Revisiting what following Jesus means
Andy Goodliff offers reading recommendations to deepen discipleship this Lent
Today is the beginning of Lent. It seems to me that many Christians are pretty half-hearted about Lent. We tip the hat towards it, but we’re a fairly undisciplined lot. We are told that Lent is good for the soul, in that it’s an invitation to attend to our soul over 40 days. Theologically, it might be better put as an invitation to attend to Jesus, and in so doing we attend to our soul. In most years it feels like there is too much living to do and not enough time to give attention to God.
I’m someone who likes the idea of Lent, who recognises the discipline would be good, but often find (like seed that fell among thorns in the parable) that ‘the desire for other things comes in and chokes out the word.’ My one discipline over the years has been to read something. It has usually been the book commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I read a lot, but I’ve found it a good practice to try and read something in Lent in which the focus is on being a disciple; to take the opportunity to revisit what following Jesus means.
In light of this and recognising how busy some of us are, I offer some reflections on a number of Lent books from the last decade, in the hope that you might be inspired to pick something up to read through the next 6 ½ weeks:
The first specific Lent book that I read was The Shape of Living by David Ford (originally published in 1997). Ford takes up the idea of how our lives are overwhelmed and how might we shape our life in order to cope with being overwhelmed; it’s a book that might well resonate acutely with the last year. Through seven chapters he explores faces, desire, character, secrets, leisure and work, evil and suffering, and resurrection and joy. Throughout he is in conversation with scripture, but also with the poetry of Michael O’Siadhail. It’s a wonderfully helpful book.
In 2007 the book was Power and Passion by Sam Wells. Wells takes six characters from the first Holy Week — Pilate, Barabbas, Joseph of Arimathea, Mrs. Pilate, Peter, and Mary Magdalene. He explores the different gospel presentations of these characters and he tries to discern what power and passion look like for each. In doing this he unveils how Jesus responds to politics, leadership, violence, friendship and more. As the book seeks to get under the skin of the six characters, it will also get under our skin, prompting us to wonder and reflect upon the power and passion we have.
In 2010 Lucy Winkett wrote Our Sound is Our Wound. Winkett, a musician and priest, takes up the theme of sound, both as sounds we hear and sound as a metaphor. Chapters explore the sound of scripture, lament, freedom, resurrection, angels and wounds against the backdrop of music and others noises. To re-read this book in light of the last 12 months, I’m sure would offer up new connections with how we inhabit our world of noise, but also give us a way of holding on to the sound of lament and the sound of resurrection, surrounded as we are by grief and anxiety.
In 2011, in my first year of ministry I read The Barefoot Disciple by Stephen Cherry with the church. This was a study of humility. It offers reflections on being childlike, on how to avoid humiliation and pride, giving up grumbling, becoming a stranger and generous living. Our whole way of life has been humbled, and this has brought both strange gifts and worrying concerns. Embracing humility maybe one of the most important virtues we can carry beyond this pandemic.
In 2013 Ben Quash took the theme of Abiding, taking the language from the gospel of John and inviting the reader to consider what it is to abide in body, in mind, through care, in relationships, in exile and also the wounds and the peace that abide. This is a rich study weaving in film, literature and art. Abiding of course has been one of the things we have deeply missed in recent months, the ability to be with one another. What Quash explores can help us imagine what it might mean to abide, to be abiding communities, with and for one another.
In 2014 the book was Looking Through the Cross by Graham Tomlin, which was both a reflection on how we understand the cross and how we understand the world in light of the cross. What does the cross mean for our identity, for suffering, for power, for ambition and for failure?
The Archbishop of Canterbury took up the mantle himself in 2017, with Justin Welby writing the book Dethroning Mammon. As the title suggests it addresses the place of money in our lives and in the life of the church. We cannot avoid a relationship with money, whether we have too much or too little. Welby asks how money might serve grace.
This year’s book is Living His Story by Hannah Steele and it's a book on evangelism. Evangelism is a word that can make us uncomfortable, not because, I hope, we don’t want to share the good news of Jesus, but we’ve become unsure how to do it in what the subtitle calls ‘ordinary ways.’ The last 12 months perhaps feel like they have been about survival, clinging on to faith, to church. As we hopefully will be able to return to a new ‘normal’ at some point, now is a good time to ask how do we live the story of Jesus.
In picking up these books to write this reflection, I was reminded that being a disciple means constantly coming back to scripture, especially to the gospels, and allowing the story it tells to shape, provoke wonder in, speak to, humble, abide with, and question our lives as they are woven with the grace of Jesus.
May you find the space to read something this Lent and discover afresh the grace of Christ and the call to follow.
Andy Goodliff is minister of Belle Vue Baptist Church, Southend-on-Sea
He edits Regent’s Reviews, based at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. Regent’s Reviews is published every April and October and can be read at: http://www.rpc.ox.ac.uk/regents-reviews/
This is the first in a new Lent series written by Baptists - a new reflection will be published each Wednesday over the next six weeks.
How do you normally observe Lent? “Wilderness” is a rich and layered idea in the Old Testament - reflecting on it may offer some helpful ways forward as we seek to engage with Lent this year. By Helen Paynter
Learning to tell our story afresh A reflection on the place of faith within a culture and history and how we understand the place of the church in the wider world. By Ruth Gouldbourne
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