Lent books: seven courses and reflections

by
17 January 2020

Philip Welsh reviews material for groups and daily reading in Lent

alamy © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection  

Joel Dawson as Michael Banks and Emily Blunt as the magical nanny Mary Poppins in the 2018 film Mary Poppins Returns

Joel Dawson as Michael Banks and Emily Blunt as the magical nanny Mary Poppins in the 2018 film Mary Poppins Returns

THIS year’s crop of courses and daily readings for Lent ranges from the liturgical to the playful, and from the over-stuffed to the practically unfurnished. First, the resources for daily use.

For use as a daily Office, Reflections for Lent offers its well-tried formula of the lectionary readings for Morning Prayer, with concise commentaries by well-known writers and the text of the short form of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer. The Dean of Westminster provides an introductory piece about Lent, focusing on the nature of sin. His knowing reference to “a second bottle of Château Langoa Barton” reveals an interesting popular touch.

Rachel Treweek commends the routine of daily prayer, and Stephen Cottrell (who prolifically contributes to two of the other publications under review) outlines Lectio Divina.

The four excellent contributors of the daily pieces follow a common pattern of helping the reader to engage with the Bible passage without too much exposition and suggesting a line for further personal thought, while each has an individual style, whether the unobtrusive illumination of Lucy Winkett, or the imaginative connection to other figures or events favoured by Christopher Herbert (his imaginary dinner-party with Geza Vermes and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews might find a good use for Dean Hoyle’s second bottle).

 

FOR a less liturgical approach to daily Bible reading, Journeying through Lent provides reflections by five “old friends of the Bible Reading Fellowship” on short Bible passages under the themes: feasting and fasting, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s wisdom in Luke, 1 Corinthians 13, and Holy Week.

The disparity of themes and the fact that two of the contributors have died — one of them two decades ago — suggest that we have here an ingenious repurposing of material that has been used elsewhere, which might explain occasional overlaps: the late Rachel Boulding and Stephen Cottrell both write on the Lord’s Prayer and on the lilies of the field, albeit in different versions. But the result is an attractive and straightforward popular resource, which also includes good questions on one of each week’s readings for those who are meeting for group study.

 

IN YOU ARE MINE, David Walker invites his readers to join him at a popular level in the investigation of Christian belonging which has preoccupied him academically over a number of years. His daily reflections are loosely grouped into belonging with God, and belonging “with the people who are closest to us; with the great figures of the Bible and Christian faith; with the wider community and its special places; and with the big celebrations and events of the Christian cycle and human life” — concluding with the events of Holy Week.

Each day starts with a short Bible passage, which acts as a springboard for the notably personal reflections by the author — among other things, drawing on the experiences of his upbringing, of therapy, and of his life as parish priest, as bishop, and as grandfather. The daily prayer highlights the general theme within the individual story.

What emerges is a wise, humane, and generous spirituality. At times, it is a bit more affective than some of us feel comfortable with — producing these reflections is “like writing a series of love letters to God”; “I can feel the warmth of his smile” — but there is also a strong and sharp commitment to social issues. He does not seek to shock, but quite often is pleasingly heterodox: he applauds Sunday-afternoon christenings; respects the faith of occasional churchgoers; hates changing the words of hymns; finds his faith encouraged by adherents of other faiths; and is
“convinced that most politicians go into that work out of a deep and genuine desire to serve their community”.

This is not a Lent book for developing daily Bible-reading. It will appeal to those looking for a Thought for the Day-style piece, linked to scripture, that builds into an attractive picture of Christian life as lived by an engaging representative.

 

MAY IT BE SO is a refreshingly left-field option from the west coast of the United States. Its creative partnership of the writer Justin McRoberts and the artist Scott Erickson presents each day a one-sentence prayer, with a stylish graphic on the facing page which obliquely amplifies the thought. There is a lot of space in this beautifully produced volume, both on the page and for the user, and it aims at engaging both our verbal and visual sensibilities.

Periodically, McRoberts tells stories that illuminate a line of the Lord’s Prayer, and often feature the precocious behaviour of his young son, followed by some questions and provocations to further thought.

Almost all the prayers begin, “May I . . .”, placing them on the borderline between a prayer directed to God and a resolution addressed to oneself, and they are almost all about a proper attitude to oneself and towards those encountered day by day: “May I offer help more readily and joyfully than I offer critique.” But what might be self-help mantras are redeemed by the book’s conviction that “The essence of prayer is the love of God, not our ability to pray,” and each section ends with the prayer, “Grant me assurance of Your presence and love.” Justin and Scott, as they refer to each other, travel regularly to perform and teach. I imagine them as the Hairy Bikers of prayer.

 

AND then the resources for groups. Walking the Way of the Cross is an excellent and innovative approach to the Stations of the Cross. It pro­vides the text for Common Worship’s The Way of the Cross, and for each Station there are three short re­­flections from complementary angles.

Philip North draws out the Pas­sion story in relation to challenging issues in our contemporary world. Paula Gooder uses unshowy scholar­ship to elucidate the biblical passages that are given and their background. Stephen Cottrell enters imaginatively into the mind of a semi-detached supporter: “And so I wonder, why didn’t they pick me? I, who am neither volunteer nor recruit, still stand on the edge, wondering what holding a cross feels like.”

Readers of his earlier book for Holy Week, The Things He Did, will be familiar with the hard-boiled style.

Each Station is accompanied by a striking two-tone graphic by Nicholas Markell, who deserves more prominent acknowledgment. These are also available as a set of posters, and would work well when seen at a distance. But beware: Common Worship follows a biblical series of stations, not including the extra-biblical succession of falls or the Veronica; and so this book will not fit the traditional stations fixed on church walls.

It does include a 15th Station for the resurrection, which begs the question whether the resurrection is an event in the same sense as the preceding Stations are events. North refers to the claim that the tomb is empty because Jesus is risen as an “explanation” of the events of Easter Day, demonstrating that “the things he said about himself were true.”

This seems a rather reductively rational approach, but that is to quibble about this impressive re­­source, for use particularly in Pas­sion­tide and Holy Week, whether corporately or individually, in church or at home.

 

THIS year will bring the 50th anni­versary of Jesus Christ Superstar, which had a transformative effect on the 15-year-old David Wilbourne, who now takes some of its themes and words as the starting-point for the York Course Superstar — “suitable for Lent or any other season”. Wilbourne provides thoughtful session introductions on the themes of Who is Jesus?, Miracles, the Psalms, the Church, and the Cross. He favours a chatty, upbeat style, drifting at times into preacher’s demotic, as in describing the pool of Bethesda, “where some guy has been on his stretcher for 38 years, but has never quite made it into the healing waters. Talk about NHS waiting lists!” His contention that “Life is the ultimate Sudoko” is accompanied by an explanatory footnote for the un­­initiated.

Alongside each Introduction is a fascinating selection of quotations ranging from St Augustine to Audrey Hepburn via Napoleon. Following the established York Courses format, the booklet comes with a CD of related interviews with an ecumenical selection of com­mentators, to be listened to at some point in each session. These take the themes to a much more searching level, particularly in the contribu­tions of Steve Chalke and Carmody Grey. Each session is accompanied by a dozen well-chosen questions for group discussion.

The Superstar theme — which does not dominate — may seem a strangely dated point of reference, but the material as a whole has a good deal to recommend it, if used selectively. The combination of sessional introductions, interviews, sidebar quotes, and substantial list of questions may well need thinning out to ensure space for participants’ own contributions.

 

THIS year’s prize for the most un­­likely Lent title has to be Where the Lost Things Go: A Lent course based on “Mary Poppins Returns”, written by the performance poet and United Reformed Church minister Lucy Berry. I approached this small book with deep foreboding, but read it with increasing interest, even if not finally convinced. The author pro­vides an insightful introduction about how stories work, including the Bible, “a glorious, contradictory, happy and grief-stricken maelstrom of meaning”.

Her claim that “I approach every story believing that God is present in it” legitimises use of Disney’s feel-good 2018 film to highlight themes that run through Christian life: belief, loss, money, being lost, light. The author provides a thoughtful piece to be read before each session, which then begins with viewing specified clips from the film (not provided). These are then set along­side short Bible passages, with excel­lent questions for discussion.

Berry has supplied an ingenious and well-written framework for fairly prescriptive group activity. She rightly asks, “can we link Lent to anything as relatively lightweight as ‘Mary Poppins Returns’?”, and her general treatment is to show how
the issues highlighted in the film at the level of “optimism, magic and dreams” find their true expression in the gospel.

There remains a perversity in having a course whose dialectic is to demonstrate the inadequacy of its own subject-matter, but it could prove a lively option for a group
that did not take itself too seriously. They will at least learn why Marie Lloyd was banned from performing the hugely popular music-hall song “She sits among the cabbages — and peas” — and what she sang instead.
 

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

 

Reflections for Lent 2020: 26 February-11 April 2020
Steven Croft, Christopher Herbert, John Pritchard, and others
Church House Publishing £4.99
(978-1-78140-153-8)
Church Times Bookshop £4.50

 

Journeying through Lent with New Daylight: Daily Bible readings and group study material
Sally Welch
BRF £2.99
(978-0-85746-965-6)
Church Times Bookshop £2.70

 

You Are Mine: Daily Bible readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day (The BRF Lent Book)
David Walker
BRF £8.99
(978-0-85746-758-4)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

 

May It Be So: Forty days with the Lord’s Prayer
Justin McRoberts and Scott Erickson
Waterbrook £13.99
(978-0-525-65307-3)
Church Times Bookshop £12.60

 

 

Walking the Way of the Cross: Prayers and reflections on the biblical Stations of the Cross
Stephen Cottrell, Paula Gooder and Philip North
Church House Publishing £9.99
(978-0-7151-2344-7)
Church Times Bookshop £9

 

Superstar: An ecumenical course in five sessions
David Wilbourne
York Courses £3.80
(978-1-909107-27-4)
Church Times Bookshop £3.48

 

Where the Lost Things Go: A Lent course based on “Mary Poppins Returns”
Lucy Berry
DLT £6.99
(978-0-232-53440-5)
Church Times Bookshop £6.30

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