Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is one of the most portrayed characters in the history of fiction, film, and stage. Doyle’s four novels and fifty-six short stories involving Scotland Yard’s favorite sleuth have multiplied into hundreds of movies, television programs, and stage productions. Holmes is so ubiquitous that many people believe that this fictional character was in fact a historic figure. No, he was not. Archetypal, perhaps. Composite, most assuredly. Historical, no.
But why such staying power for Sherlock Holmes? What is the source of enduring interest in his character? I believe it is because Holmes could solve the most difficult cases from the smallest of details. Wrinkled carpets, cigar ashes, and water droplets became grist for his mill of exposing and incarcerating London’s criminal element. His tool chest? The magnifying glass. His method? Detailed inspection. The result? His most minute of observations led to the broadest of conclusions.
I want to suggest that those who wish to preach and teach for impact will Sherlock Holmes both congregation and community. Taking a magnifying glass to human behavior, cultural phenomena, and artistic expression, the observant preacher becomes keenly aware that everything is raw material for sermon design, development, and delivery.
Again: everything is raw material.
Yet you can’t include what you don’t first observe.
In that spirit, I am moved by the self-awareness of poet and memoirist Patricia Lockwood. Here’s how she words it in the best-selling Priestdaddy:
I consider myself on an anthropological mission, much like Margaret Mead. I have discovered that this makes almost anything bearable – it would have been such a salvation in my childhood to think I had been sent on a mission to notice. (p. 224)
She’s not the only one sent on the mission of sacred noticing. Preachers, teachers, and leaders do well to don the deerstalker hat, grab the magnifying glass, and join in the sacred act of noticing as an essential part of proclaiming. You can only preach principles when you first notice details.
The Good Company Of Good Noticers
If your proclamation is deeply connected to your observation, you’ll be in good company. Think of how Jesus preached, for example. What were the primary sources of his preaching material?
Ancient sayings. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:43-44). Jesus knew what “everybody” knew — so that he could then re-cast it into something bold, fresh, and provocative.
Farming Practices. “A farmer went out to sow his seed (Matthew 13:3). And, no doubt, his audience nodded its agreement, the collective thought bubble above reading, “Yes. He knows exactly what my life is like.”
Family Drama. “There was a man who had two sons (Luke 15:11)” and you know that the listeners did not fill in the blanks with “and they all got along well and lived happily ever after.” Jesus knew, from both divine design and earthly observation, how human families turn ordinary relationships into toxic rivalries and how they twist misunderstandings into melodrama. His stories have resonance because they’re based on meticulous observation of what it means to be human and in relationship.
After all, he didn’t say, “Ignore the lilies of the field,” did he? Consider them. Ponder. Reflect. Notice. It’s the sacred act of noticing from the most sacred noticer of them all. As Andy Stanley says, “Jesus took what people knew and used it to explain what they wondered about.”
How I Started Noticing
I am a better “noticer” in my mid-50s than I was in my early 30s. Maturity? Perhaps. Experience? Certainly. But there have also been a series of pivotal moments that have opened me up to the vast reservoir of material that just begs to be preached – if the preacher will take the time to observe and to note.
The first of these came in the early 2000s when I spent a season in weekly counseling with a Charlotte-area therapist (that Wounded Healer stuff is real). One day, my counselor and I got into a conversation about counseling itself, and we delved into the therapeutic approach – popular in some circles – of treating psychological issues with bible verses. The operating assumption in that view is that our problems are volitional and through a combination of will power and Scriptural development, the counselee will conquer the problems that brought on counseling in the first place. The more verses you memorize, the fewer struggles you’ll have. “The problem with that approach,” my therapist said with typical understatement, “is that it assumes people are conscious of their own motivations. They’re not. Most of what motivates our behavior stems from our unconscious.”
And suddenly, so much of my own life and the lives of people in the congregation I serve snapped into focus. The reasons behind our noblest aspirations and our vainest ambitions all come from memories, patterns, resentments, and pleasures that have implanted themselves in our brains from well before our cognitive function began to operate.
The second pivotal moment was like unto the first. In the early 2010s, while at a continuing education event for United Methodist clergy from Western North Carolina, I sat at the feet of Robert Tuttle, a retired professor from Asbury Seminary. Among the many memorable one-liners that sprung from Tuttle’s mouth, the most impactful was this: “The purpose of therapy is to turn down the volume on the tapes in our brain so that the voice of God can break through.” We’ve got tapes. Or downloads, to use the language of the 2020s. The things our parents said. The slights inflicted on us. The hugs we never received. The affirmation we did. The raised voices. The soothing hands. All of it. We’re not even aware they’re playing, and yet they continually loop deep in our brains in a way that governs our behavior. Behavior we cannot control stems from a past we have not examined.
So sitting down with a trained and trusted professional empowers us to silence the voices of condemnation and labeling so that we can more authentically hear the voice declaring that we are the beloved of God. We spend far too much time longing for the applause of the crowd when we already have the approval of the King.
Why delve into this murky realm of therapy, memory, and brain chemistry in a book that is on preaching? Because both preacher and preached are caught up in behavioral cycles they can barely understand, and one of the great privileges of Gospel proclamation is to elevate that which had been obscured. When a pastor knows that many of the people to whom he or she preaches are involved in behavioral patterns that are ultimately self-destructive, the sermon can then be a Spirit-based forum for identification and then healing. On multiple occasions people have thanked me after a Good Shepherd sermon, saying, “The was a giant therapy session. It’s just what I needed.”
So: without great noticing there is no great preaching. And when the preacher notices well, she realizes that most people are unaware of their own motivations for their often self-damaging behavior. But what, exactly, is a preacher to look for? And where, specifically, should he look? Good questions … because answering them is where we are headed next.
The preceding is an excerpt from Simplify The Message; Multiply The Impact my new book with Abingdon Press set for official release date on February 4 and now available here.