My father was the sort of man who found the sentiment “better late than never” to be at least inconsiderate, if not downright heretical. Though more recent friends of mine might not be able to imagine it, anyone who knew me in high school knew me to be early as a rule. As a new driver, never quite sure exactly how much time to allow, it was not uncommon for me to show up ludicrously early – sometimes two to three hours early. When I drove myself to school, I would often be the first to arrive after the custodians.
When it comes to my writing, though, I am learning that when I am running late on a deadline, it is often because I persisted too long in pursuing a fruitless idea. Some ideas should never make it past the brainstorming stage, but when I am feeling a time crunch, I might pick an idea from a thin field and slowly slog my way through the unpromising terrain. Instead, my time would have been better spent lingering in the idea generation stage: my best ideas inspire me to spend more time at the keyboard, as well as to write more quickly – not least because good ideas lead to more good ideas. But a bad idea? I can spend weeks trying to build on a bad idea – a half hour at a time of scratching my head, writing a sentence, and then deleting it.
Most recently, this happened when trying to write a sermon series for the General Board of Discipleship for November. This was a particularly bad summer for me: I was sick all summer long, and ended August with surgery to remove my gall bladder. I had been hoping to write a sermon series for GBOD every month, but getting something written for August and September proved impossible, and by the time I was well enough to write in September, there was not enough time to get something posted for October. I turned my attention to November.
November is an interesting month for a sermon series. Most churches have finished their finance campaigns, and are settling back into a worship routine in this last month of Ordinary Time. The month begins and ends with special Sundays: All Saints’ and Christ the King. And November also ends with the civil holiday of Thanksgiving – the day after which has become another civil holiday of sorts: “Black Friday” – the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. During the month of November, often the pastor’s attention is focused on the month ahead. Advent (the four Sundays before Christmas) is one of the a pastor’s two busiest seasons of the church year. A sermon series is just the thing to give pastors new focus to their November worship planning.
As October approached, I found myself with no ideas for November. So when I got my first idea, I ran with it. But guess what? Once I had actually read the scriptural texts (pro-tip: when writing sermons, actually read the scriptural texts), it turned out that the book of Judges does not fit so well as I had supposed into a pat All Saints’ to Christ the King narrative arc. I had the scriptures selected, and the titles, and the themes, and it was September 30! So I plowed ahead doggedly, sentence by sentence. Clearly the only thing to do, right?
Wrong. September 30 became October 4 became October 8, and still I had no more than 300 words out of my hoped for 5000+. I was running late – all because I was so scared of being late that I couldn’t let go of my one bad idea.
My turning point came when I realized that sometimes never was better. Maybe I wouldn’t get a November sermon series published. My editor hadn’t shown any anxiety about this, but I can come up with all sorts of nightmare scenarios that may not have any basis in reality. Like: maybe I would lose my contract and never write another sermon series for GBOD… and then maybe word would get around that I was unreliable, and I would not get invited to publish for other United Methodist agencies… maybe all of my best days of writing were behind me!!!
But none of that was worse than wasting time writing something so bad as to be unpreachable. “The whole point of this is to help pastors, remember?” I heard in the silence as I prayed. “Not to get a paycheck or a by-line.”
That is how, when I sat back down at my computer that morning, I realized that everything I had written needed to be laid aside. Maybe there was a good idea somewhere in there, but it wasn’t apparent at the moment, and it certainly wasn’t even the kernel of a decent sermon series.
Looking at the blank page of my “New Document,” I was filled with a profound sense of gratitude. I had been spared more painful hours of writing, as well as sending some truly bad writing to my editor. I was so happy to NOT be writing that sermon series on Judges that I almost posted about it on Facebook.
The light bulb went on. Almost two years ago, a friend had posted something he was grateful for as his Facebook status every day in November. The next year, three other friends were doing it, too. All Saints’ Sunday is all about giving thanks for the people who serve as beacons of God’s love to us. On Christ the King Sunday, we give thanks to God that Jesus is the good ruler – that the one to whom we owe our highest allegiance is the one who loves us beyond measure. Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be just one day – we can celebrate it all month long!!
After three hours of thinking, research, and writing, I had an introduction to a brand new November sermon series, complete with titles, texts, and themes. I had written half of the first sermon help, and picked out at least one suggested hymn for each of the five worship services. I only stopped writing because it was time to pack the car for a weekend road trip.
One day, I will write a sermon or two or three on that neglected book of Judges. But I will honor the text, and I will not hammer-fit them into an inappropriate structure. Meanwhile, I sure am thankful to have had the opportunity to write about giving thanks!