Tag Archives: King David

How to Fast: The burning patience that leads to the shining city      

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.

Why fast?

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 and Nobel Prize

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?

The second half of life: Encouragement for creative suffering

The other day I was watching International House Hunters, where I learn a lot about life these days. In the episode, an apparently divorced mom was ready to send her one son off to college. She appeared to be nearing fifty years old. Although she did not have a lot of money to spend, she decided to quit the job she hated and move to Merida, Mexico. She bought a fixer-upper outside of town and started her life over as the only Anglo in her whole village. She said life was too short to wait until one was ready to live it. Hers is a second half of life story.

Also last week, my fiftysomething friend said on Facebook:  “I was reunited with some old friends this weekend to celebrate a birthday. I am also thinking about a sweet brave friend in Philly who we lost last week. Life is short. Don’t sweat the small stuff. LIVE.” That represents some second half of life philosophizing.

The second half of life

What is the second half, maybe we could call it our second act? It is a discernible transition in life that people all over the world note. Mid-life has significant characteristics. We sometimes call the entry into that part of life a “mid-life crisis.” Richard Rohr, who wrote a book about it, calls it the time to “fall upward.” The transition into the second half is the time when we face the limits of our capacity, now that we have tested it and probably failed to achieve our idealization of ourselves, and must face the limits of our lifespan, now that our bodies start to tell us we’re definitely not twentysomethings anymore.

The term “second half” implies some kind of dualism: a before and after, this or that, obsolete and improved, foolish and wise. But that’s more of a “first half” way to see things. The second half is more about embracing our inevitable development and not avoiding the suffering that will lead to our wholeness. We had to build the house, so to speak, before we could consider leaving it. We had to learn to drive the car, so to speak, in order to ask Jesus to take the wheel.  We could miss the beauty of our second half altogether if we avoid the necessary suffering of entering it. But we will be pushed hard to give in to maturity, regardless.

Image result for Dolly Parton

Signs of the “mid-life crisis”

As a result of this inevitable transition, we either solidify into a withered caricature of the unique self we have been building, or we become more spiritual, more self-giving, more of a leader, and more comfortable with the ambiguities and joys of being our true selves. Dolly Parton is an interesting mix of both possibilities. I saw an interview with her in which she boldly said she was committed to the caricature that is her trademark, be it ever so withered, as you can see, above. She even had surgery to maintain what she could of the persona she created. But she has also developed her spirituality. She’s not just being a country music legend; she is also a champion of early childhood literacy, through her Imagination Library. Every month, that nonprofit program mails a free book to more than a million children — from infants to preschoolers. In 2018 they reached 100 million books donated.

however we navigate it, we are going to grow into a new season of life. The pressures we face at the beginning of that season are so well known, we can make a list of typical feelings or reactions, such as:

  1. Desiring to quit a good job.
  2. Unexplained bouts of depression when doing tasks that used to make one happy.
  3. Changing or investigating religions, churches or philosophy.
  4. Change of habits. Activities which used to bring pleasure now are boring. Unable to complete or concentrate on tasks which used to be easy.
  5. Excessively buying new clothes and taking more time to look good.
  6. Wanting to run away to somewhere new.
  7. A desire or obsession to get into physical shape.
  8. Irritability or unexpected anger.
  9. Leaving family (mentally or physically) or feeling trapped in current family relationships.
  10. Looking into the mirror and no longer recognizing oneself.

Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises. At some point we will face loss; we will encounter a “stumbling stone” — that we cannot power, finesse, or manage our way through, that we cannot fix, control, explain, change, or even understand. It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering. There is going to be some kind of suffering, regardless.

At midlife, our suffering, inside or out, helps us leave “home” — that stationary place where we are most comfortable — and drives us toward the necessary encounter with the self and with God, who loves to walk through our suffering with us. That suffering helps us deconstruct the persona (or the person we wish we were and want others to see), and to acknowledge and welcome our shadow side into the dialogue. As a result, we have the hope of emerging into later adulthood and blossoming into our full, true selves in Christ. In the second half, suffering becomes more of a friend than an enemy, if we are going to plumb the depths of our new capacity. Richard Rohr says, “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day.” That kind of prayer is taking the example of Jesus seriously:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! – Philippians 2:5-8


There are good examples who show us how to suffer creatively

A great example of moving into the second half, albeit not entirely successfully, is King David. The painting by James Tissot, above, captures the moment of his midlife transition, just before his dissatisfied boredom is distracted by the sight of Bathsheba from his upstairs portico. Tissot, himself, is another interesting example, since, at age 49, he was caught up in the revival of the Catholic church in France, changed the focus of his art, and spent the rest of his life creating the paintings of  Biblical events I love so much.

After David unified the land of Israel under his rule, he grew discontent. He had done most of what he set out to do. He’s king. He’s got power and accomplishment, influence and comfort. He feels sure of his identity as God’s chosen king. He sits back. Is that all there is? Here we go.

In the spring he sends off his army under the command of others to complete military campaigns. This tests his faith, since in the past he had lived on the edge as a general and learned to trust God for every breath. He came far trusting God. Now how does he trust God? His “shadow” is lurking in the recesses of his success.

Usually in our forties, we are ready to face a similar struggle, but we may not get to it until we are older (or the children we bore in our late thirties are older), or we have retired, or we get divorced, or we lose our job. Laura Ingalls Wilder quit teaching when she got married and helped her husband on the farm. Their first half was very difficult, including the death of a son, the partial paralysis of her husband, loss of the farm buildings through fire and the great depression. She was well into her second half when her daughter, Rose, encouraged her to write a memoir about her childhood. She spent many years improving it. It wasn’t until she was 65 years old that “Little House in the Big Woods” was published. She wrote other “Little House” series, including the last one that came out when she was 76.

Often the mid-life struggle percolates up because we are bored or burned out – maybe even too accomplished or too settled. We can, like David, lose touch with the very essence of what made our lives fulfilling. We might still be perfecting the outside, like Dolly Parton, unable to give up the rush and power of performing. We might meet the dark side of what made us a brilliant young person, like Columba. We can drift from a present-tense relationship with God and lose touch with what is sacred in our day-to-day routine. It’s time to move into the second half with some consciousness, or maybe fall upward.

When David comes to the shocking revelation of what his reactions mean, he reconnects with God. He reconnects with holiness in the everyday routine of his world. Psalm 51 reveals the restoration of David’s relationship with God. It shows his tenacious hold on his belief that God is present; God is good; God redeems.

Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise. – Psalm 51:15-17

The psalm shows a crucial acceptance of paradox:  “I am king and I am powerless to save the baby. I have committed an unforgivable sin yet I can be forgiven. My former life-sustaining pursuits and way of faith were a prelude to this deeper, contradictory, way of life.” Mature adulthood includes anxiety, doubt, and paradox. In the face of all this newness, sometimes shocking and often unwelcome, the second half of life is the time when our creative suffering comes up with our deepest contributions to the Lord’s cause.

Image result for king i have a dream

Some of us may be “early bloomers” like Martin Luther King, who summed up the challenge of maturity well in his famous “I have a dream” speech. Right before he gave the ringing conclusion about his dream, he said,

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation…You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive….Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

King was only 34 when he wrote that and he only had a few more years to brilliantly live out his creative suffering. But in those years, he showed Jesus-followers, especially, what it means to pay attention to the promises of wholeness in Christ. Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises – most likely, we will be on an interesting journey during our “mid-life.” It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering, so when we leave the home we had to build for ourselves in this world, we will be welcomed into the home Jesus has prepared for us in the next. In Christ, suffering is redemptive. As we can see all around us, immaturity is common and cheap. The costly wholeness of life in Christ, becoming our true selves, is a gift worth whatever creative suffering we endure to receive it.