I'm back. Sorry it's been so long. I've had two books come out this year (in fact, one of them doesn't actually come out until next week, but it's on the shelves now). In addition, life has taken an unexpected turn. For the first time in a long time, I've found myself in the pulpit. For the past five weeks, I've filled in at church, and it has been quite a learning experience. Awe inspiring, if you want to know the truth. Unlike many of you, this is not something I trained for. I'm fascinated, though, at how quickly a preparation process has emerged. WORDS, WORDS, WORDS When I'm writing fiction, it seems like I'm always reinventing the wheel. Instead of developing a work flow and sticking with it, I change my methods every time, tinkering here, rearranging there. Surprisingly, when it comes to preparing sermons, I seem to follow a similar pattern. Beginning here, with my trusty Rhodia notebook.


I'm a relative latecomer to the Rhodia bandwagon. The first one I tried had the staples up top, and I absolutely hated that. So I gave up on them for awhile. What changed my mind was realizing that the spiral topped version pictured above fit nicely into the same pocket of my briefcase that the Pitt Minion rides in. I forget it's even there until I need to write something down.

Most of my notebook needs these days are filled by my Filofax, which lets me remove and re-arrange pages. But for brainstorming, outlining, and anything creative, I've been using the Rhodia for a couple of months. The notes from my just-completed novel are in there, and so are the ones for my as-yet-unwritten one. When I suddenly needed to write down some sermon ideas, there it was.



I may jot a few things down in advance, but typically the thing that drives me to paper is realizing I have the form down. In other words, as long as my sermon is just a text, just some exegesis and resulting observations, I leave it in the ether to rattle around. When the connections come to me, that's when I grab my pen and start writing. So the outline above looks a little more polished than the first draft it really is.


AN OUTLINE EMERGES Some people can work from handwritten notes. (Some work with no notes at all!) I take the process another step, developing the ideas further. I write them up as if they were going to be a chapter in a book rather than spoken word. This is where I figure out the transitions and make sure the thought process is going to be understandable to the average listener.

Compared to a nicely designed page, my sermon outlines are a little busy and frenetic looking. Things are underlined that shouldn't be. Text size varies, sometimes wildly. Occasionally I use different colors. Those of you who know my antipathy toward red letter editions will be amused to discover that I often use red text to differentiate passages of Scripture. (Not just the words of Christ, though.)


The outline above is from last Sunday, a sermon titled "Thy Will Be Done." The question I was pursuing there was whether it's possible to feel more than resignation when you run up against the will of God.

A funny thing happens to me when I stand up in front of a congregation. I lose the ability to read. Not literally ... but it certainly gets a lot harder. When I need to read a text aloud, no problem. It's when I'm not supposed to be reading that I have trouble. For the life of me, I can't glance down unobtrusively and make it look like I'm speaking off the top of my head. That's a great skill to have for anyone who speaks in public. If, like me, you don't possess it, there's no use trying to fake it. That's why I don't pay too much attention to my outline.

A BIBLE FOR THE PULPIT It's there as a safety net, of course, and to keep my quotations handy. But by the time I get to the point of speaking, the outline has already served its purpose. I'm free to rely on it or not.


I spend a lot of time at Bible Design Blog theorizing about the Platonic ideal of a "Reading Bible." There are a number of shadows of this ideal on the market -- editions that get one or two of its essential features right -- but nothing I know of that achieves them all. Part of the reason is that two other ideals -- the Do-Everything Bible and the Teaching Bible -- get in the way. Designers rarely get the luxury of focusing on one intended use. Instead, they have to anticipate every possible application, the assumption being that the Platonic consumer only wants to make a single purchase.

My recent experience in the pulpit has given me fresh insight into the Teaching Bible. In the past, I've been a strong advocate for using wide margin editions in this application. After all, there's room for your notes. When I taught line-by-line Bible studies, I found this immensely useful. True to that experience, I've been using a Cambridge ESV wide margin over the past few weeks.

I find I don't make much use of the margins. The main text gets underlined, as do all the secondary texts I plan to refer to. I often make marginal notes next to the passages -- not so much explaining as summarizing them. This way, I can glance down and get the gist of the passage. Here's an example from last week. I cited Proverbs 16.33 -- "The lot is cast into the lap, / but its every decision is from the Lord" -- so the verse gets underlined. In the margin, I added this explanation: "God sovereign over the operations of chance." More like the headings you'd find in an older Bible than explanatory notes.


When there's a serious length of text to interact with, I find myself copying and pasting. I insert the passage into my outline, adjusting the formatting as needed to guide my memory. (And to think I hated diagramming sentences in Dr. Clark's grammar class twenty years ago.) This gives me complete control over type size, formatting, etc., and in the age of Internet-based texts and word processing, it is extremely simple.


In the sermon above, I wanted to work my way through Ephesians 1.16-23, so that when I arrived at the poetic turn at the passage's conclusion, it would have full impact. Could I have made the necessary notations in my wide margin? Probably so. But I'm thinking a wide margin's ideal use (at least for me) is probably study, not speaking. This is something I am still thinking through, though.

I've taught from larger and smaller formats, and personally prefer the big boys. The size and heft feels right. So does the increased type size. But then I'm not usually working from such a thorough outline. I suspect I could just as easily use something compact like the Allan's PSR in the pulpit. However, I'm a creature of habit. I suspect the wide margin is around to stay.

YOUR TURN TO SHARE Now I imagine a lot of you are chuckling at my wide-eyed wonder. This is well-worn territory for pastors, after all. As I think about my own process, I wonder how other people do it. I'd love to hear more about how your sermons develop.