Church leaders have created, shared and used devotions creatively online this Lenten season. As we look toward a new season, Faith+Lead interviewed author, pastor and activist Sandhya Jha about the many uses for devotionals such as hers, including the process for creating her 2020 devotional book.
Faith+Lead: Tell us about how and why you wrote the Liberating Love Daily Devotional: 365 Love Notes from God.
Sandhya Jha: It’s a little bit of a cheesy story, but God told me to. No, really! I was getting ready to give a devotional away, and as I was holding it, I thought, “I wish there were a devotional just as personal and intimate as this one but one that would help people feel connected to each other and to the people in the Bible as well, in contrast with just me-and-Jesus.” And I heard a voice say “Yes, you should do that.” I think of it as the devotional for my friends who don’t see their lived experiences reflected in most devotionals and who don’t see the God of radical inclusion reflected very often either.
Now I won’t blame God for the how part; that was more my nerdiness and love of Scripture. Day one is Genesis, day three is Exodus, and so on. Day two is Matthew, day four is Mark, and so on. My theory is there are a lot of relatable people in the Bible from whom we can learn inspiring lessons and also some of whom are serious cautionary tales, but most devotionals stick to the gospels and the psalms, and we miss out on so many dynamic characters and stories that are part of our legacy.
Faith + Lead: Devotional books are ideal for personal use, but what about in group settings? What are some ways to use devotions like these in the life of a congregation? Are there new opportunities especially with heightened online engagement?
Sandhya Jha: What I’ve been most moved by has been the way couples and whole families have been using the devotional to revisit stories in new ways, but also I have been really moved by how, as pastors are providing more digital content since COVID to be present when they can’t be present.
I’ve actually stumbled upon church Facebook pages where the pastor every Saturday reads that Saturday’s devotion and prays the prayer with the congregation. A friend of a friend mentioned she uses it as a way to check in with her mother every night; they read the devotion and discuss the Scripture together, as a way of making sure they are each safe in this time they can’t be together.
This year I know of a congregation that designed a truly beautiful Lenten series around Liberating Love where each week had a cycle related to a devotion: one day people read the passage and wrote their own reflection, one day they did an activity related to the theme of the Scripture, one day they gathered as a group, read the devotion together and discussed how it related to their life, one day they did lectio divina, and so on.
That’s the thing about the Scriptures: they’re so multivalent–there are so many meanings. How often does a congregation get to stay with one passage for a whole week together and see the different things that unfold?
I’ll confess that I have dreams of a congregation using Liberating Love as a template to experiment with their own love letters from God. There’s an appendix in the back that lists all the devotions by book in the Bible. If a congregation were doing a Bible study together, I think it would be really fun to look at a few of the devotions I’ve shared and then choose a passage they’re studying and all write love letters from God based on the passage to see where they locate similar and different themes. That was part of the fun of writing the devotional; it’s fairly audacious to write the devotions as if God had written them, but it demanded I explore deeply who I understand God to be—compassionate and loving, and also inviting us into both accountability and a better way of being, and finally deeply committed to us learning how to show up for each other and build community together. So that shows up over and over in my love letters. I wonder how other people’s theologies could show up in how they imagine a love letter from God would read!
And finally, I love knowing that a number of Bible study groups and congregations and youth groups will occasionally read the day’s devotion at the beginning of a Zoom gathering and then spend time discussing it with each other as their ice breaker. That’s pretty easy and gets people talking about scripture in a low pressure way.
Faith + Lead: You work in the non-profit sector. How would you envision church leaders bringing faithful reflections and devotions like yours into public spaces? What are the opportunities created by the pandemic to do this?
Sandhya Jha: I mentioned already that some pastors will use the devotions from Liberating Love as a weekly Facebook Live event, but what I’ve found is that there are a number of activists I work with who are in need of refueling for whom the daily devotions have meant a lot. That indicates to me that a word of justice and of comfort is something the world needs right now, beyond the metaphoric walls of our digital sanctuaries.
There was an article recently wondering if Glennon Doyle and Brene Brown are our modern day evangelists, and I find myself thinking they are offering a reminder to all of us about what the world hungers for in terms of compassion, a path toward vulnerability that is met with love, and an intersection of kindness and justice. The well-kept secret is that the profoundly imperfect people who wrote down the various books of the Bible point us to all of those lessons, if we can settle into the role of storyteller even more than of preacher. That’s certainly a growing edge for me, but I get such a rich collection of conversation partners when I lean into that mode. And then we get to figure out how to build community together.
So this is me not so much saying “here’s how to use my devotional” and more saying “I bet your community could use your own stories of struggle and possibility, and some of the ancient stories of people they didn’t know they could relate to from thousands of years ago, who have so much to teach them.”
Faith+Lead: Could you describe your unique book launch event and how a similar online experience could be adapted or created by others, centering the leadership of people of color?
Sandhya Jha: 2020 was a lousy time to launch a book, especially when it was prone to feeling like yet another Zoom meeting! I was bemoaning this challenge to a friend who said, “You know, I went to a book launch for a devotional, and it was so cool; there was a prayer station and an art station and a clay station and it was so relaxing—like a spa!” And I said “Hey wait. I can do some of that online!” and the spiritual spa was born. People gathered online and heard some of the devotions and hopefully bought some books, but our primary goal was for people to experience relaxation, nearness to the Divine, and an experience of being cared for and nourished. We had four stations: a lectio divina station, a sound bath station of relaxing gongs and bells (and video of jellyfish; remarkably soothing), a (digital) zen water painting station, and a body prayer station.
Something I haven’t mentioned yet is that I am profoundly shaped by liberation theology, which shows how over and over again, God works through people society has rejected, not just to prove a point, but because the gifts the world can’t see, God always can. So my devotions reflect that belief. Our world is better and richer when the voices and wisdom and gifts of people on the margins are centered. So our spiritual spa was led by five people of color, primarily identifying as women or gender non-binary. I don’t think I ever mentioned it, and I don’t know how many people noticed, but to me it was the embodiment of my devotional, which over and over focuses on how community is best when it lifts up all the gifts and responds to all the needs. Especially in this digital moment, there are many gifted people who get overlooked who can help create a profound spiritual experience. This was a way we got to experiment with it. And I’ll tell you, it was so popular that we were asked to do it again! The beautiful thing is that I felt fed by the experience in a way I don’t always when designing digital experiences.
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