Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Fasting

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. (Matthew 6.16)

Gravity and Joy

“Saints, it’s time we turn our plates over, set our wants aside, and seek God until He gives us what we need,” the pastor would say and the church would answer, “Amen!” The room would fall into stillness as believers listened intently to the pastor’s instructions. Sometimes the fast lasted a week. At other times the minister called us to fast one day a week for the indefinite future. Sometimes it was called without protocol, leaving each person to decide what, when, and how long he/she would practice self-denial. Whatever the fast’s form, what I recall most from my youth was the galvanizing mix of gravity and joy it produced. We rigorously obeyed its command to make more room and time for God’s presence in our lives. Yet we entered the prescribed test with high hopes, knowing we’d be stronger, richer, and purer when we came out.

After my need for a more affirmative faith environment led me to a “mainstream” church, I found a very similar, if slightly less demonstrative spirit arose as the people prepared for Lent. Prior to that, since my family’s tradition didn’t observe Lent, the little I gleaned about it from friends and colleagues jaundiced my perceptions. From what I heard, Lent was a 40-day obligation to “give up” something they could easily do without (chocolate, alcohol, red meat) or shouldn’t do at all (cursing, gossiping, fibbing)—more about self-discipline than self-denial. I didn’t realize my exposure was limited to Lent lamenters, however, people whose hearts weren’t in it and apparently understood it no better than I. Once I met believers who greeted the season with the same gravity and joy I associated with fasting, Lent came to life. It was a deeply personal, yet significantly collective experience, an intensely sacred testing period begun in hope and ending in renewed strength and fervor. What’s more, I learned this mainly by observation because, unlike Lent lamenters, authentic Lent fasters don’t wear their sacrifices on their sleeves.

A Curious Business

Fasting is a curious business. Its primary focus—clearing distractions to make way for prayerful contemplation—must be preceded by prayerful contemplation of what distracts us. The verb “to fast” is interesting and enlightening in itself, as it derives from the gothic German fastan, “to hold fast.” Thus, the benefits of fasting aren’t in what we’re rid of but what remains. That’s why sacrifice is secondary to experienced fasters. Their attention literally fastens on spiritual priorities. They go into fasts having already considered what they can and can’t do without, and they concentrate on the former by denying the latter. This transforms fasting from obligation into opportunity. It becomes a season of joy and growth rather than one of angst and deprivation.

Many misconstrue fasting as a means of honoring God by voluntarily refusing to indulge in things they love. They think fasting denotes commitment and piety, and approach it as a sort of holy drudgery. By no means is fasting easy, but neither is it intended to impress God with how tough it is to give up what we don’t truly need. That’s Jesus’s message in Matthew 6. “Don’t look somber as the hypocrites do,” He says. “For they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (v16-18) Jesus’s logic completely checks out with what fasting actually means. It’s a sifting time that gets us back to what really matters. The opinions of others don’t merit the effort to make a big deal of what we’re letting go. The reward comes when what we decide to hold fast in our hearts pleases our Maker.

Essentials from Non-Essentials

With Lent just around the corner, we have time to separate the essentials from non-essentials. What needs to go so what remains can resume prominence in our lives? We’ve got two weeks to monitor our behaviors and attitudes to see which of them conflicts with what we know is best for us. If only it were as simple as surviving from Ash Wednesday to Easter without a candy bar or tasty morsels of gossip! To get the most from our fast entails much introspection. It asks us to enter the trial fully aware of any weakness that loosens our grip on virtues and aspirations we hold dearest. And whatever that is (or they are), that’s what we must sacrifice. When we understand what fasting is really about, we realize Lent is sacred, not somber, joyful, not lamentable. It isn’t about giving up what we’d love to keep. It’s about holding on to what we'd hate to lose.


Fasting is a sifting time. We let go of what we can’t use to hold on to what we value most.

(Next: God Sees)

Postscript: A Special Honor Sent Our Way

I'm thrilled to report Straight-Friendly was recently honored by the Biblical Learning Blog as one of "The Top 50 Ecumenical Blogs." It cites S-F as a "blog [that] reaches out to members of the GLBT community who want to regain a commitment to their Christian faith." The honor goes to all of you, who read and contribute to our little all-inclusive community. And praise belongs solely to our Creator, Whose love and acceptance we celebrate together. Congratulations!

Here's the link to view the other selected blogs. (We're in mighty fine company, I must say!)

Top 50 Ecumenical Blogs

6 comments:

claire said...

"A prayerful contemplation of what distracts me..."
"Not intended to impress Godde..."
"A sifting time that gets me back to what really matters..."

Ah, Tim, you are challenging me. It is, I think, the first time I am given a 'good' explanation of Lent.
If I understand you correctly, it is more how I am going to spend my time in those forty days. ie more time with Godde than with my ADHD activities. It means living the way I wish I were living always.

If I understand you correctly, then Lent, as you seem to say, is time of rejoicing, of incredible indulgence in the love of Godde.

Please let me know if I understood you correctly.

Congratulations on the Honor you just received! I know it is selfish of me, but this honor makes me so very happy.

Tim said...

I couldn't have said it better, Claire. Too many of us think of Lent's wilderness passage as a time of saying "no" when fasting (in Lent or any time) is an exercise in saying "yes"--yes to our spirits and the Spirit that inhabits us. It's a concerted effort of getting to know You... and you. If we focus on what we're not doing, we won't fully accomplish what we need to get done.

I pray you experience profound joy this Lenten season--a refilling that comes from rearranging priorities and reacquaintance with the Divine. (And Godde is truly divine in every sense of the word!)

Thank you for your congratulations here and on FB. Your happiness makes the honor all the richer!

Joy and blessings,
Tim

Jan said...

Tim, I'm so glad Claire mentioned this post over at Fran's blog. I was warmed by your profile as my oldest daughter is gay and anti-church/Christ/religion.

Tim said...

Jan, first of all, welcome to Straight-Friendly. It's good to know you--and any friend of Claire and Fran's is most certainly a friend of everyone else here!

Many, many gay people are exactly where you daughter is, and not without reason, though I'm sorry to say that. Unfortunately, our community has taken a strong anti-Christian stance because so many of our wounded have been hurt in Christ's name. Often the most vehemently opposed among us haven't been personally affected--they've grown up in loving homes and tolerant faith communities. But precisely because they've been taught to care for their neighbors, they feel compelled to take an adversarial position against the Church.

And, from the Pope to Pat Robertson, it's sad that much of what's seen and said in "church" reinforces their stance.

But here's the thing. The love and truth that was planted in our hearts as children remains despite what we see as adults. And though your daughter will be loath to tell you this, there are moments when she longs to belong to a community of faith. Somewhere in her spirit a Voice calls. She hears it. But she's torn about how to answer it, because if she jumps back into a faith scenario, she's liable to compromise her integrity as a gay woman--it's sort of like sleeping with the enemy (though I hate to put it that way).

While I realize you're not asking for advice per se, can I make a couple suggestions? First, of course, continue praying for her. Next, don't press her or argue with her. Although I don't believe the vocally intolerant Christians constitute the majority, they make the loudest noise; they give their opponents plenty of good reasons.

Third, and most daring, agree with her: there are plenty of nominal believers who have forsaken Christ's laws for politics and prejudice. As a believer, you too should be offended by this.

Finally, not knowing your faith, location, or family situation, let me offer one final suggestion. Locate an open, affirming congregation in your area. (You can find an extensive list of them at www.gaychurch.org.) Pay them a visit or two and observe the community in action. This will surprise her when you say, "I was recently at such-and-such church and it was nothing like what you find so appalling." Etc.

You can't force your daughter to come back to her faith. But you can certainly lead her away from stereotyping all Christians as homophobic and--most important--saddling Christ with their sins. You love her. He loves her. And we love her. She needs to be reminded of that.

Blessings--and if I've overstepped my bounds or made faulty assumptions, please forgive me. I sense you share my concern for my brothers and sisters who've been lost in this cloud of controversy and blanket rejection. Whatever we can do to help lift them out, we must.

Tim

Jan said...

Tim, thanks for your suggestions. I probably needed them a decade ago when I was younger in my faith and my daughter was still at home. She is 28 and lives with her partner in Seattle. We are more open in discussions now and at least she reads my blog!

Tim said...

Jan, it's great to hear your relationship with your daughter is growing more open. I pray it will continue to prosper as time goes on.

I'm grateful you understand my eagerness to suggest a few things I've found to be helpful in parent-children issues of faith. Not knowing where you and your daughter were/are in your relationship, I offered them "blindly," and am glad to know you've got past some of these basic dilemmas.

Where you're at now is where you and she are supposed to be. Continue to pray, love, believe, and hope--the story isn't completed yet!

Peace and joy,
Tim