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Lent books: courses and reflections

by
22 January 2021

Rocketman is this Lent’s film. Philip Welsh weighs courses and reflections

ALMOST certainly, in-person Lent groups will not be possible this year, but most courses are adaptable to those now at ease with Zoom. Alternatively, this might be a year to promote one of the sets of daily readings, with an optional weekly Zoom-in to compare notes. Most of the materials under review make reference to the pandemic, not as their focus, but as a context that sharpens the issues. As the York course puts it, “In the midst of the pandemic people just wanted to get back to ‘normal’. But what is normal?”

It is more than a quarter-century since the Vicar of Dibley got over-excited by the prospect of Elton John’s opening the parish fete, which suggests that a Lent course based on his life will be cosy and passé. Far from it. Rachel Mann bases Still Standing on the successful 2019 biopic Rocketman, and warns us about “language of the strongest, earthiest sort” and “scenes which some will find challenging”. She might have added that the film has been banned in Samoa.

Mann makes no claims for Sir Elton’s saintliness, but sees the film as a redemptive story, “showing that even the most cynical and damaged person can learn to trust, love and begin again”. A central theme is finding our true identity, including the child within us, and its five sessions look at the need for love, the power of friendship, the promise of success, sadness, and facing the truth. The author is not shy of introducing her own troubled background, even at risk of appearing unholier-than-thou.

Each session comprises an introductory reflection with ice-breaker questions; three clips from the film (not included), each with commentary and numerous questions; three Bible passages, again with comment and questions; and a final reflection and prayer. Mann states that she is disinclined to be over-prescriptive about how the material is used. Course leaders might wish that she had been more prescriptive, and will need to navigate its abundance selectively and with care.

A different sort of care will be required with the questions, some of which are deeply personal, and may prove more unsettling than expected to some participants. A reminder of helplines goes only so far. That said, Still Standing has the capacity to be particularly searching, and might be used at least as well by individuals as in a group.

Two courses this year address the environmental crisis. USPG has produced the attractive and concise study course For Such a Time as This, and makes it available free, inviting donations to the Green Schools Programme supported by the Church of South India. Each session — once past the rather insistent opener — includes a graphic view from a different part of the Anglican Communion, a Bible passage, shrewd questions for discussion, and prayers. Environmental issues are set firmly in a Christian framework of Creation, Fall, Salvation, Restoration, and ReCreation.

A particular strength of this course is the way in which it turns us from contemplating the situation elsewhere to challenging our own position, and concludes with horribly specific points for action (“Fine yourself 20 pence for every plastic bottle you use this week”). Bishops might also note that tree-planting is a requirement for confirmation candidates in Mozambique.

AlamyTaron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman (Paramount Pictures, 2019)

For Such a Time as This is warmly recommended as an easily manageable option that is not heavy on information, though with links to wider resources, and works well to generate discussion, practical action, and support for a USPG project.

The other environmental course is Caring for Creation, the first of York Courses’ extensive catalogue to address environmental concerns. It follows their customary format of notes to read in advance, an audio interview with a panel of commentators to play during each session, and substantial lists of questions for discussion. In addition, there are sidebar quotations from such figures as Greta Thunberg, Stephen Cottrell, and Stalin.

This makes for an informative, though wordy, course, and leaders will need to use the material judiciously to avoid overload.

Although its range and biblical perspective ars similar to the USPG course’s, Caring for Creation digs deeper into issues, and is particularly good at calling out misplaced Christian attitudes, whether this means using “dominion” as a cloak for exploitation, claiming that things are in God’s hands as a pretext for denial, or confusing Christian hope with optimism.

It is not afraid to highlight political action; asks whether Christians should be vegetarians; claims a place for conscientious law-breaking (which the panellists are keener on than vegetarianism); and is brave enough to point out the devastating effect of cat ownership on bird life.

Holy Habits is not the latest range from Wippell’s, but a series of resources embodying “a fresh way of engaging communities with missional discipleship”, based on the ten key practices advocated in Acts 2 of “biblical teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, prayer, sharing resources, serving, eating together, gladness and generosity, worship and making more disciples”.

Andrew Roberts, its originator, and a former Fresh Expressions trainer, uses these habits of Christian living as a framework for weekly sessions in Lent and daily sessions in Holy Week, with suggestions for group worship and singing, a Bible passage, a simple reflection, and questions for conversation and for reflection. Not everyone will appreciate some of the rubrics for worship — “Cover a table with some coarse cloth, such as hessian. Scatter some stones and then add symbols” — but there is much to be said for a course on the basics of Christian life which is light on text, uses non-verbal resources, and includes questions such as “About whom do you mutter?”

Aimed at “those who are already following Jesus”, Holy Habits: Following Jesus would work naturally with an established house group.

Turning to daily readings: Opening Our Lives is organised around the conviction that Lent is not just a time to give up or to take up, but to open up. Trystan Owain Hughes provides for each day a short Bible passage, a personal reflection and a simple suggestion for prayer or meditation. These form a weekly series illustrating different dimensions of opening our lives: to God’s presence, his call, his love, his will, his compassion, and his peace and hope.

Ranging widely within his controlling metaphor, his commentary is highly anecdotal and largely personal, often drawing on his family life and upbringing in Wales, frequently introducing other Christian thinkers, but always linked to the Bible passage. This makes for easy, attractive, and thought-provoking reading, and it comes as no surprise that the author is a regular radio contributor.

Opening Our Lives is not for those looking for Bible study or theological exploration, or resistant to hearing about the author’s children or bad back. But if you want to spend a few minutes each day reading the Bible in company with a thoughtful, amiable, and mildly garrulous Welshman, this might be just the thing. There are well-judged questions for group use.

Apprentice to Jesus looks more like a workshop manual than a devotional book, appropriately enough for an assembly of 40 daily units based on the fruitful idea that being a disciple is more like being an apprentice than a student.

But, first, Cris Rogers asks his reader to complete his “disciple-making tool”, answering 20 questions about one’s Christian life and plotting the answers on a radial diagram (he is keen on diagrams). The resultant shape indicates the perceived character of one’s discipleship, and thus of areas that require development, within the proper balance of hands, heart, and head.

Each daily section that follows builds on this, linked to a brief Bible passage, and commendably ending, Yes, but how?

The book’s cover is illustrated by a mountain peak, and its emphasis on measuring progress toward spiritual goals, and “building our spiritual muscles”, might betray a culture of spiritual achievement, unless we take to heart that “the story of God is the story of the wounded leading the wounded and the poor leading the poor.” In this context, his frequent encouragement to seek the help of a trusted Christian friend is much to be welcomed.

The material was developed with members of the author’s congregation in east London. It assumes that the reader already has a definite commitment to Christ, but beyond that starts from basics, with a fondness for homely illustrations and uneasy humour (“Again, I joke”). Those sharing a church-plant background will feel immediately at home, but the material is of wider application. I particularly liked the author’s claim that the Holy Spirit is more like a pigeon than an elegant dove — “normal but a little bit weird”.

“I want to explore how and why Jesus struggled,” Henry Martin writes in his series of daily readings, Alongside. What follows is not the earnest treatment that I was expecting, but an exercise full of humanity and humour which leads to quite radical perspectives on Jesus and the Christian life without our quite noticing.

Martin has been a prison chaplain, and his book arose from discussions with inmates about whether the Jesus we really need is the inspirational figure ahead of us, or someone alongside us who has shared our struggles.

In successive weeks, we see how Jesus struggled with his family, his friends, religious people (the Church is accused of “squashing happiness”), the crowds, and his destiny, with a penultimate week off from struggle to look at some of the things that Jesus, unlike most of us, was not troubled by.

Each day begins with a single verse, and the author spends time exploring the gaps in the Gospel, reading between the lines to get beneath the skin of Jesus, and in the process drawing in much other Gospel material. Together with this, he reveals, in anecdote and reminiscence, experience from his own life and ministry in parish and in prison, with a nicely judged, easy-going style. Not many clergy, enumerating critical stages in a parent’s life, think to include the day that your daughter got her first tattoo.

Each week ends with imaginative questions — “What advice would you give to Jesus’ family as he begins his public ministry?” — and Alongside offers us an attractive and original exploration of a Saviour at our side, “whether in a supermarket queue in Romford or in a prison cell in Manchester”.

Reflections for Lent repeats its excellent formula of lectionary readings for Morning Prayer, with concise reflections by well-known writers on one of the daily readings, together with the seasonal text of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer.

Mark Oakley’s introduction beguilingly sets us in front of Bruegel’s The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, as the depiction of a conflict that does not run between us and others, but right through every heart, and then places us with Jesus in the wilderness (helped, perhaps, by the ghost of Harry Williams). “Lent knows what we are like. It has seen the painting.”

Oakley supplies some daily reflections, along with Margaret Whipp, Graham James, and Guli Francis-Dehqani. In their different styles, each writer wisely helps us to see the passage in its context and hear it speak to our own situation.

Some guidance on daily prayer and on lectio divina is economically reprinted from last year, making Reflections for Lent a particularly usable Anglican pocket breviary.

 

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

 

Still Standing: A Lent course based on the Elton John movie “Rocketman”
Rachel Mann
DLT £6.99
(978-0-232-53491-7)
Church Times Bookshop £6.29

 

For Such a Time as This: Six-session study course
USPG
(free downloadable course www.uspg.org.uk/forsuchatime)

 

 

Caring for Creation
Brian Davis
York Courses £3.80
(978-1-909107-31-1)
(Course pack, including booklet, CD, and transcript, is available from www.yorkcourses.co.uk; phone 01904 466516).

 

Holy Habits: Following Jesus: Ideal for Lent and other times
Andrew Roberts
BRF £6.99
(978-0-85746-994-6)
Church Times Bookshop £6.29

 

Opening Our Lives: Devotional readings for Lent
Trystan Owain Hughes
BRF £8.99
(978-0-85746-882-6)
Church Times Bookshop £8.09

 

Apprentice to Jesus: 40 days of walking in the way
Cris Rogers
SPCK £9.99
(978-0-281-07998-8)
Church Times Bookshop £7.99

 

Alongside: Reflections on Jesus’ struggles and how he meets us in our struggle
Henry Martin
DLT £12.99
(978-0-232-53464-1)
Church Times Bookshop £11.69

 

Reflections for Lent 2021: 17 February-3 April 2021
Guli Francis-Dehqani, Graham James, Mark Oakley, and others
Church House Publishing £4.99
(978-1-78140-182-8)
Church Times Bookshop £4.49

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