Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Lenten books have become a tradition I look forward to each year at this time. This year's official selection by the Archbishop of Canterbury is Barefoot Disciple: Walking the Way of Passionate Humility, written by Stephen Cherry. Previous noteworthy titles I have enjoyed are: Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement by Rowan Williams, Timothy Radcliffe's Why Go to Church?: The Drama of the Eucharist, Power and Passion: Six Characters in Search of Resurrection by Samuel Wells, and The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today by Tom Wright, not a Canterbury selection but excellent just the same.
Historically, for Mennonites, Lent has never been a significant part of the church calendar. Only in more recent years when the use of the lectionary has taken root in the worship of many Mennonite churches has Lent taken on a more important role in the build-up toward Good Friday. My own experience of Lent as a season of penitence and reflection began when I got married. Having made a commitment to sing in the church choir of the Anglican church in which I was married, I was immersed in the liturgy and the ritual observance of Lent in a new and unique way. Somewhat later when I became a Lay Assistant in the same church and took responsibility for leading regular penitential services at the church throughout the Lenten season, the prayers and responses became even more significant as a way of ordering my life and thinking during this time. And so, in the spring of '82, having never read C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia before, I decided that I would read one book each Sunday of the six Lenten Sundays and finish final volume, The Last Battle, on Good Friday. On some of the Sundays, it was warm enough to read outside on the beaches of English Bay. Other days it was rainy and gray. But it was a wonderful experience for me, not least because it helped order my time and reflection in a disciplined way.
The genre of Lenten books brings together the passion of spirituality with the disciplined reflection of theology. An extended sermon, a good Lenten book speaks to issues and realities in our time with creativity and spiritual insight. The better ones display passion and grace, creativity and depth, piety and commitment. As Andrew Louth once stated in a short article delivered on the topic of Christian spirituality, Christian spirituality is theology at prayer. This is the intention of the Lenten book and for that reason I look for the books dedicated to this end. But other books have also been excellent spiritual companions for this season: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Frederick Buechner's The Hungering Dark, and Kathleen Norris's Cloister Walk to name a few. In addition, with the new Anabaptist/Mennonite prayer book, Take Our Moments and Our Days now available, there are services and daily prayers to say together as a family or in small groups which reflect the faith priorities and language of Anabaptists and fellow travellers in other denominations. I sincerely hope that Lenten reading and observance catches on among our Mennonite congregations.
Lent is a great time to refocus and revisit routines and priorities. I'm looking forward to the challenge of humility in the book just written by Stephen Cherry. What was said about a Grammy award winner who "humbly" accepted the plaudits of the audience by a jealous onlooker could also be said of me: "He has a lot to be humble about."