Lent Reading 2016

A few years ago, when we joined a Presbyterian church, we began acknowledging the liturgical calendar. Beforehand, we had Christmas, Easter, and, depending on the church, a loose reference to Palm Sunday. Now we view these holidays as part of a larger tradition that incorporates four weeks of anticipating the birth of Christ (Advent) and the 40 Days leading up to Holy Week (Lent), which begins this Wednesday.

When it comes to observing Lent, religious and cultural traditions usually have us giving up something we enjoy – a specific food or habit. Some give up meat or caffeine, some go dark on social media or turn off their television for a few weeks. Those are all well and good, and if you are replacing that deficit with something spiritually edifying, all the better.

My way of participating in Lent is to suspend my beloved fiction and instead read books that provoke thought and teach me something about the history and significance of Christianity. I realize most people do this without needing a religious holiday to propel them, but I only dabble in nonfiction occasionally. I prefer the escapism of fiction.

In recent years I’ve read books about baptism, women in church leadership, homosexuality and the church, the history of the church, contemplative prayer, the physical and metaphorical interpretations of hell, and so on. Each book has either challenged or solidified a previously held belief or planted a new idea for consideration.

This year I have two books (though I’m on the lookout for a third – suggestions?):  A History of God by Karen Armstrong and The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.

Lent reading 2016

I also intend to finish Gilead, which I’ve been reading slowly. Considering it’s subject matter, I suppose it fits in nicely with Lent anyway.

Lent Reading 2015

A few years ago I started observing Lent, but instead of giving up meat or coffee or carrots (which Jackson said he was giving up for Lent), I decided instead to take these forty days and immerse my brain in study. I pick a subject (or a subject picks me) and I read a selection of books that will stretch or test my faith.

This season of Lent will be about prayer. I’m starting with a super short book by Anne Lamott.

Help Thanks Wow

In truth, I’m terrible at prayer. I was that girl in the youth group who really tried, mainly because I knew I was supposed to pray so I could say YES when someone asked, “Are you doing your Quiet Time?” (I’m glad no one asks me that anymore.) I’d have bouts of regular prayer in adulthood, times here and there when I’d study something or pray for a very specific thing (like our adoptions), but nothing stuck. I’d get complacent and robotic. So I’d stop. I told myself that if it didn’t feel real, I shouldn’t do it. To be brutally honest, for many early years I was that person who used to say “I’ll pray for you” and never did, not because I didn’t care but because I didn’t understand how to make it a priority in a meaningful way.

Several years ago I stopped saying “I’ll pray for you” because I didn’t want to be disingenuous. I actually do pray for people, but it’s not a formal thing. It’s in the moment, at the second it occurs to me, and it’s usually very brief.

Lord, please make it easy for her today. Amen.

God, this feels so unfair. Make it not hurt so badly. Amen.

Heavenly Father, give him a moment to think. Calm him down. Amen.

Thank you for all of this, Lord. Truly. Amen.

Participating in responsive prayer has been helpful to me in recent years, but I know I’m still missing out on something. For that reason, I’m going to read about contemplative prayer during Lent, a practice I know little about but wonder if it will benefit my scatterbrained mind. After Anne Lamott will be a book by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, who wrote extensively on contemplative prayer. I’ve also ordered Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, a book I didn’t even know existed.

On improving my flexibility

There is a double meaning in that headline, so hang on tight.

I’m in the middle of a running sabbatical brought on by shin splints. I’ve never had shin splints before so I was hesitant to label my lower leg pain as such. But after consulting my chiropractor about it (and making sure nothing was fractured), she confirmed that it was likely that I had shin splints and said I needed to stop running for at least two weeks, maybe four. My spirit was crushed because I’ve never not run for more than a week in the last seven years. This is what I do. Whether it’s a quick two miles or a lengthy 10-miler, I run every week. To NOT run is not only hard on my body but it’s increasingly hard on my brain. Regular runners will know what I mean.

While still evaluating me, which included stretching my legs all over the room to capacity, my chiropractor mentioned, “You’re really inflexible. Your hamstrings are pretty bad.”

I defended my hamstrings by telling her they’ve always been that way and I personally think they were made too short. I’m ten feet tall, after all. My hamstrings are doing their best. She dismissed my excuses and said I needed to spend this running sabbatical stretching and doing yoga, because, “You need to be more flexible.”

Now let’s switch gears.

When I started my Lenten journey last week, I made a promise to God and myself that I would keep an open mind. Whatever He was going to teach me, I was going to roll with it. I wouldn’t dismiss anything off the bat, nor would I just accept something because. To do this, I’ve given myself a few parameters, the first being that I will only read books that are thought-provoking, a little controversial, or uncomfortable. Nothing warm and fuzzy, because I’ve had a lot of warm and fuzzy and those lessons were not long-lasting.

I’m currently reading Selling Water by the River by Shane Hipps. Wouldn’t you know there was all this stuff about flexibility.

The difficulty with the Christian religion is that our institution is centered on the person of Jesus, and Jesus consistently undermined the natural inertia of institutions. He was the embodiment of pure, unbridled creative force.

Creativity is often disruptive. It has little interest in preservation; it is about making new things and making things new. Creation by nature is always expanding, growing, and unfolding. Jesus upends, revives, and restores the malleability of our rigid religions.

I lived in California for a few years. I learned that the best way to prevent an earthquake from destroying a building is to construct the building so that it can sway and swoon, bend and wobble. Make a foundation of the building less rigid and it will ride the earthquake rather than try to resist it. The building is designed to go with the flow.

The same is true of our religion – what doesn’t bend may break. This simple lesson in physics applies to even our souls. The ability to bend and flex matters. We might say blessed are the flexible for they won’t get bend out of shape.

(page 38, emphasis mine)

Well, hello God. Here you are stretching my mind just like we agreed. Like my hamstrings, the religious section of my brain has spent years in limited flexibility, and like my  hamstrings, I’m going to give it a little more attention.