A lenten fast…
Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training…. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave…. 1 Corinthians 9:25-27
Lent begins next week. Easter is early this year–March 23 in Western Christianity. Thinking about how I will keep the lenten fast.
In classical Christian spirituality the rhythm of fasting and feasting is integral to life. Fasting teaches us that limits are necessary for healthy growth. This is true at all levels of human existence in the created order. When limits are ignored, we damage ourselves, our relationships, creation itself.
Some think of the practice of giving something up for Lent as a (Roman) Catholic thing. At SMC, we have been recovering this practice as an integral part of Christian formation necessary for all seeking to follow Jesus. The Apostle Paul acknowledged that even as a committed follower of Christ, he wrestled against appetites and impulses at odds with the way of Christ. I do not do what I want to do. That which I want to do, I do not do. So the Christian life involves training–learning discipline and self-control so that we might be formed by Christ and not by the fallen values of culture.
When we embrace the Christian life as a way of discipleship that involves ascetic disciplines such as fasting, we can also embrace the goodness of all of creation that God gives us to enjoy. We embrace all the gifts of creation and we feast. Not in excessive, irresponsible ways, not as a binge before Ash Wednesday ala Mardi Gras and Carnaval. Feasting is a celebration of the good gifts of God in creation, not a sowing of our wild oats before we submit to a communal order. A rumspringa.
Nor is true spirituality expressed by a rejection of the physical realm in which we work out our salvation. Many within Evangelical Christianity view fasting as some optional practice primarily carried out for spiritual results (i.e. to hear from God). This is not bad. But there is a more basic purpose within classical Christian tradition that fasting is part of the training regimen required for believers who desire to grow in the way of Jesus. This is not works righteousness. It is the training the apostle Paul wrote about so that we might not run aimlessly.
So we enjoy good food…within limits. Limits such as healthy levels of consumption. Limits such as eating a balanced diet from all the food groups. Limits such as not just always eating junk food, fast food. Slow food is better than fast food. So when our appetites and eating habits are unhealthy, we need to learn self-control. We need to practice disciplines which curb our natural impulses. We don’t just eat whatever we want, whenever we want it. It is the same with the Christian life.
Wine is good…within limits. It took me 30 some years to come to the point where I could receive this gift of creation with thanksgiving. If Jesus can bless the wedding at Cana with the gift of wine, who am I to enforce a piety which rejects this gift.
Sex is good within limits–the loving covenant of marriage. Fasting helps us develop self-control. If we can control what we put in our mouth, maybe we can control the lustful gaze of our eyes…the tendency to flirt with the opposite sex, unhealthy thoughts, an illicit affair.
Sex in the context of marriage is good for many reasons. The physical intimacy of sex is precious. It icons an emotional and spiritual unity that is only possible within a committed relationship. Sex is not a private act. It is communal (two people!). It is a making room for the Other with whom we have covenanted our lives. Interdwelling the temple of the Lord–our bodies.
Sexual intimacy can produce new life. A baby needs a community to nurture him/her. The family is the most vital layer of community. When we ignore healthy limits for human sexuality our irresponsibility has consequences for more than ourselves. Our “private” decisions have communal consequences for family and society. We ignore limits to our own detriment.
Limits in all these areas (sex included) are not for the sake of spoiling the fun of humans. Not just a legalism. Limits have a purpose that is for the life of the world. When humans practice irresponsible sexuality, they become diminished…damaged–emotionally, physically, socially. Restoration is possible by God’s grace, but only through repentance (turning) and honoring holy limits.
Art is good. Artists take the stuff of the earth and express truth and beauty. They also can express the sinful reality of human experience. Fasting helps develop the self-control to be able to use the internet without giving in to pornographic images. We fear no art. But, we acknowledge that some art reflects a broken image of humanity. Not all art is profitable for our consumption. Some art is junk food. Some art is toxic. So we are discriminating consumers of art. We set limits.
Sports and physical exercise are good…within limits.
Blogging is good…within limits.
Working is good…within limits.
Words…rhetoric can be good within limits. Words can also cause pain.
In fasting we say no to our bodies in some way–and we say yes to the Holy Spirit. We prune something out of our lives so that the fruit of the Spirit might grow. This is a work of grace. When the Church does not teach about the ancient path of spiritual transformation, when we ignore the tried and tested tools for this work, we leave people vulnerable to be coopted by the forces of the age. What results is a Christianity-lite that does not include denying oneself, cross-bearing…. Rather Christianity is dressed up in the clothes of self-fulfillment. The Gospel of self-realization.
When we embrace the rhythm of fasting as a part of our spiritual life, we can than receive the gifts of God with thanksgiving.