How To Write a Sermon to Inspire Thousands

Most people are used to getting jokes, cute pictures and funny videos forwarded to them in emails, tweets or posted on Facebook by their friends.  But there’s another type of forwarded message that’s not as popular, the inspirational message.  These internet homilies usually involve a moving story and sometimes a bonus list of lessons, just like a sermon you’d hear in church.  Sometimes they mean to be religious, or at least worshipful of God, but usually they are just heartwarming anecdotes that intend to inspire goodwill and positive thinking.

Inspiration-cropped

I’ve sometimes fantasized about writing a joke and sending it to all my friends and hoping that one day years later it would come back to me in some anonymous way after being spread all over the internet.  But since I’m terrible at telling jokes I doubt I would write a popular one.  I assume internet inspirational messages are from people who would love to write a good sermon themselves, or at least enjoy inspiring others.  It’s an interesting writing challenge to think about.

I got this message overnight and I’ve decided to analyze it as a model for writing internet sermons.

BANK ACCOUNT!!!

This is AWESOME … something we should all remember.

A 92-year-old, petite, well-poised and proud man, who is fully dressed each morning by eight o’clock, with his hair fashionably combed and shaved perfectly, even though he is legally blind, moved to a nursing home today.

His wife of 70 years recently passed away, making the move necessary. After many hours of waiting patiently in the lobby of the nursing home, he smiled sweetly when told his room was ready.

As he maneuvered his walker to the elevator, I provided a visual description of his tiny room, including the eyelet sheets that had been hung on his window.

‘I love it,’ he stated with the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old having just been presented with a new puppy.

‘Mr. Jones, you haven’t seen the room; just wait..’

‘That doesn’t have anything to do with it,’ he replied.

Happiness is something you decide on ahead of time.

Whether I like my room or not doesn’t depend on how the furniture is arranged .. it’s how I arrange my mind. I already decided to love it.

‘It’s a decision I make every morning when I wake up. I have a choice;

I can spend the day in bed recounting the difficulty I have with the parts of my body that no longer work, or get out of bed and be thankful for the ones that do.

Each day is a gift, and as long as my eyes open, I’ll focus on the new day and all the happy memories I’ve stored away.. Just for this time in my life..

Old age is like a bank account. You withdraw from what you’ve put in.

So, my advice to you would be to deposit a lot of happiness in the bank account of memories!

Thank you for your part in filling my Memory Bank.

I am still depositing.

Remember the five simple rules to be happy:

  1. Free your heart from hatred.
  2. Free your mind from worries.
  3. Live simply.
  4. Give Thanks to God for your Blessings.
  5. Expect less.

Pass this message to 7 people except me. You will receive a miracle tomorrow.

Now, STOP! Did you hear what I just said. You WILL receive a miracle

Tomorrow.. So send it right now!

Have a nice day, unless you already have other plans.

I believe my friend Linda sent this message because I wrote about whether or not I should get up early or sleep late in my retirement.  This is a story about a 92 year-old legally blind man who gets up, shaves, dresses and is ready to start his day by 8 am.

Now I’m fascinated by the story process here.  How did it come about?  Is it true?  Or is it made up?  Do people sit around thinking up inspirational stories like other people sit around thinking up jokes to tell?  I’m going to guess that this story has a kernel of truth, and the rest is added by a writer or writers, maybe a blogger like me.  There’s even a chance that as it’s been passed around, the story could have been altered or added to.

Most of the inspirational stories I get by email are about old people, or people overcoming adversity.  I suppose that’s because of my age and the age of the people sending me messages.  I suppose if I was younger and had children, I’d receive a lot of children inspired stories.  Or if I was a young divorced woman I’d see a lot of stories about meeting guys who weren’t dickheads.  So the first lesson of writing an internet sermon is to target your audience carefully.  The message above is aimed at people getting older, especially those fearing nursing homes and living with less in life.

However, I’m afraid I’m going to be cynical here and deconstruct this message.  This mini-sermon makes several philosophical statements.  I think the story can be divided into three sections.  First, the green, is an incident with an old man, probably inspired by a real event.  The second, blue, is another lesson, about memories, maybe inspired by the first story, or maybe just an additional lesson.  Third, in red, additional commentary and advice.  All three could have been from one person, but it feels to me like they were from three different people.  I don’t think the old man and writers 1 and 2 are expressing the same philosophical points.

The old man who has just lost his wife of 70 years, needs a walker, and is nearly blind, is assigned to a nursing home.  The old man is very positive, well groomed, and agreeable.  The story as written has the old man imparting two pieces of wisdom, first about deciding to be positive and second, banking good memories for bad times.  Those are two totally different solutions for finding happiness in old age.  That’s why I think it’s from two different writers.

The first lesson is about mental attitude.  Decide to stay positive – be in control.  Like the British who dress for dinner in the middle of a jungle, this old man dresses up for each day of old age.

The second lesson is actually wimpier, but still a great coping mechanism.  It advices us to have a great life so we can live off those memories when we get old.  Many people do this.  It’s not a lesson I like.  I prefer number one.

The third lesson is really just an addendum of extra advice that doesn’t really relate to the first two lessons.  They break down to love, don’t hate.  Don’t worry.  Live simply, be thankful and don’t want to much.  “Expect less” is a very odd piece of advice unless you think about it carefully.  All five are very Buddhist, especially number five, which is the heart of Buddhism, desire is the cause of all unhappiness.  This is why I think three different people wrote this message, or one person used three different philosophies in their sermon.  They are:  keep a stiff upper lip, hide in good fantasies, and third, accept what you get, be thankful and don’t want too much.

It would have been a much better sermon if it had one consistent message.  The best of the messages, the green one from the old man, inspires the most, because it appears to be based on a real person.  In other words, find real life people and events for the heart of sermons. 

Whole libraries could be written about these lessons.  Thousands of books have been written about the concept of happiness.  Unfortunately, it appears happiness is a condition that most people have or don’t have.  I’ve been lucky, and have always been a happy person.  I don’t think its due to any belief I’ve learned or acquired.  Some people go through years of analysis trying to be shown how to be happy, but I’m not sure its something that can be revealed.  I think some people become happier with drugs, either legal or illegal.  And I think some people become happier through behavioral conditioning, either gained intentionally, or unintentionally.  Sometimes happiness comes with age and wisdom.

I really doubt people can find permanent happiness in a sermon, but we love to try.  Don’t we? 

Decades ago I met this guy who had a lesson about happiness that I found wise.  He said there were three goals in life that we had to accomplished before we could relax and be happy with our lives.  First, we had to finish our education.  By this he meant, we had to get to a place in our life where we no longer felt the need to go back to school.  Second, we had to find the job that we were going to keep and one we didn’t consider a shit job.  Third, we had to find our mate for life.  I thought this a wise story because much of what makes people unhappy is caused by the normal stresses of life – frustrations over incompleteness.  And these three factors are what causes most people a lot of unhappiness.

Like the old man, some people naturally learn from an early age that happiness is knowing how to make lemonade from lemons.  Not everyone can do that.  But can we teach others that lesson?  How many people getting this email today will change from unhappy to happy by doing what the old man does, just deciding to be happy?

Now for the second part of the old man’s wisdom – bank good times when you’re young and withdraw them when you’re old.  I’m not sure this philosophy would have come from that old man.  It’s a totally different philosophy to live by, a different psychological coping mechanism.  Instead of deciding ahead of time to always make the best with whatever is given to you, this advice tells us to make great memories now to live off of when we get old.  A lot of old people do this of course, spend their days dwelling on the past.  Of course there’s lots unhappy guys in their thirties living off their high school glory days.  As a coping mechanism it’s not a particularly good one.

As a whole inspirational story, the last part, the tacked on five point lesson detracts from the original real life story because it sounds too abstract.  And the first two lessons contradict each other.  One is an example by doing, and the second is a made up solution.  Like the golden rule of writing advice, show don’t tell, this story works best when it’s showing and least when it’s telling.

My guess is someone actually met this old man and wrote his story up.  Then the same person or another person, thought it wasn’t enough, and created the idea of a memory bank to fill it out, even though it’s a contradictory message.  Then another person decided the story needed some explicit lessons to take away and added their five bits of wisdom.  This happens in The Bible all the time.  Sermonizers love to add their own bits.  Read Misquoting Jesus or Forged by Bart D. Ehrman.

My conclusion for sermon writers is to only tell the parable and let the reader generate their own lessons.  Make sure nothing in the story contradicts itself.  Make sure the voice stays consistent.  Make sure the philosophy stays consistent.

JWH – 11/1/13

3 Responses

  1. A very quick check on Google shows that this has been around at least since 2006, Jim, though it’s been altered since then.

    For example, #4 was originally (or, at least, in all of the early versions I’ve found) just “Give more.” But apparently, some Christian was aghast there was no mention of God in that version, and so changed it.

    Also, there was nothing about passing it around to seven other people to receive a ‘miracle’ (or passing it around at all).

    I haven’t searched much or compared the versions very closely, but most of the versions I’ve seen don’t even indicate that the person posting it didn’t write it. It’s just posted as if it’s original (and it can’t be original for most of them).

    Funny, isn’t it? Even if I didn’t know who wrote something, I’d make it clear that it wasn’t my own work.

    I’m guessing that it’s entirely made-up. I doubt if there’s even a kernel of truth to it (except that we all know people who are upbeat, even in difficult circumstances). But I really have no idea.

  2. That gives me a new idea for fiction. Write emails about supposedly true encounters with real life events. Sort of True Confession Emails.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author’s name attached to these kinds of internet stories. Most people just pass them on with a couple of words about passing them on. This one was within many series of quotes, indicating it had been cut and pasted many times.

  3. I don’t think it’s important whether it’s true or not. I sure there is at least one person like this 92 year old, but I’m also sure there are 10,000 people that are suffering from all kinds of aliments and can’t wait for death….. I think this ” heartwarming anecdotes that intend to inspire goodwill and positive thinking.” won’t change any ones attitude but it would eliminate all kinds of GUILT about feeling good at 92.

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