Pancakes & Ash
Tuesday: Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes - hard to escape & I was not complaining! I love a good pancake, especially when there’s some bacon and maple syrup around! Wednesday: silence, no mention of Ash Wednesday, lent or fasting. When I brought the subject up I was greeted with one of five typical replies: “Lent, what’s that?” “Fasting, oh that old fashioned thing”. “Oh that’s very legalistic, Jesus is all about freedom”. “Not eating, that would make me hungry(?)”. “I’m fasting something that isn’t food” / “I’m taking up something instead of fasting”. We’ve thrown away the baby and kept the bathwater as a momento! (ooh, that was good). So, please allow me to unpack some of the thoughts of a hypocrite, sinner and yet loved son on the above statements (they are just that, thoughts, musings etc - this is not intended as a theologically watertight exegesis or a bitter diatribe but, perhaps, a starting point for discussion & invitation to, maybe, go deeper & enter into something forgotten or misunderstood).
“Lent, what’s that?” Lent is the season that has often been observed by Christians throughout the centuries. For roughly 40 days or 6 weeks, kicking off with Ash Wednesday and fishing with the celebration of Easter Sunday. This season will usually involve some sort of fasting & maybe added prayer/service/meditation etc. It has many different traditions within the tradition and lots of interesting caveats and reasons for existence - I won’t attempt to give a history lesson here, check out wikipedia or such-like if you want to read around the subject in more detail. “Fasting, oh that old fashioned thing”. We live in a time where we celebrate the new, the ‘original’ & the funky - the latest celebrity news, the wardrobe on the cutting edge of fashion & of course, the new gadget which we cannot possibly live without! Now, there’s nothing that is explicitly wrong with this, its just when this way of living begins to creep into our worldview. When we live like this the ‘old things’ are often relegated to a lower level of importance or simply discarded all together, this leaves us on shaky ground indeed. In the book of Jeremiah we read: ‘This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ (6:16). The nation of Israel had decided to abandon the ancient wisdom - the old fashioned ways and it left them in a rather sticky situation with their capital & prized city being under siege and ultimately the fall of their nation. This theme crops up again and again in the Bible - the need for ancient wisdom and the need to heed the words of the generations that have gone before us. We cannot afford to be an arrogant generation who ‘knows better’ than those that have gone before. Now if we’re blindly following tradition for tradition’s sake, then we have missed the point - read the rest of what Jeremiah had to say about that. Alison Morgan in ‘Word on the Wind’, says that tradition is like the bark of a tree, if the tree is alive and well then the bark is doing a great job of protecting and nurturing life. If, however, the tree is dead and the bark continues to stand it has become superfluous and needs clearing so that a new life infused, & indeed life giving, tree can be planted. If we remove the tradition that is protecting and nurturing life then we are indeed (un)barking up the wrong tree. I believe that the tradition of lent is a tradition in which we can find a lot of ‘life giving life’!
“Oh that’s very legalistic, Jesus is all about freedom”. You will find no argument here! Jesus is totally about freedom & freedom is exactly what fasting is about. Jesus himself gave instructions on fasting and he didn't say “if you fast”, he said “when you fast” (emphasis added) (see Matthew 6) - it was expected that the followers of Jesus would fast. Now, here’s the deal - if I create a habit of being ‘free’ and eating whatsoever pleases me at any given moment I am most assuredly not free, like, actually free. Instead, I have become a slave to my belly or my ‘fleshy self’ the Apostle Paul might say. The grace of Jesus allows us to be free from our base compulsion and free to chose into not eating even though we may be feeling the pangs of hunger or the allure of the liquor imbued profittor rolls - and in this resisting we become free from the compulsion. This is not strenuous or difficult but is actually a pure joy, because in drawing on the grace of Jesus for this freedom instead of our own will power, we are filled with that same grace and live in it. As creatures of habit this is something we grow in over time, hence why seasons of ‘freedom disciples’ or ‘rhythms of grace’ are vitally important. Over time we learn to live with our spirit ‘up front’ and not our flesh, we come into better relationship with God and indeed with ourselves as we begin to better uncover the image of God within ourselves. Fasting is a practice born out of freedom that nurtures freedom! “Not eating, that would make me hungry(?)”. No S**t Sherlock! … There are people all around the world who don’t have the luxury of fasting. Being without food is just an everyday reality - fasting food builds empathy. More importantly the money saved will allow us to feed those who do not have any; in doing so we enter into true fasting (see Isaiah 58) - this can go way beyond food too, but… see below. (Slight aside, don’t fast while others eat, fast another day and then feast with the poor - #ThisTableChangesEverything).
N.B. if fasting becomes an end in and of its self - stop it, it is useless & false religion!
“I’m fasting something that isn’t food” / “I’m taking up something instead of fasting”. Fasting TV, Facebook, lie-ins or frivolous spending & taking up feeding the poor, praying for prisoners & visiting the sick in hospital are all amazing and should be things that periodically or regularly feature in the life of every follower of Jesus. That said, none of these should become a replacement for the fasting of food. The biblical model of fasting has food at its core as does the teaching of the church mothers & fathers, the desert mothers & fathers and pretty much every celebrated mystic, saint and writer throughout the ages - and remember, they are worth listening to! There seems to be a well established pattern in the ‘conquering of the flesh’ and it always starts out with food and overcoming our addiction to it (too strong a word? check to the current obesity stats). Once we do this we seem better able to overcome our addictions to sex and pride (Check out Richard Foster’s Longing for God as a great intro to this and way more). Now, of course, fasting masturbation and self-justification are also recommended lenten ideas, but let’s not rob ourselves of the solid foundation built on the scaling down or periodical absence of types/amounts of food. From having established this foundation we can more easily begin to overcome some of the other ‘lusts of the flesh’. Overcoming these 'lusts' or perhaps simply 'getting over ourselves' allows us the freedom to truly live for others which is how we love God and indeed how his Kingdom is bing established here on earth!
I find the tradition of lent to be a life giving ‘spiritual freedom fighter’. I have inherited it from the generations before me and I want to make it known and model it for the generations after me, as I believe it will serve them well; bring them freedom over their base desires, increase their intimacy with God & allow greater access to being more fully human. When I fast food as the base of a fast and then add other bits on I find it most powerful. You may find my reasoning and experience to be nothing but a dead piece of bark - if so, please disregard it - if you are unsure, give it go, it could be the start of a revolution in your life!
Music Video for 'This Table Chnages Everything' - This celebration of Life and freedom is not antithetical to fasting but one that is enabled through it!