By 2005 our church was hopping and ready to multiply. This teaching was part of a series devoted to learning spiritual disciplines. Many of our people had never tried any.
I like Lent. I like fasting, physically and emotionally! Fasting makes my body feel better. Fasting feels like a sport to me. I like feeling all ancient. So I guess I’m a natural.
But fasting is more than physical or emotional. Spiritually, fasting is another matter. It is getting the physical and emotional to open up to the spiritual. Fasting points out how rebellious I really am, how unfocused, how afraid to be weird, how secretly undisciplined, how needy I am.
So it is difficult to go where fasting is designed to take me. It is like the old analogy about being spiritual. If God is the lake, I love water skiing. But becoming a fish seems a bit much. If fasting is like fishing in God, then I might like throwing a line in for the afternoon, but it is a little different to think about being taken to the depths and developing gills. So I want to admit that right off.
I want to get to some “how to fast” stuff. But I’m not sure there is a reason to get too practical right away unless we have a good reason to fast at all. Not eating, or not doing anything does not have a lot of spiritual value unless the deprivation has a purpose, unless it is after something.
So here is a good reason to fast, in my opinion, and by my experience. One thing the discipline of fasting is good for is to cultivate what Pablo Neruda called “burning patience.”
Pablo Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971 and died in his native Chile in 1973. He had a rich, difficult life full of poetry and politics. In his acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize this is how he ended.
I come from a dark region, from a land separated from all others by the steep contours of its geography. I was the most forlorn of poets and my poetry was provincial, oppressed and rainy. But always I had put my trust in man. I never lost hope. It is perhaps because of this that I have reached as far as I now have with my poetry and also with my banner.
Lastly, I wish to say to the people of good will, to the workers, to the poets, that the whole future has been expressed in this line by Rimbaud: only with a burning patience can we conquer the splendid City which will give light, justice and dignity to all mankind.
I’m not sure I am hoping for exactly the same thing as Neruda; I don’t put my trust in humankind the way he does. But we are both cultivating the ability to get to that “splendid city.” I can’t control your destination of choice. You could see it as a home in the heavenly city at the close of time, or as a secure place in the city of God where Jesus rules represented by his church, or as the renewal and healing of Philadelphia until it is splendid. Regardless, to arrive anywhere redemption and regeneration want to take us requires a burning patience. Getting to that splendid city where God is taking us requires the cultivation of what Paul names the fruit of the Spirit called patience. And that is why we fast.
When you fast…
When Jesus was teaching his disciples about fasting in Matthew 6 (and we should all know Matthew 4-7 first among the revelation of scripture), he started out with “When you fast…” do this, and that. It was not “If you decide to fast,” or “If you get around to fasting,” or “If you can’t avoid fasting because someone coming after me is going to make up a season called Lent, then make you observe it and try to force you to fast…” It wasn’t any of those things. Jesus assumed his seeking-after-God followers were going to fast, because it is a physical aid to prayer.
We are spiritual beings in physical bodies; it is our unique identity among God’s creatures. So we need physical aids for spiritual activities. Fasting is good for training your body to go with your spirit. It helps you get your body out of the way so you can be more direct with God. Your body’s pains and grumbles can provide good places to learn to trust and rely on more than what you can get for yourself. In an overfed society, fasting might be crucial for hearing God!
There are many ways to fast and I hope a few of you will tell us how you have fasted in a few minutes. But for the sake of this teaching, I am thinking of fasting as going without food, like Jesus did that time he fasted for forty days in the desert before he began his miracle-working ministry. There are many goals and results of fasting, but I would like to underscore one — how it develops burning patience. I think fasting helps develop:
- The character to face failure and difficulty but never lose hope in what can be and ought to be.
- The courage to face evil and experience scorn but never lose faith and continue to work out that faith through love.
- The ability to see a vision and persevere after it your whole life.
We need that burning patience.
Psalm 69 provides a good outline
I think Psalm 69 demonstrates the heart and struggle of fasting pretty well. So I decided to offer that to you for further study. I hate to dump a lot of Bible on you, since some of you may not have too much experience with it. But see how much God gives you through it.
In Psalm 69, the great King of Israel, David, is in the middle of his splendid city, Jerusalem and imagining where God might take everyone. He is consumed with the worship of God in the great temple, God’s house, in the middle of the splendid city, the capital city of God’s people. I think he represents a faster who has this burning patience I’m talking about. So maybe he will help you grow throughout Lent.
Some of you think fasting is advanced spirituality. I say Jesus thinks it is basic. Some of you think it is an imposition from some legalistic religion of the past that should be discarded; I say it is an important way to let God in and to keep you from taking over God’s place. If you’re skeptical and don’t know where to start, maybe you can explore feeling and acting like David, see and see what happens. See if your awareness of yourself is heightened, your connection with God is deepened and a character of burning patience is acquired.
Opening up to hope
David starts Ps. 69 in distress. This is the classic reason people fast. They are in need and they are clearing the decks of anything else but asking God to meet their need. Fasting is for focusing on God. There is lots of burning here:
You know my folly, O God; my guilt is not hidden from you.
May those who hope in you not be disgraced because of me,
O Lord, the LORD Almighty; may those who seek you
not be put to shame because of me, O God of Israel.
For I endure scorn for your sake, and shame covers my face.
David is a sensitive man. He is sensitive to his own sin and sensitive to how others sin against him. He can’t shrug off the insults he feels hurled at himself and he seems to feel at least equally bad about the scorn heaped on God.
These are always good reasons to fast: I want to deal with my guilt. I want to gain strength so I don’t disgrace God. I want to prove my faith by enduring scorn – which people might do if you fast. What do you do when you are feeling terrible? I’ve been known to eat a half-gallon of ice cream or ingest something stronger, but it did not fix me up.
When we give up something, in this case I’m thinking food in some way, we open up an empty space. In that space we keep running into what reminds us to focus on God and pray. Some people could go without food for days. Some people need to focus on one meal. Bodies are different. The point of it is to open up some empty space for God to fill. The point is to experience the fullness of our discomfort to be comforted by God. The point is to add force to an eager prayer by getting normal activities out of the way.
When we fast we are practicing a patience that is not passive. Like a dancer practices a move over and over until her body can express what’s in the music, we are training our lives to express what is of the Spirit of God. Like any artist knows, that hope for the fullness we seek is generally a passion only partially fulfilled in our lifetimes – it runs on a vision, on a dream, on a revelation.
I often give up sweets for lent because I am a sweetaholic. It not only makes my body feel better, it makes me remember that not only do some people never have a sweet, but Jesus tasted death for me, which was anything but sweet. I hope my suffering will result in something better, too.
Opening to faith prevailing in love
David displays a heart of zeal. This is another reason people fast. It is a creative act. It is getting zealous, or getting into it, or getting determined. You really want God to act, you need direction, you want power to serve in some way, you are looking for miracles. So you fast. David says:
I am a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my own mother’s sons;
for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.
When I weep and fast, I must endure scorn;
when I put on sackcloth (Or when I wear an ash cross on my forehead on the bus after Ash Wednesday), people make sport of me.
Those who sit at the gate mock me, and I am the song of the drunkards.
David wants God’s temple in Jerusalem to truly be the spiritual heart beat of the nation. He wants people to get it and they don’t — but he wants them to and he is not giving up. He is wasting away praying for it and acting out his faith.
These are always good reasons to fast: I am consumed with relating to God. Something needs to change. I must find out what is true or whether I am the nut case people say I am. James starts his letter with this:
Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Fasting is welcoming the trial. It is deliberately entering into something you must persevere, maybe like a spiritual joust or a marathon.
In this sense, I think fasting can be more about taking on than putting off. The point is to make a concerted effort to get yourself in a position to gain some strength, to make a change, to become something new, to get a new skill, to focus on the future.
I was telling my cell that this lent I am determined to cordon off more time to pray and study. I have been so busy the past year, that I feel hungry, and a little resistance to meeting my need has cropped up. I need to act on something before I get used to being hungry. So I am taking on a new schedule – at least I am trying.
Opening up to vision
Finally, I want to point out how David is fasting and praying in such a way that he is including himself in the big picture of how God is changing the world. He wants to see God’s salvation for himself. He’s praying against the forces that he calls: the mire, the deep waters, the bitterness of gall and vinegar.
But I pray to you, O LORD, in the time of your favor;
in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation.
Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink;
deliver me from those who hate me, from the deep waters. …
Scorn has broken my heart and has left me helpless;
I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none.
They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.
Let’s pause a second and remember that that last line is just what happened to Jesus.
Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. — John 19:28-30
David was looking for that sure salvation. He was swimming in water a lot deeper than he even knew! He got himself right in with God’s plans for saving whoever would listen to him and love him.
This psalm is highly personal, but nothing about relating to God is ever just private. God is the creator of all and the redeemer of all — if you get involved with him, you get involved with everything. We experience the impact of everyone’s sin when we pray. When we pray we are facing down the powers that threaten to drown us. So these few lines are an amazing, prophetic vision of Jesus — in whom all of David’s hopes and fears met.
I looked for comforters, but I found none.
Three days later Jesus rises from the dead.
50 days later, the promised comforter comes.
2000 years later God’s coming to us.
We fast as an aid to our praying because it clarifies our vision of what God’s all about and what God’s doing. We get gummed up. Our spiritual car goes through winter and desperately needs to go to the spiritual car wash so we can remember what it looks like. It even seems to run better when it is clean. I feel different in it. The world looks different. We are like that, fasting cleans us, maybe puts on a new coat of wax, encourages us to drive into the future.
When you fast …
Now I’m not talking about if you fast. I’m talking about when you fast. I am not trying to sell you on fasting, like someone should be begging you to be good, or be something.
I know 90% of you do this or are interested in this practice. And 50% of the 10% left who aren’t interested is yearning for you to be interested, because you are either threatened by mire or you know that this is the time of God’s favor, like the rest of us. You are looking for his sure salvation.
I know you all are fueled by that kind of vision or you would not fund our mission, give so much of your time to our common life and cause, you would not go to such great lengths to love each other and form a place where people can see God reign, you would not be such energetic worshipers and learners. You are not even close to the dead churches that have killed off so much faith in this town, you are the antidote. God bless you.
So I am just trying to add fuel to your fire so we are full of this burning patience. We are not meant to be apathetic, defeated, ambivalent people. We are meant to keep changing and changing things for the better. If they don’t get better right now we are going to keep at it until our time is up. Whenever you fast, and if we fast this season of lent,
- God will meet us in our distress – go be with him,
- God will affirm our zeal – don’t shrink back, and
- God will transform us and those around us and even the powers that be will be moved around and reformed – enter the big picture.
Do you have anything more to share with us about what has happened with you when you made that empty space of God by fasting? Any more tips?