On making time to pray like I make time to write (when there isn’t any)

It’s in the courses I teach, in the workshops I lead, in my advising of grad students, in the writing groups I facilitate or those in which I just get to participate: set aside time for writing.

“But I can’t get started.” Well, have you started? As in, opened a document and typed some words– any words into it?

“But my ideas aren’t ready.” Writing helps ready them.

“But I worry how readers will react to my writing.” Well, they’ll never react at all until you write something at all.

“But I don’t have enough time.” It’s true. You don’t.

We don’t have enough time to do every single thing we want to do, should do, mean to do. We don’t. Usually in life I try to focus on abundance. Most things we think are scarce really aren’t– there’s enough success to go around. There’s enough love to go around. There’s even usually enough money to go around, if we can work on what we mean by “enough.” But truly, there’s not enough time. Not for everything.

When I turned 35, I cried and cried. Not because I felt particularly old– at 35 I was happier than I’d ever been before, and it’s gotten better from there– but because I really was too old, objectively, for certain things. I heard that 35 was the max age to enter astronaut training. This made me sob (though I’ve since read here that it isn’t true). That door was closed! Also, I was not going to become Olympic material in any sport. Yes, I know, there are (and were) Olympians over 35, or over my age now of 43, but let’s face it: nobody starts a sport at 35 or 43 and gets Olympic good at it. And I haven’t even been getting to the gym! Time passes, and it’s one resource that does run out. So, the notion of “making time” for writing or anything else only gets you so far. We’re in these bodies, and limited in space in time.

Which is why I tell writers: make an appointment. Write down when you’ll be writing. Write it in your calendar like an appointment, and label it “writing appointment.” And then take the appointment as seriously as you take one with the dentist– you show up! They’ll charge you if you don’t!

“But I have to…[prep my courses, do grading, clean my house, catch up on email]” Ok. Do those sometime that isn’t on top of this appointment. Take yourself and your own time and goals as seriously as you take your dentist’s.pexels-photo-273166

I love how Melissa Febos puts the question in this essay: Do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses? Do the things that are important to you, including answering email if that is. But keep appointments with yourself for what’s also important to you but less urgent.

All of this is to say that I ought to know how to make time for things that I deem important. I have been making time– ok, more accurately, dedicating some of the limited time I have– for writing for these eleven years, having babies and doing laundry and all the rest while writing. I’m good at this!

Which is why I struggle so much with prayer time.

I’m forever setting new plans as to when I will pray, how much, or in what manner. Sometimes it’s about better quality or different quality, but it’s always also about simply putting in the time. I do put it in, with some regularity, but things creep in to block it. And of course I pray other times, when the mood hits or over meals or in moments through the day. But I won’t lie to myself: consistent, intentional time in some quantity really does matter. As my own pastor has reminded me many times, if I want to know a person better, or love them more, I spend more time with them. The knowing and loving grows from that shared time. So, if I want to know God better, or love God better, why would I expect that to happen without spending time with God?

I’ve used some tools along the way that have increased my prayer time, making it more like an appointment. One I love is the Common Prayer app. For a while I thought I would follow the Muslim prayer times, which would combine set-time prayer with the variability of following the season/sun as they do (I never got around to that one- yet). My Muslim students use apps for this. This Examen app is good too.

But it’s not about an app, is it? It’s about me doing it.

This Lent my intentional practice has been adding prayer time. My scheme was to pray upon arrival in my office, the only quiet place I go with a door that shuts. (Seriously. I have two kids. There is NO OTHER PLACE.) I set down my bags, lay my computer on my desk, but before I open it, I set my phone alarm for 20 minutes. I close my eyes and spend that time in quiet prayer.  (Yes, sometimes I peek at the phone to see how much time is left. I am a work in progress.)

Then I eat two pieces of chocolate. I do this because I read in The Power of Habit  that rewards– immediate, sensory rewards– work well to initiate new habits even when the reason for setting the habit (knowing God, better health, etc.) is intrinsic and well known. Basically, I’m trying to train myself like a dog.

(At least that’s why I eat one piece of chocolate. Also, I like the idea of me and Jesus, hanging out in my office, eating chocolate at 9 in the morning. And, since he’s not hungry, at least in the bodily sense, I eat his piece too.)

It’s working, sort of. But sometimes not. Sometimes I run into someone in the hall on the way in, then walk in my office already working in my head on whatever we spoke about. Sometimes I run late with my kids in the morning, arrive at the office later in the day, and the next meeting is starting.

Sometimes I just don’t do it. I skip the appointment. So here I am saying, can I take God’s time (and my own one life God gave me) as seriously as I take a dentist’s appointment?

Melissa Febos asks, “Do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses?” I’m asking myself, “Do I want to be known (to God) for my love and my time– or for all the crap I got done in the office?”

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On showing up: Advice to preacher-writers

News flash: preaching involves writing.

I study writing, and I have studied the writing that preachers do, and I am here to tell you: writing is a huge part of preaching. And writing is really, really difficult.

The most difficult thing about writing isn’t always anything in the writing, it’s actually just doing the writing at all. Forcing yourself to do it.  If you don’t believe me, go visit any dissertating doctoral student’s apartment and witness the piles of clean laundry, the baking, and the art projects.  Anything other than writing. Or, for a certain group of pastors, visit on Friday morning and see a house that’s been cleaned, an office that’s been organized, a well-weeded garden— and an open laptop somewhere with Facebook open instead of a sermon.

Most books about preaching focus more on the content of sermons than on how they’re made. Three-point, law-and-gospel, topical– ok, but how to get from the empty page to one of those? What writing processes? What practices— not just reading practices, but writing practices– lead you there?

Which is why someone might pick up a book like 8 Hours or Less: Writing Better Sermons Faster by Ryan Huguley (Moody, coming out in May 2017). It’s a prescription about workflow: do this on Monday, do this on Tuesday. If you like direction, you’ll understand why this book could be attractive.

Here’s what Huguley misses, though: the reason why writing is so hard is that it requires honesty and attention in the moment of invention. And that is a moment requiring so much bravery that many of us would rather do anything (even weed a garden!) rather than face it.

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Anyone who has ever written has felt writing’s difficulty. Sometimes it’s starting at the blank page or screen, not knowing how to begin. Other times it’s sitting stuck in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph, reaching for a word that doesn’t come. Or it’s writing oneself halfway into an argument that suddenly, somewhere in the middle, breaks down. Or it’s sharing writing with a reader and finding, painfully, that you have not made yourself clear, or—more often—hesitating fearfully before sharing with a reader, or before writing at all, for fear of criticism.

In preaching, it’s hearing in the Gospel story the story of some situation with some parishioner, but not feeling you can speak to that too directly. It’s feeling the week’s text resonate with some aspect of your own life, but feeling (or, in some cases, knowing) that the congregation isn’t ready for that story right now, or that you’re not ready to tell it. Or it’s being tired, so tired, and discouraged, and not feeling the joy in preparing to preach that you used to feel. And it’s feeling guilty about that. None of that is conducive to writing fluently, or well.

Huguley’s book touches none of that. It just gives orders, assigning writing tasks to its reader on a schedule. An eight-hour schedule. Scheduling is really important, but for this advice to be helpful it has to speak to why the reader hasn’t taken the advice already.

So, here are some alternative resources, resources that point to the real difficulty in writing for preaching: this powerful list of Resources on Preaching for Women from the Junia Project, which includes more attention to craft than I’m used to seeing. No easy answers there.

And there’s the set of ideas that comes from seeing yourself as a writer, and then attending to doing the things writers do.  Is there one right way? No. These astoundingly interesting portraits of writers’ processes at Brainpickings show how there is not.

But they do show one thing that all writers know and must do. And it is the one thing that all the pastors in my study of writing for preaching must do, too– at least, if they want a day off before Sunday rolls back around, as it inevitably does.

It’s showing up.

Just showing up for the writing. Like you show up for a dentist appointment even though you don’t really “feel in the mood” to have metal pokers jabbing into your teeth. Like you show up to pick up your kids even though you were in the middle of something when it was time to go. You have to show up.  We can talk all day long about what to do once you’ve started writing, but the real truth is that most of us are saying we have writing problems when our real problem is that we didn’t even show up.  Didn’t sit at the desk, didn’t open the document, didn’t start typing.

recite-1otdi31Preachers, can you show up for writing sermons the way you hope parishioners will show up to hear them? You hope they’ll show up on time. You hope they’ll show up even when they’re not really in the mood. You hope they’ll show up even if they’re tired, and even if their laundry’s not done. You hope they’ll show up with open hearts, with ears that hear and minds that consider. You hope they’ll show up like this because you know that there’s something just for them in the Gospel, no matter how bad your sermon turns out.

Can you show up for your preaching in the same way?  Come on time, be awake, ignore the laundry, forget whether you’re in the mood. Just show up and start writing. There is something in the Gospel for you.  If you show up.

Writing about yourself: When work and faith collide

For a writing scholar and teacher, for a person who more than once a week sits on the carpet writing alongside children, for a person who teaches adults to journal and grad students how to own their knowledge, for a person with a blog (!)…. I have a hard time writing about myself. A really hard time.

I’d rather write a technical manual for an appliance nobody uses. I’d rather write a note of apology for something I’m not that sorry about. I’d rather write a list of household chores. And then do the chores.

The great Anne Lamott gives this advice for writing about people in your life: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. Just change their height and hair color. No one ever once has recognized him or herself in my fiction. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” And she’s right. But what about when the person is me?

I spend most of my writing life in the academic arena, where I am a professor of education at a research university. We academics are famous for writing stuff nobody will ever read, or at least that’s how we self-loathingly joke about it. But people do read my academic writing. Smart people. People I respect. People I know, and people I don’t know (I’m not sure which of those scares me more).

My academic writing has been explicitly about me a few times– I’ve written about my own childhood school experiences, and experiences as a parent. I’ve written much more than that about my teaching. And even the stuff that never says “I” is about me in that it’s the material I spend time with, reflect on, pour energy into, and care about.

But still, a couple of years ago I started researching about writing in the context of religion. And from there, it wasn’t long until I was sitting in research interviews that sometimes included as many questions for me as they did for my participants. And from there, it wasn’t long until yesterday, when I took deep breaths and hit “send” on a manuscript for an academic journal with stories in it about my own beliefs and my own prayer life. I hit “send,” but my heart still pounds a bit when I think about it. It feels transgressive, like I’m doing the one thing an academic must never do, even though the truth is that I go to a church that is absolutely packed with academics, and we’re doing just fine.

Which is why my heart soared to see this tweet from Krista Tippet today:

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According to this, I’m not an overly insecure basket case (much); I’m just like Krista Tippet! And she’s right, it’s vulnerable-making. And she’s right, that is good for me. And collisions produce a lot of energy.

(And, when the article comes out, I’ll share it with you.)

This artist concept illustrates how a massive collision of objects, perhaps as large as the planet Pluto, smashed together to create the dust ring around the nearby star Vega. New observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope indicate the collision too