Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Routines are good

I found this post in the Drafts folder of my “Everyday Thinking” blog, dated June 5, 2007.

It's been three months since I posted on my so-called Daily Blog. So much for trying to start a new good habit. :-)

I should note here that I started this blog, originally titled “Me, 365” in response to a writing challenge from RevGalBlogPals.   The first line in the first entry reads, “A spiritual discipline must have a starting point, so I begin here in my Daily Blog.”    Obviously,  it didn’t stay “Daily” for very long.   Coincidentally, I was thinking about daily spiritual practices just this morning.

One of my seminary professors gave us an assignment to develop a Daily Rule for ourselves - a routine of prayer, meditation, and writing that we would follow every day for the entire semester.  Naturally, my Rule was color coded and totally organized.  It included chanting a Psalm every morning, so many minutes of meditation, so many minutes of intercessory prayer, even,  if I remember correctly, praying a rosary daily.  Plus, of course, daily journalling on my spiritual life.   I followed it religiously every day for the entire semester.   And realized that this is not what works for me.  

Yes, I love routines.  I fall into ruts with some regularity.  I do the same things in the same order most days.  Left to my own devices, I would eat the same meals every day.  People who know me well can probably say, “If it is 7 am on Monday, Maria is doing such and so.”  Given half a chance I will wear the same outfit every day - a different (clean) top and bottom, but exactly the same style, day after day.  I tend to get growly if people mess with my routine.  But for some reason I find being required to follow a specific routine, especially a spiritual routine, extremely difficult.

I pray every day.  I meditate, also.  But unlike those people who can sit and spend 30 minutes praying intentionally for a list of persons and situations, I tend to be a popcorn pray-er.   If I think of you, I pray for you, at any random time throughout the day.  I have been known to stand in the middle of a parking lot with my hand on someone’s shoulder praying for him.  My meditation, likewise, is less a formal period of sitting somewhere quiet with candle and music and more simply a few minutes spent focusing on not much of anything, allowing God to whisper in my ear.  

I read Scripture every day, and ponder what I’ve read.  I read a couple of devotionals every day - one in the morning and one at bedtime - although I often forget whatever they were about within minutes of reading them.  

I write a gratitude list every day, usually while I am enjoying my first cup of coffee (and after I have fed the Cats).  Sometimes I miss a day because my routine is broken for one reason or another.  If I had to get up extra early, or if there is some crisis going on that has my attention focused elsewhere, I might forget to do the gratitude list first thing in the morning.  

I remember to reach out to other humans every day, because I am perfectly happy living in solitude with the Cats.  So I text and email and write postcards and participate in on-line writing forums.  I go out for meals and attend discussion groups so that I will have contact with people I wouldn’t see otherwise.   I even went out and dropped in on someone yesterday without panicking over it!  (For those who do not know me, this is a pretty big deal.)

Now, if I could just remember to do the physically healthy things every day - walking on the treadmill and doing stretches for my back and listing all the foods I eat in MyFitnessPal.  I could write myself a Rule, but I am pretty sure I know what would happen.   I used to do those things . . . and something changed my routine.  Guess I’m going to have to change it back.

Routines are good.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Sermon Writing - Maria Style

My church members know that I write my sermons early on Sunday morning.   Some think that means  I start doing the work on Sunday morning, but actually, by Sunday morning I have already spent well over 15 hours on preparation.   I thought I'd share a bit about my process, and how I got to this point.

I took three preaching classes in seminary.   I was only required to take one, but I had read that MLK Jr took six (6!) preaching classes, so I figured I would take all the help I could get.  Preaching wasn't exactly something I was looking forward to having to do, because I am terrified of public speaking!  Yes, I took a public speaking class in college, and yes, I passed with a A.  But I always wore long skirts on days when I had to speak so no one could see my knees knocking together. 
(Yes, I do wear long skirts on Sunday mornings.  Why do you ask?)

Anyway . . . I took three preaching classes.  One was sort of "intro to preaching" and included preaching lots of different kinds of sermons - inductive and deductive, preaching for funerals, even a section on Black preaching  (I was dinged for under-use of alliteration.)  I learned many things in that class, including the importance of following the lectionary and that I would most likely need to become best friends with the sound tech, as I have a fairly soft voice.  The most important thing I learned was that I had a lot more to learn.  Luckily, my preacher teacher Ron Allen has written a gazillion books on preaching which I have found extremely helpful

The second class was on a particular preaching style.  We were instructed to ALWAYS begin our sermons with a cultural reference, a quote from music or a movie or trend that would catch people's attention and to NEVER begin our message by recapping the scripture reading.  We must ALWAYS use a specific number of examples, each lasting a specific number of minutes.  We must NEVER refer to our selves while preaching.  I disliked the rigidity of the form intensely.  It felt awkward and constraining.  (Plus, I'm not a huge fan of being told "Always" or "Never" do whatever.)  But I did learn a couple of really important things.  First, not everyone will resonate well with whatever cultural references I choose because not everyone lives in the same culture - even in Indiana.  And second, but most important - if I lose you in the first sentence, or choose an example that upsets you, you will not hear one more word that I say.

For example, I began one of my in-class sermons with a quote from Elvis Presley's song "In the Ghetto." I forget what the sermon was about, or what my point was supposed to be.  But I do remember that one of my classmates came from the ghetto in Chicago, the place Elvis was talking about, and the song made her angry, as if it was inevitable that a boy born in the ghetto was going to die with a gun in his hand.  She had no idea what the rest of my message was about.

Another example.  At my first church I was preaching one of the wilderness scriptures, and spoke of the desert as a place many people would find inhospitable and forbidding.  I went on to extol the beauty of the desert, and the need to sometimes go to a deserted place to be with God, but one of the ladies in the church didn't hear any of that.  She stopped listening when she thought she heard me say the desert was not beautiful, and that made her angry because her home is in the high desert, and she loves it.   

The last class focused mostly on story-telling sermons, and that is where I found my joy.  I love telling stories.  And I learned that I may tell stories that I am in, as long as I am not the hero.  As long as someone else made the difference, or saved me, or taught me something.   Fred Craddock (my preaching idol) is renowned for telling stories about people he knew, and conversations he had with them, and  things that happened in their town last week.  I also learned that it really didn't matter how long I have been preaching, sermon prep was going to take about 20 hours of my week, every week.  Some have said that shouldn't be the case because with practice it should get easier, but I figure, if Fred Craddock, who had been preaching for 50 years or more, was still taking 20 hours a week to prep and write, then how can I think I don't need at least that much time?     

Oh yes.  Without exception, all my preacher teachers said, "Don't wait till Sunday morning to write your message."  And I don't.  Not really.  Except, I do, kind of.

I used to spend all day Saturday writing, and tweaking each word, and making sure the message was exactly what I wanted it to be.  And almost invariably I would wake up on Sunday morning with an entirely different message in my head - a totally unappreciated gift from the Holy Spirit.  Which meant every Sunday I was re-writing my message for that day.  I finally gave up on Saturday writing. 
So - the process.

My sermon prep for this week's message began when I selected the scripture reading, which happened about two months ago.   When I selected the reading I also chose a title and found a hymn to follow the sermon, which hopefully will reinforce whatever I intend to say in the message.   For the last two months, when I have found a story or example that suits that reading, I have dropped it into the message.  When I have a reaction to some news story and it relates, I drop that into the message. 

This week I will keep the message document open most of the time so that I can review what I've done so far.  I read commentaries and look at other people's sermons on this reading. I look back to see what I've done with this passage before - but I can't use my old message because the world has changed since then.  The people I am preaching to have changed.  I have changed since then.  I review with great care my examples, hoping to select the ones that will offend no one - like the Elvis song or the desert story.  The message might offend or upset, mind you.  But I at least want people to hear the message and not get lost in the first paragraph.

Likewise, the selection of artwork is a challenge.  I might have picked the artwork way back when I selected the scripture reading, although most often the art selection doesn't happen until the week I am preaching.  And I have help with that, in the person of our PowerPoint tech.  Between us we do our best to find the right artwork to speak to the message, again, without losing anyone right away.

Sunday morning:   I get up early - sometime between 3 and 4 am. I am in my office at the church before 6 am, and I begin typing.  I put all my examples and ideas and teaching moments that I have been working on together in the document.  That takes any where from 2 to 3 hours.  Then I read it and re-read it, out loud, so that if there are sections that will tangle my tongue I know that in advance.  I post it to my preaching blog, and on Facebook, and I send the link to our Website guru.  And then, it's go time. 

There's a lot of prayer involved, and research, and conversation.  But have no doubt, there is a lot of time spent every week on preaching prep.  Maybe I'm prepping this Sunday's message, and maybe I'm working on something I won't preach until October.  But at least 20 hours every week are going into sermon prep. 

And then, on Sunday morning, I write.