Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days. The ancient practice of Lent invites us to do the same. Of course, in reality most of us are not going on a 40 day retreat anywhere. We will do well to have a few hours here and there out of the hustle and bustle of responsibilities. We are going to have our Lent in the thick of things. But the challenge is to take the coming 5 weeks and within the usual, to pay attention to our Spiritual health.
There is a time for everything, the writer of Ecclesiastes assures us, but usually the urgent fills our calendar and there is no time left for what we still want to claim is important. Steven Covey offered an exercise. Write down the values that define and guide you in life. Having done that he asks us to show on our calendars the time we give to those important values and relationships. What really soaks up our time?
When our girls were toddlers I remember being struck by the advice. “Youngsters spell love, T-I-M-E.” Maybe love gets real according to the time we give to the things we love.
Now I know some of you are pulling back. “What is he trying to get us to add to our schedule? What else do I need to do, or read, or pray about?” I know sometimes it seems that we are in situations that we don’t have much say over, stretched by demand and duties that we feel no right to ignore. I may have had the same 24 hours as everyone else, but it felt like most of them had been spoken for before I got a choice. What I am going to suggest is the first step to a holy Lent is, before you add any day for meditation, or times for prayer– before adding– subtract.
Give up something for Lent.
We have all heard of giving up for Lent.
What is it all about?
A few weeks ago I noticed my tires were riding rough and even more annoying- they were getting noisy. I got out and inspected them and noticed that they were wearing unevenly, which was one reason for the noise and the shaking. Going faster only made it worse. And I have heard it can create long term problems and lessen fuel efficiency. Goodness know nobody needs lower fuel efficiency. My tires were out of alignment.
And I thought, that is what Lent is all about. Our lives get bumpy and noisy and going faster only makes it worse. Get things straight. Lent calls us to get our lives realigned. “Turn to me, O man and be saved.” Return, turn, refocus.
There are three things Jesus prescribed for people who are serious about the spiritual life, about staying vital in their faith. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus lists them as three things that we ought to do as a matter of course: Prayer, Alms, and fasting.
Jesus says of all three that they are to be done in secret– that is they are to be done without regard for applause or congratulations. Without any thought to impressing other folks. They are to be done for ourselves and for God.
Publicity is terrible corrosive of virtue. True, we are not hide our light under a bushel. But the point of having good done where folks see it is not so we will get accolades, but so that others “will see your good works and give thanks to your Father in Heaven.”
Pray alone, do good behind the scenes, and when you fast don’t go around groaning about it and moaning. Look cheerful. Keep it between you and God.
So what is fasting.
We see an example of it in Mark’s lesson. Jesus went into the wilderness right after his baptism. The Spirit drove him there. The wilderness is empty. It is quiet. There is no excess of water or food or comfort. There are few distractions. The wilderness is fasting from distractions and comforts of everyday life.
What is the purpose? For Jesus not having the usual distractions and amusements created a space for looking inside. He really was able to look into his heart and ask “Who am I? What am I to do?”
A mother camel and her baby are talking one day and the baby camel asks, “Mom why have we got these huge three-toed feet?” The mother replies, “To enable us trek across the soft sand of the desert without sinking.” “And why have we got these long, heavy eyelashes?” “To keep the sand out of our eyes on the trips through the desert ”replies the mother camel. “And Mom, why have we got these big humps on our backs?” The mother, now a little impatient with the boy replies, “They are there to help us store fat for our long treks across the desert, so we can go without water for long periods.” “OK, I get it!” says the baby camel, “We have huge feet to stop us sinking, long eyelashes to keep the sand from our eyes and humps to store water. Then, Mom, why the heck are we here in the Toronto zoo?”
Modern life sometimes makes one feel like a camel in a zoo. And like camels in a zoo we need sometimes to go into the desert in order to discover who we truly are. Lent invites us to enter into this kind of desert experience.1
As we read about the temptations in the other gospels we see that they are about Jesus examining what does it mean to be a beloved Son of the Father? What are my motives for what I shall do? What links am I willing to go to to accomplish those goals? Is it possible to use means that will undermine my purpose?
I know parents who have worked to hard to provide for their families materially, that they have no time to provide for them spiritually or emotionally. Do my means undermine my goal?
Fasting, giving up the everyday hustle and bustle provided a space for considering his life and realigning his life to the Father’s call. But fasting was not only the necessary context of the wilderness, it was the content.
- Notice that answer to each temptation was a kind of self-denial. Jesus giving up an option. “No, I cannot, will not, do that.” Self-denial is part of having a real self at all. A person who cannot say no to themselves goes in all directions and gets nowhere. There is no effective “yes” you can say unless you can say several important “no’s.”
One of the first buddings of self is when a child learns to say “no.” The discovery that she has a will that is not the same as her parents’ fills her with delight. About the time the child learns to say “no”, they are discovering others things they can do for themselves. She can walk. Use the potty, put up toys, fetch mommy a towel. But pity the child who does not learn to say “no” to herself.
Self-Denial is exercising the muscle of self- control. A person who is driven by urges and impulses is a scattered person.
Jesus said “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.” Self-denial is not for the sake of self-denial. It is so we can be self-aware, focused, purposeful.
- Simplification. Fasting is about the discovery that less is more. When I take out stuff my life actually becomes larger. There are shows on TV now about folks who have an addiction to stuff. It has killed people.
One of the most famous cases involved the wealthy and reclusive Collyer brothers. In 1947, their bodies were discovered in a crumbling New York City mansion packed with more than 100 tons of junk. Last year, a resident of Shelton, Washington, was smothered when a massive pile of clothes toppled on her. And a few fatal fires have even made headlines. Hoarders tend to fill their homes with flammable material and often block hallways and exits in the process, which can make escaping a fire impossible.2 There are many types of categories of hoarders: food, trash, clothes, antique furniture, even animals.
Our lives can be smothered by all the things that we have packed into them, so that we are caught in a prison we made.
So fasting means taking things out of my life till I am free.
Non-possessiveness is a key part of spirituality in many religions. We have lost touch with it in the West, because we are so materialistic as a culture.
I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each of them withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in and for himself, and though he still may have a family, one can at least say that he has not got a fatherland.3
But you don’t have to go to a Yogi to hear a different path. It is right in the gospel, much ignored, but there all the same. “A person’s life does not consist in the abundance of thing.”
Moses knew the peril of prospering, the perils of life beyond the wilderness. “Beware lest when you come into the land of promise and become blessed with all its material blessings that you think ‘I have done this’ and cease to think of God.”
Possessions betray us when we hold them too tightly. “Have as if you did not have.”
Fasting is a way of practicing letting go and discovering how much more there is to us than what we have been clutching. To discover trust for grace, rather than dependence on grab.
Jesus said we worry about food and clothes and how tall we are and what people think of us. Fast. Give up worry.
- Now there are other things that we can give up besides our chocolate treat. Basically it involves giving up those things that we think we have to have.
Try this. Give up TV or Cell phone. See people at restaurant sitting across from each other and googling on their blackberries, texting on their cell phone. They can’t be here until they give that up.
Ultimately God calls us to give up stuff so we can give ourselves. Let go of what we are padding our lives with so we can pay better attention to the people around us.
My first experience of Lenten fasting was at Duke Divinity where I took the time I would have spent in the dining all to visit a nursing home. I discovered in my weakened state, I slowed down and was more attentive to the residents’ aches and pains and weakness. The best use of Lent is what we use it to do or others.
Isaiah 58 speaks of fasting but fasting that God is not pleased with.
“I will tell you why!” I respond.
“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
you keep oppressing your workers.
4 What good is fasting
when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
will never get you anywhere with me.
5 You humble yourselves
by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the Lord?
6 “No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
7 Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
8 “Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
9 Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.
“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
10 Feed the hungry,
and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
giving you water when you are dry
and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like an ever-flowing spring.
12 Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.
In the desert Jesus encountered beasts and angels. There are wild beasts and angels in everyone of us. Sometimes, owing to our superficial self knowledge, we fail to recognize the wild beasts in us and give in to vainglory, or we fail to recognize the angel in us and give in to self-hatred. But in the silence and recollection of the desert we come to terms with ourselves as we really are, we are reconciled with the beasts and the angels in our lives and then we begin to experience peace again for the first time. Lent is the time for the desert experience. We cannot all afford to buy a camel and head off for the desert. But we can all create a desert space in our overcrowded lives. We can set aside a place and time to be alone daily with God, a time to distance ourselves from the many noises and voices that bombard our lives every day, a time to hear God’s word, a time to rediscover who we are before God, a time to say yes to God and no to Satan as Jesus did.4
2BURIED ALIVE WITH 250 DOGS: Extreme Hoarding
Abilene : TX : USA | Dec 12, 2009 at 12:54 PM PST
3Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Ed. J. P. Mayer. Trans. George Lawrence. New York: Anchor, 1969, 692.