Stop me if you heard this one before. It is zero dark thirty on Thursday morning, but the dog’s bark or the baby’s cry stirs you from a sterling slumber. Suddenly, in that liminal space between waking and dreaming, the sermon pops out of your head fully formed like Athena from her father Zeus. It is a miracle of biblical proportions, almost literally.
Except, your bed is exceptionally cozy, and the thought of getting up in the still-dark night to type at your glowing computer screen is as appealing as a warm beer. So, you roll back over in bed, assuring yourself the good Lord would never disrupt the best sermon of your life!
The novelist William Faulkner, when asked what the process of writing is like, said, “You grab any board or shingle flying by or loose on the ground and nail it down fast.” That is a fair description of preparing to preach as well. Alas, too much exceptional exegesis and too many poignant points and dynamic illustrations have escaped the memories of preachers the world over because they did not have the right tool at hand to seize them when they came to mind. No, dear preacher, you need to nail down those choice nuggets before they fly away. But how?
My back pocket possesses a tool whose value for me as a preacher is almost unsurpassed. It combines the functionality of a Swiss Army Knife with the compact size of a billfold. Like a bicycle for the brain, it accelerates my thinking and enables me to go further in my preparations to preach.
I am talking, of course, about the pocket notebook. What else?
The pocket notebook, otherwise known as a commonplace or memo book, has a long and venerable history. Far from being the stodgy stepbrother of your snazzy tech device du jour, the pocket notebook is more like having MacGyver on your hip. The biggest difference is it cannot get you out of any jams save for those which happen in the pulpit, and possibly the grocery store. The pocket notebook is an indispensable tool for the working preacher, because as much as we might like our great homiletic insights to arrive predictably and according to the times marked out on our calendars, like the morning news, more often than not they come to us, if they come at all, unexpectedly and extra nos, like grace.
Far from being the stodgy stepbrother of your snazzy tech device du jour, the pocket notebook is more like having MacGyver on your hip.
You are visiting a parishioner who asks a question that pierces through the fog of thoughts clouding your brain. You are on a walk and suddenly realize that moment from a decade ago, so simple at the time, changed the course of your vocation. You are watching Netflix when that guilty pleasure of a show has a surprising redemptive turn. You are studying Scripture at the coffeeshop and “accidentally” eavesdrop on a conversation at the next table which perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the age. Or, once again, you have the sermon that emerges from your unconscious like a waking dream, but it is no match for the coziness of your covers.
These sorts of moments happen to us all the time, and since the preacher’s work is never done, he is (or ought to be) always on the lookout for glimpses of the Spirit and traces of redemption in his everyday life and ministry. Too often, however, such moments are allowed to pass by without comment. simply because we lack the tool for the job.
There is too easy of a fix. Get yourself a pocket notebook. I know you probably have a smart phone, and it has some whiz-bang app that can take notes for you. This is all well and good, but still get a pocket notebook. The tactile tactic of putting pen to paper not only reinforces your memories, but it also generates real, physical artifacts from your ministry. We live in a contactless world, and so much of what we as pastors do is intangible. Seize tangibility where you can find it. A stack of your memo books produces a subtle satisfaction which can never be achieved by data in the cloud.
I personally use Field Notes memo books, since I am fancy like that, but you can use a $.99 flip book or a pad of post-it notes if you prefer. Whatever you use, I recommend finding something that works and sticking with it. Buy them in gross if you can. Field Notes offers a subscription service one of my family members gifts me every year, keeping a steady stream of these 3x5 beauties coming to my mailbox. It is strangely comforting to know I have a backlog of logbooks just waiting to be filled with the raw material for future sermons.
Too much brilliant homiletic content has escaped the grasp of preachers through the ages. Thanks be to God; He still preserves His Church despite our forgetfulness. But a pocket notebook helps to nail down a few more of those shingles or boards flying by before they blow away. Anyway, it makes it easier for me both to capture the idea and still hit the snooze button.