The Lectionary Companion: An Inspirational Tool for Christian Writers

As a Christian writer, you have no shortage of inspiration available to you. Through prayer, Bible reading, worship, and enjoying God’s presence in nature or in Christian fellowship, not to mention looking at all the names of God, all the testimonies of what He has done, and all the needs lifted up to Him, you have an endless supply of topics to write about.

Sometimes the inspiration is so vast and deep, you may need help to find a simple starting point. Your first starting point should always be prayer and allowing God to lead you. Sometimes it also helps to pray over specific writing prompts.

Here is a good resource that can help you in this process: Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary (published in three volumes, A, B, and C), Paul Scott Wilson, editor.

While the book’s title may not sound very inspiring, the book gives simple yet vivid themes, imagery, and hands-on application and description for weekly groupings of Bible verses. I’ve found this book to be helpful in coming up with ideas for Christian writing.

What is the Revised Common Lectionary?

The book is a companion to the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a weekly grouping of Bible verses that follows the Christian calendar and is used as a reference by many churches. Beginning with the first Sunday of Advent, the lectionary goes all the way through the Christian year. Many churches use the lectionary for their Bible readings, and many pastors write their sermons based on the lectionary scriptures.

The Revised Common Lectionary rotates every year:

Year A = 2019-2020

Year B = 2020-2021

Year C = 2021-2022

Then back to A again, and the cycle repeats.

The Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary has three volumes: Preaching Year A, B, and C. These volumes correspond to the rotation described above.

How the Lectionary Companion Can Inspire Christian Writers

These guides are not just for preachers. They provide wonderful inspiration for Christian writers too, based on a year’s worth of Bible reading and weekly themes.

As a writer, you can use the Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary to write about any of the lectionary verses. You don’t need to write seasonally or for that particular preaching year. Writers on a budget may not want to purchase all three volumes, and that’s okay. Just choose one and it will give you plenty of inspiration for your writing.

If you do decide to use the lectionary companion as a seasonal guide for a particular year (A, B, or C), it may give you an opportunity to write devotionals for your church. If your church follows the Revised Common Lectionary, as many denominations do, your devotionals would add to the biblical experience. Even if your church doesn’t follow the lectionary, you would still be inviting readers to experience the Christian calendar through scripture.

Each week, the lectionary brings together four scripture passages spanning Old and New Testament. As a writer, you can choose one passage to focus on, or prayerfully see how the passages come together and write from that convergence.

The lectionary companion can inspire your writing in many ways. You might be inspired to write on the main theme highlighted in the companion guide. Or you might pick up on one of the theological questions that arise from the readings that week, discussed in the companion guide.

The lectionary companion also gives tangible descriptions and images for pastoral and ethical issues. These can often inspire writing that applies scripture in daily life. The companion also connects the Gospel reading to the bigger biblical narrative, and that connection can also inspire your writing.

You might decide to write one piece based on the lectionary readings for one week. Or you might choose a particular week and write several pieces, perhaps a week-long devotional collection that covers 6 or 7 days and explores the week’s theme more in-depth or from many angles.

Example of Topics for Christian Writers: Second Sunday of Advent

Let’s look at an example to see how the lectionary companion might inspire Christian writing. This example will be from Preaching Year A, second Sunday of Advent (Dec 8, 2019). The readings are Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12.

For that week, the Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary, Preaching Year A, discusses themes of justice, hope, and peace.

Here are some topics you might write about for that theme, inspired by the lectionary companion:

  • How Jesus helps those who are oppressed.
  • How does the Holy Spirit bring justice, or peace, or hope?
  • What are the characteristics of the Holy Spirit? How do you know you’re seeing Him in action?
  • Testimony of when the Holy Spirit brought you into peace or gave you hope.
  • Letter of encouragement to someone who needs the Holy Spirit to meet them in their deepest needs.
  • How does hope give us glimpses of God’s kingdom in the midst of a suffering world?
  • How is biblical hope different from worldly hope or from specific concrete outcomes?
  • Who is Jesus as the Prince of Peace?
  • What kind of Peace does Jesus bring? How does it differ from the world’s peace? What are some examples of this contrast?
  • How does Jesus lead us to befriend one another? What are some specific illustrations?
  • What limits do we put on our hope? What does it mean to expect hope beyond those human limits? Testimony of a time when your idea of hope was expanded. When you were willing to stretch your hope, how did God change your heart?
  • How do we recognize the peace of Christ?
  • How does the peace of Christ differ from earthly peace? What are some examples of this contrast?
  • How do we move deeper into the peace Jesus offers? Helpful tips. Or what kind of story might illustrate this process?
  • Where does the world tempt us with its definition of peace, leading us away from the peace of Christ?
  • What wounding in us causes us to be tempted toward the world’s peace and away from the peace of Christ?
  • How do Isaiah and Paul (in the scripture verses above) suggest we (as individuals or as a church) move deeper into justice, hope, and peace?
  • How does our church relate to people who feel like outcasts or misfits? What would Isaiah or Paul say about it?
  • What do we need to repent of to see greater justice, hope, and peace in our midst?
  • How do we renew our hope?
  • What is the hope Jesus calls us to?

Those are just a few of the topics you might be inspired to write about after reading the lectionary companion for the second Sunday of Advent. If you dig deeper in prayer, you’ll have even more ideas and/or you can drill down further into one of these topics. Each week has new scriptures, new themes, and lots of inspiration for Christian writers.

Always Begin with Prayer

As always, read the scriptures and the lectionary companion prayerfully. See what God highlights for you, what stands out to you or speaks to your heart the most. Pray about which topic to work on next. Then present that topic to the Lord and let Him inspire you for how to approach it. There are so many different ways to write about each topic. Different angles, different readers, different testimonies, different types of writing. Your way will be as unique as you are in this moment.

As you grow in your Christian writing life, you will find many sources of inspiration. The Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary is just one helpful source that I have enjoyed using. It can help you find themes, images, and tangible questions and applications from the lectionary readings. Of course, remember your Bible readings should always begin and end with prayer and the help of the Holy Spirit.

On Writing Testimonies that Mention Others

Lately I’ve been helping some of my ministry colleagues edit their testimonies, especially of inner healing and forgiveness. One question I’ve been asked often is, “How do you tell your story of healing in a way that honors the people you have had to forgive?”

That’s one of the biggest challenges in sharing a testimony. It’s not easy. But I have learned it can be done.

Here is one thing that helps me as I’m writing about healing and forgiveness regarding other people: I try to keep the focus on me. One of the pioneers of inner healing, John Sandford, taught that we are responsible for our sinful reactions to what others did (good or bad).

If I’m writing about childhood neglect or trauma, I’m not going to make my parents the focus. I won’t talk about what they might have done wrong. Instead, as I am writing, I’m going to focus on the ways I reacted to the circumstances, how my own reactions affected me, and how I sought God for my healing.

When people read about my healing, they don’t need to know what happened. Most readers will relate it to their own circumstances anyway, so the less detail, the better.

Childhood wounding can occur from genuine abuse or neglect. It can also occur from a child’s perceptions of parents’ behavior. Perhaps a parent did nothing overtly wrong but simply was unable to meet what the child needed or wanted. The child sees that as hurtful, even though the parent might have been loving.

Our healing is about our own reactions, not about what our parents did or didn’t do. It is possible to keep the focus largely on ourselves as we write about how God has healed us.

That’s how I approached my book I Choose Life. I talk about my sinful reactions to my parents and husband. The focus is not on them. It’s on me. The reader doesn’t need to know any more than that.

There may be certain difficult parts of our testimonies that need to be shared. If I am writing a book or a blog post to help women recovering from abuse, I will need to share that I have recovered from abuse. I will also need to let them see, through my writing, that I understand what they are going through.

Notice how the focus, again, is on my own experience, not on the person who was abusive toward me. I am trying to share enough to identify with my readers in their pain, without bringing into the story the person who hurt me. The focus becomes my hurt and what Jesus did to heal me.

If I am writing about my personal healing from generational sin, I’m going to have to name the sin that has been passed down in the family line. But I’m not going to name names or specific ways that people (other than myself) participated in that sin.

One of the biggest challenges was an article I wrote recently, “Honor Is Not the Same as Tolerance,” about how my mother struggled with bitterness, and how I never honored her by helping to lift that off of her. In my case, it is somewhat easier to write about my parents because neither one is living. But there are individuals – family and friends – who will read these articles and who knew my parents. So I still want to honor my parents’ memories. Not only that, but I always want to talk about my parents in honoring ways.

So I was careful how I described my mom’s participation with bitterness. Again, I kept the focus more on myself: how I dishonored her, and how in healing, I learned how to rightly honor her. Even so, I asked a trusted friend to read the article before I published it. She confirmed that my writing honored my mom.

Why go to all the trouble of writing about these challenging situations? Because I believe that God can use our healing testimonies to heal others. Having worked with mothers, wives, sisters, daughters at a men’s addiction recovery center, I know it’s important to share the testimony that enabling is not the same as honoring. I also know it’s important to help women see how bitterness undermines their well-being – and how subtle it is, and how it often stems from wounding in a sensitive heart. So it was worth it to me to write and publish the article about my relationship with my mom, if it could help someone else.

As I mentioned, my parents aren’t living. That makes my challenge a little less than for someone whose parents are alive. If you are writing about a situation that affects living family members, and if you are in active relationship with those people, put yourself in each person’s heart. Imagine what they will feel when they read your healing testimony in print – especially as it relates to issues of their past.

It doesn’t matter that you have left out their names and identifying information, or even changed the details. They will still know they are reading about something that involved them. That can create a feeling of being very exposed, even when it’s in the past and healed. Hearing something spoken and seeing it in print are two very different experiences. It is hard to see our sins immortalized in print.

I recommend that you sit down and talk with them about what you are writing. Tell them when and where you will publish it. Help them to know what they will see when they read it. Also help them understand why you are writing this – as a testimony of how God brought healing, with the hope that this testimony will help others.

Again, this sort of conversation is only in situations where you are in a current and active relationship. If you have been freed from an abusive situation, please do not go back there. Find a place in your community that offers safe, professional help.

For some testimonies, it may be necessary to use a pseudonym or to publish the story as fiction. I have edited life stories and coached authors in both of those situations, and they were able to convey to readers the hope and power of their testimonies, without concern that readers would identify their families or other living people.

Even so, their families might recognize their own circumstances that led to the development of that testimony, even when told with a pseudonym or as a fictional narrative. So the authors honored their families by speaking with them prior to publication and explaining why they wrote the stories to help people. They also honored their children (those who were old enough) by helping them understand the genuine circumstances of the authors’ own lives that led to those testimonies.

It is especially important to have those conversations when a work is fictionalized. Fictional characters do not and should not reflect living people, and fictional story plots are developed in ways that do not mirror the true story that inspired the fictional one. So it’s doubly important that you talk to people in your life who might otherwise think you have created fictional characters to represent them.

Above all, pray and ask God to help you in writing difficult testimonies. If God puts it on your heart to share, don’t shy away from it. The benefits to others will be worth it. He will make a way for you.

 

 

 

5 Self-Editing Tips for Christian Writers

Every written, published piece is a reflection of several different processes: writing, several rounds (and types) of editing, proofreading, formatting, and publishing. Often we think of the whole process as “writing a piece,” but it’s important to look at those individual steps of the process. All must be done well in order to delight the reader with the finished piece.

While many types of editing go into producing a finished piece, today I want to look at simple self-editing steps. If you are writing an article or a devotional for your blog, you might not go through as many editing stages as you would for a book. But you at least want to take some simple self-editing steps to be sure your piece is polished for your readers. The same goes for preparing a manuscript for a professional editor to read. If you are working with an editor, you want to self-edit first, and give that editor the best piece you can.

Following are five self-editing tips for the Christian writer – and you will want to begin each round of editing with prayer, inviting the Holy Spirit to guide you through the process.

1. Remove the word “that.”

“That” is a word we tend to overuse in writing because it helps us think and make connections. While “that” may be part of your mental process in writing, your reader doesn’t need to see it. Each time your reader sees “that,” it breaks up the flow of the piece. You want your reader to immerse herself in your writing and engage the story, the testimony, the wisdom you are sharing – not focus on the words, especially empty words like “that.”

Go ahead and write “that” in your first draft. You should never edit yourself while you are writing the first draft, otherwise you will block the flow from heart to paper. But after you complete your first draft, spend your first round of editing eliminating “that.” And yes, occasionally you really will need to use “that” for the meaning of the sentence. But “that” will happen about 5% of the time. Most instances of the word “that” can be removed without affecting the meaning of your sentences.

2. Remove or limit your use of adverbs.

I realized I had an “adverb problem” when a friend, who is not a native speaker of English, read a chapter I had written. She pointed to a sentence: “The boat cut sharply through the water.” With brow furrowed, she said, “Doesn’t it mean the same thing? Sharply and cut?” She had a point.

Most of the adverbs we write are not needed by our readers. If our verbs are strong to begin with, they don’t need boosting. The verb “cut” is very descriptive for a moving boat. It creates imagery of water parting with sharp edges. No need to add “sharply.” When we over-describe, it weakens the imagery formed in our readers’ minds.

Again, it’s okay to write adverbs into your first draft. The first draft is all about getting the word imagery from heart to paper. But when you self-edit, make one round focused on “marking up” your adverbs. If you edit with a printed draft, circle the adverbs. If you use a computer, use the built-in highlighter to mark the adverbs. The reason for doing this is that you may want to leave a few of them in for color or texture. But first, circle or mark them all. Then cut about 95%. Leave a strategic few – and know exactly why you have chosen to leave those few.

3. Remove or minimize your use of exclamation marks.

When overused, exclamation marks have the opposite effect of what you intend. An exclamation mark minimizes the impact of a sentence. The more you use them, the less emphatic your writing will be.

Instead, create impact through your choice of words and sentence structure. Use strong verbs. Create atmosphere through succinct descriptive phrases and action. Vary sentence length to build tension. Let your reader be moved by the sentence without the need for an exclamation mark.

To test this out, write a paragraph about an exciting event. Make two copies. On the first copy, add an exclamation mark to the end of each sentence. On the second copy, be sure every sentence ends with just a period (unless it needs a question mark). Put the two paragraphs aside for a few days. Then go back and read them. Pay attention to how you react to the exclamation marks. Which version sounds better? Which is more impactful? Why?

You can still use exclamation marks in your writing. But use them sparingly. Be sure you have a very good reason when you use one.

4. Read out loud and listen for awkward-sounding phrases or anything that makes you stumble or trip.

It’s a phenomenon of the human eyes and brain, but when we write something and spend time tweaking it, our brain tends to smooth over things as we read it back to ourselves. It’s hard to tell, just by re-reading your own work, whether or not it will sound smooth to your readers.

It will help if you do the following:

Put it aside for a day or two. Then read it to yourself out loud. Listen for any awkwardness. Then ask someone else to read it out loud to you. Make a note of where they stumble in their reading (ask them to put a quick mark on that place). Also make a note or what sounds awkward to you when you hear it. And make a note of what doesn’t come across the way you intended. Go back and edit those places. Then read them out loud again until it sounds right.

5. Read with all five of your senses.

A powerful piece creates a sense of texture. Your readers can engage your written piece with all five senses. This doesn’t always come through in your initial writing process. Most often, texture comes through editing.

Consider reading through your piece five different times. Each time, focus on one of your senses. What can you hear? How can you bring more “hearing” into the piece. What can you smell? How can you heighten the piece so your reader will come away with a certain fragrance? If you describe an object, can your readers feel it? Days after they finished reading your piece, so they feel as if they really touched that object?

Weaving the five senses into your writing is not something you want to overdo. You should choose a few effective places to bring sensory texture. As you edit, you will see the most ideal places to engage your readers’ sense of sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing. A little effort spent on a few such places will give greater impact to your piece.

Self-editing takes time. It should be done in several rounds, not all at once. For each round, decide what you will look for and work on. One round might be for removing adverbs. Another round might be to develop the sense of smell. Take the time to shape your written piece. It will make all the difference for your reader.

Even so, part of editing is knowing when you are done. A piece can be perfected infinitely more than it needs to be. Take several rounds to shape your work for optimal impact. But then, decide to be done. Publish your piece and share it. That’s why you wrote it, after all.

Bonus Exercise

This exercise might help you practice editing. On Sunday, I published a portion of a letter I wrote while serving as a visiting lecturer in Russia 21 years ago. This letter was handwritten and unedited. I published the text “as is” to preserve authenticity. But it’s a goldmine of all the things I would want to eliminate through self-editing.

I hadn’t taken any writing or editing classes when I wrote this letter – that will be obvious when you read it. I started my writing/editing career the following year. When I returned home from Russia, I had so much to write about that I dove into learning the craft.

Take a look at the first letter, and see what stands out from the above self-editing tips (especially tips 1-4). You will find a lot! You can add to the above list my overuse of semi-colons.

The letter will open in a new page, so you can refer back to the tips on this page while you are reading the letter. Portions of the letter will be published in four parts over the next few Sundays, so you will have several opportunities to practice.