Lenten Disciplines for Every Day: Fasting

John the Short said, “If a king wants to take a city filled with his enemies, he first captures their food and water, and when they are starving he subdues them.  So it is with gluttony.  If a man is sincere about fasting and is hungry, the enemies that trouble his soul will grow weak.”

Early Christians believed the first sin of humanity was gluttony – Adam and Eve overreaching beyond God’s boundaries.  It just so happened to be connected to fruit on a tree.  The earliest Christians thought of gluttony in broader terms than we do.  We think of it as ‘overeating’ or ‘lavish feasting’, but the early monastics saw food deeply connected to our spiritual lives.  Thomas Aquinas points to this in the 13th century as he expands gluttony to include ‘eating too eagerly’, which he considered the most egregious form.  Eating eagerly causes us to disregard health, social, and especially spiritual matters in our lives.  He points to Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of beans as a primary example of disregarding the spiritual for sake physical desire.

We all suffer from obsessions with food in our culture.  I am currently binge watching several food shows in ‘4K Ultra HD’, including ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ by Somin Nosrat (which I highly recommend, by the way).  Gluttony has moved from the mouth and the stomach, to my leisure time and my eyes.  While on vacations, my family has a notorious practice of discussing our lunch plans over breakfast, discussing dinner plans over lunch, and discussing breakfast plans over dinner.  I often wonder how much more we could share together….

But here is the rub…gluttony is always about more than food.  Evagrius listed it as the first of the 8 passions, or terrible temptations.  It has always been connected deeply to our spirituality and has always been see as one of the obstacles to love.

Are you fasting from some food or drink this Lent?  Many of us do.  But let me ask all of us, including myself, to consider whether we are actually giving up something ‘easy’ – which only skims the surface of Lent’s intention – or if we are considering giving up something more difficult?  Here are a few more difficult things to consider ‘fasting’ from not just at Lent, but in our lives…some things that we tend to ‘overindulge’ in:

What if we could learn to tame or possibly lay aside our ego, or even our pride for Lent?

What would it feel like if we could learn to ‘fast’ from worry?

Is it possible for me to go 40 days (or even 1 day?!?) without judging someone else…without being critical…without gossiping…without slandering someone else?

If you are like me, you will say, “that’s basically impossible, so why start?”  You miss the point.  Ash Wednesday begins with the affirmation that we are dust.  We affirm our humanity and our imperfections.  We WILL mess up during Lent…and life.  It is assumed already.  But we identify our failing, we get up, brush ourselves off, ask for God’s guidance, and we learn as we keep going…relying on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Try it…not just for the remainder of Lent, but everyday.  Think about boldly ‘giving something up’…something hard…something that could change your life.

Less Is More

Matthew 6:19-21, 25, 33
19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, says in his book The Paradox of Choice that the official dogma of our culture is that the more choice people have the more freedom people have and the more freedom people have the more welfare they have. This is what we have always believed about choice, freedom and happiness.

Here are some examples. Go to your supermarket. 75 dressings not to mention the olive oil and vinegars available and all the options you have.
At work, we are blessed to work from anywhere. Our cellphone, our iPad, our laptop are always with us and available. At our child’s soccer game or football game we are constantly bombarded with the choice of “should I respond to this email, phone call, etc. Even if the answer is “no”, it makes the experience of the child’s ball game very different for us.

All of these choices have two effects on us.

First, paradoxically, all these choices produce more paralysis rather than freedom. With so many options and choices in life, we find it hard to choose at all. Here is an example: A study was done on investments in voluntary retirement plans for Vanguard. They studied 2000 workplaces and found that for every 10 retirement funds they offered rate of participation went down 2%. Offer 50 funds, 10% fewer participants. It was too hard to decide so they put it off! Even if we choose, we are less satisfied than if we had fewer choices because we always wonder if we made the right choice and regret enters in wondering what difference would be if we made another choice!!

Secondly, all these choices in life cause our expectations to be escalated through the roof! Any middle age man who has had to go shopping for a pair of blue jeans will find the person at the store ask, “Do you want straight cut, boot cut, relaxed fit, stone washed, slim fit, button fly, acid wash, tapered?” To which the middle age man replies, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” Spend an hour trying on jeans and ultimately you find a great pair of jeans. Truth be told, with all these choices you find the best pair of jean you’ve ever bought. All the choices allow for a better outcome and do better. But you feel worse. Why?

We feel worse because with all these options available our expectations go up. All the options in life can’t help but raise our expectations! This means less satisfaction with results even when they are good results!

With perfection the expectation for us all, you merely hope things will be as good as you hope. We are never pleasantly surprised because we expect perfection.  With all this information, Barry Schwartz gives us the secret of happiness…
The secret to happiness is…low expectations.

Truly the secret to happiness is realistic and modest expectations. There is nothing wrong with hoping tomorrow will be better than today, but we have given up on that and gone straight to the expectation of perfection.  We have this naïve notion to think we are not slaves to comparison – we are always comparing ourselves to others and how we did yesterday and how we hoped to do.  It is true that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow that more choice is better than some.

The anxiety and worry in our lives about so many things and so many expectations, leads to paralysis and disappointment. We are afraid, we are stuck, and we are unhappy so often in this life. There is no peace when our lives are out of control. We live in fear of simplicity. We fear simplicity because we are creatures of comparison who measure our worth on what we have and where we stand in comparison to those around us. But here is the paradox Jesus presents to us. It is in simplicity that we find freedom. It is in less that we find the answers to our out of control lives.

Jesus during this Sermon on the Mount heard and saw the birds. The birds can’t reap or sow, but God provides for them. They still have to work for their food, but it is there. If they seek it, then they find it. He looks on the ground, he sees the flowers. The wild flowers, especially the red poppies, are brilliantly colorful. They’re the color of King Solomon’s robes–radiant and stunning.  I’ve always wondered about Jesus using birds and flowers as illustrations – they don’t have mortgages and payments for braces last time I checked. But that isn’t the point. It isn’t that we are supposed to become the birds and flowers, we are supposed to consider and look at (two very strong verbs for Jesus to use) to see how God cares so much for these little things. And if he cares for them, then think how much more God cares for us! Jesus reminds us of God’s providence for all creation – including birds, flowers, and human beings.  After Jesus teaches about storing up treasures, the birds, and the flowers, we are left with a very clear focus from Christ. Seek first the Kingdom of God. All this stuff and all these expectations cause us to forget God’s role. And when we forget God’s role in our lives, we forget to depend on God. Our insatiable appetite for more, leads to less freedom because we depend less and less on God.

There are two things you can take with you today that can help you.

First, downsize your life. Live more simply. I have a friend in Columbus who made a conscious decision to do this. He and his wife have great jobs and make great incomes. But for a while, they bought too big a house and too much car and lived extended to the limit. They weren’t happy at all. One day, he and his wife decided to actually try this lesson. They sold their home and bought a smaller home. They bought less cars. And he doubled the amount of money he gave away to the church and to help others. His life changed. It was amazing to see how God became the center of his life even more simply because he simplified his life.

Second, get control of your expectations. We really need to work on this! Discontentment in the grocery store line, with family and friends, at a restaurant, with your pastor, with your government – all this misery and frustration and disappointment are rooted in unrealistic expectations. We judge others by their actions and we judge ourselves by our intentions – we see the splinter in others’ eyes and miss the log in our own eyes – we have got to challenge our expectations if we want to find peace and contentment.

Downsizing our lives and managing our expectations will allow us to depend more fully on God. To seek first the Kingdom and God’s righteousness.

I Believe Jesus Will Come Again

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
1Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
6So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

This passage took on special meaning for my friends Rob and Gayle Grotheer this week. Rob is pastor of College Place UMC and was formerly on staff here at Wesley. On Monday afternoon, thieves broke into their home and took a lot of things that were very valuable to them. As we reflected together on this passage, it took on special meaning for Rob. How can one be ready for a thief when you don’t know when they are going to come?

The apostle Paul used the imagery of the thief to describe the return of Jesus Christ. He said if we live our lives in the darkness, in complacency, saying “there is peace and security”, then we are in for quite a shock. But if we live in the light, living every day as if the Lord were to return today, we will be ready not only for Christ’s return…we will be ready for the judgment of God as well.

Jesus told his disciples he would return, and the lives of the apostles were spent actively waiting for that return. Throughout Paul’s writings, we see him encouraging Christians to maintain hope and not give up anticipating that Jesus will return.  So Paul says, “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; … and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other”

Each week in worship we declare our central belief that Jesus “…sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead” (which is just an old way of saying the living and the dead).  The Nicene Creed is somewhat more descriptive about Christ’s return, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
We recite this to proclaim a central truth that is found throughout the New Testament…Jesus said he will return and he declares there will be a final judgment of everyone.

So how can we be ready when we don’t know when he will return? I mean it’s been 1,979 years since Jesus ascended into heaven and he hasn’t come back yet. That’s just the kind of thought process Paul warns us against. We’ve heard people say, “Live everyday as if it was your last,” and I like that saying, but how do we do it?

The ancient monastics accomplished this in a way that may sound morbid to us.  We must think more about our death. We must contemplate more about our mortality in a way that reminds us there will be an end.  Evagrius of Pontus said, ‘Think about your death and you will see that your body is decaying. Think about the loss, feel the pain. Our mortality helps us put the vanity of the world outside. Think about those who will be in heaven and the souls in hell. It is important to meditate on their condition, the bitter silence and the moaning, the fear and the strife, the waiting and the pain without relief, the tears that cannot cease to flow. Think also about the day of resurrection, imagine God’s judgment. Imagine the sight of the confusion of sinners before God and above them all the sound of the gnashing of teeth, dread and torments. Bring before your mind the good laid up for the righteous, their confidence before God the Father and Christ His Son. Think on all this. Weep and lament for the judgement of sinners, keep alert to the grief they suffer; be afraid that you are hurrying towards the same condemnation. Rejoice and exult at the good laid up for the righteous. Aim at enjoying the one, and being far from the other. Do not forget this, wherever you are and whatever you do. Keep these memories in your mind and they will cast out the thoughts and actions that harm you.’

I admit this is not the most exciting thing a preacher has asked you to think about. But I am saying to you that this is how we change the way we live. Think more upon your end; So that your actions will be shaped by the limits of your mortality. How I treat others, how I speak to others, how I live my life – if I never think of the end then what I do along the way doesn’t matter.

Thomas a Kempis, the famous 15th century monk wrote, “Happy is the man (or woman) who hath the hour of his death always before his eyes, and daily prepareth himself to die.”  He also wrote, “O the dullness and hardness of man’s heart, which thinks only of the present, and looks not forward to the future. Thou ought in every deed and thought so to order thyself, as if thou wert to die this day.”

Are you ready?

Leadership Ingredients: Courage

They told this story about Agatho. He and his disciples spent a long time in building his cell. When they had finished it he lived in it, but in the first week he saw a vision which seemed harmful to him. So he said to his disciples what the Lord said to his apostles, ‘Rise, let us go hence’ (John 14:31). But the disciples were exasperated and said, ‘If you meant the whole time to move from here, why did we have to work so hard and spend so long in building you a cell? People will begin to be shocked by us, and say: “Look, they are moving again, they are restless and never settle.” ’ When Agatho saw that they were afraid of what people would say, he said, ‘Although some may be shocked, there are others who will be edified and say, “Blessed are they, for they have moved their abode for God’s sake, and left all their property freely.” Whoever wants to come with me, let him come; I am going anyway.’ They bowed down on the ground before him, and begged to be allowed to go with him.

Courage is required of all leaders. Unfortunately, there is a lack of courage these days, which is one reason the leadership pool is so shallow. Every industry and profession is suffering from a lack of leadership and the United Methodist Church is no different. I was on the phone this morning with a mentor of mine and the topic of courage came up as it related to the United Methodist Church leaders. There are too few courageous leaders – laity, clergy, and bishops. Ironically, when one of our leaders shows courage and stands up for certain issues, they are castigated and called “out of touch”. It’s always easier to alienate those we disagree with rather than engage in an intellectual, reasoned conversation.

Our culture cultivates careful practitioners and while there is nothing wrong with being careful, we have confused care with the inability to lead. A leader cannot make everyone happy and to attempt it is futile and can be destructive to any congregation or organization.

I am not saying courage is bullying. Courage is not demanding your own way. Courage, as Agatho in the parable above shows us, is acting upon the vision God provides no matter what others may think. I love the way Agatho says, “If you want to come with me, come on. I’m going.” That is courageous leadership even when others want to call him crazy. And as the parable above enlightens us, our biggest fear is what others may think of us.

Courage is a key ingredient of leadership. Spend time in prayer discerning God’s vision for your life and for your organization and when God gives you a clear direction – move. I truly believe that Godly leaders of courage will not alienate their followers. After all, you are not really a leader if you take off and no one follows. What Agatho’s followers discovered is that a courageous leader helped them move beyond their fear of what others may think of them. Once they saw that fear clearly, they were ready to follow.

Joshua 1:9, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you may go.”

Thomas Merton on Asceticism and Sacrifice, Part 2

2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
14 Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. 15Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 6: Asceticism and Sacrifice (Part 2, pp. 106ff)
• The real purpose of asceticism is to disclose the difference between the evil use of created things, which is sin, and their good use, which is virtue. We must gain possession of ourselves, by asceticism, in order that we may be able to give ourselves to God.
The only sacrifice of ourselves that God accepts is the purity of our love. Any renunciation that helps us to love God more is good and useful. In order for us to spiritualize our lives and make them pleasing to God, we must become quiet. Peace of the soul does not depend on physical inactivity – some people are perfectly capable of tasting true spiritual peace in an active life. Our culture does not provide ideal conditions for entering ourselves. Everything in modern life is calculated to KEEP us from entering into ourselves and thinking about spiritual things. The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God and from the spirit into the wilderness of neurosis. There is a world of difference between work and agitation. Work occupies mind and body and brings peace to the soul that has a semblance of order and spiritual understanding. Agitation, on the other hand, destroys the spiritual usefulness of work and frustrates its physical and social purpose. Agitation is a fruit of tension in a spirit that is turning dizzily from one stimulus to another and trying to react to 15 different appeals at one time. Work leads to peace (if there is balance). Agitation leads to the death of the interior life.
• Good habits are only developed by repeated acts – we cannot discipline ourselves to be consistent with any degree of intelligence unless we go about it systematically. We must have structure. To desire the spiritual life is to desire discipline.
• Asceticism is utterly useless if it turns us into freaks. The cornerstone of all asceticism is humility, and Christian humility is first of all a matter of supernatural common sense. It teaches us to take ourselves as we are, instead of pretending (as pride would have us imagine) that we are something better than we are. Pride makes us artificial, humility makes us real. In II Thessalonians 3, work and supernatural acceptance of ordinary life are seen by the Apostle as a protection against the restless agitation of false mysticism. We are to work and live in simplicity, with more joy and greater security than others, because we do not look for any special fulfillment in this life. We are to live in peace among transient things. It is supreme humility to see that ordinary life, embraced by perfect faith, can be more saintly and more supernatural than a spectacular ascetical career. Such humility dares to be ordinary, and that is something beyond the reach of spiritual pride. Pride always longs to be unusual. Humility not so. Humility finds all its peace in hope, knowing that Christ must come again to elevate and transfigure ordinary things and fill them with his glory.
• God is more glorified by one who uses the good of things of this life in simplicity and with gratitude than by the nervous asceticism of someone who is agitated about every detail of his self-denial.

Thomas Merton on Ascetism and Sacrifice, Part 1

I’m continuing to post thoughts from Thomas Merton that we are using for our time of spiritual formation at Wesley staff meetings. Tommy always causes deep reflection and a lot of discussion in our time together.

Romans 8:1-10
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit* of life in Christ Jesus has set you* free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin,* he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.* 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit* set their minds on the things of the Spirit.* 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit* is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit,* since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit* is life because of righteousness.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 6: Asceticism and Sacrifice (Part 1, pp. 96ff)
• The spiritual life is not merely a negation of matter. When the New Testament speaks of the “flesh” as our enemy, it takes the flesh in a special sense. When Christ said, “The flesh profits us nothing,” in John 6:64, he was speaking of flesh without spirit, flesh living for its own ends, not only in sensual but even in spiritual things. As long as we are on the earth, our vocation calls us to life spiritually while still “in the flesh.”
• We cannot become saints merely by trying to run away from material things. To have a spiritual life is to have a life that is spiritual in all its wholeness – a life in which the actions of the body are holy because of the soul, and the soul is holy because of God dwelling and acting in it. When we live such a life the actions of our body are directed to God by God Himself and give Him glory, and at the same time they help to sanctify the soul. The saint, therefore, is sanctified not only by fasting when he/she should fast but also by eating when he/she should eat. He/she is not only sanctified by his prayers in the darkness of the night, but by the sleep that he takes in obedience to God, Who made us what we are. Solitude not only contributes to union with God, but also God’s supernatural love for friends and relatives and those with whom we live and work.
• It gives God great glory and pleasure for a person to live in this world using and appreciating the good things of life without care, without anxiety, and without inordinate passion. In order to know and love God through His gifts, we have to use them as if we used them not – and yet we have to use them. To use things as if we used them not means to use them without selfishness, without fear, without afterthought, and with perfect gratitude and confidence and love of God.
• Self-denial is sterile and absurd if we practice it for the wrong reasons or, worse still, without any valid reason at all. Therefore, although it is true that we must deny ourselves in order to come to a true knowledge of God, we must also have some knowledge of God and our relationship with Him in order to deny ourselves intelligently. First of all, our self-denial must be humble. Otherwise, it is a contradiction in terms. It must also be supernatural – ordered not only for our own perfection or the good of society, but ordered to God.
• Although the grace of the Holy Spirit teaches us to use created things “as if we used them not” – that is to say, with detachment and indifference, it does not makes us indifferent to the value of things in themselves. On the contrary, only when we are detached from things can we really value them as we should. It is only when we are “indifferent” to them that we can really begin to love them. The indifference of which I speak must, therefore, be an indifference not to things themselves but to their effects in our own lives.