Saturday, March 9, 2013

On Weeks of Prayer, Communion, and Fasting, Part 3

This if the final installment, Part 3, of my reflections on beginning this year with prayer, communion, and fasting. (You may also be interested in Part 1 or Part 2.)

Prayer Week is apparently a Canadian Mennonite tradition; fasting is not. When I first floated the idea of inviting folks in our fellowship to join me in daytime fasting during Prayer Week, I met with quizzical expressions. This would be something new. On the first Sunday I suggested that maybe someday soon I'd do a bit more substantial teaching on the topic. Frankly, I didn't expect anyone to actually join me in this discipline. I thought about foregoing the fast.

I'm glad I didn't, for two reasons. First, people joined me in fasting. I think this was a bit of an experiment for some of them. I heard good reports back--God met them in their fast. Alongside this fellowship and growth among those who kept the fast, a number of good discussions cropped up about fasting when I was visiting folks who didn't opt to try out this discipline (ironically, those conversations consistently happened around dinner tables).

My second reason is that it was in my fast--more than in prayer alone or even at the communion table--that I encountered God during Prayer Week.

My hope for our fellowship during this week was that God would illumine the path forward for us in 2013: What relationships, what sacrifices, what celebrations is God leading us to as we witness to God's kingdom? I didn't walk away from this week with a clear and distinct vision or game plan, but in my hunger and, especially, in my fellowship with other fasting folks, I felt the seeds of a vision being pushed down into our hearts. We're still waiting for them to sprout. They're germinating now. They're still just an intuition too fragile for words. But I they are there, hopefully in good soil, waiting on God's time to waken them.

On the third Sunday I followed through on my promise to teach on fasting. This was a difficult decision. Like I've said, fasting is not a Mennonite practice. Also, preaching on fasting would mean sharing a lot of my own practice of fasting. I'm slow to draw attention to myself in this way. After all, Jesus said that it's what's done in secret that will be reward by the Father who sees into the secret places (Mt 6.18).

In the end I did, to some degree, preach on fasting. And, yes, my own fasting journey featured front and center (personal stories, after all, make for good introductions). But this sermon grew to be about something more than fasting.

So a bit of my story: I first personally encountered the practice of fasting when my high school youth group took on WorldVision's 30 Hour Famine. (It's a great project; I highly recommend trying it out!) My initial approach was more or less mercenary: if I give up food I can raise money so hungry people can eat. But in the wee hours midway through a youth group all-nighter, my fast became something spiritual for me. I'm not sure if it was my youth pastor's meditations on Jesus' forty day fast in the desert or simply the Spirit at work. Either way, by the time we all broke our fast with a simple beans 'n' rice meal at six p.m. the next day, I knew that I had met with God in a new way.

At that same time I was a student leader with Youth Alive, a student led Christian organization in my high school. Every now and again we'd hold evangelistic rallies like See You at the Pole. I thought it was a small step from fasting for people's material needs to fasting for their "spiritual needs." (I wouldn't make the same distinctions today, but I still believe my heart was on the right track.) I would make all sorts of sacrifices, takes all sorts of risks to talk with my friends about Jesus. Giving up food for a day or two didn't didn't seem like much of a sacrifice if it brought my friends closer to God.

A few years at university challenged my understandings of fasting, evangelism, all sort of things. Reading a few chapters of medieval or colonial church history will sour you on all sorts of things. I saw the abuses, the legalism, the way fasting (or evangelism or Bible reading) became a shibboleth on occasion. Still, something kept drawing me back to fasting. On my evangelical college campus, evangelism wasn't my prime purpose. Rather, I began to find that when I fasted, things would take on a certain clarity, they would bear a heightened urgency. I'm sure some of this was manipulatively self-produced, but I'm equally sure that at points God used a fast to clear away my collegiate haze of textbooks, flirting, coffee cups, and too many video games.

As I was preparing, revisiting my history, I kept stumbling into a bit of scripture that was very important to me then but that I probably haven't run into in six or seven years: 2 Cor 1.3-7.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
During late high school and throughout college, this was something of a life verse for me. Open your eyes to the pain of the world, the pain of your peers, and then bring God's solace. Bind up wounds, listen to hurts, dry tears--all with the gospel of Jesus.

A quote by Peter Holmes in The Fasting Journey also shed some unexpected light. He writes, "Throughout a fast you need to see your life as prayer."

On Sunday morning I talked through the basics of fasting: what it is (choosing to refrain from certain things), what can we fast (anything that reveals our dependency on God), who should fast (only those who are medically able).

But when we got to the Why of fasting, I had to slow down. Why fast--the inner logic of fasting, its spiritual dynamics--felt like the heart of what God has to say to our fellowship in this season.

Another quote from Holmes' The Fasting Journey offered a bit of jumping off point:
"The purpose of fasting must be considered from two perspectives. One is the benefit it brings to us personally in our relationship with God. But the other is the wider benefit it brings to the Kingdom of God. Sometimes the latter does not directly profit us. Fasting is often a way of paying the price in order that others may benefit."
Paying the price that others may benefit. This idea resonates deeply with Paul's explanation that if we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation. 

There's a kind of messianic, Suffering Servant logic to fasting.

Sure, giving up food (or Facebook or television or our morning coffee) peels back the layers of creature comforts that insulate us and distract us from God's voice. Self-restraint helps our spiritual sensitivity grow. At times we need this desperately, like when we repent.

But for our fellowship, it's the messianic aspect of fasting that whispers of where God is leading us.

Truth be told, this messianic kind of suffering is at work in much more than just fasting. The practice of fasting, it turns out, is shorthand for, a symbol of the missional character of Christian discipleship. Jesus has called us together to witness to God's kingdom. God sees the world's suffering, and, rather than turn a blind eye, God chooses to take that suffering on himself in Jesus so that God can renew all things, replacing suffering with comfort. Our witness to this has the same shape as Jesus' witness--we take suffering on ourselves to bring others comfort. Every bit of our lives ought to be caught up in this witness work. When we forget that, fasting reminds us that chosen suffering for the good of others is the way of love.

I'll end this post with the words I ended with on Sunday morning. Here's my conclusion:
Fasting is one way--a very intimate way--to share Jesus’ physical hardship: his own fasting in the desert, the late nights and early mornings he spent preparing for ministry, the days when healing the sick and casting out demons kept him so busy he couldn’t eat, even the suffering he faced as he walked toward Golgotha and then hung on a tree. There are other ways to deny ourselves to take part in his work.

But we must never forget that the purpose of Christ’s self-sacrifice as well as our own is so that we can give away God’s love more freely to those around us. That is the broader picture. Without that in view, our fasting or spiritual practices are no better than those of the Pharisees which God detested.

This is the question I want you to contemplate this week: How is God asking you to share in Christ’s self-sacrifice in order that you can share his love with your sisters, brothers, and neighbors? This is a question I put to you personally. It is also a question for our church fellowship: How is God asking us to deny ourselves for the sake of sharing his love with our neighbors here in our town and those around the world?

Pray on this. Pray with me.

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