Friday Link Love: Science Videos, Memoir Writing, and Gratitude

First links first: Presby-peeps, have you registered for the NEXT Church National Gathering in Charlotte? It’s going to be a fun, creative, hope-filled gathering.

Go register now, because early bird rates end next week. I’ll be here when you get back.

OK. Away we go:


Is Atheism a Religion? — New York Times

A variety of perspectives from lots of smart folks, including Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass.

He’s not quoted here, but I am a fan of Alain de Botton and his School of Life for Atheists. (I linked to him yesterday in my post about why atheists need holidays.)


Salon’s Guide to Writing a Memoir —

H/t to Katherine Willis Pershey for linking to this wisdom recently.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Accept the limitations and boredom of your life as the challenge of writing. Accept your profound lameness as the wages of your craft. The problem is never that your life isn’t interesting enough, it’s that you aren’t looking (or writing) hard enough.

Sabbath in the Suburbs is memoir-ish, and I gotta say, I’m pretty sick of myself. My next book will not be a memoir.  But I still love reading good ones. Good ones.

Avi Steinberg:

If you’re not sure about the difference between publishing a story and therapy, you especially should find a good shrink.


50 Life Hacks to Simplify Your World — Twisted Sifter

The most useful list I’ve seen. OK, posts like this don’t solve world hunger, but they give me a weird sense of hope. Human beings are so resourceful:



Why Is There a Gap Between What We Feel and What We Express When It Comes to Gratitude? — Science and Religion Today

A recent study sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation found a dramatic gap between the gratitude people say they feel and what they express. In the large and demographically balanced survey, fully 90 percent of respondents said they were grateful for their immediate family, and 87 percent were grateful for their close friends. But when it came to expressing it, the numbers dropped almost in half. Only 52 percent of women and 44 percent of men said they express gratitude on a regular basis.

So why the big gap? Several factors come into play. Many people assume that those close to them already know how they feel, so they don’t need to state their appreciation. They are, of course, quite wrong.

More at the link.


Australia Banned Assault Weapons. American Can Too — New York Times

I was elected prime minister in early 1996, leading a center-right coalition. Virtually every nonurban electoral district in the country — where gun ownership was higher than elsewhere — sent a member of my coalition to Parliament.

Six weeks later, on April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant, a psychologically disturbed man, used a semiautomatic Armalite rifle and a semiautomatic SKS assault weapon to kill 35 people in a murderous rampage in Port Arthur, Tasmania.

After this wanton slaughter, I knew that I had to use the authority of my office to curb the possession and use of the type of weapons that killed 35 innocent people. I also knew it wouldn’t be easy.


How to Write a Muffin Recipe — Deb Perelman, Slate

I’m a big Smitten Kitchen fan and a HUGE muffin fan. Muffins are the perfect food. They are easy to make, bake up quickly, come in infinite varieties, and have built-in portion control. The recipe for Plum Poppy-Seed Muffins looks wonderful, but just as delightful is Deb’s description of her trial and error and her basic formula for create-your-own muffin flavors. This is kitchen improv at its finest.


100 Best YouTube Videos for Science Teachers — Boogie Man Journal

Science teachers, and parents:

16.) Earth-Building Wounds
Scientists are studying the unique geological properties of Iceland in order to better understand how tectonic plates form and shift to permanently change the shape of the planet.
17.) The Wright Brothers Discover Aspect Ratio
John D. Anderson at the National Air and Space Museum provides an interesting talk on the Wright Brothers and their indispensible contributions to the history of human flight.
18.) Through the Wormhole: DNA
Morgan Freeman(!!!!!!) narrates a brief clip on the structure and importance of DNA. Short, but soothing. Also educational. Also Morgan Freeman.

Much, much more at the link.


Have a great weekend, everyone. I’m off to Windy City tomorrow, where I’ll be leading a pastors’ retreat on Sabbath-keeping. Once I get back I’ll be preparing for Preacher Camp. So blogging will be light next week. Peace!


What’s Your Preaching/Worship Planning Process? Here’s Mine

Yeah. Right.

I love hearing how other pastors put sermons together. Advance planning or seat of the pants? Or something in between? Writing on Thursday or Saturday night? It’s all good.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me to hear that I have a process. I don’t follow it slavishly and it probably works as I intend it to less than half the time. But the Spirit works as much through intentional planning as the spontaneous lightbulb moment. This I believe. (In fact, I think planning makes space for the lightbulb moment to happen, but hey, I’m a J on the Myers-Briggs, I would think that.)

I’m doing a lot more series these days, and about 6 weeks to 2 months before the series begins, I’ll set aside a few hours or a half-day to plan. I put together a packet of papers with one page for each Sunday/topic/text. There is space on the paper for me to brainstorm specific items:

  • resources I already have for this text (papers from the Well preaching group I’m in, maybe a sermon from the last time I preached the scripture)
  • images
  • quotes (e.g. for the bulletin cover)
  • spiritual practice/insert—I’ve been doing half-page study guides for people to take with them and use the following week. These include questions, things to try, additional quotes. I’m not sure how sustainable this is long-term, and I don’t do them for every series/season… but I think they add a lot. They also give me a place to put stuff that didn’t make it into the sermon :-\
  • liturgy
  • hymns

I keep this with me at all times, so as I read stuff in the news, or ideas occur to me, I can capture them on the sheet. I also look through my Evernote files to see if there is material there that I can use.

Then this is what I do each week… ideally. *ahem*

  • Tuesday is a big sermon/worship day. I read the scripture text, jot down some notes, and figure out what is stirring within me. I re-familiarize myself with what’s in the planning packet. I also write the order of worship, but hopefully I’m not starting from scratch, thanks (again) to my planning packet. Lately I’m also writing the bulletin insert, called the GPS (grow pray study), on Tuesday. Getting it done on Tuesday means our part-time administrative assistant can copy and collate it in the bulletin, so it saves me time to get it done early, but this makes for a very full day.
  • Wednesday: I create a .doc for the sermon. That’s all I do that day for worship. But having a document ready, with the header and the text and all that jazz, is the equivalent of parking downhill when it comes to actually writing on Thursday. I will also do a little reading based on the previous day’s work—commentaries, Well papers, etc. But no writing. This is a blatant psychological trick I play: I don’t usually feel like sermonating on Wednesday, but Surely I can get the document set up in Microsoft Word! That takes five minutes! And read this article? No problem!
  • Thursday: I write a sermon draft. My goal is not necessarily to have it done, but to reach a place that if [random cataclysmic occurrence] happened over the weekend, the sermon is basically preachable.
  • Friday I finish the draft and write the prayers of the people. I also choose the hymns for the following week, which I give to my organist on Sunday so he has a week to prepare.
  • Saturday is our family’s Sabbath day so I do my level best to have the sermon done on Friday. That makes for some late Friday nights sometimes, but I prefer those to late Saturday nights.

A friend of mine posted on Facebook today that she’s “getting it all done 30 minutes at a time” (paraphrased). I say Amen to that. Preaching is a huge task and a humbling responsibility. The perfectionism and the immensity of this weekly task can be crippling for me. So that’s why I break it into chunks. And I know I’m not alone.

So how do you do it? Non-preachers, how do you “chunk” your work?

Evernote for Preachers and Other Smart People

UPDATE 8/23: Someone requested that I share the list of Evernote notebooks I use. I’ve added that to the end of the post.

I wrote this for our presbytery’s monthly newsletter several months ago…

“I read a great story a few months ago that would fit perfectly in this weekend’s sermon… now where on earth did I read that? A blog? CNN’s site? I wish I could remember.”

A good organizational system needs to be easy and fun, otherwise people won’t use it. I also think a good system doesn’t take over your life, but it works for you. (What’s that thing about the Sabbath existing for humanity and not the other way around?)

Evernote is the system I use to store sermons, stories and quotes, prayers, orders of worship, and anything else I want to keep in an archive. It has a desktop application, a smartphone app, and a web client you can access anywhere. It’s a free application (with a paid version) that stores text files and web pages. You can cut and paste into Evernote, type directly into the program, or “clip” websites with the touch of a button. Evernote also accepts  photos and images, the text on which is searchable through some voodoo I don’t understand.

You can sort these items into “notebooks” depending on your own needs. For example, I have a notebook called “quotes and stories” (e.g. that great human-interest piece I heard on NPR) and another called “general ministry” (e.g. a blog post I ran into on how to run a good meeting). Not only can you sort things into these notebooks, but you can tag them with searchable keywords. So if I am doing officer training and I need stuff on “change,” I can find that easily.

The paid version of Evernote allows you to load PDFs, so I’ve uploaded all of my past sermons, and they’re (of course) searchable. I don’t do complete re-preaches much, but I have adapted old stuff for a new occasion. And Craddock says if a sermon’s not worth preaching twice, it probably wasn’t worth preaching the first time, so there!

Of course, this system takes time to set up, but not as much as you think. Loading past stuff into Evernote is very easy to do and doesn’t require a lot of brain cells. (Do it during commercial breaks of your favorite show.) Of course, if you’re not fundamentally an organized person, Evernote isn’t going to make you one. What it does is maximize the impact of your organizational efforts.

It sure beats manila folders that are never where you need them and that require you to make decisions (does this poem about the mother of Jesus go under “Mary” or “Advent” or “Gospel of Luke”?).

And it beats the heck out of metal file cabinets.


As I read this article, having spent more time with Evernote, I’m thinking more philosophically about technology and its impact on preaching. Think I’ll share that in a separate post.

And finally, no, I do not get a commission from Evernote. Don’t I wish!



Here is the list of notebooks I use. It works for me, but there are many ways to slice and dice it.

Sermons: I actually have two separate sermon notebooks, one for my previous call and one for this one.

Papers: I’m in a lectionary group with some clergy and I have all their papers loaded and tagged in Evernote.

Orders of Worship: This is contains complete bulletins from past worship services. This is nice as a kick-start, like if I’m preaching a text and want to recall what hymns I used last time. (Hymn-picking is the bane of my existence. That and prayers of confession.)

Prayers and Liturgies: Stuff I’ve written or picked up along the way. Eugenia Gamble’s fantastic benediction, the Brief Statement of Faith of the PCUSA, some hymns written by my friend Michael.

Church Members: I have a separate file for each member of the church, where I put grandkids’ names and similar stuff I want to remember. I also keep track (very imperfectly) of pastoral calls and visits.

Each file within these notebooks is tagged topically: everything from Ash Wednesday to conflict to eschatology to grief to tithing to Zechariah.

I also have some personal notebooks:

Crafts: stuff I can do with the kids

Recipes: self-explanatory

Personal: gift-giving ideas, restaurants to try

writing practice

Bruce Reyes-Chow and I got into a brief exchange on twitter about writing practices. He’s feeling angst, though I have to disagree with his blog post–he is anything but lame. He’s a rock star who just happens not to have written a book (yet).

Someone recommended The Artist’s Way to him and suggested morning pages as a way to get unstuck. I have a complicated relationship with The Artist’s Way. I have several of Julia Cameron’s books, and even facilitated a writing group at Burke Pres. using bits of TAW. I think many of her principles are right on, and I’ve have gone in and out of morning pages for years. It’s as good a way as any for clearing the clutter out of one’s mind. But I think my sister-in-law, speaking as a fellow writer and mother of young children, put it best: “If I have 30 minutes on my hands, I’d rather spend it polishing a great paragraph than doing morning pages.” For multi-vocational folks, unless you absolutely can’t get unstuck any other way, MPs can become a practice that just eats into your writing time.

After trying to explain this ambivalence to Bruce in 140 characters, he asked, “So what’s your writing practice?”

I responded: “Writing.”

I was glib partly because I don’t feel like my practice is all that great. My friend and former Writing Rev Carol gets up at 5 a.m. to write every day. Let’s just say that’s not my fruitful time of day. I like to quote a preacher who said, in response to an invitation to lead an Easter sunrise service, “Sorry, I don’t even believe in God until at least 10 a.m.” Then again, Carol’s written two books, so there you go.

My life doesn’t work like that—could be lack of discipline, could be the three amigos, could be both. But I do have certain practices and rhythms that have been indispensable. I offer this to anyone who wants to do creative work but must find ways to do that work around the edges of other vocations and in the nooks and crannies of one’s schedule. No claims of uniqueness, by the way:

  • The most important thing I’ve done is join a group. Our poor Writing Revs have been stricken with illness and injury this summer but I really hope we get back into it. We meet twice a month (ideally) and e-mail each other stuff to read beforehand (ideally). It’s love, accountability and feedback with a tall decaf latte on the side.
  • Thursday is writing day–especially sermons but also other projects. Not that I don’t write on other days, and [sadly, perhaps] my writing day does get supplanted by other stuff. I also write many evenings after the kids are in bed.

Those are the big things, but there are a few medium-sized things too:

  • I am a Getting Things Done fanatic, and I’ve got all my writing tasks integrated into my to-do list. David Allen recommends breaking projects down into manageable chunks and making to-do items as specific as possible. So I rarely have something as general as “write article” on my list. Instead it’s a bite-sized, achievable piece like “read scripture and jot down notes on it.” (This is a classic Bird by Bird maneuver.)
  • I picked up a trick from Lauren Winner, who picked it up somewhere else. She suggests that when you’re ready to finish writing for the day, you should stop your writing mid-sentence and/or at a point where you know what you’re going to say next. It’s the equivalent of parking downhill; it’s going to take less mental bandwidth to get started the next day.
  • Along those lines: I’m writing a memoir-type thingy at the moment, which I made amazing progress on during a writing retreat in Collegeville, MN. Near the end of the week, I free-wrote about 50 opening sentences that are the beginnings of vignettes. Now when I find myself with a free half hour or so, I find these prompts, write one down at the top of a clean page, and go. My current favorite: “On the upside, my mother’s divorce lawyer lent our family a full-sized Donkey Kong arcade game, which we set up in a corner of our living room.”
  • Hanging around with writers: In addition to the Writing Revs, I attend writing conferences and workshops whenever I can. It’s good for the mojo.
  • Sh*tty first drafts. This is a bit of genius from Anne Lamott and is the single most important thing in my own psychological arsenal. All I have to do is write something, anything, no matter how pathetically bad it might be. SFDs are a way of pulling a fast one on my internal perfectionist, who would much rather keep the stuff in my head, where it can be flawless (yeah right).
  • I also am a big believer in this mental hack for those days when I’m on a deadline but the lure of the Internet and its shiny objects is just too great to ignore. I’ve adjusted it slightly; I will write for 12 minutes, then goof around for 3. Lather, rinse, repeat until the job is done. I’ve written entire thousand-word articles this way.

In the spirit of disclosure, here’s some stuff I need to work on:

  • being more disciplined about personally imposed deadlines. If nobody else is expecting the finished product, if it’s just something I want to do, it’s too easy for everything else to take precedence.
  • spending more time reading about writing than actually writing. There are so many great books out there about the writing life and/or the practice of writing. That’s another reason I have shelved Julia Cameron for the moment.
  • setting aside longer periods of time to think and write—an entire day or more. It’s like prayer and meditation—you can only get by with short bursts for so long without feeling scattered and the work becoming superficial. My friend Ruth is really good about this; she books writing time at the monastery pretty often.

So, that’s what I do. What do you do?