While some Protestants still struggle with what to make of Lent (“Isn’t that a Catholic thing?”), increasingly Presbyterian congregations are seeking creative approaches for making the season meaningful – including giving people opportunities to explore spiritual practices and to bring depth and a sense of community to the weeks leading to Easter.
The practices are varied — from the program Lent 4.5, which focuses on simplicity and caring for the earth; to study groups in which a congregation reads a book together (recent examples include theologian Richard Lischer’s “Stations of the Heart,” about lessons learned through the death of his son, and “Daring Greatly,” in which research scientist Brené Brown explores the value of vulnerability and imperfection); to the exploration of ancient spiritual practices. Last year, for example, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham, North Carolina, offered a series of study sessions called “Practicing Life into Wholeness” — exploring spiritual practices including centering prayer, lectio divina and the daily examen.
“These times like Advent and Lent provide us opportunities to structure our lives around something different than society does,” said Megan Cochran, one of the pastors at Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago. “It’s very countercultural to follow this liturgical calendar … They are rich times to try these different practices and see what happens, how it sticks to your faith.”
Here are some ideas.
Disciplines. Some Presbyterians think of Lent not in terms of “giving up” something (Facebook, coffee, alcohol, sweets) but in becoming more committed to practicing a spiritual discipline — including the traditional ones of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. “This is not a forced discipline,” said Jennifer Lord, a professor of homiletics and liturgical studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, but discovering “What’s the gift in this?” of a consistent spiritual practice. Some focus on the contemplative — beginning and ending each day with a time of prayer or silent mediation, or praying the liturgy of the hours (set times of devotion throughout the day — done in communion with others praying around the world). Some congregations hold Wednesday night soup suppers with a different charity designated each week to receive donations.
Westminster Presbyterian in Durham last year used the weeks of Lent to introduce congregants to six spiritual practices. Since then, some of those practices, particularly silent meditation, have been incorporated into other aspects of church life — such as an Advent study looking at opposites, including chaos and calm; making space and filling space; suffering and joy; darkness and light.
“My sense is that sometimes these practices can get connected to a particular faith tradition that might not be our own faith tradition,” so Presbyterians don’t naturally consider them, said Heather Ferguson, Westminster’s director of Christian education. When they learn some of the history, they find “actually it’s rooted much more deeply in our tradition” — so some begin to make space.
She has found that silent meditation practices resonate with “a wide variety of people — male and female, older, younger, those with children, those without, empty nesters.” Westminster offers a silent campus during Holy Week — with no committee meetings and with the staff practicing stillness, calm and quiet. Some (including one extrovert from her congregation who lives alone) find the experience of collectively being in centering prayer or sitting in silence with other people to be powerful. Lectio divina — a meditative focus on a particular passage of Scripture — appeals to some who fear they don’t know enough about the Bible to contribute much or feel comfortable in a discussion-based Bible study, Ferguson said.
Her hope was that at the end of Lent, “they would walk away with just one little thing they might try” the rest of the year. “Invariably there are a lot of chaotic things going on, either in the news or the lives of people. We try to give them some options for practices they can do that fit with whatever they’re experiencing.”
Connections. At their best, Jennifer Lord stresses, Lenten practices involve both a personal, individual commitment and a communal experience. Orthodox Christians, for example, fast during Lent — but then come together on Sundays and feast days to break the fast and share a communal meal.
Last year, Lake View Presbyterian chose as its Lenten theme “Get Connected.” The Sunday school classes made a “Get Connected” calendar with a different activity each day — for example, to call someone you hadn’t seen for a while and catch up. Worship each Sunday featured reading from both the Old and the New Testaments with the preachers drawing connections between the texts. Church members contributed to create a daily Lenten devotional offering reflections on passages from Scripture and sharing “how God is working in our lives.”
Lake View also created Lenten Spirituality Circles — groups of six to eight people who gathered each week as a form of intentional community, beginning with an opening ritual (often lighting a candle), praying and reflecting together on that week’s devotions.
They also used the ritual of a “milestone blessing” — each week, they would gather in a circle around a table with stones piled in the center, with each stone carrying a word or a phrase, Cochran said. Each participant would select a stone and then offer a story from his or her own life focused around that word — using words and brief prompts such as sacred (something that holds particular meaning); quest (taking risks or heading off into something unknown); care (a time you provided or received care); highs and lows (something you are working on, something you have achieved or feel good about); gratitude (where do you see the goodness of God in your life?).
Near the end of Lent, all those in the spirituality circles (about 40 people participated) gathered together for a potluck meal where they discussed what Lent had come to mean to them. “It deepened their understanding of the season,” Cochran said. Some think of Lent as “giving things up,” but they approached it as a way to prepare for Easter.
She read recently about the idea that “Advent is a little Lent” and that “we don’t just prepare for when someone is born; we prepare for when someone dies. We can talk about grief and deepen our relationships with each other and deepen our thoughtfulness about our lives. Lent is a really rich time to do these community-building practices that also have an individual component.”
Guided imagery. Last year, Sharon LeClaire, a graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, a member of First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo and an aspiring hospital chaplain, led a workshop at her congregation on guided imagery, which she described as like helping people to “take a walk in their mind.” LeClaire was a bit disappointed in the turnout — only one person showed up. But that woman was in the midst of a stressful period of caring for a loved one who was ill — “she had been on high alert for months and months and months,” LeClaire said, and was in need of respite. She led the woman through an exercise in which she imagined a flower garden in a beautiful place, slowly walking among some of her favorite blossoms, with the path finally ending with a bench where Jesus was waiting. In her mind, she sat next to Jesus for a while, resting there in peaceful silence.
Guided imagery is a technique people can use throughout the day — waiting for an appointment, washing the dishes, in 15 minutes intentionally set aside. LeClaire learned the technique from her spiritual director — at the start of each of their meetings, she takes about 10 minutes to settle her thoughts with guided imagery. “It’s my journey from outside to inside,” LeClaire said. “Then we can have a good conversation,” like walking into a new space.
Art. Last year, at First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Kristin Riegel, a graduate of McCormick Theological Seminary and a Lilly resident minister with the congregation, led a small group called “Praying with Our Hands,” focusing on the connection between art and spiritual practices and looking at how art can be used as a form of prayer and worship. She drew on ideas about participatory art she’d been exposed to while in seminary from pastors such as Nanette Sawyer of Grace Commons and Shawna Bowman at Friendship Presbyterian Church, both in Chicago.
The first week of Lent, an art historian demonstrated how icons have been used in Eastern Christianity as a means of encountering the divine. After that, the group tried exercises such as illustrating the psalms; drawing large-scale murals interpreting a passage from Scripture; experimenting with art-based journaling; and creating a collage icon.
“People were doing something with their hands” while also having conversation and reflection on what it means “to be created by God and to be created as people who are able to create,” Riegel said.
A photography project called Crossings, was suggested by one of Riegel’s colleagues, Melissa Anne Rogers, the congregation’s associate pastor for pastoral care and congregational life, who drew on spiritual practices she’d seen used at the Iona Community in Scotland.
As a spiritual practice during Lent, people from the congregation took photos of places where they saw crosses in their everyday lives (noticing crosses in window panes and in nature, for example). In Eastertide, they took photos of where they saw “resurrection” and “new life” in the world around them.
The photographs were hung in the social hall (the crosses on one side; the resurrection images on the other), along with responses to questions such as “What does it mean to be the cross in the world?” Riegel said. “We were inviting people to notice and engage in a world in which God is already present.”
The Ann Arbor congregation also met in small groups to discuss a book by a Catholic theologian on the stations of the cross. There was some resistance fearing that drew too much from the Catholic tradition, Riegel said. People said, “Well, Lent is hard and it’s dark, and we’re resurrection people. There’s that constant tension between suffering in the world and hope; dwelling in the wilderness, not just rushing to Easter.”
Riegel encourages people to sit intentionally in Lent with “places of brokenness and places where there needs to be reconciliation … I’m thinking about police brutality, the experiences of people of color, immigration, places where there are many crosses being borne.”
When they do that, then “the resurrection is all the more powerful.”