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In a couple of months’ time the hit show “The Office” will be no more in terms of new episodes but it will doubtless live on for decades in re-runs. A staple visual feature of this show over the years was on display whenever the camera panned around the office of Scranton’s Dunder Mifflin branch only to reveal that on the screen of most every employee computer was the familiar image of Microsoft’s version of the game “Solitaire.” The joke, of course, was that most of the time Kevin and Stanley and Phyllis were not really working at selling paper but were whiling away their days playing a frivilous card game.
Of course, it is fully possible to waste lots of time on computers. Facebook, YouTube videos, emails from family and friends not related to the job, and games of all kinds apparently do chew up scandalous amounts of clock time for many employees, yielding in lower productivity for some companies than would otherwise be the case. However, I will freely confess to playing solitaire now and again while I am in my office or when I am working from home but oddly enough for me–and I wonder if others have ever experienced this–sometimes doing that is clarifying and helpful in ways I am not certain I can explain.
That’s why a few years ago I was gratified to read something similar written by Mike Graves in his helpful book “The Fully Alive Preacher.” The book’s subtitle tells us that this is a book about “Recovering from Homiletical Burnout” and as such, the book offers lots of practical tips for how to keep the pastor’s batteries fully charged and his or her mind and heart fully engaged in work that can become draining due to the constant need for fresh input and fresh, creative output week after week. Graves notes that most preachers (and probably anyone who engages in creative writing) know that sometimes the ideas in one’s head jumble and jostle and seem actively to resist coming together. This is the moment of intense frustration when you know that something is brewing in your head but you can’t quite get it down right.
At such moments Graves suggests the following: “In those moments of frustration, I have found that Handel’s Messiah often helps. You’ve probably heard those studies about classical music stimulating thinking, ‘the Mozart effect.’ The results are debatable, but for me, Handel makes a difference. So does a quick game of solitaire on my computer. The spatial arrangement and sequencing required in solitaire often stimulate my thinking in new ways” (p. 122).
Honestly now: I am not making up an excuse for those times you may catch me in my seminary office playing solitaire or hearts! But like Graves, I am often struck by how playing a few games really does dislodge for me whatever has gotten stuck in my head. (A good brisk walk can have the same clarifying effect but it’s not always practical to do.) I don’t know why exactly, and maybe it wouldn’t work for everyone. But when I am stuck in finding the right image or story or when I am flummoxed as to where to go next in a sermon I am writing, somehow doing something different for a few minutes works. After a few games of solitaire–after several losing games typically–the image comes to me. The transition that had been lacking becomes clear and so I can now add it to the in-progress message. Like the proverbial shaking-out of the mental cobwebs, solitaire and the like helps.
The human creative process and the wiring of our incredibly complex brains are a constant source of wonder to me. So the idea that the Holy Spirit might just be able to work through something as trivial as a brisk game of solitaire should perhaps be no surprise–our minds are fearfully and wonderfully made and the Spirit is endlessly nimble. Still, the idea that solitaire can help me in writing sermons is surprising to me, but in a most delightful way.
Now if only I could win more than about 2% of the time . . .