Lent in Plain Sight: A Devotion Through Ten Objects

Jill J. Duffield
Westminster John Knox Press, 169 pages
Reviewed by Gary W. Charles

Feel free to read the entire review, but simply put: Buy this book. Buy it as a travel guide to navigate the season of Lent. Buy it for members of the session and diaconate who are called to lead the people of God, along with the pastor, through this pensive and penitent season. Buy it for friends who never heard of Lent and who are more than a bit dubious about this whole Christianity thing.

Why should you buy it? Drawing on biblical wisdom and her own, Jill Duffield explores faith in conversation with ordinary objects: dust, bread, cross, coins, shoes, oil, coats, coats, towels, thorns, stones.

This book of devotions provides a short essay for every day of Lent, along with questions to explore and a moving closing prayer. At the conclusion of her Ash Wednesday essay, Duffield writes: “Even as sin clings as closely as the gray remnants of ash on our foreheads, mercy surrounds us like a dust storm stirred up by the relentless wind of the Spirit.”

Each day of Lent affords the reader occasions to see the extraordinary in such ordinary objects as oil and dust. In the week focused on bread, Duffield wrestles with the painful encounter of Jesus with the Syrophoenician woman. This woman appeals to Jesus for help with her daughter and the initial response of Jesus is painful to read, especially for many women then and now who have been dismissed and callously sent on their way.

The cross is an object that is both offensive and a fashion statement, as a cross hangs on many necklaces. Duffield uses this object of fashion or distain to guide our feet to the foot of Jesus’ cross and to join the crowd shouting for him to come down or to rain down God’s wrath on everyone who has had anything to do with hanging him on the cross. She forces us to wonder if we would be the ones shouting: “Father, forgive them” or the ones standing before Pilate, shouting, “Crucify him!”

Duffield moves from preaching to meddling on the Wednesday of the week on coins. In one essay, she addresses a favorite topic of Jesus:  money. She writes: “I often wish the ledger of my checking account was off-limits to my Lord. I wish Jesus did not care about whether my purchasing habits impacted the people around the globe who produced the goods I buy.”

I was most deeply moved by the week devoted to oil. In one essay, she offers a moving response to her first-hand experience in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the summer of 2017 when white nationalists paid an unwelcome and violent visit. In another essay, she wonders about consecrating more than pastors and priests with oil: “What about those who’ve not had oil poured over their heads or hands laid on their shoulders? What about those wearing scrubs or public works uniforms, business suits or sweats stained with baby spit-up?”

The final essays revolve around Holy Week. In a Good Friday and Holy Saturday conversation with her son, Duffield wrestles with the question of how Christians can call the day when Jesus was wrongfully executed “good” and how the divine silence of Holy Saturday can be something other than deafening.

Want to observe a holy season of Lent? Want to make Lent more than a long detour the church takes between Easter and Christmas? Buy this book.

GARY W. CHARLES is pastor of Cove Presbyterian Church, in Covesville, Virginia, author of “The Bold Alternative,” and co-author with Brian K. Blount of “Preaching Mark in Two Voices.”