The Preacher's Toolbox: Concerning Mysterious Shower Epiphanies

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Preachers can more deliberately make time to meditate deeply and quiet the clatter which keeps us from hearing the still, small voice of the Spirit.

When it comes to creating and clarifying ideas, there seems to be something magical about the shower. I have experienced this phenomenon in my career more times than I can count; other preachers have testified to me about it as well. You can sit at your desk all week and feel like you are getting nowhere, but step into the shower stall and it is like climbing into Doctor Who’s phone booth: You never know where you will end up.[1]

These “shower epiphanies” are so valuable.[2] With a flash of insight you can suddenly untie tough exegetical knots, open up avenues for gospel proclamation, or structure an unwieldy message. If only there was a way to extend the shower, so to speak, without running up your water bill and concerning your family.

Well, maybe there is.

Ask yourself: What is so special about the shower? Could it be that the sauna-like atmosphere opens your mind the way it opens your pores? Or is it being in your birthday suit prompts you subconsciously, like Adam in the Garden, to seek out a spiritual remedy? Or perhaps the answer is even simpler and more straight-forward, not a matter of something special you have in the shower, but rather of something you do not have: Distractions.

 The Sweet Spot of Sudden Insight

In our hyper-connected, always-on world, distractions are the rule rather than the exception. Anymore, if we are at the computer there are websites begging to be checked. If we are in line, the phone is buzzing. If we are driving, there is music or talk radio to listen to. We hardly have a spare moment of quiet concentration, often due to our own most grievous fault.

This is half of the story, but there is another important piece. In his book, Deep Work, author Cal Newport makes this point. Epiphanies emerge, Newport notes, when not only is your mind free from distraction, but your body is occupied with some pedestrian task.[3] Both these elements are important. If you are just sitting still quietly, you are as liable to fall asleep as have a eureka moment. Conversely, if you are up and about but cluttering your consciousness with outside input, then the lightbulb of discovery will remain dimmed. The sweet spot of sudden insight is found in the combination of: 1) routine activity you can do on “auto pilot,” along with 2) distraction-free rumination.

Thus, the shower is one of the last bastions of epiphany-producing solitude (and no doubt Alexa wishes to eliminate that, too). But we need not wring our hands about this like we wring our washcloths, as though nothing could be done. The good news is, having identified the problem, we may be able to wrangle a solution.

We hardly have a spare moment of quiet concentration, often due to our own most grievous fault.

Productive Meditation

What we can do, according to Newport, is create the conditions for such epiphanies to come.[4] To do so, he encourages a practice he calls “productive meditation.” Do not worry, there is no weird quasi-religious slant to this (though it sounds a little like a mash-up of Deepak Chopra and Stephen Covey). The goal of productive meditation (in keeping with our observation above about the sweet spot of insight) is to take a period in which you are occupied physically but not so much mentally, and to use the opportunity to focus your attention on a single, well-defined problem, like the development of a sermon.[5]

A natural time to do so is during solo commuting, whether it be to and from church, or in route to pastoral visits. For many of us, the driver’s seat is probably a close second to the shower stall when it comes to places in which unexpected insights arrive. Similarly, it combines mindless physical activity with distraction-free focus, or at least the possibility of it. The key here is to resist the urge to put on a podcast or other audio input (though instrumental classical music can actually be helpful), and instead allow your mind to roam free without interruption. I have assembled whole sermons in my head on drives to the hospital. Turn off the radio dial and tune-in to what the Spirit says to the churches.

A second opportunity for productive meditation is the afternoon constitutional. At some point I will do a whole post on the role of walking in preparing to preach but suffice it to say here that you do not get more pedestrian of an activity than strolling down the sidewalk (for those of you who are more high-octane, I will also allow for jogging here). But do not be content for such walks to occur irregularly, when the mood happens to strike. Build them into your schedule. Put them into your calendar. View your afternoon walk as part of the process of your sermon preparation. You will be amazed at the clarity to your thinking which comes as a result. If you get a little exercise in the process, so much the better.

You can surely think of many other activities that qualify as chances for productive meditation: Cooking, knitting, or even golfing (so long as you walk the course). Once again, what is essential is that blessed combination of routine activity and distraction-free rumination. Bringing those two things together is what creates the conditions for those glorious, mysterious epiphanies. They need not be rare or left to chance. Preachers can more deliberately make time to meditate deeply and quiet the clatter which keeps us from hearing the still, small voice of the Spirit. You may just find that your next great sermon idea suddenly appears unbidden, or perhaps (speaking personally) the idea for your next Preacher’s Toolbox article. Eureka!


[1] Archimedes himself reportedly had his Eureka! moment while bathing.

[2] They are also a good reason to keep your pocket notebook close by.

[3] As we will see, and I mean that quite literally.

[4] This goes along with what I have written before about “setting the sails” for the wind of the Spirit to blow as He wishes.

[5] This concept could of course also be applied to other areas of life and ministry, not to mention prayer! But here I will focus on preparing for preaching.