Monday, October 17, 2011

Advice to Advent Devotional writers

Phaedra Jean Taylor, "Annunciation"
At the moment I'm working with my good friend Tanner Capps to co-edit our church's Advent Devotional, and it's been great to partner with him. I submitted a piece to last year's Devotional and I've contributed an essay to the devotional that Regent College put out a few years back, and it's nice to be able to serve our church, All Saints Anglican, in this capacity.

I'm copying here a note (slightly abridged) that I sent to our writers. I share it for two reasons.

One, I hope it encourages you to consider trying something similar in your own church. It's a great way to "build up the church," especially in an intensively particular fashion. I also believe it's an excellent way to get the arts involved. While it appeals primarily to the written and the visual arts, I could envision the other arts being brought in after the fact--an Advent hymn that responds to a given reflection, a dance that evokes the theme of the week, a Scripture-telling that enlivens the biblical text of the day.

Two, writing these reflections is actually hard work. You'd think it'd be easy. 300-500 words on the idea of waiting? We do it all the time--how hard could it be to write it up? Quite hard, I say.

If you care about the quality of the writing, and if you're willing to put in more than a few editing hours, then you'll ask your writers to bring their best. First drafts won't due. These essays are for public service. We owe it to our congregations to offer them a fourth and fifth draft, if not a ninth one. It goes without saying that the season of Advent merits a long rumination. Off-the-cuff reflections exhibit a lack of respect for readers and fail ipso facto to penetrate Advent's mystery.

Before I copy the note, here are the four themes that Tanner and I chose. We wanted something to create a coherent feel to the Devotional and we felt that these would be broad enough but also concrete enough.

1. Light and Darkness – November 27 – December 3
2. Waiting and Journeying – December 4 – December 10
3. Joy and Sorrow – December 11 – December 17
4. Arriving and Hoping – December 18 – December 24

We're excited to see the final product. We're praying as we go along of course--praying for the writers, praying for the process of preparation, for the design and printing, and for folks who will be reading it throughout Advent.

Oskar Kokoschka, "Annunciation"
It might be too late to get something like this started in your own congregation. Perhaps not. Advent arrives on November 27. But I'd encourage you to consider giving it a try next year. And make sure you start the process around June! Starting in the fall makes for a stressful process. Trust me, we know. As my good friend Kate Van Dyke reminds me often: "You can only get two out of three: good, cheap or fast." We'll certainly do everything to make this Devotional good and trust that the Spirit will guide us throughout and take responsibility for whatever fruit is born from it.

NOTE TO WRITERS AT ALL SAINTS ANGLICAN

As you begin ruminating on your essay, I want to share with you a few thoughts.  I don't underestimate how difficult it is to write a good reflection, so please know that we are committed to praying for you and to encouraging you in this process.

Some of these thoughts may be familiar to you, others perhaps not.

1. The first thing to aim for is concrete writing. Make your reflection as concrete as possible. Avoid abstractions, as tempting as they might be.

For example, "I hate waiting at stop lights" is concrete.

"The Christian life is about waiting" is abstract.

If you're looking for some inspiration, check out Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. It's an excellent model for a devotional.

2. Related to this, look for robust, particular imagery rather than general one.

This is particular: "Sitting in my office at school, I am completely cut off from any sense of whether it is day or night outside. I have two lights that I can manipulate: a fluorescent light and an incandescent lamp. If I turn them off, it's creepy dark. On certain days it's unnerving, other days it's depressing, and I wonder if it is disrupting certain biological rhythms that God intended to keep me healthy."

This is a general statement of the same reality: "Light and dark are themes in Scripture and they're really important."

True, but, nyeah, uninspiring; and, worst of all, completely forgettable.

The more particular you allow your reflection to be, the more universal it will become for the rest of us. Use vivid stories. Play with strong metaphors. Keep it "earthy." Let it all arise out of the text and out of your response to the text.

3. In that light, allow your essay to be a personal, affective wrestling with the theme. Try to move away from a cognitive exercise exclusively. Instead of standing outside of text, stand inside of it, feeling its tensions, asking questions of it that perhaps you've yet to ask, probing, sensing, following it down into its mystery. Understand the text well, yes.

Understand the theme biblically, for certain. But don't spend too much time re-telling the Scriptural text in your essay. We've likely read it already or will read it in light of the lectionary readings for the day. Instead engage the story as a kind of dialogue or, better, trialogue between yourself, the Scripture and the triune God.

4. Lastly, try to avoid "preachy" language--the shoulds and oughts and the invisible, sneaky "three points." Our reflections aren't intended to result in a sermon. They're intended to be an invitation for readers to explore the complex mystery of Christ's incarnation. Allow your study or exegesis of the texts to form the backdrop instead of foreground of your reflection.

5. And do give yourself permission not to have to resolve any tension or question by the end of your reflection. It's ok for us as readers to be prodded to think and feel deeper. It's good for our personal and spiritual health to wrestle more deeply with the implications of Advent in our own lives. We'll be better for it--and we'll also probably remember it long after we've read your piece.

That's it for now. We have every confidence that the final product, because of the Spirit's help, will result "in the glorification of God and the sanctification of his people," to quote to Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

Word count limit is 300-500. 

The deadline is October 28.

We'll send a few friendly reminder emails along the way.
If you're not able to get us the reflection by the 28th, we'll have to move on without it. We're working with tight deadlines and we need time to edit, lay out the design, send to the printers and place it in the narthex on the first Sunday of Advent.

If we think your piece might need a little gentle editing, we'll let you know straightaway. 

We trust that the Spirit of Christ will aid and illumine you in this task. As you listen to his voice, jot impressions down, scribble down the phrases the pop to mind, prayerfully discern what it is that Christ would have you say to his people. And do enjoy the process as much as possible.

Praise God for your faithful service to his church.

Blessings,

David for Tanner and the Advent Devotional Team


Jim Janknegt, "Joyful Mystery #1: Annunciation"

4 comments:

cardiphonia said...

Thanks for this David. Putting together Advent devotionals has been a spiritual discipline for me the past number of years. You can check them out here. xo, Bruce

http://cardiphonia.org/2010/10/06/christmas-and-advent-2010-some-of-our-favorites/

w. david o. taylor said...

Right on, Bruce. Love it. And good gosh, we're geographic neighbors!

dan said...

David, I'm trying to get an Advent Devotional going at our church. I like your advice on writing such devotionals and would like to use it in our materials, and am wondering if you will give us permission to do so.
Thanks for your help

w. david o. taylor said...

Dan, feel free to use any of the material I've included here. No problem at all. Happy that it will help the cause.