I had simply forgotten that Gordon is not around to preach this Sunday. He had given me good notice but I had failed to take note, literally. Now one task for today is to prepare and produce a sermon in essentially one go, something I normally try to avoid.
So how long does it take to produce a 10.45 sermon? The answer – it depends on how wet the fields are.
Some years ago I did some work on creativity at Edge Hill when it was simply a teacher training college. There are different ways of understanding the whole creative process. In fact, one academic suggested that there were over hundred different analyses to be found in the literature. Clearly a very creative area!
However, essentially there are three phases, at least from my experience of producing sermons, and these are best kept separate.
The first stage is simply gathering the information, which generally means aiming to understand the Bible passage using different aids.
The third stage is actually writing the sermon – I use a detailed script even if it is to be memorised.
However, the second stage is the most important and the one we can easily avoid to our cost, that is when we mull over in our minds the information we have acquired, to see it in a new light, to look for new insights and unexpected associations. In other words we give the Holy Spirit space to help us think afresh with the mind of Christ.
And it takes time. You can’t mull in a hurry. But the danger for me is that I can too quickly hit the keyboard, certainly if there is a time constraint. So I go for a run, which guarantees 35 minutes of mulling (45 minutes if the fields are wet). For I think best when I run.
It was Archbishop Justin who as Dean of Liverpool came up with the best mission statement ever, that is for Liverpool Cathedral to be “a safe place to do risky things in Christ’s service”. It came to him when running, mulling while moving. Brilliant.
Of course, mulling is very much in the Biblical witness, often enforced by circumstances as for Moses and David as shepherds. Don’t forget Moses worked in Midian for forty years as a shepherd. Elijah 40 days en route to Mount Horeb (aka Mount Sinai). Time to think, to reflect, to turn ideas over in your mind.
Luke tells us following all the events around the birth of Jesus, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19). For the rest of her life, it would seem, she mulled over those eventful few months, to make sense of some remarkable experiences.
What does Saul do once confronted with the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road? He tells the Galatians: “My immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia.” (Galatians 1:16).
This trip to Arabia is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, and it is quite possible that he too travelled to Mt. Sinai to think through, to digest, to try and gain perspective on his climatic experience.
Mulling is essential if we are understand what God is doing in our lives, where he wants us to go. It engages our imagination, it allows new ways of thinking.
Above all, Jesus mulled. Luke tells us how he would spend a whole night in prayer before big decisions. His 40 days in the wilderness following his baptism by John. Lent is the season for mulling.
But mulling or pondering is very much against the spirit of our age with the need for instant results and quick fixes. There is much that conspires against us making time to give the Holy Spirit space to help us think creatively. I think the key is not to suddenly stop mulling when the first insight comes. We stick at it, we don’t short circuit the process
That means some kind of external discipline like a long walk or as simple as not listening to the car radio on the motorway. My cousin would follow Winston Churchill’s example and have a long bath. After all, where did the first eureka moment occur?
For there’s nothing like the experience of everything coming together in our minds, a new way of looking at a familiar landscape. “That’s it!” Then and only then comes the call to action!
So make time to mull.