Two weeks ago, we looked at implications of Jesus' instructions when he said, "When you give...," and I began that week by telling a somewhat embarrassing story about a time when I've done exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught. Then, last week, we looked at implications of Jesus' instructions when he said, "When you pray...," and I began with a somewhat embarrassing story about a time when I've done exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught. This week, we look at implications of Jesus' instructions when he said, "When you fast...," and rather than an embarrassing story, I can only give more of a confession: I haven't practiced this one enough to have many stories–embarrassing or not. Therefore, I probably shouldn't be writing anything about it. But it's Lent, so it's hard not to include fasting in the conversation. I guess I'll just hope in the likelihood of a good number of you of you seeing "fasting" in the subject line of this week's messages and deciding that you might find something else to read until next week.
It isn't that I've never fasted. It seems like each year, usually during Lent, I have some different way of experimenting with it. So, I've got enough experience with it that to try to have six helpful posts for this week. My hesitation about writing about it comes less from a lack of experience than it does from the knowledge that any efforts I've ever made in this practice have all been–at best–stumbling, bumbling efforts to which I can imagine God lovingly saying, "Well, thanks for trying."
One of my first and most memorable experiences with fasting was in graduate school. It was an introductory Spiritual Formation course in which we were studying and practicing different classic spiritual disciplines. When we got the syllabus, I noticed that the instructor had a week on fasting, which included the assignment of a three-day fast. I wasn't looking forward to it, but I had it on my radar, which was apparently better than a good number of my classmates. When we got to that week in the course, several of my peers who hadn't read the syllabus very closely did their best to virtually stage a revolt against the professor. How in the world could he expect us to do that? It became apparent that many of us enjoyed learning about and practicing spiritual disciplines until it came to one which was very effective at making us uncomfortable.
The professor gently guided us back to the fact that we all should've paid closer attention to the syllabus, and he also pointed us to Jesus' statement we're considering this week, not "if you fast," but "when you fast." Then, we all felt better when he assured us that the course requirement was that we attempt the three-day fast, not necessarily that we complete it. Many of my classmates gave up within the first day. I was much more mature than them and made it about 25 hours before throwing in the towel.
We have our subtle ways of giving to be seen by others, or praying to be seen by others, but our religious culture today is so far removed from that of Jesus, that fasting to be seen by others would be pretty obnoxious to most of us rather than being tempting. So perhaps Jesus' instructions about not fasting in order to be seen by others are way too easy for us today. Our work-around for it is simple: if we never fast, we're never fasting to be seen by others. But still, Jesus' statement implies that his followers will fast, and in another place (Matthew 9:14-15), Jesus even says explicitly that–after he is taken from them–his followers will fast. And many of Jesus' friends throughout the centuries have found this practice to be so deeply good that the church continues to hang on to its importance, even though many of us today have almost completely laid it aside.
So, for this week's reflections on our journey of denying ourselves and following Jesus toward the cross, let's all put on our steel-toe boots, realize that this is a practice designed to make us uncomfortable, and know that our loving, gracious Lord and millions of his friends have all walked this way before us.
Tomorrow we'll consider why it makes sense for fasting to have a place in our lives with God. Wednesday and Thursday, we'll look at the traditional practice of fasting from food, including its place in the Bible and in our history as Methodists. In the remainder of the week, we'll look at other types of fasting, where we cut ourselves off from things other than food.
A Prayer for the Day:
O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer
[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]