Lent is a season that invites devotionals. It’s a time to commemorate Jesus’ 40 days and nights of temptation in the wilderness, often superficially expressed by giving up something you like. While many of us simply forgo dessert or wine for several weeks, and hope to lose a few pounds in the bargain, making the commitment to sit down every day with a structured book of Lenten readings feels more like a genuine spiritual discipline.
Truth be told, however, I have never been particularly drawn to the Christian devotional as a literary genre. There’s something about the idea of a formulaic blueprint for reflection that arouses my suspicions. It strikes me more as sentimental piety and magical thinking than hard spiritual grappling, a way of whistling past the graveyard rather than stepping with open eyes into the austere spiritual landscape that Lent calls us to enter.
For this reason, I was pleased to encounter three recent devotionals for Lent that boldly acknowledge how the season pushes us beyond our comfort zones. They’ve helped me to reconsider my glib dismissal of what this type of book can offer. Although each approaches the task of Lenten observation from a different angle, all three serve as valuable guides to a thoughtful program of prayer through the days and weeks of Lent and beyond.
In his slim book A Way Other Than Our Own, the noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann offers 47 short daily essays running from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday (one for every day of Lent, plus Sundays), each opening with a scriptural passage and closing with a prayer asking for divine guidance. While the format is traditional, the scripture selections and accompanying musings are eclectic, shifting back and forth between Old and New Testaments, with no apparent thematic order. The strength of the book is that it consistently identifies Lent as a time for sober self-scrutiny, seeing the cross not simply as a “one time deal in the life of Jesus or Christ,” but an enduring clue to how we, in our present time, can face the various forms of wilderness that beset us. Lent is about “noticing our blindness,” Brueggemann writes — not only in our own lives but in our church communities and society at large. “This is the drama of Lent, is it not? It is the journey of relinquishment of old visions of reality . . . and being surprised by new life given in glad, inconvenient obedience.”
In her collection Between Midnight and Dawn, British writer Sarah Arthur describes Lent as a time of looking into the darkness, “naming its various shades.” The book is also organized to follow the Lenten calendar, this time divided into weeks rather than single days and extending beyond Easter Sunday into the seven weeks of Eastertide that follow. Whereas Brueggemann provides single scriptural readings for each day, Arthur’s offerings are much more extensive and varied. Each week includes a list of scriptural suggestions and about half a dozen poems and short story excerpts drawn from a range of literary sources, Christian and otherwise.
By widening the net of potential Lenten resources to include poetry and literature, Arthur adds a note of imaginative diversity that helps to situate the nighttime challenges of Lent as a universal aspect of the human journey. “During the midnight hours,” she writes, “we read poetry and prose that transcend centuries, hemispheres. Words from poets whose battles with God do not lead to victory but to a kind of grumpy determination. Stories from novelists who have tumbled into the abyss . . . and found Someone there already, holding the bottom rung of the rescue ladder.” Although not always easy, they shine a light in the dark.
The third book of devotions for the Lenten season is Why I Believe: Daily Devotions on Faith and Discipleship. Edited by Alydia Smith, The United Church of Canada’s program co-ordinator for worship, music and spirituality, it is organized more intentionally than the previous two books as a study guide for use by individuals or church groups, and includes self-reflective points to ponder for each day of Lent. The title is misleading, initially triggering my habitual distaste for devotionals. However, rather than offering a catalogue of creedal avowals, as I first assumed, it is a collection of refreshingly candid and honest reflections about the everyday bumps and obstacles of the life of faith.
These personal notes, written by a variety of United Church people, describe spiritual questions and struggles the authors have grappled with at different times of their lives. Contributors range from the current moderator, Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell, to Amir Hussain, a Muslim adherent of a United Church congregation in Toronto. Two particular pieces that have stayed with me are a reflection by Rev. barb janes on “being possessed by possessions” and Rev. Anthony Bailey’s account of calming a man with a loaded gun. Each story is unique and personal but shows how glimmers of God can be found in the most unlikely places.
I used to picture devotion as a simplistic act: kneeling at the bedside with palms pressed together and head bowed, taking grace for granted. These books, drawing on the combined resources of scripture, literature and personal testimony, have helped me see that devotion can in fact be a much more muscular exercise than I first thought. These Lenten devotionals show that the pursuit of grace is no easy “gimme” but rather a walk in the dark, holding out hope that the light of dawn is possible and astonishing when it comes, despite all the ways we keep stumbling and getting lost.
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