The Most You Can Offer

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I recently came back from a conference featuring pastors/authors Rob Bell, Peter Rollins and Shane Hipps called Poets, Prophets and Preachers. It was an inspiring time and I left filled with more hope and promise for our local ministry – The Mercy House – and my own personal dreams than I have in a long time. And while I bask in the glow of a pastoral pep rally, this seems the opportune time to work through some thoughts.

Ipoets-prophets-preachersn one of the sessions, the power of the sermon was addressed and there was a statement made by Bell that found every head nodding along in agreement – that our work never lives up to our expectations. In fact, the results are often confounding. The best sermons that we craft end up falling o the floor as soon as we speak the words we thought were so powerful on Saturday night. The last second efforts scraped together from a week dealing with crisis after crisis ends up being a potent, life-changing message. And that holds true no matter what art form you’re dealing with.

It can be maddening. Painter friends of mine wonder why the canvases labored over remain unsold while older, much less technical works are the ones that sell. Musicians often speak in interviews of being surprised by the legs of a last-second addition to an album while the other “sure-fire” tracks never garner any radio spins. No matter the venue, sometimes our most valiant works go unnoticed or even refused while the half-hearted, there’s-no-way-this-will-work efforts receive all the praise.

Thus, the artist, the preacher, the writer, the potter are all left in a precarious position. Of course, this is no excuse to rest on your laurels, but it also removes the longing to hold out expectations for something you cannot control. As Rob spoke, I wrote a note that I’m not sure how much was a quote and how much was my own mind working around what was being mentioned. But in that moment, I simply jotted down “…so the most you can offer is a grounded, focused, truthful effort.”

There might be other, even better, descriptors, but that’s what struck me in that moment. It’s an inner calling to make things excellent, no matter what the turnout or response. And there’s also a beauty to realizing I’m turning in a less-than-stellar assignment only to receive a gracious “A”. It keeps you humble, or at least it should (rather than being lazy), and it keeps the ego in check in thinking it all depends on you.

Has anyone else found this concept to be true in their own lives – their own masterpieces being ignored while watching other unexpected pieces finding themselves on center stage?

Matt Conner is the teaching pastor at Trinity Church in the heart of Indianapolis and the founder of Analogue Media.


17 Comments

  1. Nathanael

    This is definitely the case a lot of times.
    Of course, there are other moments when an absolute wowzer (spell check please) in preparation sends ripples through the congregation when delivered.
    What is most amazing in preaching or writing or art is that what really impacts me may impact others, and what seems like “filler” impacts someone else.
    It’s always interesting to get feedback after a sermon and find out how many various things you shared to bolster your main point became the thing that ministered to a soul, even if they can’t remember your main point.
    Even at an Andrew Peterson concert, sometimes his story about how the story was birthed in him has more impact than the actual song.

    Expressing ourselves in sermon or in song or in art is a vulnerable, humbling exercise.

  2. Seth

    As an artist and interior designer, I understand completely. When I was in school and had to sketch ideas, some of the quickest, roughest drawings had the biggest impact. They seemed to convey the truth of the idea, the essence, if you will. The times that I reworked my sketches to “Perfection”, something fundamental was lost.

    I think that there is a related concept, at least when it comes to my paintings. There is usually a time in the middle of every painting that I do when I just know that the result is going to be horrible. Perseverance, however, has paid off more than once. That is not to say that I have never painted a picture that mediocre or just plain bad, I have. But I have been surprised on several occasions, as well. Sometimes I feel this is a picture of my Christian life. In the middle of it, everything seems to fall apart and muddle together. God’s graces stand side by side with perpetual sins. Yet, in the end, God will finish the work, and I will be beautiful. Praise God.

  3. redhead.kate

    I jokingly say that the inspiration for my writing comes from the silly illogical voice in my head. One day with a migraine drowning out everything else, I didn’t feel like I had anything to put on my blog. So in about 5 minutes, I quickly wrote an “Ode to My Hammering Head”, posted it, and promptly forgot it. To my shock, it has become one of the top posts on my site. My writing isn’t profound – my goal is to make people laugh – but I never intended to be remembered as the girl who wrote the headache poem.

  4. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Matt – I echo Seth’s comment. During both of the recordings I’ve made on my own I’ve had those moments of trying to think of how to pay the budget back to Rounder. The idea of it is always so much more than the outworking. One of the reasons for that is to overwork the Idea, to strive too hard for perfection; it brings a loss to the Idea because we are no longer taken up in it, no longer relational with it. Instead we are merely striving for perfection, trying to put every note, every word, every brush stroke in its proper place, often for ego’s sake. In my studio, when I put together tracks, I’ve usually worked with a click track, laying down the timing for me while I add banjo, guitar, etc. There’s always the temptation to make the music conform exactly to the click. But several of the best tracks I’ve done recently, the ones with the most feeling, are tracks I did where I went only off of my own internal sense of time (these are usually slower tracks, not uptempo bluegrass). Two of these tracks were on DoorWay – the two instrumentals – Secret of the Woods and I See Thee Nevermore (found here: http://www.ronblock.com/content/jukebox.php). These two tracks were done before I started DoorWay, and I was going to redo them “more perfectly.” But when I listened I realized I could never recreate that feeling, so I used the originals.

    It shows a principle. Our humanness is precious to God; our weaknesses are necessary elements down here. The little timing inconsistencies (little, mind you), small variations in pitch, etc, are necessary for a track to have feeling. There is a whole push-and-pull thing that happens in a bluegrass band that a click track doesn’t allow for; it is relational on a human level, rather than five people merely trying to conform to a click track. Think of legalistic people trying to keep rules and get along with others versus people who simply love one another at a deep level and you’ll get the picture.

    This is one reason the outworked Idea often doesn’t match the original Idea itself. When I’ve pushed it to “too perfect” it becomes boring. When I’ve had tracks that are too sloppy, the slop obscures the feeling as well. But better a little slop than too much perfection; country radio is often a sad commentary on that.

  5. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Nathanael,

    Yes. I would go even a step further and say that God created us as weak vessels designed to operate in His power, that weakness is not a result of the Fall, that Adam and Eve were weak, temptable vessels who did not run to God as their strength. As a result our weakness, our vessel-hood, was infected by the prince of the power of the air. Rather than accessing Strength, Eve and Adam took selfishness into their inner holy of holies, and passed it along to us as a result. Salvation in Christ sets this straight in a one-time cataclysmic event, taking Christ into the holy of holies, and then begins the process of reprogramming the psyche, or soul.

    As Christ-indwelt people, we have to learn by experience that His power is perfected in our weakness. But first we’ve got to know that we are weak, and we learn that only by being broken and stripped. When we finally go from thinking we are strong to knowing we are weak, we begin to ask the question, “But how can I be strong.” And then of course we begin to find that the answer is reliance on Christ within us, rather than self-reliance.

    Our weakness is one-half of God’s intended and created equation. It is the Question to His Answer; it is the female to His Male. Cup/Wine, slave/Master, branch/Vine. It is not the result of the Fall but meant, intended, created that way.

  6. Tony Heringer

    Ron,

    You can also substitute the word dependent for weak. Adam and Eve were created and by default were dependent on the Creator. The Fall introduces the false notion that we can be independent or autonomous or just like God. Living in a culture that can pretty much create its own reality makes dependence a tough sell but without it we are just โ€œchasing after the wind.โ€ (Ecclesiastes)

  7. Drew

    Back when I was a student (half a lifetime ago) I submitted 5 of what I thought were excellent poems to our university’s arts journal. And then just for kicks, I submitted a short, silly poem that I composed in about a minute. Guess which one got in?

  8. Rob Dunbar

    Hmm… the difference between fresh insight and belabored effect.

    I’ve learned, in preaching, that the best practice for me is to study the text, note the themes that God has emphasized in my heart, meditate on them, and then preach with a few major points, leaving room for spur-of-the-moment insight. My homiletics prof didn’t have a problem with it; he, in fact, pointed out that this was the style that came naturally to me. I just count it grace when God makes the point.

  9. E

    I’m a songwriter (wannabe) compared to you good folks but the song that I’ve written that people love is a song about potatoes (from the perspective of a potato) written in 4 minutes.

    My soulful and labored over worship stuff is hit or miss but everyone loves the potato song.

    It’s all part of God’s 16 point plan to help me take myself more seriously.

    But yes, it isn’t just you…

  10. Kent

    I have felt this as a teacher. I spend time planning and preparing a lesson, only to have it fall flat. It is usually in this moment of failing that I abandon the plan and go for something totally different or radical; crazy enough to work. And sometimes these turn out to be some of the best lessons, a breakthrough for a student and the most enjoyable and memorable times in the classroom.

    I’ve learned that planning is good, but it is not everything. We have to be diligent in planning, but flexible enough to adapt. We have to be open to change and be willing to abandon the plan and go with our gut.

    We have to expect the element of surprise.

  11. Mike

    Sermons are like meals they may not all be memorable but most are nourishing. Some meal take little effort but are very nourishing some take forever to prepare but are too fattening.

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