I remember walking into my first Ash Wednesday service in 2002 during my freshman year at Southern Nazarene University. I had never experienced anything like it. The light in the sanctuary was low and the cross was front and center on the platform. Although I did not fully understand what I was participating in I could sense the rightness of it. To be confronted with my mortality, and yet wrapped in the hope represented in the words and actions of those who received ashes alongside of me. Even the words of the ritual carried an undertone of solemn hope “from dust you come, and to dust you shall return.” We are one in dust, dust into which God breathed life, dust out of which Christ is forming new creation.
Over the course of that Lenten season our church family journeyed to the cross together. We tried to come to grips with the unfathomable reality of Christ’s love as evidenced in His journey to the cross. What madness is this? What type of God would choose such pain? What depth of love would drive our Savior to live this nightmare?
One Lenten practice that I learned during that first season was the practice of fasting. The idea was that by fasting from something we could collectively and individually allow space to encounter God. By giving up meat, or chocolate, or video games, or anything really, we would set that time aside to seek after God, to hear the still small voice, to heed the ever-present call.
This is a practice I have continued for 17 years now. It has become a part of me and a part of my family. Just this week our family talked about what our Lenten fast would be. Our six-and-a-half-year-old son has decided he won’t play with Legos during Lent, which for him really is a big sacrifice. Part of his goal is to remember with gratitude the other things he has to play with and use his imagination in new ways. He’s making space for new discoveries. I love that he is being formed by the rhythms of the church calendar.
All of this fasting is great. It is an important discipline and it really does create space for God to speak into our lives and hearts. But if we are not careful, this wonderfully powerful activity subtly shifts from focusing us on God and what God desires to do in us individually and collectively to something that we do for our own sake. Something intended to make us feel good or holy, or to get God to notice us.
For the past few weeks I’ve been asking myself “What is this fasting for? What should it allow God to do in me? How do I know if it’s about God or me?” As I’ve wrestled with this, I’ve come across the words of Isaiah the prophet. In Isaiah 58 we are given an image of the difference fasting should (and shouldn’t) make in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
The passage goes something like this. The people of Israel have been fasting, and apparently, they are upset because God has not responded to their fast.
3 ‘Why have we
fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
Isaiah is clearly setting the tone for a prophetic word from God here. Notice the focus of the people. They are concerned about God paying attention to them. They see their relationship as a transaction. If they fast then God will respond with some sort of providence, sign or blessing. They aren’t necessarily interested in knowing God. They are most concerned with being noticed and acknowledged by God.
God responds to their questions with these words.
3b “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this
the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do
away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
When I hear Isaiah’s words my heart breaks. It breaks for me. It breaks for the church. It breaks for all those who live under the chains of injustice and the yoke of oppression. It breaks for all who need food or shelter or clothing and are denied it. For those who are at the receiving end of the pointing finger and malicious talk. For those who are even now, in this moment, being exploited.
I find myself crying out “Lord have Mercy on me! Lord have Mercy on your people! Lord have Mercy on your Church.” For even in the midst of our fast, we form ranks on social media, content to ambush those we consider the other side at every turn. Even as we cry out to him with one side of our mouth, we point and yell at those we see as sinful. We take sides against those who are unlike us. We make those who are different than us into our enemies, the poison of maliciousness dripping from our tongue .
“Lord have Mercy” for we have not “spent ourselves on behalf of the hungry.” Instead, we have withheld not only our food but our love. Where God has called us “to provide the poor wanderer with shelter,” we have closed our doors, our borders and our hearts. We have pretended to be holy, but our actions prove us to be greedy and loveless and concerned only for our own status and well-being.
My heart is broken by this, and yet as we enter into the season of Lent there is also a flutter of hope. For just as Christ brings hope of new creation to this fallen dust, there remains hope that God will form new creation out of us. The way to faithfulness is clear. The path on which fasting sets our feet is laid out for us in the final words of this chapter. If we allow it, God will use our fasting to prepare us to participate in removing chains of injustice and yokes of oppression. God will equip us to become women and men of peace, rather than those bent on quarreling. God will give us the wisdom to “spend ourselves in behalf of the hungry,” and eyes to see those in need of shelter and clothing.
My prayer is that during this time of walking the journey to the cross, the people of God in my home, in my church, and around the world would hear the words of Isaiah 58. I pray that we would leave behind our old ways of living, including our politics, our hate, our divisiveness, and our selfishness. May our fasting transform our propensity for ignoring the poor, our insistence on creating categories of us and them, our constant pointing of fingers rather than offering open hands, our un-charitable social media posts, and our malicious talk.
I pray that we would instead embrace this new creation way that Christ has begun in us. I pray that our light would rise in the darkness, and our night would become like noonday, that we would become like a well-watered garden, and repairers of broken things.
Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.