Where to put my focus?
Lent begins tomorrow, with the remembrance known as Ash Wednesday. Right now, I’m sitting here anticipating a pancake dinner. This morning I had a King Cake donut. Shrove Tuesday is clearly covered, but what comes after? I don’t know about you, but I am still considering my options for a devotional series for the season (and the sugar rush is not helping, I am sure). I’ve decided on a theme for this year, but I will write about that elsewhere. Now I just have to pick a book to be my companion over these next weeks, so, while I have the list narrowed down to just a few, I thought I would share my list with you and see what you think.
There are so many ways of approaching this season. I am not a fan of the give something up school of practice, although it certainly is a part of the tradition of our faith. And I am intrigued by the things I am seeing about the Lenten Triad practice. The Lenten Triad, as a concept, refers more accurately to the three-fold seasonal practice in the Orthodox church, rather than the use of candles as a kind of reverse Advent wreath that is becoming current. I do like what is happening, though, with the creation of a physical Triad for home practice, coming as it does out of the creative Reformed Worship community. I like it because it mirrors the practice from the Service of Tenebrae and the Easter Vigil. At Tenebrae, we begin with 7 lighted candles and extinguish one for the reading of each of the Seven Last Words. At Easter Vigil, we light again the Christ candle. The Triad candles include both practices, spread throughout the season of Lent, week by week, candle by candle.
For those of us who like something more interactive and global, this year, brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) have worked with my seminary to create a hybrid learning experience called The 5 Marks of Love. You can participate as much or as little as you like. When you sign up, you will receive a daily email with a video sermonette. You can listen to the video and share your reflection with the worldwide audience that participates in this communal act of learning, or you can download the workbook and write your thoughts in private, or both. And, if you fall into the visual learner category (words, pesky words, always in the way), I recommend to you the discipline that comes from our Methodist colleagues at Rethink Church. Using Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, you create a picture for each of the 2017 Lenten Words on their list. It is great fun to share your pictures with a wider community and I found it a serious point of reflection to choose a picture that was meaningful to me for each word throughout the season.
This year, though, I think I’ll stick with a book. Here are the candidates on my short list, grouped by, well, type. I’ve got three categories: biblical, musical, and practical.
Let’s begin with the beginning — biblical devotions. If you follow the Revised Common Lectionary, this is the year we read mainly from the Gospel of Matthew. Biblical scholar N T Wright offers us another in the series Lent for Everyone. This devotional divides the Gospel text into readings for each day except Sunday. For Sundays, we read and reflect on the Psalm appointed for the week. The arrangement invites the reader into the text – for each day, we have text and a small reflection by the author, followed by a short prayer. This is a devotional in its near pure form, suited to either private or communal study, and well laid out for practices live lectio divina.
If you are more drawn to the Psalms than to the Gospel this year, then I recommend that you take a look at Patrick Woodhouse’s Life in the Psalms: Contemporary Meaning in Ancient Texts. This devotional was designed for use during Lent, but it does work any time that you would like to, alone or in a group, take a deep dive into the Psalms. There are five psalms with reflections for each weekday of each week in Lent, each week with a theme, and one Psalm a day for Holy Week through Good Friday. Woodhouse recommends that we read the three introduction chapters between Ash Wednesday and the first Monday of Lent. The weekly themes touch important topics for reflection during the season: pilgrimage and journeying, prayer, wonder, the way of faith, and hope. The theme for Holy Week is, appropriately, loss and suffering. If you are interested in using this work with a group, Woodhouse includes a lot of good, practical suggestions about the best ways to divide up the text.
Maybe you feel drawn to a study of the Old Testament during this season. The Old Testament, you say? What does that have to do with Lent? Well, Paul Stroble, in his devotional Walking with Jesus Through the Old Testament shares my viewpoint, namely, that it is impossible to understand Jesus and the miracle of is life without first understanding what came before. This, for me, is a storyteller’s devotional. The book grew out of Stroble’s fascination with the the story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus, and in particular, his fixation on the passage in Luke 24:25-27, particularly: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”. What stories did the unrecognized Jesus tell? They had to be from the Torah and the Prophets, or from his own life, because the Gospels and the Letters did not exist. Stroble calculates that it would take about 3 hours to walk the 7 miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and so, using his own relationship with story and text, chooses passages for reflection. Each devotional has a passage from the Old Testament as its focus, sometimes paired a passage from a Gospel or from Paul. Each section has a reflection question and a prayer. This is a very personal book and not linked to any external source like a denominational lectionary system, but it is seems an interesting path to walk through the season.
Musical devotions intrigue me, but they present some technical difficulties. Even though I myself am a musician, I find the presentation of these really good works a little difficult to access. For me, they might be more suited to group rather than individual devotion and I would need to prepare each lesson before I sat down in prayer and reflection. Perhaps that is just me. There are, however, some really fine opportunities to mix music and reflection during this season. Plenty Good Room: A Lenten Bible Study Based on African American Spirituals, by Marilyn E. Thornton and Lewis V. Baldwin, presents exciting possibilities. The book includes one lesson per week, based on a Scripture reading and a spiritual, including a reflection, a prayer, and several discussion or reflection points. I think it is really well designed for a group, the music is well known in most church settings, and it offers something that many of us have been hungry for: an understanding of the relationship between the biblical text and the spirituals and a theological viewpoint born of a life experience that many of us long to glimpse more clearly.
Another interesting music-based devotional is Paul Wesley Chilcote’s The Song Forever New: Lent and Easter with Charles Wesley. Each day provides a devotion based on a hymn by Charles Wesley, with four action sections: read, sing, reflect, and pray. Chilcote, a scholar of Wesley’s hymns, introduces us to many texts not found in the average hymnal. And to complete the singing action requires more knowledge of hymn tunes and meter than I have, despite my many years as a church musician. Frankly, while the idea of singing each day is compelling, you could just read the text as poetry. It is a great opportunity to read some of Wesley’s amazing theology in its original lyrical form.
My last offering for your consideration is a book that I would call a practical kind of devotional, or, maybe more accurately, an incarnated devotional. That would be Paula Huston’s Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit. Huston grabs onto the idea of Lent as a time of re-calibration, like that we seek when we make a retreat or even just when we take a walk in nature. Lent is not a time to escape reality; it is time to become even more grounded in it. The book is structured as an individual retreat; there are daily readings and prayer, but each day is also devoted to a specific action — as simple as cleaning out a junk drawer or giving away something you are not using. The teachings of the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers are woven through each practice, drawing us back to the simplicity of life in the desert. This is not a devotional practice of just the mind; you must give your whole self to it. It is not for the faint of heart, however, if I had the courage to follow it, I am positive that this might be the most meaningful Lenten season ever. Many of the daily practices require the seeker to do things that are uncomfortable for those of us with privilege, but that are every day life for many of our fellow humans, like going a day without a shower or wearing your oldest clothes. This is not about giving up chocolate until Easter.
If none of these devotional possibilities draw you, there are always those books that have been compiled from the body of work of some theologian or faith leader. Lenten devotionals have been created from the writings of Walter Brueggemann, Evelyn Underhill, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C. S. Lewis, Augustine, and more. How is a person supposed to choose?
Well, I begin by writing this summary. I have reviewed the introductions to each of these books and taken a devotional for a “test drive,” so to speak. And now, in summarizing them for you, I have a better idea which one will fill my days as I go forward from Ash Wednesday, just where to put my focus. I’ll let you know what I choose and how it goes, but right now, I’d like to hear from you. Where will your Lenten journey take you and who will be your companion? Share the road with us…share your thoughts and your experiences.