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Grace in the mechanism: How a typewriter changed the way I pray and preach


Why am I writing about typewriters when you are supposed to write on them? 

At least that is what people used to do in the bygone church offices of yore. They typed up bulletins and newsletters to be mimeographed. They typed out pages of membership rolls and added them to big leather-bound books. They typed out names, addresses and phone numbers on little cards and jammed them into their Rolodexes. My grandfather was a pastor and typed out all of his sermons on a Smith Corona with a script typeface that he put in little leatherette binders. My aunt still has the whole operation in her basement. Almost everything church-y and office-y happened on a typewriter.  That’s the way it used to be. That’s the way it still is for me in a way. 

I use a typewriter for almost all of the writing I do as a pastor. All of my sermons. All of my prayers. Notes of encouragement to parishioners. Working through new ideas. I do all of it on a typewriter. I have one in my office at church, a 1950s Hermes Rocket and another on my desk at home, a 1950s Olivetti Lettera 22 (plus a few other ones… they seem to be multiplying).  To be clear: I am not still using a typewriter. I’m 33. A millennial. I barely remember a time before the internet. I am a digital native but an analog immigrant. Writing on a typewriter is, for me, an innovation, a solution to a problem I faced. This is no hipster nostalgia trip. I write on a typewriter, especially sermons and prayers, because it helps me write better and be more productive.  Personally, a typewriter is the best way for me to be faithful to the words God has called me to share.

The journey toward writing my first prayers and sermons on a typewriter starts in a basement. I had just started as the minister for evangelism at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago. I was supposed to be the NEW member guy with NEW ideas about NEW ways to get NEW people engaged in the NEW ministries of the church. NEW NEW NEW! And yet, my first week, I found myself crawling and ducking around in the oldest part of the church.  The deep basement under the sanctuary where the muffled deepness of someone practicing on the biggest pipe organ in the Midwest vibrated through the thick stone floor, shaking my biggest bones. I was down there looking for furniture for my sparse, drafty office. Even deeper into the basement, through a narrow passage lined with dusty barrister bookcases guarding old session minutes and disused blueprints, I found a thick oak desk. I lifted it a little to see if I could muscle it past the bookcases. Way too heavy. When I put it down I heard a little bell ding.  Hiding where the file drawer would have been was an old cast-iron swinging mechanism and a deep black Underwood Standard No. 3 typewriter with gold pinstriping.  The last patent date on the back was 1926.

If you haven’t already Googled what it looks like, think set dressing for what life used to look like at the telegraph office in a small-town museum. Upright and boxy. Finger-crushingly heavy.  A little dirty, but well maintained. The ink ribbon spools were made of plastic, which meant that intrepid machine had seen use up until maybe the 1970s or 80s. It had the kind of round glass keys that a heartless person might have yanked off to make earrings for their Etsy shop. It was gorgeous. I wanted it.

Not wanting to bother anyone by asking permission at such a busy church, I dragged it out of the basement to my office, cleaned it off and bought a fresh ink ribbon for it online. I clacked out a few “quick brown foxes” on it and the noise of it brought other folks from the office to my door. Some just wanted to know what the heck it was. Some wanted to reminisce about how offices used to sound. All I knew was that it could gather people. And wherever two or three are gathered around a typewriter, well… you know the rest. I kept it on my desk, because it was cool and old, until my want of it turned into a need.

At the last minute before the evening jazz worship service, I realized I needed to write a prayer for the service. The Wi-Fi was down and I couldn’t connect to a printer to print. I cranked a sheet of paper into that typewriter and banged out my prayer. It was full of typos, but the experience was illuminating. The steady sounds of the typewriter doing its job centered me and let me focus. The resulting prayer had much more presence in it. Because I couldn’t erase, I was sure I meant every word in there. The best part was getting to do the dramatic thing you see reporters do in movies: I ripped the page from the machine and ran out the door to stop the presses and start worship. 

I started using that typewriter for all sorts of stuff: notes to new members (big hit), sermons, prayers, blessings, idea brainstorming. I even plopped the thing on a table in front of the congregation and typed them a letter in a sermon. This year, after being called to a congregation in California, I offered typed “blessings while you wait” at the church’s spring festival. I was mobbed by kids the entire time as they tried to type their names on my machine with their thumbs like they would on a phone. 

I use a typewriter every day in my work. You have to answer the question “Why?” a lot when you are working on a typewriter these days. I used my typewriter to prepare my candidating sermon for the first time I preached at Point Loma Community Presbyterian Church in San Diego. The head pastor noticed asking, “Did you type that on a typewriter? Why?” Later, as I unpacked my little Hermes Rocket typewriter that I bought broken and fixed up to use at work, she walked by my office and saw it. “So you actually use that thing all the time. Why?”  My boss’s “why” had genuine curiosity to it. She was trying to get to know me with it.  Sometimes other folks’ “why” comes with skepticism. They are trying to figure out if I am a crazy person.

I’ve never really formulated an answer to this question of “why?”  I was simply drawn to the mechanics of a typewriter and how it feels to type, to write, to pray, to preach using them.  I didn’t give it much thought because it felt natural. I typed my first prayer on a typewriter out of necessity because modern technology had let me down. I went back to type a second one because of the way it felt to compose on a typewriter.  I feel this way every time I type on a good manual typewriter, but especially when I am writing prayers or sermons. There is an immediacy to it. Each keystroke is an indelible imprint on the page in front of me. It is direct. Push a key. See a letter on the page. A few less steps between what God is calling me to say and me.

I am also very prone to distraction. I crave the flow of getting lost in a creative task I really enjoy and feel called to. At the same time, as a lot of creative people do, I wrestle with a lot of fear and doubt in my work. Beginning is the worst. I procrastinate a lot — not from laziness, but because I am scared. What if God doesn’t show up this time and I don’t end up with anything to say? What if my prayer comes out as evocative as a grocery list? Am I really called by God to preach to these people or am I just saying what I want to say and damaging their faith in the process? I am full of these questions as I approach an empty page and try to start writing. I look for any excuse to not start because if I never start writing (so goes the distorted message in my head), then I haven’t failed. 

It used to be a regular part of my sermon-writing process, especially on a Saturday night as the clock ticked closer to Sunday morning, to watch endless music videos on YouTube. I’d follow the suggestions to another and another until I’d seen every Deathcab for Cutie music video. So, I got all the apps and blockers that shut off the internet. But then I’d get caught up in all the little things I could tweak that felt like work. What font is really the best to preach from? And what size? Landscape or portrait? Wide or narrow margins? A different color text, perhaps? It took flirting with the disaster of not actually getting my sermon done before the sun came up for me to finally get started and get the sermon done. It hurt my preaching. It made my wife nervous. I yawned a lot in church. It wasn’t a very faithful way to interpret God’s Word for people.  

My typewriter changed all of that. It is distraction free. It doesn’t have any advertisements except for a sticker on the back from the shop, long closed, that sold it to the original owner. It won’t take me anywhere that I don’t tell it to go. All it does is the only thing that I need it to do: it writes. Yes, typing on a typewriter is slower than on my fancy laptop. No, there is no way to erase what I’ve put down. Yes, I have to live with a few imperfections or pencil edits unless I want to go back and retype the whole thing perfectly. The freedom, though, from distractions lets me much more honestly confront the fears and anxieties that gum up my creativity. I’ve stopped trying to avoid my hang-ups. I work through them. I type them out on a typewriter and set them aside. It is slower going, but because I am so much more focused and confident, I am more productive and what I produce is better. I also sleep a lot better and have much more time to practice my preaching, which makes my delivery that much stronger, that much more faithful to how God wants to speak through me.

There’s also one more piece to it — something harder to pin down, and I’m not sure I can convey it without sounding like I am making a typewriter into a magic conduit to the divine.  There is a sensation to typing on a typewriter that I really like. The way it physically feels, looks and sounds to put words on the page has its own momentum. And that keeps me at the desk and working. When I am not really happy with or interested in something that I am writing, especially in the early stages of sermon writing when I’m not sure where I am going, just the physical act of typing can keep me working. I think my brain gives me a little endorphin dose from the physicality and sensation of typing. When I am really in a groove, the movement of the little arms that swing up and print the letters feels as inevitable as ocean waves. They will keep coming, in spite of my lack of faith in what I am trying to say, because the moon or God wills them so. There is a lot of grace in that, for me at least, because it doesn’t take much for me to want to give up. That little bit of encouragement feels designed into the machine. There is just enough of the Spirit working in the mechanism to see me through to the end of whatever I’m working on. I am terrible at beginning to write but there is no better feeling than finding an ending that you can believe in.

ALEX WIRTH is a father, writer and associate pastor for congregational care at Point Loma Community Presbyterian Church in San Diego.