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From His Holiness to Hawking

15 January 2016

The choice of Lent daily reflections and courses is wide, says David Wilbourne

Holy Island: Lindisfarne Castle from the Priory, by Ian Scott Massie, is one of more than 75 of his paintings of British "places of pilgrimage", broadly defined, accompanied by his text on the facing page in his paperback Places of Pilgrimage (SPCK, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-0-281-07518-8). The author seeks to evoke the spirit of locations as diverse as Ely, Brighton Pier, Loch Ness, Wenlock Edge, Tintagel, the windmill on Wimbledon Common, and Dungeness. He acknowledges a debt to Paul Nash, and religion plays its part as and when: nothing is forced

Holy Island: Lindisfarne Castle from the Priory, by Ian Scott Massie, is one of more than 75 of his paintings of British "places of pilgrimage", broad...

The Psalms: Prayers for today’s Church
Stephen Cottrell
York Courses £3.99 (booklet)
Church Times Bookshop £3.60
(Course pack, including booklet, CD, and transcript, is available from www.yorkcourses.co.uk; phone 01904 466516)


The Mystery of Everything: A Lent course based around the film "The Theory of Everything"
Hilary Brand
DLT £5.99
Church Times Bookshop £5.40


Fleeting Shadows: How Christ transforms the darkness
Malcolm Duncan
CWR £4.99
Church Times Bookshop £4.50


The Joy of the Gospel: A six-session study course in sharing faith
Paula Gooder
Church House Publishing £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20


Three Mountains to Freedom
John Davies
Deo Publishing £15.95
Church Times Bookshop £14.35


Reflections for Lent
Steven Croft, Andrew Davison, Paula Gooder and Martyn Percy
Church House Publishing £4.99
Church Times Bookshop £4.50


Dust and Glory: Daily Bible readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day
David Runcorn
BRF £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20


Into Your Hand: Confronting Good Friday
Walter Brueggemann
SCM Press £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20


More All-Age Talks for Lent, Holy Week and Easter
Nick Fawcett
Kevin Mayhew £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90


FIVE remarkable courses are available this year. Is it to be Psalms or Galatians, Stephen Hawking or Pope Francis, or delving into the shadows? Do you want to be multi-media or be book-based? It all depends on your context and vision for Lent 2016.

Stephen Cottrell reflects on five key psalms in his York Courses booklet, The Psalms: Prayers for today’s Church, to form a smart and skilful appetite-whetter to the origin and use of all psalms, the time-honoured prayer of the people of God in their youth. His text is seasoned with 55 group questions and 72 snappy quotes, ranging from Jane Austen through to J. K. Rowling and Albert Einstein. My favourite was C. S. Lewis being assailed by a zoo of lusts.

The course CD, with accompanying transcript, contains five sessions where three guest speakers respond to questions posed by a nicely edgy Canon Simon Stanley, with the gravelly voice that makes women swoon.

Timothy Radcliffe, a Dominican with an Oxford High Table largesse, walks life’s depths and the peaks, doggedly praying the Psalter four times a day. He describes a monk on his death-bed producing a bottle of Scotch, bidding all the brethren gathered around him to cheer up and toast the resurrection.

Joy and humour tumble out of Rose Hudson-Wilkin, chaplain to the House of Commons; though not always quite on-message, she nevertheless sings of a faith that brought her to life and healed the wounds of her Jamaican origins.

John Bell, as gritty and provocative as ever, claims that the main emphasis of Psalm 23 is not about shepherding. Though I remain unconvinced, it did draw my attention to a veritable eucharist popping up in David’s sheepfold a millennium too soon. Jane Leach, Principal of Wesley House, is like a calm teacher, desperately trying to draw together the highly imaginative reflections of the wildest class. One health warning: avoid this course if the Psalms hardly feature in your acts of worship, because anyone completing it will be an enthusiast for their wider and more central use.

Whenever I interviewed prospective maths or science teachers, I asked them how they would teach the Universal Field Theory to a bright Year 10 pupil. Despite a host of fazed candidates, I persevered with this question because the subject seemed obvious and ultimate. This holding together the macro and the micro is at the heart of both theoretical physics and the Christian faith, and Hilary Brand tackles an impossible subject with great skill in her Lent course, The Mystery of Everything.

A self-confessed non-scientist, she bases her course on the film about Stephen and Jane Hawking, The Theory of Everything, with five sessions, each with a substantial prologue and epilogue, on wonder, weakness, relationships, frailty, and hope. She writes lucidly and helpfully about physics, about the interface between science and faith, and very movingly about her personal experience of her friend Sally, who suffered from motor neurone disease, and yet to the end was wowed by God’s amazing grace.

There are some stunningly relevant quotations, each session contains pertinent questions for the group to chew over, ending with a worship session with some original and highly numinous prayers. In addition, there are six weeks of personal Bible studies on mystery in Genesis, Job, the Psalms, Wisdom literature, Paul’s epistles, and the Gospels, written in the same lucid and punchy style. A snip at just £5.99.

CWR’s Fleeting Shadows by Malcolm Duncan is a very honest examination of the shadows that haunt our present and future, including exhaustion, confusion, despair, and fear of attack. There are six sessions to this clear and attractive course, each session consisting of ten parts, labelled with jolly icons, tackling a deep and difficult subject about how to cope and even flourish when shadows loom. It includes some helpful tips about discerning the will of God amidst the confusions of the world. Duncan urges us all to encounter God’s mystery and our own mystery in the eucharist: "He not only provides the table, He is the meal," he concludes, drawing on Psalm 23.5.

Coping with a triple suicide within his immediate family, he writes with the mark and quality of someone speaking from a deeply wounded and perplexed heart, and yet holding to faith throughout. Study Four includes a moving poem he wrote when his friend died; addressed to death, it is worthy of being read over every grave. Given that the course looks into the abyss, it would be wise for participants to have access to someone with substantial experience in pastoral care and dealing with loss.

Pope Francis’s 2013 seminal teaching document Evangelii Gaudium echoes Vatican II at its best, with so many arresting lines: the call is to go forth from our own comfort zone; frequently we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators; I prefer a Church that is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets rather than a Church that is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security; I am a mission on this earth; accompaniment teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.

In The Joy of the Gospel, Paula Gooder sets out a six-session course to enable those who are not Roman Catholics to be excited and energised by Evangelii Gaudium. She does this skilfully by highlighting the salient parts of the document, followed by guidelines for discussion and closing worship, with lucid explanatory notes on any biblical material. Gooder’s high aim is that travelling alongside RCs as they take this document to heart will enable us to recognise and celebrate a common sacred ground.

In his seven-part course, Three Mountains to Freedom, Bishop John Davies makes Paul’s letter to the Galatians immensely accessible, unfolding meaty theology and New Testament scholarship with the lightest of touches, seasoned by anecdotes from his courageous ministry in apartheid South Africa and the UK. For Davies, Galatians classically frees us up from having to prove ourselves, confident that we are Christ’s, whatever. No longer do we need constantly to outdo each other, thrashing about to convince others (and ourselves) of our worth, and inflicting a great deal of damage in the process. Being convinced that you, per se, are special to God gives you the nerve to shout down any corrupt system, whatever the consequences.

This Archbishop of Wales Lent Book is far wider than its Welsh base, and positively teems with scathing one-liners, including: the gospel does not come to abolish conflict, but to convert conflict into tension; creativity does not spread out neatly in ripples from the centre to the edge: it often begins on the edge; faith is the propellant that moves you out of your comfort zone; if you find a church that suits you, the chances are you have found a god who suits you; better to have a vision with inconsistencies than to have consistency without the vision; baptism is the insignia of those who renounce insignia; the gospel’s simple secret is that you join God by getting wet. And Davies’s discursus on disability has an exquisite eloquence worthy of a spiritual classic.

There are two Bible studies. CHP’s Reflections for Lent provides brief commentaries on the weekday lectionary for Morning Prayer, each accompanied by appropriate Lenten collects, with a simple form of Morning and Night Prayer at the book’s end. There are helpful introductions, reheated from previous years, by John Pritchard on Prayer and Stephen Cottrell on Lectio Divina, but Sam Wells’s article on six Lenten habits is fresh, arresting, and humbling.

The commentaries by Paula Gooder, Andrew Davison, and Steven Croft are all fine, with the occasional bon mot. But, the subject material being chiefly Galatians, Hebrews, and Jeremiah, I found myself desperate for some gospel, which crops up just once on St Joseph’s Day. Not surprisingly, this is in Martyn Percy’s section: his beautifully crafted commentaries have a distinctly upbeat feel, with ten thousand bons mots compared with the others’ thousands. Richard Adams was my favourite quotation: that the art of flying lies in "learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss".

David Runcorn in Dust and Glory provides us with 47 easy-to-read but substantial biblical reflections, loosely based on six intriguing themes: Becoming who I am; Excitement; In the midst of life; Hidden and revealed; Habits, reflexes and responses; and The shadow of the Cross. He tackles a wide-ranging selection of biblical material with a sure touch, with a galaxy of incisive quotations and conclusions. One of those quotes, from C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is as apposite for Runcorn as it is for Aslan: "Course he’s not safe. But he’s good." Runcorn is very good indeed: a worthy companion for Lent and beyond.

Walter Brueggemann’s Into Your Hand reflects on the seven final words of Christ, originally delivered during a Good Friday afternoon service in Cincinnati. Preaching at a Three Hours was a first for Brueggemann, and this gives the talks the freshness of a seasoned traveller discovering a new land. He expertly links each word from the cross with the Psalm that was its spring, providing an excellent short exposition of Psalms 103, 27, 127, 22, 42, 93, and 31. He pulls no punches: "Good Friday will not in any way accommodate the business-as-usual of Old Power."

Although the narrative is unashamedly American, with homely talk of crap shooting, basketball, Boston Celtic, and Red Aeurbach’s victory cigar (the basketball coach would light up during a match when he thought victory was assured), Brueggeman sees Good Friday as pronouncing judgement on the brutalities of the American empire as much as it did on the Roman Empire. He contrasts Jesus, champion of the land of living, who defeats empires by weakness, with Rome, the land of dying, of killing, of leaving behind.

Forgiveness, paradise now, familial bonds, surviving abandonment, true desire, final victory, and perfect completion are all Easter triumphs, the equivalent of God’s victory cigar, flagged up on Good Friday. I read this book twice: like good poetry, its depth and connection will increase the more it is read.

Nick Fawcett’s More All-Age Talks for Lent, Holy Week and Easter is an absolutely brilliant resource. I’m a bit of dinosaur and Blu-Tack pieces of card to convenient pillars; others may be adept with PowerPoint, but, whatever your place on the technology spectrum, this book will serve you very well. Most of the talks are interactive and kinaesthetic, using quizzes and formats from iconic TV shows. The material is ingenious, Fawcett has done all the hard work in coming up with the ideas and their delivery, and every talk has a powerful punch and clear, if surprising, message.

The book is so good that I’m going to put it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in the Llandaff diocese, to stop the clergy delivering these exciting talks before I do.


The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is the Assistant Bishop of Llandaff.

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