Thursday, October 31, 2013

Let's Talk about Fasting

We don't talk about fasting much in Christian circles. But in the anonymity provided by the Web people more freely express their views. I searched several online forums about the topic and here is what people are saying.

"Fasting doesn't work for me. When I'm hungry, I feel I have to eat something."

"No one can possibly concentrate on God when they are craving food. "

"It is not a commandment in the Bible although there is nothing wrong with doing it if you feel the need"

And my personal favorite

" Yes many christians fast for a small amount of time like a day or 2. but some really hardcore christians with mental problems will do it for like a week. because they say it makes them closer to god."

I've never had such awkward moments around other Jesus followers as the times it came up that I was fasting. First there was the decision if I should even tell them. Do they, "need to know." Because if it isn't absolutely essential for them to know, then my telling them would just be boasting. I am a Pharisee and my fast counts for nothing. Then if I don't tell them right away, and it comes up later, like when we set down to eat, it's even more awkward because I have left out a pretty important part of my life which also affects them. 

Then there are the reactions. Some people decline to eat around me as if it would be just too painful  for me to see someone eat. Some eventually eat but looked rather sheepish about it. Several people quietly admit they should probably try fasting too, or explain why they can't. In the middle of my seven day fast, I was talking with a dear brother whom I have the utmost respect for, and when my fast finally came up in conversation he said, "Well at least you weren't trying to tell me about it." as if I would have been committing a mortal sin had I brought it up at the beginning of the conversation.

The Bible has a lot to say about fasting. Yet I have seldom heard it brought up without a reference to Matthew 6:16-18.  The misuse of these words of Jesus only help keep this valuable spiritual exercise at the fringe of our  faith community. Here is what Jesus actually said.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, 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 others 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. (NIV)
The hypocrites disfigured themselves so that everyone who walked by them on the street would immediately know they were fasting. It became their super-religious identity. "Look at me, I'm holy because I'm fasting." So Jesus warns not to make a public spectacle of yourself and show off the fact that you are fasting. He never says not to tell anyone. In my private conversations with friends and family, there is no reason why I should feel weird about telling them I am undertaking a major spiritual exercise. 

Ironically, I could talk all day about prayer, and no one would feel awkward. No one sees any boasting when I say, "I'm praying for you." But if I added, "And I'm fasting too," then suddenly people are offended. This is hypocrisy.

We are so uncomfortable talking about fasting because fasting is uncomfortable. I don't think very many Christians fast. It's hard to say for sure, because they never talk about it if they do. But unlike prayer, or Bible reading, the two socially acceptable Christian disciplines, fasting goes against the grain of both our culture, and our fleshly appetites. Being reminded about fasting reminds us how wealthy excessive and undisciplined we really are. It may even make us feel guilty to hear someone talk about it.

We need to talk about Fasting
There are several reasons why we must buck the trend and bring fasting out of the shadows.

1. Jesus did it (Matt 4:2). He also made it clear that he expected his followers too (Matt 6:16, Mark 2:20). That alone should tell us that fasting has value. 

2. Christians throughout the ages have found great spiritual benefit in fasting. They also weren't afraid to talk about it. Read the writings of many great Christians through the ages -  Tertullian, Augustine, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales, John Wesley, Andrew Murray  - and see how often fasting comes up. It has only become obscure in recent history. Why?

3. Fasting, as we discover in the Bible, was often a communal event( Leviticus 23:27, Acts 13:2-3). It was usually meant to be a spiritual exercise for the community, bringing the community together. It's also a lot easier to make it through a fast knowing others are going through the same thing with you.

4. Fasting is more complicated than just not eating for a while. We need to be taught why and how. We need mature disciples to mentor the newer ones on the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, Bible study, and fasting.

5. Our culture is plagued by excess and self-gratification. The followers of Jesus are often just as caught up in it as the rest of society. We are seriously ill.  Fasting is not the cure, Fasting helps clear away the clutter so we can find the Cure

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Different Kind of Hunger: Day Six: Excess

Please excuse my humble attempt at poetry. If you want to read good poetry, visit my friend Lance Schaubert. This is just an expression of ideas and feelings that have been running through my head the last few days.

Tomorrow, the seventh and final day of my fast, I will take a Sabbath from writing. I do plan on writing a follow-up within a few days.


Slowly stagger drunkenly
From golden arches' plenty
Venti frapiccino now
Thirty pounds overweight. How?

Clothes make the man so they say
The best deals found on Ebay
Ralph Lauren. Guess, Armani
Prada, Chanell, Versace.

All the cool kids use Apple
Macbook or status symbol
Don't drive Chevy, Lexus please
Soon increasing interest fees.

A thousand commercials speak
So you can't hear yourself think
Beyond not empty stomach
Or plastic in your wallet.

Few have stopped to learn this thing
Beauty is in suffering
Glory follows agony
Pain begets a symphony.

Homeless man, why so happy?
Without all of this plenty
No shirt no shoes no service
No place to rest. Like Jesus.

Less is more and more is less
Can we leave all this excess
And learn to love the simple
Find hope while we are able.

It's not too late.

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. - James 1:9-10

Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” - Luke 12:15

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Different Kind of Hunger: Day Five: It's Not About Me

Today wasn't a great day
As I type, I'm nursing a headache I've had for at least three hours now. I don't really feel hungry, but every time someone mentions food, I actually feel the vacancy in my stomach for a couple seconds. This evening, I yelled at my daughter for a minor infraction. I had to apologize to her later. I just feel cranky and tired. 

Fasting is not a magic shield against life. It actually makes life more real, the good and the bad. It's like removing the tented lens you've always looked through. Sunsets are more beautiful and sacred. Traffic is more annoying. 

I think we sometimes think God owes us something because we fast or do other acts of worship toward him. As if my fasting does anything for God. It does not benefit Him in any way. He does not owe me any special blessing or shield against trouble because I fast.

On the contrary, I owe God everything
He provided the air I breath and the ground I walk on. He provided the water I drink. He gave me a family that loves and supports me. He saw fit that I should get in on the mystery that is Jesus, and be a part of Jesus' family.  He has given me grace in so many situations, forgiving my trespasses, and giving me hope for the future. 

As with any act of worship, I am not the center. Fasting is not about me. It doesn't really matter if I feel good about it, if I feel blessed. It only matters that I focus myself upon the One who deserves my attention, and through this worship, align my life to give a small token back to him. Fasting is a small token.

 I am not more Godly because I fast. I fast because I am not more Godly.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Different Kind of Hunger: Day 4: Really Living

Jesus came that we would have life to the full (John 10:10) But most of us don't actually live out much of this life. We sacrifice really living for comfort and safety.

Today I ran a 5K (3.1 miles) with my five year old son, Levi. He came in third in the 19 and under age division (which has nothing to do with my  point today, but I have to brag a little). I drank a little broth and juice and I feel surprisingly fine. Although the race was fairly easy for me, because I ran with Levi and not to compete, I still got those feelings I always get about 200 meters into a race. That thought enters my mind for just a second. This is hard. Why am I doing this? I'd rather be sitting on my couch watching football and stuffing my face with Cheetos than running a race.

Comfort is easy, especially for Americans. Most of us have the access to comfort and safety most of the time. Even if you have a  physically challenging job, you can still come home, sit in the easy chair, turn on the TV and live in relative comfort. Safety is also not too difficult. Our society is so obsessed with safety, that it takes a conscious choice to do anything that would put yourself in any kind of jeopardy. Comfort and Safety are easy, but they aren't living.

During the last four days of my fast, there are many times I had thoughts similar thoughts to what went through my mind during the race. This is hard. Why am I doing this. I'd much rather be eating whatever I am smelling right now than fasting. The answer I give myself is this. I can eat anytime I want. I have spent my whole life eating, and will spend the rest of my life eating. Why would I waste the opportunity to experience a seven day fast at least once in my life? I've experienced full many times. Now I get to experience hunger. I've experienced indulgence many times. For once I get to experience restraint. This is really living.

Far too many give up on really living for the sake of safety and comfort. They never experience the beauty of a 20 mile hike, the accomplishment of finishing a marathon, the satisfaction of giving sacrificially to help those in need, the joy of learning to discipline their bodies. There is a world of amazing experiences out there. None of them are easy. Most of them are worth it. If you want to follow Jesus, live life to the full.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Different Kind of Hunger: Day Three: A Steady Stream

Three Days.
This is now the longest fast I have ever done. 

I felt nauseous and weak this morning. I took a little juice mixed with water, and was soon feeling pretty normal. I felt ok most of the day and didn't feel too hungry until dinner time, even though I went to two birthday parties.  As the afternoon wore on I began feeling some gas pain in my abdomen. I also felt colder than normal, and a bit more irritable at the kids.

Megan got the kids pizza ($3.99 large at Dominos, what a deal!). When I smelled the pizza I knew that pizza was the answer to all my problems. It would make me happy, and full. It would make all my pain go away. Pizza would give me instant energy. It would even make me love my children more. Pizza is life!

This morning I read the account of Jesus fasting for 40 days in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It seems like Jesus went into the wilderness in order to be tempted. Fasting is not a magic shield against temptation and fleshly desire. In fact, the fasting directly led to Satan's first big temptation - break the fast. Use your Jesus powers to make bread and eat it. After all, you know you can.

I don't have Jesus powers to make stone into bread, but I have the power to eat. My house is full of food. There are dozens of restaurants and stores within a mile of my house to go get a hot meal. Maybe that's why Jesus went to the wilderness to fast. In fact, The only people the Bible mentions doing a 40 day fast (Moses Elijah, and Jesus) did so in the wilderness alone. Might be something to that.

I love how Jesus answered Satan. The reason he didn't break his fast - "Man does not live on bread alone." He knew bread could satiate his hunger, but it could not satisfy all his needs. He could not abandon the greater need to satisfy the lesser.

Here's how The Message puts it, "It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.” (Matt 4:4) I've been trying to meditate on these words throughout the day.

We think we can't live one day without food, which is false, but we think hearing God's voice is optional. Maybe on Sunday, or whenever we get to it. We have it backwards. We need a steady stream of words from God. We need it more than food. And when we miss it we are missing a big part of life.

Oh how I want to get to the point where a day without hearing from God, without meditating on his words leaves me feeling the hunger I feel today. My aim is to want to be with God more than I want a hot cheesy slice of pizza. Every once in a while I am there for a few brief moments. Those are the best moments.

If you want to know a more complete story of my journey into fasting. Check out the rest of the series.
A Different Kind of Hunger
Day One: Feelings
Day Two: Waking up Hungry

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Different Kind of Hunger: Day Two: Waking up Hungry

All hunger is not the same.

Today I woke up feeling genuinely hungry, the hungriest I remember feeling in recent history. At the same time, I felt so nauseous that I was sure anything entering my body would be immediately expelled. Throughout the day my hunger grew and faded. At times I became engrossed in whatever I was doing and I felt no hunger at all. Other times I felt a dull ache. A few times when circumstance forced me to see and smell food, the hunger was almost overpowering.

I wasn't truly in need of food any more when I saw and smelled it than when my mind was on something else? I think most of our  "hunger" is a perception. We see food and think we need it. I feel no hungrier now as I type this than I did after missing my first breakfast.

Today I was reading from "Simplicity: Essays" by Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus. They explain how we think we need something because we see others have it. We don't actually need any of it, but the feeling that we do can be overpowering.  It got me thinking about the things I covet. They are many.

I actually have everything I need. I am well stocked.  I have an adequate place to live with all the necessary furnishings, a car that works. I have a guitar that I enjoy playing, books I enjoy reading. More than durable goods, I have a supportive family, great friends, and opportunities to do things I love. I am truly blessed. I need nothing.

So why I am I hungry for more things? Why do I wish I made more more? Why am I not content with my abundance?  My desire for things is just as much a perception as my desire for food. That is not to say I don't need things. We all need certain things. We need shelter, we need companionship. We need food. But we often grossly exaggerate how much we need these things.

But there are things we need. There is a deeper hunger that needs to be satisfied. It has nothing to do with food or cars or TVs or clothes. That is what I am trying to figure out how to fill. When I do, I will truly understand how man can live, not on bread alone, but every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Different Kind of Hunger: Day One: Feelings

I Don't Feel Like Fasting Today
I woke up with a headache. Not the caffeine withdrawal headache I will experience later. Just a regular headache that happens to coincide with my first day of fasting. Then the kids were crazier than usual. I barely got them out the door on time to catch the bus. I know I will get more irritable after missing a meal or two, but I was already irritable before I missed anything. I don't think today is a good day to begin a fast. Maybe I should just put it off for a few days.

I have actually been putting off this fast for a while anyway. I really felt a conviction to do it a couple months ago. But it is never a good time to start a fast. There is always that dinner or family event coming up in a couple of days. Some days I don't feel up to it physically. I don't want to deprive my body if I have the sniffles. And some days I just don't want to. Wait... that's every day.

I've always thought you have to have the right attitude and motivation to begin a fast. After all, it's what's in your heart that counts more than the outward act. So I thought that if I wasn't feeling "into it" or feeling "spiritual" then I should just skip fasting. Not long ago, I broke a one day fast after a couple of hours because I just wasn't feeling it.  Why go through the motions if my heart isn't there? But I have discovered I never "feel it" especially on a day I have determined to fast.

So I wander if I should listen to something besides my feelings. I could start with the Bible. People in the Bible fasted. Sometimes it was required, like on the Day of Atonement. Jews still keep this fast. I wonder how many of them don't feel like it. But people fasted at other times too. Moses fasted for 40 days, as did Elijah and Jesus. Paul fasted for three after seeing a vision of Jesus. Nehemiah fasted when he heard the news of the state of Jerusalem. David fasted many times, even for his enemies (Psalm 35:13). I wonder if their hearts were always in it when they fasted. Did they at some point say "I don't really feel like fasting today," but still fasted?

Maybe feelings follow actions. I know they say that about marriage. Keep loving and serving your spouse even when you don't like them, and eventually your feelings will catch up. I wonder if I keep this fast, will I eventually feel better about it? More importantly, what will happen to my feelings for God? Will giving up food to draw close to God make me love Him more? Will I appreciate Him more? Will I feel closer to Him? Will I be more willing to lay down my life for Him?

A Different Kind of Hunger

There is an inherent danger in writing a post like this
As Jesus said, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven ." (Matt 6:1)  I am doing an outwardly righteous act and telling everyone about it. Well not everyone, but at least my 10 to 12 loyal readers. The danger is, that I would fast to impress all of you, and therefore lose any spiritual benefit I might receive.

Rest assured, I did not decide to fast with any of you in mind. Writing about it was more of an afterthought. I am fasting because this is what I need in this stage of my spiritual journey. 

I lack self control. When I have and itch I scratch it. I mean this literally (Stop scratching yourself!) as well as figuratively. If I think of food I eat something. If I think of TV, I watch something. Whenever I'm tired I rest. Whenever life gets too hard, I back away. I have no stamina to suffer. I have no will to deny my base desires. And I think there are a lot of others like me.

There is far too little talk about fasting in our day. It is a forgotten discipline. I know a number of Christians who have told me they have never fasted.  It's not just that we don't practice the discipline that Jesus and the Apostles, and nearly every notable role model in the Bible practiced. Our lack of fasting is indicative of a bigger problem, a lifestyle that lacks restraint. 

We live in a culture of excess. There are fast food restaurants on every corner. Stores and credit card companies implore us to buy whatever our hearts desire without waiting. We surf an internet full of images sure to satisfy every sexual desire with the click of a mouse. But with all this, we find we are not satisfied at all. We have a different kind of hunger that money and sex and food will not satisfy.

And that is why I write. I do not write as the spiritual guru who has it all together. I am a fellow traveler. Learn from my experience, both the good and the bad. In the end, perhaps my journey will inspire others down this road as well. And if it does, then I will indeed receive my reward from my Father in heaven.

I have never done anything like this before. I have fasted for a day or two many times, or more frequently a meal or two. I am mildly hypoglycemic, so I am allowing myself some diluted juice as needed to complete my normal routine. Other than that, I plan to just drink water.

Today I am beginning a seven day fast. I will write a post each day to reflect on what I have experienced physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Thank you for accompanying me on my journey. I am excited to see what God will do.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

I Shut Down the Government

Some might see this as a blessing. If all these agencies are "nonessential" then why don't we just leave them shut down.  But we've already decided we're going to pay those people anyway once we get over this shutdown. They are going to get paid for this time off, but we won't just go ahead and pay them now. Neither will we let them come back to work, even though the law now says we will pay them.  Wouldn't it make more sense to pay them now and have them actually do something for the good of the country? No, because when your budget is in a deficit, it makes more sense to just throw that money away.

And now they say we might default on our loans because we can't add new debt. How does that make sense?  New debt is for new expenses. Paying interest on new debt is not new debt. We shouldn't even be accumulating new debts because Congress has not authorized the government to spend money. That's why it shut down. But I digress.

It's my fault anyway. I shut down the government of the United States of America. Well, I got a little help from our elected officials and my 300 million compatriots. But we did it. Our elected officials are just doing what we elected them to do. They reflect our own idiocy. They represent us well.

I think the biggest tragedy of the "partial government shutdown" would be for us to sit and yell at our television screens for hours and never spend five minutes in front of a mirror examining our own complicity. We, Americans, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor, we made this mess, because we are the mess.

And so I want to share a few observations I have made. Far from a comprehensive list, these are a few lessons I have learned about myself, and my fellow Americans from the government shutdown of 2013. Maybe they will get you thinking a little.

It's easier to slap on a band-aid than heal someone.

It's not that God hasn't given us the ability to heal. We possess knowledge in many arts and sciences that are amazingly useful and practical. We can heal people, and we can heal systems. We could make the government run in a way that is less dramatic, more efficient, and probably a lot cheaper to run. But that would be such a big change. It's much easier to just make minor adjustments, to put band-aids on massive hemorrhages and hope the next Congress also votes to raise the debt ceiling when the time comes.

But we are no better. When our lives seem to be hopelessly headed in a wrong direction, we don't stop and examine ourselves. We adjust something here and tweak something there and hope it all works out. We do it with our finances, with our careers, with our relationships. Then we wonder why they keep failing.

Bad news makes us feel better about ourselves.

The story of the shutdown has been one of rumors and slander. Doomsday prophets tell us with glee how this crisis will destroy our economy, our country, and possibly even  the world. And it's all the other side's fault.

Rather than seeing the other side as human beings, we have demonized them in every way. That is why politicians can't get together. Who would negotiate with demons? Our mass media is primarily funded from this kind of behavior. It's also the means by which most of our officials procured their office.

It's said that no one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but that simply isn't true. We love to gossip up those who have gone astray. We love to share the juicy details of their faults. It does not make us better people, it just shows us that we are better than someone else, and that is good enough for us. As long as we are better than murderers and thieves and that tax collector standing over there, we feel pretty good about ourselves.

We don't value experience

60% of Americans want to vote all incumbents out of office(1). After all, they aren't doing their job.  But we often forget how many incumbents we have voted out of office. We also forget that it is largely first term congresspeople who are leading these stubborn ideological fights. Veteran congresspeople are the ones moving to the middle and trying to come up with a compromise for the common good. (I realize this is a generalization and there are exceptions.). Our Government needs people with experience.

Americans are notoriously individualistic. Like Franks Sinatra, we want to do it "my way." We don't like to listen to the wisdom of our elders. And we suffer for it. We can't keep recreating society, and we can't keep recreating ourselves. Our parents are not perfect, but they have important lessons to offer us. Our clergy, are imperfect, but they have walked with a lot of people through a lot of difficult situations, seek their wisdom. Seek the advice of the older people in your group.Seek mentorship. Hang out at a nursing home, not just to give back, but to gain. We need people with experience. If we don't learn this soon we will doom ourselves to repeating all the mistakes of past generations.

The buck stops somewhere else.

Congress blames the President. The President blames Congress. Republicans blame Democrats. Democrats blame Republicans. Everyone blames the media. Ironically, any one of these entities has the power to end this crisis, and does not. Perhaps they have a good reason for keeping it going, but rather than fess up to it, they just pass the blame.

But who are we to say any different. We just blame the "government" as if we did not elect them. It is the government's responsibility to feed people, and provide housing, and healthcare, and to wipe their noses when they get drippy. Whenever anything goes well, it is in spite of the government, and whenever something goes wrong - like a hurricane - it is the government's fault. I am not making a political point about our form of government. I am making a point about how we govern our own lives.

We have forgotten how to take responsibility for our actions, and so we should expect no better of our elected officials.

The Government is not the answer.

More than anything, this time of earthly crisis reminds me that my kingdom is not of this world. Far from an excuse to disengage and isolate myself from the problems of my fellow humans. It it is the freedom to act boldly to come to their aid. It reminds me that no matter how screwed up our earthly government gets, Right will prevail in the end. God wins! Keep up the good fight!

Let's take responsibility for what we've done and learn from it. Rather than rant about our broken political system,and the politicians you hate, take a cue from Michael Jackson.

"If you wanna make the world
A better place
Take a look at yourself
Then make a change." (2)

(1) According to an NBC/WSJ Poll on October 10, 2013, 60% of Americans want to recall the entire congress.

(2) "Man in the Mirror" was written by Glen Ballard and Seidah Garrett, but made popular by Michael Jackson