What Do You Do on Sabbatical? Part 3 – Read & Write

What Do You Do on Sabbatical? Part 3 – Read & Write

There are two previous episodes of this series of blog posts, but these aren’t really meant to be a continuous story thread or anything. I was doing all of these activities more or less all throughout the whole 10-week period. I’d cook most afternoons (some longer than others). I’d read a bunch or write a ton in the mornings. I’d go to a church on Sunday. I’d walk my dog about every day and go to the gym 3 days a week. I was always doing all of these things, but it makes more sense to talk about categories. So anyway, this is really the meat and potatoes of what my sabbatical was about. This was the most “work” stuff I was up to when I wasn’t actively trying to recover and recharge. Every weekday, I’d grab my satchel of books and my laptop and lug it to a coffee shop. I’d grab my big, blue ceramic mug and fill it with warm coffee and then lay my gear out on the table. Then I’d spend hours every day, reading and/or writing.

My goal for sabbatical was to write a rough draft of three different chapters of a book I’m writing. The book is about the parables of Jesus through the lens of humor, which flows out of the research project I completed as part of my doctoral work. I wrote a chapter on each of the three Gospels that Jesus actually tells proper parables – Matthew, Mark, & Luke. John has some stories or sayings that are certainly metaphorical, but they don’t have the same quality that really meets the standard of “parable.” It’s a really boring read, but if you really want to know I’ve got books for that.

I had 10 weeks of sabbatical. The first 2 were dedicated to vacation and my family (time well spent), which left me with 8 to work on this project. I scheduled myself 2 weeks for intensive research focused on the broad topic of the parables and humor. My basic thesis is that if we try to hear the parables as Holy Writ from on High, then we’re probably going to miss some stuff. We’re looking for sacred sayings that unlock some esoteric message meant for those devout enough or educated enough or holy enough to “get it.” Instead, we ought to hear them more like a joke. The parables that Jesus tells are earthy, this world (for the most part), filled with clumsy characters and ridiculous situations. With 8 weeks to go on the clock, I poured over books and books of materials researching on this idea. So many books. I read books that cover all the parables and what constitutes a parable and how the parables ought to be read. I read books about the importance of humor or how people have used humor in communicating about Jesus before. I read books about ancient festivals dedicated to subverting the normal order of the Christian church and about how taking humor seriously might have deep theological results. It’s a lot of books. So many books.

2 stacks of books with a hand for comparison
These books. And my thumb for scale.

6 weeks to go.

I had three chapters to write and 6 weeks to do it, so I gave myself 2 weeks per chapter. Who says preachers can’t math? I spent the first week of each of those three blocks doing in-depth research on the parables from the Gospel of that section. Yes, I spent 2 weeks doing full-on research on the broader topic. But I had to dig into commentators and scholars about the four parables I was going to write on for a deep dive. That ate up another week of time just to research more from the research I already did. Really. Just so many books.

After that, I’d finally sit down to write. I focused on Mark first and when I sat down to write that first chapter (it was a Friday because I was a bit ahead of schedule), I wrote like a whirlwind. It just came flying out! I wrote and wrote and wrote and it didn’t feel like work at all. Now, all the stuff I wrote I ended up scratching or chopping up and shipping to other files and moving to what would be other chapters. That happened a good amount and is probably inevitable for me. I find the shape of something in the process of writing it. I almost always have a plan going in, but sometimes I find deeper truth as it comes out.

Anyway, I eventually put down words that I did keep in the aptly named “Mark Chapter” (I’m a creative genius) and I was on time. It’s not great. I’m nowhere near satisfied with it, but that’s OK. Writing something like this takes time and effort and a ton of revision. Sermon writing is different. My sermons are written to be heard, which is just a different kind of writing. You’d get bored listening to me read a thesis paper and you’d also throw a book of sermons across the room if it was written for the ear. Book writing just takes longer and I’m cool with that. 2 weeks to deeply research Mark’s parables and then write a chapter.

4 weeks to go.

notation in a messy hand
Doesn’t this look fun?!

I liked the Luke Chapter a whole a lot more, but that makes sense because I was a bit more settled and practiced at this kind of writing than when I sat down to do Mark. Again, the first week was spent researching 4 particular parables from Luke’s Gospel that I would use to make my case. It involves a lot of note taking. So many books. So many notes. I had to rework themes and shift plans a few times. Nothing that I wasn’t expecting. Luke’s Gospel is a bit more pointed in general and gets the award for most parables in his record according to most scholars on the subject. It makes for a fun writing project. This chapter was a blast to write and it showed.

2 weeks to go.

I saved Matthew for last for two reasons. First, Matthew is my favorite Gospel for parables. The details, the ones only Matthew reports, and how he combines them are great. The second reason is that my doctoral research came out of Matthew and I was hoping to give myself a helping hand in the last stretch. Man was that a good idea! I sat down to do my last week’s research and I was getting tired of research. Fortunately, I had a lot to fall back on from my previous work. I liked Matthew’s chapter (titled “Matthew Chapter”) the best. I worked at it quite a bit because I was tired of the process. But the work paid off because I’m pretty sure I’m onto something with that one. It’s still rough; all the stuff I wrote is. But the kernel is there and I can work with it, for sure.

I finished the last words on the Friday before the Monday I snuck back into church. Right on schedule! I ended up with about 60 single-spaced pages of writing. Just for reference, my sermons are about 3.5-4 pages each. So, in my 10 weeks away on sabbatical, I wrote the equivalent of 15 sermons in terms of raw word-count. Far more if you count the amount of work between the writing styles. Really, it was 8 weeks because the first two were vacation. 15 sermons in 8 weeks? Not bad! For me, it was a witness to what I can accomplish if I’m focused on one particular task.

See the normal in my line of work is that there are dozens of things that I have to work on simultaneously. Sermons, sure! But what about Wednesday night lessons, staff meetings, special services, visits, lunch huddles, potlucks, funerals, and community development? That’s to say nothing of the myriad committees and teams that want some help or input. I’m not complaining. That’s the work, right? And I really love my work.

But what I found out in this exercise is just how much work I’m putting into all those other things. In my normal mode, I’m probably only spending 50% of my time creating materials that you hear or read. And that’s helpful for me to know. Because sometimes I can get down on myself for not having a sermon ready yet or having a hard time writing some weeks. But I’m going to remember this period for the rest of my ministry. If I’m not making the progress I might like to be on writing sermons, I must be doing a lot of other work. I may not have all the words on the page, but there are also words I put out out into the world, and they are my work, too.

PS – I’ll be working the rest of the year on polishing up these three chapters and making them something I’d be willing for a publisher to consider. We’re coming into a busy season, but I’m going to attempt to carve out dedicated blocks of time to do so. I may have to get my big blue mug and head back out to the coffee shop!