness. But this idea that we ought and could create out of nothing is both foolish and arrogant. The wise ones among us understand how to benefit from and build upon work done already by others before. In so doing, we pay these people honour and we extend the legacy of their offerings.

It is particularly important for preachers to understand this standing upon shoulders. The prevalence of sermons on the internet has empowered a wave of pulpit plagiarism. Pastors fear the real possibility of dismissal should they rely too heavily on the work of others, which is difficult because there is so much good work being done by others. Why should we deprive our congregations of the excellence that is available and which has fuelled our love for our craft and calling? If a sermon on YouTube is more compelling than what I could put together on my own, would it not be better that I offer that to my people? It would certainly save a lot of time and effort.

Most of us understand the falsity of this question of expedience. We understand the value of the preacher bringing original work, forged in the fire of a particular context with a specific group of people. At the very least, we can understand that this is what people feel that they are paying for and that it would be dishonest for us to represent the work of others as the fruit of our own labours and the congregation’s investment. For most of us, the real issue takes on a deeper nuance.

This morning I was going through some old notes, and found some jotted comments from my hearing of a friend’s sermon. It was a great sermon and I found myself thinking that I might like to preach it. Well, not his sermon exactly, but certainly his text, and probably its general direction. If God had been pleased to bless me by the work of my friend, I ought to be able to offer that same blessing to others. The text is the text. The truth is the truth. How would this be any different than my singing someone else’s song or playing someone else’s video?

There would be no difference, of course, so long as I was willing to tell everyone that the sermon had been written or substantially built by someone else. The fact that I would find it almost impossible to do so, tells me all I need to know about the propriety of such a thing. My people expect my sermon, forged in dialogue with a God by his Word and by his Spirit. To admit that I was preaching someone else’s sermon would not fly, at least not very often.

But this is not to say that I could not, nor should not utilize the value of my friend’s sermon. In fact, I believe that it would be honouring to his work if I did. Of course, I must go further. I must stand on his shoulders and in so doing, see if I could see a little further. We see this when we share in conversation. One person offers an idea. The next person hears it and comments on the first, intending to advance the understanding of them both. The second comment stands upon the shoulders of the first, with the third and fourth comments reaching even higher.

Of course, it would be disingenuous then for me to take the result of this homiletic conversation and own it entirely as my own. If I were, rather, to share the source of my original thoughts, I bear tribute to my friend and I elevate the authority of what I have offered. People see that there is a progeny to my thinking which gives to it a greater credence.

Perhaps this is exactly what we should be doing. Would it not be awesome if we could grow to celebrate the preaching of each other’s sermons in the full light of day, paying full tribute to each other, while consciously advancing the effects of one another’s work. This would be like we treat our sermons as open source materials, expecting and even hoping that others will take what we have given and make more of it for the good of God’s Kingdom.

This might require a culture change, but I believe that such a change could draw us closer to the culture of the Kingdom, because of both the improving content of our preaching, but also for the spirit of it.

How Many Friends?

How many friends can a person have? How much time and investment does it take to sustain a friend?

I was sitting on an airport shuttle with a group of people this afternoon and I was struck by the fact that I really liked these people. These were my friend. I may only see them once a year, and the purpose of our gathering is work, but they are still my friends and I am sure they would agree.

I travel a lot to teach, consult, or conference. I am often struck by the fact that I could go to almost any major city in North America and find a friend who would be willing to put me up for the night if I wished to burden any of them with my care. Is this the definition of friendship?

I have five or six hundred friends on Facebook, with the potential for many more should I so direct my clicking. I don’t know if all of them would qualify as friends. If they are, most are pretty low maintenance. Still, if I were to meet any of them in a crowd, we would greet each warmly and with genuine affection.

I sometimes struggle with a low-grade guilt when I compare myself to my parents and to others of their generation. My elders are much more intentional about nurturing and sustaining their relationships. It seems they are always in each other’s homes. By that measure I am not doing so well. From time to time I make an intentional effort to reach out to people I care about. I never regret making the move.

We all thrive by our relationships. John Donne said that “No man is an island, entire unto himself.” No doubt he was right. Friendship really matters, both in quantity and quality.

I have actually found that the deepest friendships in my life are the ones that require the least amount of maintenance. I can go years without a meaningful conversation with a truly significant friend, but then when the connection happens, we pick up right where we left off before. One only has so many old friends, I say. But gratefully, the oldest friendships in my life – the most meaningful – also seem to be the most durable.

If you are reading this, you might really be my friend. Thanks for that. May our relationship live long and prosper, no matter when or where we might meet again. I appreciate you and I need you. Thank you for being my friend.

 

 

The Decline of the Personal Signature

Like a lot of young boys, I used to spend a lot of time practicing my signature. I would spend hours trying out various ways of signifying my identity by the way I put my name. Boring moments at school would be passed by my trying out of various angles and ways of flowing out the letters of my name. Eventually I settled on something that has remained mostly unchanged for almost fifty years. I suppose I thought that I might one day be a famous athlete or be a person of such consequence that people would want to mark their moment in my presence by the keeping of my hand-signed name. There was something about signing an autograph that seemed to me to confer value and meaning – at least to my 10-year-old-self.
As I got older and my dreams of glory began to die, I grew to find satisfaction in the more ordinary uses of my signature. Signing a credit card slip or even a business letter seemed to suggest that I had value in the world – something to offer – a meaningful place in the world. The more significant signings on my mortgage or my marriage certificate only heightened that sense of value.
These days, I find that I am seldom asked to physically sign my name. Retailers and restaurants prefer I punch a number. Email, postings, and text messages do not require my signature – and no, digital signatures are not the same thing as physically moving hand to paper.
I know this makes me sound like an old guy. I am an old guy, relatively speaking – but not so old that I do not appreciate technology. I love technology for what it empowers. I read more books in digital form than in paper. So why I am I making such a deal about a physical signature?
The point of asking people to affix their name by their own hand to significant documents was that it conferred a personal commitment of some kind from one individual to another. It was like when a monarch would pour hot wax onto a sheet of paper and press into it his or her personal seal. It was a way of attaching one’s authority to what the letter or document conveyed. In a very real sense, it was a personal oath – an extension of one’s very self – a way of cementing one’s promise or one’s word. If such an intention can morph from sealing wax to ball point pens, I guess it can adapt again to chip and pins.
It makes me think about what Jesus had to say in his Sermon on the Mount about letting our “yes be yes.” What he meant was that we need to be the kind of people who do not need to swear an oath in order to be known as someone who can be trusted for their word. We should not need such elaborate systems – ‘cross our hearts and hope to die’ – in order to assure people we are trustworthy.
I still enjoy the sense of ceremony that comes from signing one’s name – small, though it may be. I’ve observed how heads of state use a fresh pen for every document they sign, allowing the pen to serve as a token of the agreement – a museum-ready monument to the commitment being made.

Of course, most of my commitments are not so monumental. My life is a series of small commitments, that one-at-a-time add up to a life that I trust matters to people in the world, and to the mind of God. I would sign my name to that.

 

What Happens When No-One is Willing to Pay?

So how does this work? I am reading more journalism, listening to more music, and consuming more media than ever in my life and I am paying less for all of it than I did for a single newspaper subscription twenty-five years ago.

Seriously, what is going on? I can listen to any radio station in the world, read almost any editorial, or watch any movie I want for little more than pennies. I have all-you-can-eat subscriptions for movies (Netflix), books (Scribd), and music (Rdio). I paid more for pizza last night than I did for the lot of it. And this is to say nothing of applications like Zite, Flipboard, and Feedly which curate for me free hourly content on every issue that I am interested in.

This is great for me, but I have to believe that someone is losing out. When the biggest band in the world, U2, has to give away their latest album for free, something significant has changed.

I remember as a teenager, a single record-album cost me four hours wages. Buying an album was an event. I had to choose carefully. Today you can buy a months worth of streaming for about 40 minutes worth of minimum wage work. Perhaps it is the musicians and writers and content creators that are now working for the minimum.

Of course it is the technology that has made for this new reality and, yes, some at the top of each of these fields are making massive amounts of money. Pennies can add up when you have enough plays. But for most people, the pickings are slim. It is great for consumers. Not so great for creators.

The other day I checked the sales ranking for one of my books and found that it had risen about 800,000 spots out of all the books that had sold on Amazon. The sad fact was that this improvement might have been caused by the sale of only one or two copies. I might have made enough to buy a cup of Starbucks coffee. Good thing I don’t drink coffee!

This whole thing offers a kind of democratization of media, where everyone is a content creator and no one is getting rich. Well perhaps athletes are still getting rich, because people will still pay to see a live event. And Taylor Swift is getting rich, because she is, well, Taylor Swift. There will always be exceptions. There will always be the superstars. But for most of us, it is going to be hard sledding. There is a great democratic unity along the “long tail.” We are all now more or less equal in our opportunity to make and distribute content.

Perhaps now it will be all about the love of the craft and the quality of our content. I suppose that is not so bad.

 

On Meaning, Memory, and Mazeroski

I was exploring the city of Pittsburgh this week when I encountered a small brick wall accompanied by a commemorative plaque. I was surprised to discover that this was the site of Forbes Field, the first home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, where Bill Mazaroski hit his famous walk-off home run to win the 1960 series against the New York Yankees – an act of athletic heroism I have been hearing about all my life.

I couldn’t believe that this was the location. There wasn’t much there – just a few bricks and a small Little League field that was badly in need of mowing. If it wasn’t for the plaque I would not have any idea that this was the location of an event so deeply fixed within the American sporting memory.

We like to think that life consists of physical phenomena – bricks and balls and bats – and such was the case for Mazaroski’s homer, though only for a moment. The moment passed, the stadium demolished, and all that is remaining is the memory.

Around the city of Pittsburgh, I found numerous substantive buildings and structures festooned with the names of Frick, Heinz, and Carnegie. Memories seem flimsy by contrast, until one realizes that even these monuments in stone will not avoid the destruction wrought by time, already realized by Forbes and his famous field. In the end it might be that memories are all we have – though memories are not to be discounted.

I have sometimes wondered as to the substance of my work, given that I am dedicated to the use of words in the expression of faith. Words don’t seem like much in contrast to the product of the scientists, engineers, and business people who actually build things that affect the world we touch and feel. Words exist just momentarily. Faith resists the measure of science and the physicality of material existence. Yet, today, I am conscious that it is these less material elements wherin life truly finds its substance. It is in things like memory, faith, and truth that life exists in its most enduring essence.

I had breakfast yesterday with a colleague who lost her husband two years ago. While physically absent, his memory continues to make meaning of his life. The immaterial being of his life is every bit as real to my friend as anything he might have managed by his hands. We all know the truth and power of such memories.

I was not present to witness Mazaroski’s homer, though I can almost imagine that I was. I am not sure if the memory would have been a lot more powerful even if I had been there to see it for myself. So today a I take a greater confidence in the value of words, the power of memory, and the work of my calling. As the Bible says, the grass withers, flowers fade, but the word of the Lord endures forever.

 

A Cost Benefit Analysis of My Personal Fandom

I have put a lot of investment into my sports teams. I am not sure I would want to calculate the amount of time, money, and emotional energy I have put into the support of my teams, over the years. Would that investment have been better placed elsewhere? Would I be further along in my career? Would I have greater wealth? Would I be a better man.

Of course, I recently experienced my beloved Vancouver Canucks experience their worst season in recent memory, wherein they blew a three goal third period lead to lose 7-4 to the lowly New York Islanders. I might not be approaching the question in the best frame of mind. Of course, this is always when I want to look at these kinds of questions. When my teams are winning, the benefits seem self-evident, almost regardless of the cost. When things aren’t going so well, I wonder if it is worth it.

I suppose in order to make that calculation, I would need to quantify the benefits I have received from these attachments, putting the value of those benefits up against the costs that I have incurred. Of course, we immediately run up against the problem of subjectivity. This is not a question measured in dollars alone. But then again, I could try to make the measure, if for no other reason than to discern for myself whether to go on with the peculiar pleasures and pain that is the lot of a fan. So just for the fun of it, here is how I might measure the relative value of my personal fandom.
Let’s start then with the costs. It is hard to peg a dollar value on my time, particularly my leisure time. I would suspect that leisure would be valued at a lower rate than the time I give to my employer. I suppose I would need to discern what kind of income I could have received if I were to put that time toward some other income bearing project. I occasionally freelance as a writer and speaker, but the rewards for this work are not great. On average, perhaps I could earn $20 an hour in extra-curricular work. But I would not want to exhange every hour that I invest in being a sports fan for income-bearing work. A man has to enjoy some leisure. So figuring generously, let’s say that I could work for half of the hours that I have invested in sports. That brings the amount down to $10 an hour.
Next, I would have to consider the hard costs that might have been spent investing in other things – going to movies, eating out, and such. Of course, a good portion of those hours could have been spent puttering around the house, watching tv, or even doing something more productive, like writing a blog, for example. I would very roughly set the cost of alternative outings at something like $20 per hour and I would estimate it reasonable that the ratio of these things to attending to sports might be 2 to 1 in favour of fandom. Of course, for a lot of people, it might be closer to even. So then, the replacement cost of other activities would be $10 an hour.
On that basis, then, the hard cost of my time is probably a financial wash. But then, of course, we have to add the actual cost of watching sports, buying jersey’s and such. I estimate I attend a game about twice per month. The cost of my tickets for those events would be about $40 each on average, or $80 per month. I probably spend about $300 a year on sports-related clothing, but I need to wear clothes anyway, so we could cut that cost in half to determine the extra cost involved in supporting my teams. Of course, other people with better seats might spend a lot more.
Are you still with me? If my calculations are close (and that is a big if), my fandom is costing me $100 per month. This is not an insubstantial amount of money, but in relative terms it is not so bad. This is roughly the cost of a tank of gas or a pair of jeans and tee-shirt. My monthly income is not excessively high, but this still is less than 2%. Relative to the amount of pleasure that sports fandom brings me, this is not an excessive price. There are not many things in my life that pay so well.
The harder calculation is whether the things that might replace sports might be more productive or meaningful. Admittedly, that is a difficult thing to measure, but I would say that I can’t think of any other leisure activity that I would find more restful or more restorative. Some might be close, like actually playing sports, running, hiking, golfing and such, but I do all those things anyway. Spending time with friends and family would be a good replacement, except that I spend time with my friends and family watching and enjoying sports. Some of the best times I have had with my wife, children, and friends have been sharing in the following of our teams.
Of course, their are other more meaningful non-leisure things that I could do with this time, like work and such, but I already spend more than 60 hours per week working, and you know what they say about all work and no play. So the only question that remains is whether enjoying sports occupies a reasonable proportion of my leisure time. The only way I can think to measure that is to ask whether there are other forms of leisure that I don’t feel I have time for. By that measure, I think I am doing fine. I still play guitar, go for long walks, ride my bike, read books, go for nice meals with my wife, and watch quality television. I do listen to a lot of sports talk radio, but only in my car, and quite frankly, I don’t miss the negativity of listening to the news channels.
If you are still reading, you might be thinking that I have just engaged an elaborate exercise in self-justification, and you quite probably are right. You may also find that your own habit is more excessive than my own. Each of us could make our own measure.
For the last number of years, the Canucks have used a special slogan at playoff time, “This is what we live for.” I love the Canucks, but I could not not disagree more. I enjoy my team, but I do not live for them, which is a good thing when things are not going so well (like this year). I live for my faith, my family, my friends, and my calling.
So my rough cost-benefit analysis allows me permission to continue in my fandom. Go Canucks Go!

The Value of Personal Expression

There are few things more valued today than personal expression.

There are other contenders, of course. Freedom comes to mind. But then the primary aspiration for our freedom is that we might have liberty to express ourselves. And while we celebrate the fact that most of us actually enjoy this right to speak our minds without fear of official reprisal or incarceration, we sometimes forget that we are not free of consequence for what we have to say.

It is a funny thing. We value our words because we think them consequential, and yet we believe that we should be free from the burden of these same consequences. We expect our words to have impact. We just don’t believe that we should ourselves have to bear the brunt of such an impact.

One should be allowed to criticize the king, but then one should not be surprised if the king is displeased by our expression. If the criticism is just, however, then the consequence of the criticism ought to be born by the king and not the critic. But there, then, is the rub. One cannot always count on justice.

So we come, then, to this business of blogging. If personal expression is valuable, then we have never had more wealth in human history. We are awash in expression.  Never have we had such access to the thoughts and considerations of the human masses. If we want to know what people are thinking we only have to read their blogs, their tweets, their posts, their comments… People are quick to implicate themselves by the openness of their wit and wisdom, or what they have to offer as such. Everybody has a platform, though perhaps not everybody has an audience – if an audience even matters to us.

The fastest way to notoriety in blogging is to say something controversial, to attack a well-known figure, or to say something that sounds clever (but is actually banal). Of course, all this eventually leads to backlash – you know, that whole consequence/accountability thing. It doesn’t really matter to the audience. If the readers get tired of listening, they will simply criticize the author into silence. There are plenty of other voices out there who might interest instead.

This is a fundamental problem, because so often what the audience wants is diametrically opposed to what the writer wants. The audience, as I said, mostly wants to be entertained – occasionally to be informed. For the audience, it is all about consumption, with not much thought given to the writer, who is easily disposed of if he or she becomes tiresome or a problem.

Pity, then, the writer, who mistakenly feels a sense that somehow writing might produce fulfillment. It is a big world and it is easy to feel lost within it. Personal expression is one of those ways by which we validate ourselves, making ourselves feel meaningful in the world. Whether or not we matter in the universe, perhaps at least our thoughts and expressions might.

Which makes me wonder why I am now blogging. I am a little bit late to the blogging party. Formal blogging seems to be fading at the moment – the written word giving way to a flood of images, instagrammed and facebooked for eternity. If an image is worth 1,000 words, then a snapshot is much more economical – though likely even less consequential.

I suppose I feel I have some things worth saying and I thought that I might say them. Whether these words find an appreciative audience, they could at least be truthful – perhaps even insightful. If they are such, then they are worthy, and such worth is always to be valued. It may be that my words entertain you. They occasionally might inform you. But if they are truthful and if they help me to make sense of the world by their expression, then I will have counted the experience to be useful. In the end, as always, you will be the judge.

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