Files don’t contain everything. This was one finding by the burglars who broke into the office of psychiatrist Dr. Lewis Fielding in search of information to be used against Daniel Ellsberg. E. Howard Hunt must have been very disappointed over the psychiatrist’s files. But not as disappointed, perhaps, as he might have been with Mr. Ellsberg’s rabbi’s files!
Clergymen often keep only the scantiest records. When the chief element is spiritual, something as tangible as written records might seem out of place. But the clergyman who doesn’t keep files of any kind is depriving himself of an extremely useful tool.
To knock filing is inconsistent. The Bibles we read and preach from are indexed. What else are verse numberings but a filing tool? One of the most valuable volumes in Bible study is an analytical concordance, such as Young’s or Strong’s. Both are fat word files.
Among the benefits filing offers the minister are these:
1. Filing conserves time. Saving the right papers can save time (which in turn may help us “save” others). Most clergymen would agree that knowing where to look for answers is almost as good as knowing them. When one comes across a well articulated position, he does well to keep it handy. Filing spares our minds from needless wheel-spinning.
2. It saves duplication. Filing is nothing more than efficiency and good stewardship applied to ideas. A minister who files nothing, not even his sermons, will quite probably get bogged down in needless duplication and frustrating repetition.
3. It develops a better memory. Memorization skills are increased by reinforcement and review. Filing material and periodically consulting recorded information makes repeated impressions on the mind. Recollection comes easier. It is a fact of learning that when one writes out something it doesn’t evaporate from the mind as quickly.
4. It improves sermons by stimulating thought and by supplying concrete particulars. Probably the outstanding believer in filing in colonial America was Cotton Mather. He kept an enormous commonplace book entitled Biblica Americana in which he collected interesting information and illustrative material. He urged aspirants to the ministry to maintain similar file reservoirs. Jonathan Edwards could not have written his famous treatise on The Will without a lifetime habit of jotting down ideas on small pieces of paper as he rode along and pinning them to his coat for later use.
The benefits of preserving information and ideas are no less today. Seminal thoughts, striking illustrations, incisive arguments, epigrammatic sayings are badly needed and greatly missed when we want them and can’t find them.
When one starts filing, the urge is to file everything and become encyclopedic. But to keep everything is foolish. What we file will depend on our interests, needs, standards—and room. Continual discernment and discrimination is essential.
An occasional file purge may be necessary. As a general rule, keep pacesetting articles, definitive articles, or those written by experts in their field. We ought to be open, too, to preserving the off-beat, the original, the satirical and whimsical.
I file articles alphabetically and according to books of the Bible in steel cabinets. Citations from borrowed books, excerpts from my own library, interesting facts and statistics I put on 3 × 5 cards or papers. I have often been grateful for a gripping anecdote culled from my extensive 3 × 5 file, started two decades ago. My messages have occasionally benefited from pungent illustrations garnered from other speakers. And I have used cards to record incidents for which at the time I had no useful application. Rather than build a sermon around a story, I have saved the story to fit into a biblical text I would handle at a future time.
I find the 3 × 5 file the most useful filing technique, for these reasons: (1) it is cheap compared to others that are marketed; (2) it is portable—a card containing a single illustration can readily be used in the pulpit; (3) it suits my method of preparing sermons: I write a sermon out on 3 × 5 pieces of paper, one thought paragraph per paper; then I can play conceptual solitaire and slip in a 3 × 5 from my file that rounds out the presentation, before I type the sermon up in manuscript form.
We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit in keeping our files as much as we need the help of the Holy Spirit in drafting our sermons. Filing what is interesting at the time can have a later unexpected use. When I was in seminary I came across an intriguing statistical compilation of the Hindu attitude toward cows. I had no immediate use for it but filed it nevertheless. A few years later I taught a college course on “Man’s Religion,” and my lecture on Hinduism was enhanced by some little known but interesting information about the Hindus and cows.
There is a danger that filing will degenerate into gimmicks and mechanical manipulation. James S. Stewart rightly advised, “If a passion for mental tidiness leads you to [elaborate card-indexing of illustrations], well and good: only beware lest the mechanism of cross-references and the like becomes despotic!” (Heralds of God). The process of sermon preparation is not simply putting the right illustration in the right place, but of having our hearts as well as minds in tune with the Almighty as he has revealed himself in the blessed Word of truth.
Filing, obliquely and indirectly, serves heart preparation in the exposition of the Scriptures. For in filing pruning is always going on. Clip and file. And throw away! Periodicals, in my view, rarely deserve to be saved complete. Few ministers have unlimited space; few congregations have unlimited funds to move them! There may be many things in your file that are on atonement but will not blend into your presentation on the atonement. Some of them may, however, serve well another sermon on the death of Christ. With our lives and with our files the supreme question is not just, Is it truth?, but. Is it appropriate?
The file over our file is Scripture. Let that be your final screen and censor. Solid biblical theology will enable you to sift through the chaff. But don’t be too severe on some chaff—after all, God made that, too. Remember, there are a lot of secular details in the Bible, especially in the prophecy of Ezekiel. A secular reference can be a plate for serving up the wholesome fare of Scripture. Although non-theological information does not feed the soul, it can keep up interest. Let your facts, your findings, your file serve the grand purpose of making the divine truths more palatable and more penetrating.—The Reverend JOHN LEWIS GILMORE, Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church (United Church of Christ), Worland, Wyoming.
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