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Devotional Books Written for -- and by -- Students

Times Staff Writer

NavPress, a major Christian publisher based in Colorado Springs, Colo., had been looking to publish a devotional that would appeal to college students. The idea was for something short and real to inspire the e-mail and iPod generation.

During a brainstorming session 20 months ago, Gabriel Filkey, an executive with TH1NK, NavPress’ brand catering to the 16-to-27 age group, made a suggestion: What if college students were recruited to write the book?

His colleagues did not think college students could deliver book-quality writing. But, Filkey, a 2000 graduate of Azusa Pacific University, the largest Evangelical Christian university on the West Coast, thought otherwise.

He enlisted the help of Judy Hutchinson, the school’s director of the Service Learning Program, which stresses community service. The book project then became a class assignment for 500 undergraduates in more than 20 classes over two semesters. Students -- in such varied fields as nursing, journalism, theology, communication and business administration -- wrote short spiritual essays for the proposed book.

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The first result was “7 Minutes With God,” a devotional written by 32 Azusa Pacific students. The 156-page pocket-size book ($7.99) was released in the summer and now is TH1NK’s top seller.

Last month, NavPress released two more books by 91 more Azusa Pacific students: “7 Minutes With Jesus” and “7 Minutes With the Holy Spirit.”

Voices in the book come across as real -- some even gritty. Students talk about faith, loneliness, gratitude, forgiveness and even about their frustration with God when he seems silent.

Emily Radonich, 18, a business administration major, wrote in “7 Minutes with God” that sometimes she feels like yelling at God.

“Sometimes it seems as if God just isn’t there. I feel like David when he cried out to the Lord and he did not answer. I scream at God, ‘Why don’t you answer? Why do I feel so hopeless and alone? How can I understand your plans?’ ”

Brian Allan, 19, who does not have a major, wrote in the same book that he gets discouraged when God doesn’t react to his prayers in a timely fashion.

“If he [God] loves me so much, why is he taking his time? I want action. It’s so hard to be patient. I’m not here long enough to be completely comfortable with God’s timeline.... It’s so hard to understand that God has his own plan and that his plan is better for me than my quick fix.”

Each day’s segment takes no more than seven minutes to read, according to Mark Tabb, general editor of the books. “You can zip through it in less time than it takes for the marshmallows in your Lucky Charms to turn the milk in your cereal bowl a really funky color,” wrote Tabb in his introduction to “7 Minutes With God.”

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Each volume contains 10 weeks of devotionals, with one theme per week.

For example, “7 Minutes with God” explores various qualities of God, such as being creative, passionate, powerful, frightening, silent, just, merciful, truthful and faithful.

Each day’s portion begins with a Bible passage, a reflection, a prayer and sometimes a call for action, such as fasting by skipping a meal or two.

“We didn’t write this devotion to give you 70 pithy thoughts,” Tabb wrote. “Instead, we want your Bible reading and prayer and fasts to be launching points for conversation between you and God that last much longer than 7 minutes each. Our goal is to help you think through your faith.”

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Tonya Corning, a nursing major from Portland, Ore., whose piece on the priesthood of Jesus appears in “7 Minutes with Jesus,” says she is delighted to see her work in print.

“It feels so good to be able to express my feelings” publicly, Corning said as she sat at a table with fellow writers autographing copies for university trustees during a recent reception to honor the authors. “The hardest part was expressing yourself and trying to get what you mean on paper.”

Her piece was based on 1 Peter 2:9-10, which says God’s people are chosen to be the instrument to do his work.

“If you belong to God, he wants to use you,” she wrote. “Too often we think this means going out to the far corners of the Earth to help strangers. “Before you go searching the far corners of the Earth for someone to share Christ’s love with, take a look at your life. Think about people you interact with every day.”

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Dennis Marinello, 19, of San Diego, who is studying philosophy and the Bible, said, “It’s so cool; I got published. They encouraged us to be honest, open and real.”

Marinello’s contribution, also in “7 Minutes with Jesus,” addressed his friendship with a homeless man and how that led to sharing his faith with other homeless people. His accompanying prayer said, in part:

“Oh, God, the more I feel your call to do something for you, the more ashamed I feel for all I don’t do. When did commitment to Christ become optional? Why don’t I act when you tell me to? Why aren’t my convictions strong enough to make me act? What’s holding me back?”

The student authors, professors and the school did not receive any pay for the project. The reward was getting the students involved in the real world, said service learning director Hutchinson. “This allows us to give them the opportunity to have a voice beyond the walls of academia.”

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The professors chose 300 essays to send to the publisher, which then whittled the number to 123 for publication.

“I was really proud of them; it means the world to them,” said the Rev. Michael Bruner, who teaches a writing seminar for freshmen. “Some of them even had tears in their eyes when they found out they were being published.”

Those whose works got published weren’t necessarily the best students, Bruner said. “The students who got published were the ones who asked questions. They were the ones whose reflections were raw and earthy ... students who were most struggling with their faith.”

Joseph Bentz, a professor of English, said his students were motivated to do their best work because they knew it might see print.

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Bentz said his students began with research. After they wrote their first draft, they did peer critiquing. That was followed by a second draft. He met with them individually to go over their work. He graded the papers as if they were any other class assignment, he said.

Bruner said some of his students told him they didn’t want anyone else in the class to read what they wrote. “I said, ‘I will be the only one that will be reading it for now. If you’re lucky, tens of thousands of people will read it. Make sure you are comfortable with that.’ ”


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