Fast Track

FastingScripture Text:  Deuteronomy 8:3

[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Lent is typically a season for fasting, for self-emptying oneself  of whatever overfills us.  And yet, fasting, is something that postively eludes most of us who live in this world of instant gratification and excessive consumption.  In fact, “going without” is completely anathema for us so fasting has more than likely been shoved to the back of the storage closet with all those other archaic things. After all, we want to believe in a God that blesses us with showers of abundance rather than a God that might on some days expect us to go without.  I’m afraid many of our somewhat fragile identities have a lot to do with what we have.  What if, instead, we were defined by what we could do without?  (That’s purely rhetorical…I have no answer!)

But fasting has for centuries and centuries been a part of just about every religious tradition.  The ancient Hebrews (and those of the Jewish tradition today) observe a special period of fasting as a sign of repentance on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur.  Fasting was a sign of mourning or act of reparation for sins.  It was both a way to express repentance as well as prepare oneself inwardly for receiving the necessary strength and grace to complete a mission of faithful service in God’s name.  This was the reason that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness–not to prove something but to prepare himself for a life of ministry.  Fasting is neither abstinence from nor avoidance of, but a journey into a place that’s empty enough to fill with what God offers.  Essentially, it is allowing oneself to die to self and to our selfishness and rise again in Christ.

So, why is it so hard?  Maybe it is not merely because we have a hard time going without (although I think that is a large part of it.)  Maybe it is because we are expecting it to produce results that it is not meant to produce. Fasting is not meant to make us lose weight or make us decrease our sugar consumption or whatever else you’re trying to cut back on.  Fasting is not meant to be manipulated in that way. It is meant to clear rather than produce.  Think of fasting as response–a response to grief or sin, a response to graciousness or thankfulness, a response to a God who calls us out ourselves.  But perhaps fasting is also about return, a return to our own self before we developed all these needs, before we stored everything away, a return to the self that God created–with proper perspective and an awareness of what basic needs actually are. If you look up the physiology of fasting, you will find that a body can survive for 40 days or more without eating (Well, isn’t THAT interesting?)  In that time, depriving a body of food is not starvation but rather a burning of stored energy.

But I have to say that fasting has never been a huge part of my spiritual discipline.  Being the good Methodist that I am, I have always maintained that I can “add” to my Lenten practice and do the same thing as fasting.  I’m not real sure, though, that that is the case.  Maybe, even metaphorically, I am only storing in excess, building and building for the future, trying to take as much of God’s abundance as I can and stash it away.  Maybe in this 40 days of fasting, we are indeed called to let something go, to return to who we are before we stored it all away–the “leaner”, fuller, more focused self who knew that our basic daily needs would be met and that the abundance of God was really about allowing God to fill our needs and fill our lives and show us the way.  In other words, we are called to give up our self-imposed “fast track” for a new and freeing Fast Track, a journey toward God with God.  And once our bodies and our minds and our souls (and our houses!) are cleared of all the stored excess, we will be open to what we need–the very breath of God who breathed life into us in the beginning and each and every day–if there’s room.

Fasting makes me vulnerable and reminds me of my frailty.  It leads me to remember that if i am not fed I will die…Standing before God hungry, I suddenly know who I am.  I am one who is poor, called to be rich in a way that the world does not understand.  I am one who is empty, called to be filled with the fullness of God.  I am one who is hungry, called to taste all the goodness that can be mine in Christ.  (Macrina Wiederkehr)

We are more than halfway through our Lenten journey.  Many of you may already be fasting from something for Lent.  But why don’t you try giving up those things that are not blamed for your weight or your high blood sugar, but the things that get in the way of your self, that person that God created you to be.  Try giving up anger or resentment or greed or worry.  Try giving up the need to be in control.  You may come up with others.  Just try it through the week-end and if that works out, make it part of first your Lenten discipline and then your Life discipline.

Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,

Shelli

Fast Track

FastingScripture Text:  Deuteronomy 8:3

[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Lent is typically a season for fasting, for self-emptying oneself  of whatever overfills us.  And yet, fasting, is something that postively eludes most of us who live in this world of instant gratification and excessive consumption.  In fact, “going without” is completely anathema for us so fasting has more than likely been shoved to the back of the storage closet with all those other archaic things. After all, we want to believe in a God that blesses us with showers of abundance rather than a God that might on some days expect us to go without.  I’m afraid many of our somewhat fragile identities have a lot to do with what we have.  What if, instead, we were defined by what we could do without?  (That’s purely rhetorical…I have no answer!)

But fasting has for centuries and centuries been a part of just about every religious tradition.  The ancient Hebrews (and those of the Jewish tradition today) observe a special period of fasting as a sign of repentance on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur.  Fasting was a sign of mourning or act of reparation for sins.  It was both a way to express repentance as well as prepare oneself inwardly for receiving the necessary strength and grace to complete a mission of faithful service in God’s name.  This was the reason that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness–not to prove something but to prepare himself for a life of ministry.  Fasting is neither abstinence from nor avoidance of, but a journey into a place that’s empty enough to fill with what God offers.  Essentially, it is allowing oneself to die to self and to our selfishness and rise again in Christ.

So, why is it so hard?  Maybe it is not merely because we have a hard time going without (although I think that is a large part of it.)  Maybe it is because we are expecting it to produce results that it is not meant to produce. Fasting is not meant to make us lose weight or make us decrease our sugar consumption or whatever else you’re trying to cut back on.  Fasting is not meant to be manipulated in that way. It is meant to clear rather than produce.  Think of fasting as response–a response to grief or sin, a response to graciousness or thankfulness, a response to a God who calls us out ourselves.  But perhaps fasting is also about return, a return to our own self before we developed all these needs, before we stored everything away, a return to the self that God created–with proper perspective and an awareness of what basic needs actually are. If you look up the physiology of fasting, you will find that a body can survive for 40 days or more without eating (Well, isn’t THAT interesting?)  In that time, depriving a body of food is not starvation but rather a burning of stored energy.

But I have to say that fasting has never been a huge part of my spiritual discipline.  Being the good Methodist that I am, I have always maintained that I can “add” to my Lenten practice and do the same thing as fasting.  I’m not real sure, though, that that is the case.  (Although writing on this blog every day during Lent has become my Lenten discipline.)  Maybe, even metaphorically, I am only storing in excess, building and building for the future, trying to take as much of God’s abundance as I can and stash it away.  Maybe in this 40 days of fasting, we are indeed called to let something go, to return to who we are before we stored it all away–the “leaner”, fuller, more focused self who knew that our basic daily needs would be met and that the abundance of God was really about allowing God to fill our needs and fill our lives and show us the way.  In other words, we are called to give up our self-imposed “fast track” for a new and freeing Fast Track, a journey toward God with God.  And once our bodies and our minds and our souls (and our houses!) are cleared of all the stored excess, we will be open to what we need–the very breath of God who breathed life into us in the beginning and each and every day–if there’s room.

Fasting makes me vulnerable and reminds me of my frailty.  It leads me to remember that if i am not fed I will die…Standing before God hungry, I suddenly know who I am.  I am one who is poor, called to be rich in a way that the world does not understand.  I am one who is empty, called to be filled with the fullness of God.  I am one who is hungry, called to taste all the goodness that can be mine in Christ.  (Macrina Wiederkehr)

We are more than halfway through our Lenten journey.  Many of you may already be fasting from something for Lent.  But why don’t you try giving up those things that are not blamed for your weight or your high blood sugar, but the things that get in the way of your self, that person that God created you to be.  Try giving up anger or resentment or greed or worry.  Try giving up the need to be in control.  You may come up with others.  Just try it through the week-end and if that works out, make it part of first your Lenten discipline and then your Life discipline.

Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,

Shelli

Subtraction

Scripture Passage:  Luke 9: 23-24
23Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.24For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.

So, out in that wilderness, Jesus was doing more than just being tempted.  The wilderness is not something that is done TO us.  It is a place you enter, a place you experience, a place in which you change.  But change is hard.  It is not something that happens by just piling on more stuff.  A couple of years ago, I had my bathroom remodeled.  Well, intellectually I knew that in order to build something new, you had to first tear out the old.  But it was still disconcerting.  At the end of the contractor’s first day of work, I walked into the house and saw all of my things covered in plastic.  That in and of itself was strange.  But then there was the bathroom.  There were no lights (because the electricity has been disconnected and partially ripped out) but all I saw was an empty room walled no longer by tile and paint but by raw wood.  And there, there where the toilet had been, was a big gaping hole.  All of the fixtures (yes I mean ALL of the fixtures) were piled in my yard.  I had this sinking feeling.  “What have I done?”

Our faith journey is no different.  We do not go through our lives collecting more and more knowledge about God or more and more spiritual disciplines.  Try as we might, we cannot continue to take on increased faith and hope to cram it into our already-busy lives and our already-over-taxed bodies and our already-full minds.  Our faith journey, just like everything else in life, does not work like that.  Early 14th century German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart said that “God is not attained by a process of addition to anything in the soul, but by a process of subtraction.”  Our faith journey must involve letting go of those things to which we hold so tight, of creating room for God to fill us.

The Season of Lent has traditionally been one in which many people are compelled to give up something.  Most think that by creating that want, one will be reminded to think of God.  I suppose that works.  If you think of God every time you want chocolate, go for it.  Other people spend Lent adding something to their life, perhaps something that they know that they need to be including in their faith journey anyway.  So while both of these ways of journeying through Lent are good, I’m not sure that either is enough.  (Shoot!  You mean I gave up chocolate and it’s not even enough???)  No, seriously, subtraction and addition are good things but they are both necessary.  As Meister Eckhart reminds us, our faith journey is first an act of subtraction, shedding those things that pull us away, that distract us, that get in the way of who we are.  They are the temptations that we so want to hold onto for comfort, for security, for power, for control.  Let go.  That’s what the Scripture says.  Let go of what you think your life is.  Create room.  And then God will have room to add the things that give you life–trust, strength, faith. 

This Lenten journey is not just one of giving up.  It is a season of ordering, or remodeling one’s life, tearing away the things that you thought you needed so that God can create something new.  But it’s more than a season.  Each Lenten journey is a part of our whole journey.  So rather than it being a temporary way station, this experience of subtraction is part of the Way itself.  Lent is just a time to teach us that.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

On the Other Side of the Wilderness

“Christ in the Desert”
Ivan Kramskoi, 1872
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

This Week’s Lectionary Passage:  Luke 4: 1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Every year in this first week of Lent we read of Jesus, led or driven by the Spirit, intentionally going out into the wilderness.  On purpose?  Who does that?  Who chooses to relinquish control and put oneself at the mercy of the elements or whatever else might come along? Well, obviously Jesus.  So what is our take-away of that?  Are we really supposed to follow?  After all, our lives have been a veritable exercise in learning to maintain control–of our homes, our families, our finances, our health, our time, and even our spiritual life.  And then, this.  Jesus leaves all the comforts and control of home and goes out into the wilderness by himself.  I mean, really, anything could happen out there, right?  He is hungry.  He is vulnerable.  And he surely knows that he is in danger.  And sure enough, temptation looms.  Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, the gift of the God’s unfailing grace, the ground of our hope, and the promise of our deliverance from sin and death, is driven not just into the wilderness but into the depths of his humanity.  And it is there that he is tempted to raise himself up, to fill his emptiness, to place himself above others, to guarantee his own being and his own protection. 

The truth is, though, no one, not even Jesus, can save oneself.  That’s just not the way it works.  Maybe that’s what the wilderness teaches us–that we cannot save ourselves, that we cannot guarantee what will or won’t happen to us, that we are not, much as we hate to admit it, in control.  Now there are those that will say that this whole account was some sort of divine plan by God.  I have a hard time with that.  I mean, really, what point wout that prove?  All that says is that God is some sort of divine game player and we are nothing but pawns on an earthly gameboard.  And after all, is Jesus human or isn’t he?  I’ve been told that he was.  You know–fully human.  He was not above it all.  He was not a super hero.  And he was certainly not a game piece.  He encountered the same human weaknesses that we do every day.  Real weaknesses, real happenings in one’s life, are part of being real, part of being human. 

The truth is that there are some things for which we just cannot prepare.  I mean, think about it, we go along living our lives the best we can and then, without warning, a meteor comes screaming across the sky.  Do you know why astronomers and cosmologists weren’t expecting it?  They didn’t know that it was coming because it was too small to see.  That, too, is what the wilderness teaches us.  Sometimes the small things that we dismiss in our lives are the things that can hurt us, can slowly, bit by bit, pull us away from who we are, from who God calls us to be.

God does not inflict the wilderness on us.  Jesus was not led into this dark and foreboding place to pass some sort of Divine test.  Because, remember, a test does not always possess a right or wrong answer.  Think about a chemical test.  You put two or more elements together not to see if they will pass but to compel them to change.  Jesus went into the wilderness to change, to be fully human, and to find deep within himself the piece of the Godself that calls him home.

So, in this Lenten season, let us intentionally enter the wilderness, not to prove something or because God is waiting to see whether or not we fail, but because the wilderness is the way home.

The Promised Land lies on the other side of a wilderness.  (Havelock Ellis)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Overreaching

The Temptations of Christ, 12th century mosaic,
St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy

Lectionary Passage:  Mark 1: (9-12) 13 (14-15):
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

And (Alternatively!):  Matthew 4: 1-11:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

The Gospel writer known as Mark doesn’t seem to be that worried about Jesus being tempted.  In fact, he’s almost dismissive of it–acknowledging that it happened but not delving into it too much.  And yet, surely temptation is something with which we can all identify and connect.  After all, it happens to the best of us!  The Matthean Gospel, though, seems to be extremely concerned about it, going into great detail.  First, Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread, to guarantee that he had what would sustain him.  It is the temptation to live with a theology of scarcity, filling and filling (and filling!) our lives with stuff and hoarding what we need that we might always be prepared, always be sustained, always have enough.  Next Jesus is tempted by his need to be validated, his need to be liked.  We all have that.  We want people to like us.  We want people to like who we are and what we do.  And, finally, Jesus is tempted with the American Dream–the desire to be in control, to have all the power and glory that we need.  Jesus was tempted with greed, with affirmation and impressiveness, and with power.  And, to be honest, think what Jesus’ ministry in which he was entering would look like if he had these things.  Think of all the good we could do if we had all the resources we need, if people looked upon has the authority, and if we had the power to change the world. (So, at your next Church Council retreat, maybe that’s, after all, not the best question!)

Now, when you read this, do not imagine a little red man with horns running around disturbing Jesus on his wilderness retreat.  The truth is, that wild and fantastical personification of evil is, in the big scheme of things, a pretty modern (and pretty far-fetched) notion.  On some level, it makes it easier, shifting the blame of our human overreachings and our spiritual shortcomings to something other than ourselves.  Rather, Scriptural writers probably envisioned more of a constructive adversary, perhaps a compelling force of some sort (probably something other than a third party entity!) that would empower us to look at ourselves and our own lives, to look at those things that drive us and center us.  It calls us to an honest reflection of who we are and who we are meant to be.

And so Jesus was tempted.  That’s bothersome for us.  After all, he is the one we look to for the model life.  And if Jesus is tempted, what hope do we have for figuring this all out?  Temptation is an interesting thing.  Think of it as a turn, a fork in the road.  Do we choose to follow our wants, our needs, our desires?  Or do we let them go and follow who we really are called to be?  That’s uncomfortable.  And so, it is easier to blame it on that little red man with horns or, to be totally inclusive, the phantom seductress who wiles her prey into what she wants.  Really?  So it has nothing to do with us?  We’re just pawns on a game between good and evil, between the holy and the ways of this world, between God and this imaginary personification of evil.  Really?

Well, that would neatly wrap it up, wouldn’t it?  But I don’t think that’s the way it works.  I think this very human Jesus (thanks be to God!) went out into this wilderness to pray, to search, to discover who God called him to be.  And while he was there, he was tempted to overreach.  Dr. Albert Outler once said something to the effect that sin is not falling short, but overreaching.  It is not being more human (as if being human, being made in the image of God, could be bad!) than we are called to be, but attempting to be more Divine.  Maybe sin and tempation are about our dabbling in God’s business.  It is about letting ourselves be controlled by greed and insecurity, by the need to be affirmed and liked, and by the lust for power.  (So have you listened to the political rhetoric lately?  I rest my case.) But the truth is, sustenance is short-lived, affirmation and being “spectacular” is really hard to maintain (after all, don’t you sometimes just want to wear your warm-ups and no make-up and sit in the back of the sanctuary?), and, as Lord Acton put it, “power corrupts.”  So, on that note, this passage is not an historical narrative about Jesus’ altercation with the devil; rather, it is a lesson of the wilderness:  Instead of yielding to your fears and your desires, follow that which is everlasting sustenance, that which is gracious and unconditional love, and that which is life-giving.

Jesus wasn’t showing us how not to be tempted or even that temptation is evil.  Rather, once again, it’s about perspective.  We are not expected or called to be anything other than human–nothing less and nothing more.  That’s the lesson that this Lenten Wilderness teaches us.  It’s not about us.  It’s about The Way.  So, where do we find ourselves on The Way?

So, continuing with our act of giving up so that we can take on, on this First Sunday of Lent (oh yeah, did you know we don’t count the Sundays?), take a look–where are you tempted by greed, by the need to be affirmed, by the desire to control?  Give them up.  Become human–nothing more, nothing less.  (OK, then, just pick one!)

Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,

Shelli

 

LENT 1A: Ego-Control

LECTIONARY PASSAGE:  Matthew 4: 1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

The Judean Wilderness, Israel
February, 2010

Well, here we are back at the temptation story.  I suppose that means it’s the first Sunday in Lent.  It doesn’t even matter what lectionary year you’re in. All three synoptic Gospels have it in some form. So it just seems to find us each and every year on this Sunday.  It is the day that never budges on our spiritual itinerary, as if  it is a place through which we have to pass to get to anywhere else.  So, is the point that you have to travail the wilderness or that you have to survive the temptation?  I think maybe it’s both those things, but the main thing is that wherever we are and whatever we are doing, now is the time to get our egos under control.  This Lenten journey is not for the faint of heart.  It is serious business.  We have to get our own selves out of the way before we can continue.  Maybe that’s why we read this story every single year on the first Sunday in  Lent.  It’s our annual spring cleaning of all that stuff that is piled up in our way so that the path to Jerusalem will be visible.

Many people struggle a bit with this story.  After all, he was Jesus–as in the Christ–as in God Incarnate–as in the Savior of the World.  Shouldn’t he have been above all that?  But, remember, Jesus was human, fully human.  And even the ones in our midst who do humanness the best have things that get in the way of our relationship with God from time time.  If Jesus had been “above it all”, so to speak, what, really would have been the point at all?  Jesus was not a superhero.  Jesus was showing us the way to God.  And along the way, Jesus was enough of a realist and loved us enough to be honest about what all of us would encounter on this journey.  Jesus’ style was not really to show us all the stuff that we were messing up; rather, he showed us how to name and own what comes along so that we would have the strength and the grace and the faith not to walk away but to walk through it, to leave it behind as we continue on.  I think that’s a whole lot better than a superhero that just flies above the fray and scoops us out of harm’s way at the last minute.

Henri Nouwen says that the three temptations depicted are what we all encounter–the desire to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful.  Who doesn’t want to be relevant, to be liked, to be affirmed, to realize that you have made an impact?  The ironic thing is that most of us spiritual ones live our whole lives like that.  We are told that we are supposed to bear fruit.  And yet how many of us forget who planted it in the first place?  And, at least once in a while, it would feel good to be spectacular.  And the third?  Well, good grief, our whole society is about power.  If we are not one of the powerful, then we are one of the powerless, right?  In a society with a caste system such as ours (yes, I said caste system), there has to be SOMEBODY on the top!  But, here’s the crux…to those who are relevant, spectacular, and powerful, Jerusalem looks like a failure, a dark blotch on an otherwise pristine story.  But to those who have left their egos at this first week, Jerusalem looks like life. 

So get your egos in check and prepare for the journey!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli