Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lent: A Time for Fasting, Weeping & Mourning

North Shore of Lake Superior

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
    slow to anger and abounding in love. (Joel 2:12-13)

Lent—the forty days leading up to the Cross and the Resurrection—is a season for seeking God afresh in our lives. One of the traditional practices that helps us in our pursuit of God is the biblical discipline of fasting.

Lent is a way of joining Jesus in the forty-day fast that he did before he began his ministry (see Matt 4 and Luke 4). Although Jesus’ disciples did not fast while they were with him, he stated that they would indeed fast when he—the Bridegroom—was not with them (Mark 2:19). Likewise, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated, “When you fast” (Matt 6:16), implying that such was to be a standard practice for his disciples.

Seriously Seeking God
Our pursuit of God is truly getting serious when we are willing to set aside food—our daily bread—in order to focus our hearts, minds, bodies and whole beings on the Lord. We make a declaration to the Lord, and to ourselves, that our relationship with him is more important than our very sustenance.

Fasting is also a form of humbling ourselves and mourning for our sin. When Nehemiah fasted, he wept and mourned and sought God, both for himself and for the people of Israel (Neh 1:4-11). When we fast—especially from food—it takes the energy, self-reliance and pride right out of us. It helps us to lower ourselves and come in need before the Lord. In fact, in the Old Testament, “humbling oneself” is often used as a reference to fasting.

Phenomenal Focus
Fasting helps us seek God because it offers us fresh focus. When I give up the food that I need for daily strength, I need to focus entirely on the Lord. In fact, each time my stomach growls, I use it as a reminder to direct my attention back on him.

We see this focus in Jesus’ forty-day fast. Putting aside one of the very essentials of life itself, Jesus dedicated his time in the wilderness to prayer with God the Father. When Satan tested him at the end of the forty days with the rather benign temptation of turning stones into bread, Jesus’ true focus came out: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3).

Living out our Repentance
Joel 2 calls us to return to the Lord. Such a return is what the New Testament calls metanoia—repentance. When we repent, we turn away from the wrong direction we are headed and return to the Lord with our whole heart.

Lent is an opportunity to walk out our repentance by establishing a new spiritual rhythm, like fasting. This may be a spiritual practice that we adopt just for Lent, or it may be something we begin in Lent and continue on for a long time.

Fasting is a great way to walk out our repentance. It declares our independence from food or any other physical yearning that might put us in bondage. We can fast from many different things: food, TV, worry, busyness, deserts, pop or other drinks, texting, Facebook—anything that pulls on us and distracts us from pursuing God.

Whatever we give up, we must replace with something positive. Instead of TV or Facebook, we can set aside that hour for some special time with the Lord. If we fast one meal a week, we can dedicate that time for prayer.

Are you and I willing to fast and weep and mourn this Lent? Whether it is giving up food for a day—or abstaining from chocolate or other delicacy for the whole forty days—fasting is giving up something we desire or need. In doing so we humble ourselves and reorient our desires and attention on the Lord so that we can pursue him wholeheartedly as we look forward to the celebration of his Resurrection!

© 2013 Glenn E. Myers

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lent: Kneeling in Humility, Repentance and Seeking God Afresh

Since the Early Church, Lent has been a season set aside for seeking God afresh in our lives. Lent is the forty days (not counting Sundays) leading up to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. It is a time to focus anew on where our relationship with the Lord is and where we would like it to go.

Any time we want to move forward with God, it means we need to let go of where we are. Inevitably that entails confessing sin in our lives. Whether sins of the flesh or an ungodly attitude or unforgiveness—we cannot move forward with God unless we confess our sin to the Lord, ask forgiveness and turn from it.

Kneeling in Confession
One important time for kneeling before the Lord is when we confess our sins. Kneeling or falling prostrate before the Lord has been closely associated with confessing our sins in prayer. How appropriate it is for us to humble ourselves utterly as we come before a holy God with our transgressions!

Origen, one of the early theologians of the Church, states, “Kneeling is necessary when someone is going to speak against his own sins before God, since he is making supplication for their healing and their forgiveness. We must understand that it symbolizes someone who has fallen down and become obedient, since Paul says, ‘For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named’ (Eph. 3:14-15).”[1]

Inner and Outer Affecting Each Other
As quoted in an earlier blog, Origen stresses the importance of our physical attitude “because one then carries in the body too, as it were, the image [icon] of that special condition that befits the soul during prayer.”[2] Our bodies are the outward image or icon of our inner spiritual condition.

It goes the other way, as well. Our physical position also influences our inner disposition. When we stand before someone of importance—whether a judge in the classroom or applauding an excellent performer—our bodily stance helps to cultivate the respect we have for them. It is a spiral. Our physical stance affects our inner attitude; then, in turn, our heart’s attitude in expressed through our body’s attitude.

“Thus, there is a genuine reciprocity between one’s internal disposition and external posture. This is the ‘special property’ of the soul, which in the body’s posture creates, so to speak, a suitable ‘icon’ of itself,” summarizes Gabriel Bunge. [3] Our outer self and inner self have an effect on each other. In prayer, our whole being is involved—and that is as it should be. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).

Pursuing God this Lent
Getting our bodies involved in prayer helps to fully engage our minds and our hearts. As one writer states, without kneeling, bowing, raising hands and otherwise engaging our whole bodies, our prayer “will be routine, cold, and shallow.” [4] Many Christians who have a personal relationship with the Lord would probably nevertheless admit that much of their prayer has become rather routine, and probably somewhat shallow and even cold.

Let us take this season as a unique opportunity to seek God in our lives. Where we have been passive or have gone in the wrong direction, we can confess our sin to God. Engaging our bodies—and all our strength—we can come humbly before God. Let us take this Lent to stir the coals inside us and kindle that flame of love for the Lord!
[1] Origen, On Prayer, 31:3, in An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer and Selected Works, trans. Rowan Greer, CWS (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979), p.165.
[2] Origen, On Prayer, quoted in Gabriel Bunge, Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), p.152.
[3] Bunge, p. 146.
[4] Joseph Busnaya, quoted in Bunge, 139.

© 2013 Glenn E. Myers