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Layering, Preaching, and Formation

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Layering, Preaching, and Formation

Tom Elenbaas

I've been accused of not spending as much desk time as I should on writing sermons. I've always wondered why that was, and have tried to explain it to people. The best way I have been able to explain it in the past is by saying that I spend a lot of time on it, just not in the sitting and writing. (In fact, sitting and writing can often occupy too much of the pastor's life, disconnecting them from reality... but that's for another time.) I feel sometimes like a computer running a "minimized program" working my sermon throughout the week or weeks and preparing while I'm doing other things. I consider it a kind of ongoing prayer and conversation with God, the Scripture, the ideas, myself, and the lives of people I'll be speaking to. It feels to me like I'm trying to integrate real life and work and Word.

This has sounded strange to some people with whom I've shared it. Awhile back, I came across an idea or at least an article that might help explain this. The article was about a type of multi-tasking called "layering" in an article entitled Layering: Multitasking that Actually Works by Elizabeth Grace Saunders. In it, she talks about layering as "strategically deciding to do tasks that require different channels of mental functioning, such as visual, auditory, manual, or language." She gives the example of working on one thing that may take some mental energy while doing something else which may not take the same kind of thinking - like practicing a speech while standing in line, or cleaning your desk while watching a webinar. In these examples, I realized that this is exactly what I do.

Just the other day I was lying down to help my 4 year old take a nap, and while we lay there, I was working out the outline of my sermon as she nodded off to sleep hugging her animals tight. I tend to find strategic times during my day and week to work on my sermons, with some interspersed research times, so that when I'm ready to write it down, it comes out pretty quickly. And I can't tell you the amount of times when God speaks through the ordinary and connects it to the extraordinary and eternal. (Think of reflecting on the Fatherhood of God while lying with your 4 year old daughter to help her fall asleep when she's scared.) Some of my best writing time happens in the hour it takes to mow my lawn (or at this time of year, shoveling snow), while I'm driving a car, riding a bike, or listening to music. It also helps for delivery because by the time I'm preaching it, I've lived with the text and the outline for awhile before writing it down. In a sense, I've memorized my content. My preaching professor, Dr. Timothy Brown, taught us to memorize the scripture before preaching it, to let the Word work on us before we work on it. Rob Bell always said to try to live the message before preaching it to others. This is a similar form of mental discipline that helps me not only live the Word, but also causes it dwell down deeply, to work on my own heart, and to be able to speak and preach with a greater sense of ownership. Not only that... it helps me with preparation time by limiting the actual sitting and writing part. Now... I'm not advocating this for anyone else. It's just how it works for me.

So, that was a thought about preaching. But it goes further. I wonder if this is what Paul meant when he wrote the following to the Ephesians:

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. [6:18]
We use multi-tasking to get things done. But maybe we were meant to live in two or more layers simultaneously for a different reason. Maybe our "spirit" and "flesh" live together so that as whole souls we are integrating the physical world we can see and the spiritual world that we know intangibly - the noumenal and the phenomenal (see Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.) We're not meant to be fragmented humans. We're not meant - as the Greek's thought - to leave the physical world and "graduate" to the higher plane of the spiritual. We're not dualists. (At least I don't think we are.)

My son is interested in the 4th and 5th dimensions. I get confused. But, I do think we live in multiple dimensions at the same time that were meant to form an integrated tapestry, and that we are constantly being formed and reformed, shaped and reshaped as we live and contemplate, love and act, fall and get up again. For me, the act of writing a sermon cannot be a task separated from the lived life, and neither can the life of a person following Jesus. Spiritual formation is always happening in the context of a lived life in all its complexities.

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