Thursday, June 3, 2010

Interview with Susan King-The Upper Room

Susan King is Assistant Editor of The Upper Room magazine. I am happy to post her interview which was originally published by Richard L. Mabry, MD, on Random Jottings. Dr. Mabry is fortunate enough to have a dozen or so meditations accepted for print by The Upper Room magazine over the past five years, and can attest that writing something meaningful in about 250 words isn’t easy, although the effort is well worth it. The process helps you dig deeper into your spiritual life, and the thrill of knowing your meditation will be printed in 76 editions and 40 languages, then read by millions of people in over 100 countries can’t be matched.

RM: Susan, welcome to Random Jottings. Some of my readers may not be familiar with The Upper Room. Can you give us a little background on its history and mission?

SK: From its beginning, The Upper Room magazine has been interdenominational. We seek to build on what draws us together in Christian belief. The intent of the founders of the magazine was that it be non-sectarian and non-doctrinaire, and we work to include many perspectives in what we publish. The magazine was created in response to a call from a Sunday-school-class prayer group in Texas, who asked the church to provide for families a devotional resource to use for home worship each day. It was the time of the Great Depression, and these people felt that prayer and Bible study could help people face the difficult times with faith.

The magazine was begun by the Home Missions Board of the Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1935. This is a predecessor denomination of the United Methodist Church, which still owns the magazine. Though the magazine is owned by the United Methodist Church, it is financially separate from it. We receive no grants or subsidy from the United Methodist Church or from any other denomination. Our income comes completely from sale of our magazines and books.

Where the World Meets to Pray, a new book by Mary Lou Redding, gives details about the history of The Upper Room and its impact during the past 75 years.

The writers of the daily meditations come from around the world. We do not have requirements regarding denominational affiliation for our writers. I am aware of Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Church of Christ, Lutheran, Nazarene, Episcopalian, Assemblies of God, and non-denominational believers among our writers, but we do not know the denominational affiliation of the vast majority of those who write for us. We evaluate over 5000 meditations each year in order to choose 365 for publication in the magazine. Our basic criterion in evaluating a meditation is this: Will it be helpful to a reader in a similar situation? We want meditations that show real people struggling to live faithfully in real-life situations, with the Bible as the touchstone for and measure of faithful living. We believe that God wills only good for each of us and that God calls us to lives of love, forgiveness, and service to others, according to the example of Christ.

The Upper Room's mission is to provide a model of practical Christianity, accessible in varied formats, to help people feel invited and welcomed into God’s presence to:

• listen to scripture as God’s personal message, linking their stories to God’s story
• commune with God in prayer
• see their daily choices and small acts of obedience as part of God’s work
• realize our connection through Christ as a universal family of seekers who want to know God
• encounter the living Christ and be transformed into Christ’s likeness.

RM: Your writers guide has a lot of information on how to approach preparing a meditation for The Upper Room. Can you give us an example of a submission or two
that really caught your eye, and why?

SK: I’ll give you three that come to mind:

The Fourth Man
Read Daniel 3:13-30
He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God— Daniel 3:25 (KJV)

One night at church we studied the story of the three Hebrews put into the fiery furnace for refusing to worship an idol. The next day we got a call from our daughter-in-law, who told us that our son had died in his sleep that morning, suddenly and unexpectedly. We experienced our own fiery furnace; but we were also aware of the fourth man, the Son of God. Our Lord Jesus Christ was right there, standing with us, to save us from destruction.

I have experienced other fiery furnaces: the dust storms and depression of the 1930s, the dark days of separation from my family for two years during World War II, the terrible battle of the Hurtgen Forest. Every time, God has been there to deliver me, just as Christ promised his disciples: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20, NIV).

Sooner or later, everyone has a fiery furnace experience: a death of someone dear, a life-threatening disease, a crippling accident. It helps to have someone nearby to share the pain. But no one helps us more than Jesus Christ. We hear his voice telling us to take courage and promising to be with us and to renew us in his love. This has been my experience in the fiery furnace.
Eugene F. Gerlitz (Oregon)

In this meditation, the experience is directly connected to scripture (first paragraph). In the second paragraph, the author gives us other examples that we can identify as “fiery furnaces.” In the third paragraph, the meditation broadens out to include the reader, inviting the reader to consider times when he/she has had a similar experience and to identify with Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego in their time of crisis and reprieve.

I Believe
Read 1 Corinthians 2:6-16
Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts.— 1 John 5:10 (NRSV)

When I was in college, I concluded that all religion is simply an expression of our need to believe in a supreme being and that the notion of God becoming human came from superstitious origins. When I later accepted Christ, it wasn’t a complete acceptance. It was simply a truce with God. I decided God was right and I was wrong, and I wouldn’t argue anymore. I wanted to believe, but faith was slow in coming.

I did not come to active faith through the power of reason alone but rather through experiencing God’s working out the truths of the Bible in my life. When I was in agony over my son’s drug use, God gave me Psalm 37 with its “Do not fret” advice. I clung to it and tried with all my heart, and eventually the “justice of [my] cause” did indeed shine “like the noonday sun” (verse 6, NIV) when my son began to realize that his lifestyle wasn’t working. When I learned I had multiple sclerosis, God gave me the promise in Exodus 14:14: “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (NIV). I had to learn to rest, but I have had very little problem with the disease.

Because I have come to lean on the Bible as truth, I can have confidence in the things that I know by faith, beyond the limitations of my rational mind.
Prayer: Creator God, teach us to believe in you, to trust your promises, and to know that your power sustains us. Help us to lean on you more today than yesterday. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Thought for the Day
Faith is the key that opens the door to knowing God.
(Mrs.) Maggi Clark (North Carolina)


This one sticks in my mind because it deals with a very important situation—the non-believer coming to strong belief and faithfulness—and also because it is very specific about the early limitations of the writer’s belief and exactly how seeing God worked out the truths of the Bible in her life. It provides a model for all readers but especially for the non-believers in our reading audience and also for the many readers whose ministry is teaching non-believers about God.

The Hamster Hunt
Read Luke 15:1-7
Jesus said, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”--Luke 15:4

One Saturday afternoon, my 5-year-old daughter’s hamster made a surprise getaway. We turned the house upside down in a desperate attempt to find him. Finally, we detected a scratching sound in our laundry room. We moved the clothes dryer and removed a wall panel, and I crawled behind the water heater to rescue him. At this point I was tempted to pick him up by his tailless little rump, haul him outside, and call, “Here, Kitty, Kitty!”

It’s interesting to speculate on the amount of time we spent searching for a useless rodent. What makes that hamster special is the same thing that spared him from becoming a juicy snack for our cat that fateful Saturday afternoon: my daughter loves him very much.

I am only one person in a world of billions. What makes me special is the great love God has for me. Remember Jesus’ parable about the 100 sheep? Ninety-nine were where they ought to be, but the missing sheep was the one being sought. Our family dropped everything that busy afternoon to search for what would probably seem unimportant to anyone else. God will leave the ninety-nine to seek us out, no matter how insignificant we may seem to ourselves or others.

Thought for the Day: In a world of billions, God yearns for a relationship with each of us.
Gwyn Williams (Alabama)

The centerpiece of this meditation’s personal experience is a single, dominant and sensory—and thus memorable—image. Then, the writer tied the spiritual application directly to that image, insuring that when the readers think of the image in the story, they will also think of the spiritual message of the meditation.

And, of course, it’s also funny. We rarely receive funny meditations and would really like to publish humorous ones, as long as they also have all the other elements:

1. True personal experience—either 1) the writer¹s or 2) that of someone close to him/her, or possibly 3) that of a person or persons in the Bible. (If #2, then the writer needs to establish this person’s relationship to him/her, as in “my mother/brother/son/friend/neighbor/coworker,” etc.)

2) Direct connection to God (spiritual application within the temporal experience)

3) Possibly a third element would be a small section at the end in which you help the reader to make an application in his/her own life (since he/she may have never experienced what you experienced—or even may not yet have experienced a relationship with God)

Remember that the focus is not the personal experience per se, but to teach the reader something that will cause him/her to live that day differently than he/she would have before reading your devotional. In other words, give the reader concrete, practical tools for dealing with situations that would be in some way like the situation you encountered. (In fact, one of the methods for the third element is to list possible similar life situations that might apply to the readers.)

The first temptation in writing a devotional/meditation is to give too many details in the experience but not enough in the other two sections.

The second pitfall is to not include anything concrete or specific in the second and third sections, to instead use vague, general, and/or abstract terms that do not give anything even close to specific directions for the reader. While some details are important in the personal experience (to paint a picture for the reader—at least of the setting), it’s even more important to be detailed and specific in the second and third sections, since these are the heart of the devotional. They fulfill the whole purpose of the devotional, which is to bring the readers to closer connection with God and to help them apply in their own lives what the writer learned about the way God operates in our lives every day.

Part Two of this interview will be posted on Friday, June 11. Come back for more behind-the-scenes information and suggestions for writing for The Upper Room.


Beth Reinke said...

What a wonderfully informative interview with a look inside The Upper Room devotions. Thank you, Sue and Susan, for sharing with us.

Joanne@ Blessed... said...

Great post Sue! I know people will learn LOTS from this. Can't wait for the second part! xo

Sue Tornai said...

Thank you, Beth and Joanne, for your interests in The Upper Room and Susan's interview. Blessings on your writing.

Richard Mabry said...

Sue, Thanks for giving your readers this look at Susan and The Upper Room. Happy to have it "reprinted" here.

Sue Tornai said...

Thank you for your permission to post it on my blog. I know it blesses my readers.

Chris said...

Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Sue. Good stuff, Richard. Not only does the post encourage me through the devotions Susan revisits, but its a great primer for writing them.

Sue Tornai said...

Chris, I am so glad you learned something from the post. That is Susan's goal (mine too). Can't wait to see you tomorrow.

Lenore Buth at said...

Thanks, Sue. Great information in these two posts and I loved having the examples.

Sue Tornai said...

Hi Lenore,
I am glad you found the information beneficial. Stay tuned for the next post.