March 2, 2017—When was the last time you had a good conversation with a true friend? In a busy world full of acquaintances and strangers and lots of online interactions, I relish the times I can have a face-to-face with a friend to parse our everyday experiences for their deeper resonances to a story larger than ourselves.
These tete-a-tetes are a free interchange of personal stories with more universal themes and questions. Recently a friend sent me a message that included a photo she snapped from a book she was reading. The photo included about a paragraph of text with my initials penciled in the margin. After reading the passage, I knew at once what my friend meant by her brief notation. She was recalling a series of conversations we had where we enjoyed the exact process the paragraph names as “story matching.”
The passage reads: “Scripture connects us with the images, analogies, and stories that inform our tradition. In a process of “story matching,” scripture points us to connections between our own questions and experiences and that of God’s people in other times and places. In this process the Bible both comforts us and confronts us and our ministries.” (from Shared Wisdom: A Guide to Case Study Reflections in Ministry by Jeffrey H. Mahan, Barbara B. Tussell and Carol J. Allen, Abingdon Press, 1993).
This story-matching process is essential to good preaching, to spiritual formation, and teaching children, youth, and adults to love the Bible. It is also the basis of devotional writing.
Devotional writing is a genre of Christian literature where readers can gain a spiritual lesson from reading a story that matches up an everyday occurrence to its deeper meaning as a spiritual event. Images and analogies of growth, insight, compassion, and death and re-birth are matched up with our experience of growing flowers, making dinner, raising children, or sitting in traffic. In this sort of reading, complex theological concepts like regeneration, incarnation, providence, and sanctification are revealed as the things happening around us, to us and through us. You might notice that this is the way Jesus taught, in stories, parables, and illustrations.
As a spiritual practice, devotional reading is a way of praying without ceasing and of practicing the presence of God. Writing for devotional readers is also a spiritual practice, a commitment to do story matching in such a way that readers will feel their own initials have been penciled into the margin of a story, that their experience will be illuminated. A good devotional will offer a helpful moment of refreshment in a dry season, a reminder that God is present in our garden, our work and even in a traffic snarl. Our devotions are a place to cultivate in ourselves the capacities needed to live a faithful life and to enjoy that life. Reading about how others find God in the ordinary can help us pattern our perceptions so that we find reasons for hope and energy for action.
Melissa Tidwell (’15) is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Xenia, Ohio, and the author of Embodied Light: Advent Reflections on the Incarnation.
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