July 9, 2020

Daniel Grothe: The Spiritual Discipline of Scribbling


The Spiritual Discipline of Scribbling
by Daniel Grothe

A few years ago, I began preaching weekly—an invigorating, and simultaneously daunting and demanding, task. Previously, I had the good fortune of being an occasional preacher, filling in for people who were on vacation or who turned up sick. As a fill-in, very often you get to preach your “greatest hits”—the sermons that are in you, the ones you could stand up and preach without notes, the ones that you are confident will be a Home Run—whatever that might mean, anyway.

As any weekly preacher knows when she/he steps out of the pulpit on Sunday afternoon, the clock is ticking. Next Sunday will be here in no time. Which means a sermon must be prepared.

So, what did I do in my transition from fill-in preacher to weekly preacher? I became an apprentice in the Spiritual Discipline of Scribbling.

I bought a stack of pocket-sized notebooks so that I could have one with me everywhere I go. I bought a case of legal pads and kept one on my desk at all times. My baseline assumption became, I’ll never be able to scribble too much. You just don’t know when a fruitful thought might come to you.

I began to practice for spontaneity, working to “turn a phrase” that I found recurring in the text. I would try to translate the phrase in three or four different ways, not because I was going to use that in my sermon, but because I wanted to develop facility with these words. I would draw a picture of what I thought the text was saying–even though I’m a terrible “artist”. A goal for the preacher is to have internalized these words so much that they naturally begin to find shape on the tongue.

I would attempt to craft transition sentences that would thread two seemingly independent thoughts into a seamless whole. These segue sentences would serve as the hinge on which my sermon would turn.

My point here is that spontaneity is anything but spontaneous, whether you’re a preacher or a jazz saxophonist. It is a skill one deliberately develops. Wynton Marsalis can improvise only because he’s internalized every scale and is intimately acquainted with all the jazz standards.

Words are like a thousand little puzzle pieces—pretty random when strewn about on the table, but beautiful when organized, shaped, placed properly so that a larger picture can be seen.

My contention is that regular doodling with words can serve as a development of linguistic “muscle memory” so that when a situation arises and a word is needed, one will be “in shape”, one will be prepared.

Eleventh-century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, famously wrote, “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.” The assumption he makes is that one will have something to erase. One is writing more than what is necessary. Thus, it stands to reason that the hand that does not have something to erase will never write the true thing.

So we jot, sketch, chicken-scratch, draw, paint and design ourselves ever deeper into the mysteries. And in doing so fewer of our words will “fall to the ground.”

I thank the Creator for every night Teresa of Avila stayed up late praying, grappling with God and endeavoring to write something true. Because she did, the church is more prepared to live faithfully. I praise God for all the hours John and Charles Wesley spent crafting hymns that have served the church for 300 years. Because they did, we can know what to sing whether we’ve “gone up to the heavens” or “made our bed in Sheol.” We won’t forget the effort that people like Flannery O’Connor and Henri Nouwen exerted for our benefit. And these are a just few in a long line of sacred scribblers.

I find it interesting that over and over again God told the prophets and apostles to “write this down” (Exod. 17:14; Ps. 102:18; Hab. 2:2; Rev. 1:19, 19:9-11, 21:5). Writing is a part of our Christian identity. “Chicken-scratching” our way toward faithfulness is a family tradition.

As each new generation is summoned to probe into the vast terrain of the Triune God, I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re going to need to order a few more legal pads.

• • •

Daniel blogs at Edging into the Mysteries


  1. Robert F says

    Here is an important difference between ancient cultures and modern ones. The ancients would had to have done all their scribbling solely inside of their heads, since writing implements and surfaces were far too rare and expensive to be used for anything but what was intended as the finished product.

    • Robert F says

      It’s also interesting that when Eckhart talks about “erasing,” he could not have been referring to the erasure of pencil markings, since pencils have existed for less than 500 years. Maybe he was referring to erasure of the temporary markings on a “writing slate,” sort of the ancient equivalent to the modern chalk board; of course, such writing slates were bulky, large and cumbersome, and probably very expensive, when compared to one of our sheets of paper, and so were not suitable for the same kind of mobile scribbling that moderns do. Composition must have been a very different project before the modern era, requiring far more utilization of memory, and far fewer notes and exploratory rough drafts to work from.

  2. David Cornwell says

    For many years I have carried small notebooks in my shirt pocket. During the past six or so years I have used the small Moleskine shirt pocket size books for any notes I might make, including lists, ideas, or even more. When I am stuck in a doctor’s waiting room ideas can be expanded into outlines, sentences, etc.

    I also keep larger Moleskine notebooks that I can use to make notes from books I am reading, or expand other ideas. In many recent books I have been reading I keep “hot list sheets” that I use as bookmarks and write down any ideas, thoughts, or words, along with page number for the books. They come in a couple of different sizes. Anytime I want to refer back to a book, or start reading where I left off, they hot lists are waiting and ready.

    While I do not preach very often anymore, old habits will not go away, nor do I want them to do so.

  3. I also find that writing is a powerful exercise in clarifying and distilling my thoughts. I love to employ the poetic turn of phrase, and those seldom occur on the fly. I also love to steal the poetic turn of phrase — happily borrowing from those who are better writers and thinkers than I am. Writing it down helps me to lock it in.

    I especially prefer to write out the prayers in which I lead my congregation during worship. I will borrow heavily from the Book of Common prayer, sometimes adapting the BCP words to the needs of my congregation. Again, I find that writing out our prayers keeps them more focused and concentrated.

    • David Cornwell says

      I agree with what you are saying about prayer. The pastor of the church where I am a member writes some of the best prayers I have heard. I know God hears us however we pray, but a pastor is leading a congregation in prayer, and words do matter.

  4. Thanks for this…helpful for aspiring writers who have no discipline (like me).

  5. Writing was the way I found my way out of the wilderness. For years I have journaled my thoughts and ideas as I read scripture and other books. I too keep a little notebook with me as random but profound things pop into my head at the oddest time. There certainly is something holy happening as our thoughts form on paper while the spirit flows through.

  6. Another example of the juxtaposition of the transcendent and the banal. The “…probe into the vast terrain of the Triune God” carried out with doodles and scribbles. No attendant choir of angels. God is always hiding in the ordinariness of it all.

  7. Randy Thompson says

    I too am a scribbler. In fact, I should be scribbling now instead of reading this, as I have a sermon to write!

    Increasingly, sermons and writing projects come out of pages and pages of handwritten, borderline incoherent scribblings that gather force and coherency the longer I do it. For me, scribbling slows down my ADD brain to the speed of what I can write. (I can write fast, by the way.)

    The process reminds me of the old idea that if you put down an infinite number of apes in front of an infinite number of typewriters they would ultimately write all of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m inclined to doubt this, but often the scribbling process feels like a bunch of apes in my head typing away, and if I haven’t (yet) reproduced all of Shakespeare’s plays, or even just one of them, it does result in something worthwhile. At least sometimes.

  8. I’ve been journaling and just randomly writing in notebooks for years. I find that, among other things, it helps me to put to rest various things I keep turning over in my head. I get them on paper, wrestle with them there, and then am able to rest because I have dealt with them somewhere. If I start dwelling on them again, I look back at what I’ve written and feel at peace again (or I sometimes add new insights to what I’ve written).

    Of course, new things to consider are always popping into my head, so I’m always writing something.

    I like Moleskine and Moleskine-type notebooks, in various sizes. I’m somewhat of a pen and notebook fiend, always on the lookout for something that works better.

    The most helpful journaling and notetaking idea I’ve run across, and have been using for about a year now, is something called “sketchnoting.” Just google “sketchnotes” and you will get lots of examples. It is a way to take notes (say, on someone’s sermon) that combines doodling/drawing with taking the notes. I’ve found it helps me to remember content better, in a way I go back to later on. It started on the tech lecture circuit, so a lot of the online examples come from that world. But I find it useful for getting theological concepts and problems down too. It’s as helpful to me in journaling as it is in taking notes.

  9. In light of this post, it’s interesting that hand-written notes are committed to memory better than those that are typed.