I’ve learnt a lot about myself lately by thinking about teapots. You know, those kind of round things with a handle on one side and a spout on the other; you put teabags in them and then fill them up with hot water to make a brew – I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. I’ve got a whole lot of insight from teapots.
It all began in Southampton. Over the past few years I’ve developed links with a little church plant there now known as Christ Church, and I’ve had the privilege of preaching there from time to time. On the first few occasions I went down there it always seemed to come at a bad time and I ended up getting a bit behind on my sermon prep, and had a bit of a last minute stress getting them written on time. The next few trips after that I’d been asked to speak on particularly tough passages that I really struggled to make much headway on, meaning it was a bit hit or miss whether I’d have a sermon ready to preach come the Sunday morning. Then the next time I was distracted thinking about some relationship issues and, as shameful as it sounds, writing a sermon wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. There always seemed to be some excuse for why this time I was a little behind on my preparation – next time would always be better, it seemed.
Then 18 months ago my excuses came crashing down around my head. I began studying at the PT Cornhill training course, the highlight of which is being made to regularly prepare and deliver short talks and then getting feedback from your peers. Now I was having to try and write a sermon every fortnight or so, and it quickly became apparent that my difficulty in finishing sermons in good time for my visits to Southampton had nothing to do with the particular circumstances of that specific week – I just sucked at writing sermons. When you only do something occasionally it’s easy to think that your experience is just a one-off, but being made to do it regularly made it abundantly clear that it had nothing to do with that particular sermon and everything to do with me.
My life is utterly crippled by debilitating procrastination. I wrote that about myself in my school self-assessment aged 7, though perhaps not in those specific words – I’ve always known how bad I am at getting stuff done. Trying to write a sermon, staring at a blank piece of paper, knowing I’ve got to catch a train in four hours time in order to stand before the expectant congregation of Christ Church, and yet somehow being utterly unable go bring myself to do anything. It’s not even as if I’m able to enjoy my procrastination by using the time to watch DVDs or play video games – I just sit there feeling guilty about not working and wishing I were one of those people who can crank out a novel in a week.
But then I remembered the teapots.
Whenever I visit my parents I try to do the washing up after dinner, model son that I am. And I began to notice a pattern: I’d always end up leaving the teapot for my Dad to deal with once I’d finished with everything else. I’d have loaded the dishwasher and washed all the glasses and scrubbed all the pans and wiped down all the work surfaces – but there would be that teapot, sitting there, untouched, waiting to be emptied out by my poor old Father.
I often think about those teapots. It’s almost as if I were blind to them. Except I wasn’t – the nagging sense of guilt about leaving it for my Dad demonstrated that. So why would I never complete the job and clean out that teapot?
The answer is the same as why I find sermons so hard to write, and it boils down to one word: uncertainty. Uncertainty. The reason I always left the teapot is that I never quite knew what to do with it – it clearly needed some kind of cleaning action applied to it and yet it was so grimy and dirty inside and I didn’t really want my future cups of tea to taste of washing up liquid and I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do with it and – Agh! Uncertainty. My brain gets scared and shuts down and prefers to leave it rather than figure it out and deal with it.
It’s the same with a sermon – what exactly am I trying to say? How can I express that clearly? Every time I finish a sentence I’m having to make a decision all over again – what sentence shall I write next? Where shall I go from here? Agh!
99% of my procrastination boils down to uncertainty – not understanding the problem clearly and not knowing what I’m trying to achieve. Realising that fact has made an enormous difference to my ability to get stuff done. Now when I recognise the brain freeze I try and stop and acknowledge where the uncertainty is – sometimes I even write down the implicit question that’s hanging in the air. Usually the solution is embarrassingly simple as soon as you’ve realised what the problem is and then you can move on. For my sermon writing, I’ve tried to reduce the feeling of constant decision making by writing a bullet point outline of what the logical flow is before turning it into prose. In my programming I’ve started to write out a clear description of what problem I’m trying to solve at any given moment.
It’s still a constant battle. Working hard takes hard work. There are no quick fixes on the road to productivity. Buy I thank God for those teapots and the small contribution they’ve made to my ability to get stuff done.