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Getting busy for Lent - Church groups focus on action, current issues Mary Jacobs, Feb 10, 2012
PHOTO COURTESY HABITAT FOR HUMANITY OF GREATER BIRMINGHAM
Volunteers from Highlands United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Ala., were part of an ecumenical house-building blitz for Lent last year, put on by Habitat for Humanity. Trinity UMC and Riverchase UMC in the Birmingham area also took part.
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
In Birmingham, Ala., United Methodists will be building houses. At Park UMC in Hamilton, N.Y., they’ll watch and discuss films like True Grit and The Tree of Life. At Bee Creek UMC in Spicewood, Texas, they’ll visit the sick and feed the hungry. At a church in Austin, Texas, they’ll pray with women who work in a strip club.
And what’s the common thread in all this? Lent.
Lenten study groups have been a staple on the calendars of United Methodist churches for years. Typically, they involve a weekly study delving into the Lenten lectionary.
But, as this season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22), many United Methodist churches are reinterpreting the traditional Lenten study group with programs and projects that take church members out of the building for hands-on service, guide them in taking on spiritual disciplines like prayer or meditation or engage them in contemporary issues in new ways—all in light of Lenten themes.
At Servant Church, a United Methodist church start in Austin, the congregation of about 90 young people—most are age 32 or younger—will focus on human trafficking during Lent this year, using materials from Not for Sale, a California-based anti-trafficking group. Participants will follow a devotional guide, blog their responses and hear from speakers who’ve worked to fight trafficking in Thailand, Haiti and other places.
Tackling human trafficking is a natural for Lent, according to Abby Parker, who leads Servant Church’s ministry with the poor. “Lent is the story of our need for Christ’s redemption,” Ms. Parker said. “When you hear stories of people who’ve been rescued from trafficking situations, they are beautiful stories, redemptive and filled with grace. They’re like little resurrections.”
The church also plans to teach church members to recognize situations where human trafficking might occur in their own neighborhoods—such as the strip club that’s located near the church. The church has an ongoing ministry there, in which women in the congregation visit the women who work at the club, talking and praying with them and inviting them to the church for a free meal. The training will prepare church members to identify strip club employees who might be victims of human trafficking.
“We want the women who work there to know that we’re someone safe and we’re just around the corner, so they will think of Servant Church if something bad is happening to them,” said Ms. Parker.
During Lent, many United Methodists will give something up—like chocolate or television—but Bee Creek UMC in Spicewood, Texas wants members to take something on—a mission-oriented Lenten adventure called “The Journey.” Creator Eliza Bushn, Bee Creek’s director of Christian education, say it’s inspired by the words of Jesus as well as a reality TV show called The Amazing Race.
Participants sign up to commit “6 weeks, $10 and two feet.” For the first week, participants show up at church with $5, a city map, canned goods and comfortable shoes—ready to head out for an on-the-spot assignment that involves feeding the hungry. (As in the TV show, they won’t know what the assignment is until they show up.)
“Instead of just giving something up, we’re going to give something,” said Ms. Bushn. “So many of us focus internally on what we give up for ourselves; what we’re thinking about is, ‘What is it you have to give? What is it you are going to sacrifice of time, of yourself, in service on behalf of the Lord?’” Building on faith
Giving time and effort is also a Lenten option in Birmingham, Ala., where United Methodist churches join in an ecumenical “Building on Faith” blitz for Habitat for Humanity.
Last year, three churches built one house each during Lent, and 20 others collaborated on the building of three more. Trinity UMC, Highlands UMC and Riverchase UMC all contributed volunteers.
Trinity, in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood, built an entire home, with dedication occurring on Good Friday.
“We had people who took a week off and worked on the house,” said Laura McCain, a Trinity member who also is on the advisory board for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Birmingham. “That was pretty cool.”
Ms. McCain said church members who couldn’t help with the building showed up to provide lunch, snacks and water, and to pray for the needy family getting the home.
And while nothing could be more hands-on than building a house, Ms. McCain said volunteers still gave up something.
“During Lent, when we as Christians are asked to reflect on what Christ did for us, it’s particularly meaningful to give sacrificially of our time,” she said. “Christ gave his life for us. The least we can do is give some time for others in his name.”
Habitat for Humanity of Greater Birmingham has 16 churches signed up this Lent, and expects a few more, to help in the building of four homes, said Sabrina Balch, development coordinator.
While these churches are encouraging members to make new service commitments, Faith UMC in Rockville, Md., is experimenting this Lenten season with cutting back on one kind of service—church committee meetings. The church will offer weekly “Tuesday Nights Together” (“TNT”) during Lent—a dinner followed by special programs on topics like healing and the religious art of Lent. After the program, from 8-9 p.m., all of the church’s committees will meet, following a streamlined schedule.
The goal is to encourage committee members to attend TNT and “to free them up to be ‘Lentier,’” jokes associate pastor, the Rev. Laura Hamm Peterson. “We hope that will give them more personal time for study and reflection.”
Going to the movies and talking about them afterwards is a Lenten practice at some churches, including Park UMC in Hamilton, N.Y. The Rev. Nick Preuninger offered the “Faith and Film” class during Lent the past two years, averaging about 15 in attendance, which he’s happy about, given that Park UMC averages about 65 in worship.
“I use a rule of thumb that if I get a tenth of the congregation coming to any of the Christian education offerings, things are going OK,” he said.
Mr. Preuninger majored in theater as well as religion in college, and he decided long ago that theater and film offer plenty of material for theological reflection.
He pointed to the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, screened in the first year of “Faith and Film,” as having a lot to say about baptism and salvation. Another hit was Pan’s Labyrinth, and this year’s lineup includes True Grit, The Tree of Life, Get Low, The Prince of Egypt, The Shawshank Redemption and The King’s Speech.
Mr. Preuninger said he prepared extensively the first year, but found that discussions took off without any help from him. Now he comes with a few themes for possible discussion, and perhaps a couple of relevant Bible verses.
He tends to avoid films from Christian distributors or production companies.
“There can be the tendency in the overtly Christian films to become too preachy,” he said. “This is all about sensitizing us to God’s voice all around us.”
The “Faith and Film” group screened movies in the sanctuary the first two years, but this time will gather in a member’s home. Mr. Preuninger encourages anyone in his congregation who wants to give up something for Lent, but “Faith and Film” allows for a certain cinema-related indulgence.
“People can bring popcorn,” he said.
Another church, St. Stephen’s UMC in Burke, Va., turned to a familiar film character—action hero James Bond—for its 2011 Lenten study. The “Lenten Bond study” was led by the Rev. Benjamin Pratt, a retired UM pastor who authored a book linking Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels to biblical teachings about sin. (The novels, Dr. Pratt notes, are quite different from the James Bond movies.) Dr. Pratt thinks Fleming found inspiration in the Book of James—which, in the New King James Version, begins with the words, “James, a bondservant of God.”
For those who might not be able to attend a brick-and-mortar Lenten study group, the Upper Room offers some online options via BeADisciple.com, including a Lenten course called “Spirituality and Photography: Lent.” Participants will take on daily photography assignments as a spiritual discipline.
“It’s a way of taking the practices you use in your own spiritual life—centering, praying, listening and paying attention to God’s nudging—and allowing them to inform your photography,” said instructor Val Isenhower, a photographer and author of the upcoming Upper Room ebook, Meditation on Both Sides of the Camera.
Whatever the topic or approach, Lent is a good time for churches to offer special programs, according to the Rev. Lovett Weems. Lent is one of the “prime seasons” for church attendance, and “church members are often open to doing something different during Lent, such as participating in a class or small group, reading a recommended book, or committing to attending church weekly as a Lenten discipline,” he says.
Many congregations choose a book or curriculum, tie in a sermon series, and encourage Sunday school classes and small groups to follow along. That’s reflected in sales of Lenten materials by the United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH), which estimates that about 5,000 United Methodist congregations purchased special materials from UMPH for Lenten studies last year. Churches are also turning to a wider variety of resources—videos, worship helps, home devotionals and more—in addition to books, according to Susan Salley, associate publisher of program resources for UMPH.
And some United Methodist pastors improvise their own Lenten programs, like Joel Walther, local pastor to a two-point charge in Michigan. He’ll lead a Lenten study group that will wrestle with the words of John Wesley. On five Thursday evenings in Lent, participants will meet at Petersburg UMC in Petersburg, Mich., for a light soup supper and a discussion of one of Wesley’s sermons. Mr. Walther has invited a different UM pastor from the area to lead each discussion. Then, on the following Sunday, Mr. Walther will preach an updated version of the sermon at Petersburg and at Zion UMC in LaSalle, Mich., He’ll rely on insights from the Thursday night discussions to craft updated language for each sermon.
“Many United Methodists today have no connection to Wesley and his preaching,” said Mr. Walther. “Lent is a good time to focus spiritually on something, so I thought, why not focus it on Wesley?”
SIDEBAR: Lenten top sellers
These books are emerging as favorites for study groups during the 2012 Lenten season, according to the United Methodist Publishing House:
Three Simple Questions by Bishop Rueben Job (author of Three Simple Rules, an ongoing Lenten favorite), on three questions of faith: Who is God? Who am I? Who are we together?
Final Words by Adam Hamilton, a book and video on Jesus’ words from the cross and the meeting on the road to Emmaus. (An earlier book by Adam Hamilton, 24 Hours, also remains a Lenten favorite.)
Call Him Savior by John Gooch (with leader’s guide by Nan Duerling), a seven-session Bible study built on the lectionary Scripture.
Mosaic by Shane Stanford, on how brokenness can deepen people’s lives.
40 Days of Fruitful Living and Five Practices of Fruitful Living by Bishop Robert Schnase have also been favorite Lenten studies for the past two years.