My friend Bobby Gross starts off the Lenten section of his wonderful year-long devotional Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God with a good quote by Orthodox theologian Alexander Schememann,
A journey, a pilgrimage! Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the “bright sadness” of Lent, we see—far, far away—the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom.
Bobby tells some of his own story (and he is, I assure you, not only wise, but a great writer, weaving anecdotes and ruminations about his own experiences, travels and struggles.) As he sets the stage for his writings about Ash Wednesday and how to “inhabit” the season of Lent, he notes that the idea of giving something up for Lent is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. (“There is no Lent without fasting” Father Schememann reminds us.) Bobby, an Episcopalian who has been shaped rhythms of the Book of Common Prayer, says that the prayer book “extends a threefold invitation to observe Lent ‘by examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Word.’ All such Lenten disciplines,” Gross continues, “represent a kind of turning from a self-centered stance to a grace-filled humility.”
And, so, allow us to offer a few Lenten devotionals and congregational resources for this season soon to be upon us. But first may I commend to you Gross’s book that we’ve suggested before?
Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God Bobby Gross (IVP) $17.00 It is both an introduction to the church year, a fine bit of writing about it all, and a daily devotional, helping us find Christ in the liturgical calendar, showing how it might shape our discipleship and spiritual growth. It is very, very good.
Here are a few that may not precisely be Lenten devotionals, but sure seem to be suitable for either personal reflection or group conversation in these next weeks and months.
Kingdom and the Cross James Bryan Smith (IVP) $8.00 This is co-published by Renovare (Richard Foster’s ministry around contemplative spirituality and church renewal) and what a little gem it is! There are six sets of two-part chapters. Each “week” has a three or four page essay, each short but very insightful. Then it has a “soul training” idea, usually just two or three pages to live into and out of the theme of that chapter. These offer an experience to enter into —gazing at an icon (which they reproduce in b/w), watching a movie, doing something for the good of others. Each week the exercise “trains the soul” to experience and be shaped by the ideas from that chapter. There is a several page leaders guide in the back for walking a group through the chapters and exercises, discussing them each week. This group guide, though, is helpful for individuals, as well if you want to ponder and pray about your experience of each section. You may know Smith’s other books (most recently the “apprentice trilogy” made up of three handsome hardbacks, The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community.) Kingdom and Cross offers ways to slow down, helps you experience these exercises for spiritual formation, but there really is thoughtful reflection about what the cross accomplishes, why Jesus died, how the cross shows us God’s great love.
Shaped by the Cross: Meditations on the Suffering of Jesus Ken Gire (IVP) $15.00 This is very moving, eloquently written, thoughtful, and tender. This little book would be ideal for a either personal devotions or a small groups (especially, although not only, for those who are interested or sensitive to the visual arts.) Shaped… is arranged in seven chapters and each chapter is a meditation on one aspect of the famous Michelangelo Pieta. (I saw the impressive sculpture bathed in blue lights at the 1964 New York World’s Fair when I was a kid and it left an impression, even though I don’t think I realized then how important it was.) There is a discussion guide that is very nice, and a prayer at the end of each section. Gire is one of these writers we’ve followed for years — he doesn’t lay it on quite as thick as, say, Max Lucado, but he isn’t obtuse or overly dense. He’s a smart guy and a lovely writer. Kudos!
The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ Patrick Henry Reardon (Nelson) $15.99 Reardon, as you may know, is the editor of the profoundly interesting, quirky, theologically sophisticated, sometimes cranky and always stimulating conservative journal Touchstone. He is an Orthodox priest and pastor who converted from evangelicalism, so he knows much about “mere Christianity” and the ways in which conservative Protestants often hunger for a deeper sense of liturgy and beauty and a connection to ancient ways. This book is not a Lenten devotional but for some reason it feels that way to me. Perhaps it is the author’s liturgical sensibilities, his own habit of fasting and such. But, no; I suspect I am led to list it here because it is about the humanity of Jesus, and as we ponder the journey to Jerusalem, we are hit squarely with Jesus’ own anguish, pain, fear, disappointments, friendships, loss, and courage. Russell Moore writes that this is “the best treatment of the humanity of our Lord Jesus that I’ve ever encountered.” The eternal Word of God has become a real man, a Jewish man in a small village community, no less. How are we to understand this mystery, this essential truth of Jesus being fully God and also fully human? Jesus is not, as one popular seminary text puts it, a “symbol” of God. He is not an abstract idea, either. Jesus was a real person. This is the book to explore that. Edith Humphrey (of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) after noting the author’s “inimitable style” writes that this book “joins together critical awareness, theological fidelity, refreshing wit, and manifest devotion.” I appreciate critical awareness, theological fiedlity and refreshing wit. And I need to get me some manifest devotion, don’t you? I’ve just started it and I’m hoping to be drawn more seriously to the person of Christ these next months as I ponder it slowly. Join me?
On The Way to the Cross: 40 Days with the Church Fathers Tom Oden & Joel Elowsky with Cindy Crosby (IVP) $10.00 This books makes the claim that the early Christians knew all about our need for daily rhythms. They created a structured prayer and devotional life that would allow God to speak to them. As it says on the back cover, “This devotional offers help for those who want to find their spiritual rhythm on the way to
the cross.” There are readings from the church fathers and mothers, excerpts to ponder, arranged with weekly themes and prayers, collects and Scriptures. Oden has become quite a leader in this field—he is the director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University. Joel Elowsky has a PhD from Drew and now teaches at Concordia. Midwifing the whole thing for IVP is Cindy Crosby who has published several books along these lines, including the Ancient Christian Devotional volumes. This is a great way to become for familiar with the early church writers, and a perfect time to do so. What a great little prayer book, and what an important resource, bringing these very ancient and thick teachings to us in readable, useful bits. Highly recommended.
Way Words: A Daily Itinerary for Lent John Indermark (Abingdon) $10.00 Do you perhaps know his good book on the prophets, or his eloquent one about fear? His most recent was The Greatest of These (oddly, Christian love is a topic about which there aren’t enough good books, so it is important!) Here, the popular UCC pastor offers us words for the way (“The Way” being the most ancient name for the church, appearing first in the book of Acts.) We are people on a journey, of course; these are signposts along the way, reflections on concise phrases and sentences in the Bible that illuminate what it means to journey by faith. Designed for Lent, this really is a set of studies on way words; words for the Way. (I know you may be thinking the cover looks cheesy, as if it were self published. Don’t let that prevent you from trying this; Indermark really is a fine writer with great style, fine cadences, fun stories. You will appreciate his voice, even if not so much the accompanying fonts and design.)
Reaching Toward Easter: Devotions for Lent Derek Maul (Upper Room) $16.00 I always appreciate Upper Room books; they seem to have a gentle tone, lovely and artful covers, usually muted and soft, inviting readers to slow down and care about the pages in their hands. This one is, though, a rather upbeat book, inviting us to prepare ourselves to “enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, his courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4.) These daily readings are filled with hope, includes his own storytelling (the author is himself a journalist who sometimes writes columns for USA Today.) This moves us towards Easter and towards resurrection victory, slowly, carefully, but with engaging joy. Although it is ideal for daily use, there is a leaders guide in the back making it a book that groups can use together.
A Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor Chris Seay (Baker) $13.99 While they don’t market this as a Lenten resource it sure seems like a specific follow up to the spectacular and very popular radical critique of consumerism during Advent and Christmastime, The Advent Conspiracy. That, as you may recall, was a DVD and study book that focused us on the ways of Jesus, the call to worship well, spend less, give more, and love all. Well, if you’ve done that the last few years in your church (or, for that matter, if you were one of the many who bought Small Things with Great Love by Margot Starbuck from us last month, a great book that invited us to show compassion by reaching out to others who may be in need) you may be primed and eager to take next steps in this conspiracy to be less self-focused and more giving, more caring. This is, after all, the Lenten rhythm described above—fasting, self-emptying, and then, in Christ, learning to love. A Place at the Table is a fabulous book (and there is an optional DVD, too, that is amazingly well done, filmed in the deserts of the holy land.)
Interestingly, Lysa TerKeurst (author of the seriously spiritual diet book Made to Crave) wrote the forward, inviting us to consider what we most crave, what happens when we fast, how to desire the right things in the right way, God first. If you or your group wants to explore more intentionally what it means to surrender to God, the sort of surrender that may lead to transformed living (especially in our relationship to those who don’t have enough to eat or clean water to drink) then this honest study would be really worth considering. Please visit www.chrisseay.net to see some of the supplemental free resources (and perhaps connect with others on this journey.) Come on back, though, and order this from us—we have a huge stack of ’em. Read these 40 short chapters. Eat and drink a bit less this season and share the money saved with those who have little. And, enjoy doing it! The six session video is filmed in colorful locations, from Ecuador to Haiti and some has Chris literally in the deserts of the Middle East, and the book is loaded with surprising lines, creative ideas, cool stories. Check out his trailer, explaining a bit about what the 40 Day experiment is about. Highly recommended.
Lent for Everyone Mark Year B: A Daily Devotional N.T. Wright (Westminster/John Knox) $15.00. I know you know who Tom Wright is (although you may not know that he is visiting our store on Saturday, May 12th!) We will be very, very upbeat that fine day (pray for good weather for us as we will need to use nearby parking lots.) But here, we are joining with Wright in a fast-paced, passionate journey through Mark, following the lectionary readings, using his own translations from the Greek, and reading a bit each day through Lent. I think much of this is adapted from Mark for Everyone, but it is a very handy and useful Lenten devotional. In previous BookNotes Lent lists from other years, by the way, I’ve raved about other Wright resources for this season. See my earlier brief descriptions of the brilliant Reflecting the Glory: Meditations for Living Christ’s Life in the World (Augsburg; $14.99) and Christians at the Cross: Finding Hope in the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus (Word Among Us Press; $10.95) The first is a bit more dense, the second more brief. All three of these are great.
Lent 2012: Call Him Savior John Gooch (Abingdon Press) $9.00 This is the one offered this year in the annual “Scriptures for the Church Seasons.” (Abingdon does a popular lectionary-based Advent one each year as well.) This is designed for small groups or adult ed classes, perfect for a weekly Lenten study. There are seven lessons, all based on the Revised Common Lectionary texts for Lent, offer a good look at the Scriptures, plenty of cross references t
o learn the background and context of these BIblical passages, loaded with good study questions. There is a leaders/teachers guide, available as well.
Final Words From the Cross Adam Hamilton (Abingdon) $14.99 Do you know the 24 Hours That Changed the World by Adam Hamilton that was such a huge best-seller last year? (And, again, this year, in fact!) It has several age-appropriate workbooks (for children, for youth, for adults), a great book to read, a seven session DVD to watch together, week-by-week. There is a small pocket sized devotional, too. Some folks did this as a small group and a few congregations did the whole big thing–everybody in on it. People loved it!
As you may guess, although we are happy to continue to sell the 24 Hours That Changed resources, the energetic United Methodist mega-church leader released this year a follow up to that and it looks very good as well. Final Words is obviously a series based on the last words of Christ on the cross. Again, there are children and teen curriculum pieces to go with it and a very professionally produced DVD. ($39.99.) Dr. Hamilton is fairly evangelical in tone, a great communicator, even as he is informed by good scholarship and a pretty balanced approach. He knows how to teach in inspiring ways about what it all means. He’s at a slick mega-church, of course, but you really shouldn’t hold that against him as he is doing very fine work, and his resources are really well received by all sorts of congregations.
Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis Lauren Winner (HarperOne) $24.99 I list this here as a Lenten resource as I know that many of us don’t use simple day by day devotionals and may want a very special, quiet book to read through these winter months. The sub-title’s use of the word “mid” is significant here as Lauren throughout this stunning memoir reminds us that she is in the middle. No longer a new Christian (her faith journey was eloquently written and wildly received a decade ago) and no longer quite where she once was theologically, she is neither here nor there, perhaps. A week before the start of her doomed marriage, her mother died. She was on the circuit speaking and signing books, writing, writing, writing, traveling, increasingly ill at ease, depressed.
This “dark night of the soul” narrative is hard to put down, even if you haven’t read her earlier work, and even if you haven’t gone through a period of sensing God’s absence. If, like us, you have read her books, and feel that you know a bit of her life, you will be riveted, sad and yet glad that she has taken up her pen again, crafting honest sentences that somehow touch our hearts in very deep (and, at times, entertaining) ways. Phyllis Tickle observes that “There is a raw openness to Lauren Winner’s writing that is as breathtaking as it is rugged and beautiful.” Sara Miles says she “lifts up doubt and absence with enough honesty to reveal the unfinished edges, and the radiance, of faith itself.” Yes, it is a painful story in some ways, but also a helpful one. Maybe helpful for you as you find yourself “stumbling upward.”
By the way, my instinct that Still could be read fruitfully as a Lenten reflection was confirmed when I just realized that the publisher has created for it a daily reading guide to use during Lent. Download it for free, here.
Would you (or anybody you know) like a few more suggestions from previous Lenten BookNotes? I found them easily by using the search engine box at the website. Visit here, here, and here. Assuming they are still available, we’ll offer the 20% BookNotes discount on these items, as well.
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