preaching sentence flow

Keep your pencil sharp

How one basic act opened up a well-known passage


I was staring at the passage I was due to preach on. It was a passage I was familiar with, had read hundreds of times, listened to sermons on, read books about and even given the odd talk about myself.

But as I did that familiar exercise of letting my pencil hover over the words, connecting, underlining, drawing things to my attention, it dawned on me that I’d subtly misread it, leaving out one of its dominant themes, for years.  It was a difference of two words, but I’d consistently read it as if it said X, when actually it said Y. X wasn’t wrong – it just wasn’t what was being said here.

If you think I’m being coy about the passage, you’re right; I’m still in the early stages of cooking the sermon, and I don’t want to open up a string of comments on the passage itself.  I have enough commentaries to help me. 

Letting you look at the passage with me would feel like opening the oven on a soufflé to see how it’s doing.  Pouf, gone.  You probably know what I mean if you’re a preacher.

But here’s the thing: those books I’d read, those talks I’d heard, would all have pointed me in the right direction if I’d listened.  In fact I can remember resisting the message because I was so wedded to my misreading. 

What got me out of it was the simple act of writing out a sentence flow diagram, and working through it, pencil in hand. Something that seems so basic, so ‘early years’, that it’s almost an admission of incompetence to say I still do it.  Shouldn’t I have mastered that skill by now, and have sharpened up my act as a preacher?

Not at all.  It’s a foundational skill, never to be lost.

And, deep down, I know that even if I had listened to what all those people had told me, there’s a difference between being told something, and being allowed discover it for yourself. That ‘aha!’ moment is something to be treasured, and worked for, pencil in hand.

That ‘aha!’ moment is something to be treasured, and worked for, pencil in hand.

Every pianist, no matter how glorious the concerto she has to play, will still begin the day with her scales, starting on middle C.

Every tennis player, no matter how many trophies he has in his cupboard, will still practice how he bounces the ball before he serves.

So, my preaching friends, have you started to cut corners with that first, foundation stage?  Writing it out, moving it round, finding its contours and patterns, its logic and heart?

No book, no podcast, can ever do that for you.

Sharpen your pencil.

3 comments on “Keep your pencil sharp”

  1. Thanks for this Chris. I’ve found over the last few months I’ve increasingly started simply printing out the passage and going through with – well, not a pencil, but coloured pens. There really is nothing to replace simply getting into a passage without a commentary. I think actually it takes a bit of confidence to do – a couple of years ago I don’t think I had the confidence as a preacher and the theological knowledge to start that way.

    It’s probably one of those things – it looks like it’s a newbie thing to do, but actually it’s something which becomes more valuable and helpful as you grow in experience and knowledge.

  2. Not sure I know how to write out a sentence flow diagram…. Are you able to post an example….
    without, of course, trespassing into your current study? P.S. we’re just finishing home group studies on 2 Timothy and I found your commentary really helpful…..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s