Invitation – The Lenten Fast “Sacrifice to Gift”

Growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, I was raised – even as a young child, to give up something for Lent.  It was never framed as fasting or referred to as a fast – heaven forbid, even now as an adult, the word “fast” conjures up an image of someone weak with hunger, stumbling to reach water before perishing.  The focus was on sacrifice – that as Christ sacrificed his life, endured suffering for our sins, we enter into a season of sacrifice, where we give up (and suffer doing it!) something we enjoy or value.  It sounds so stupid now … Christ gave up his life, so I gave up candy?  Really?

Probably about 15 years ago or so, there seemed to be a shift in thinking, at least in the Lutheran Church I was a part of, and I suspect in many mainline churches, downplaying the negative “giving up” part and instead encouraging people to do something good or positive for others.  Fast forward to 2011 and my church – cultivating the love, truth, and compassion of Jesus Christ, has challenged everyone within our church community to journey together during the Lenten season for a 40-day fast.  Since you’ve all been such good sports walking through the 21 days of The Daniel Fast and the “Give God 5 AM for 30 Days” adventure with me, I want to invite you to come along – not only to follow my journey, but to be a part of it, to join me.  Let me encourage you with the details.

In terms of background for those unfamiliar with practicing any Lenten observance, Lent is a 40-day period of fasting before Easter.  It is a time when the Church journeys with Christ through his forty day fast in the wilderness that prepared him for his ministry and death.  The forty days of Lent start on Ash Wednesday, March 9th this year, and end on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.  Here’s the good news … each Sunday during Lent is a break in the fast, to remind us that the somberness of Lent that culminates in Good Friday, leads to a joyous celebration of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Most often when we fast, we give up something in order to get something in return from God.  During the 21 days of The Daniel Fast, for instance, I gave up all meat and dairy products, sugar, preservatives, caffeine (I came up a little short on this one), leavened breads or crackers, alcohol, … removing all the distractions of food, for the purpose of hearing from God on specific things I was praying about and to deepen my relationship with Him.  The point of this fast is a little different – it is to give something up in order to give back … give back to our local communities, our families, our friends, and our church community.  This is not only about personal spiritual growth – it is about empowering us through the Holy Spirit to set up God’s kingdom in our midst.  It is about the possibility of transforming relationships with your family, your neighbors, your community, your church, and especially those in need.

So what does that look like?  Basically, whatever you take away from yourself, you want to find a way to give to someone else.  If you give up certain foods or cut your weekly grocery budget, then bless someone on a fixed income with a care package of food, or donate food to a local food bank or soup kitchen.  If you give up “screen time” at home – TV, internet, Facebook, Email, etc. don’t fill your time with other activities like catching up on that stack of magazines or books to read … use the time to connect with your family.  Maybe your sacrifice is to give up reading the morning newspaper – no, don’t go back to bed to fill the time … take a walk over and deliver your paper to a neighbor who doesn’t get one.  Or ask the neighbor to share a morning walk with you.  If you’re looking forward to settling down on the couch to watch March Madness basketball games, make a deal with yourself to give up watching any games unless you have a group of friends over to watch with you … or better yet, a couple of neighbors you don’t know very well – what a great chance to get to know them.  If you’re a workaholic that goes in early and stays late at the office, promise yourself during Lent that you’ll cut your hours to a regular 9 to 5 business day … and then use your early morning time to pray, spend time in the Word, and at the other end of the day, surprise one of your kids at a sports practice or game that you never get to because you’re too busy, go home and cook dinner for the family or invite a co-worker who’s struggling to stop after work for coffee and conversation.  Disconnect the Nintendo Wii sports and actually play tennis, go bowling, workout with the family – in real fresh air, or play a board game with your kids – every night.  Trust me – they will never forget it!  Can you turn the heat down a few notches, turn off the space heater that warms the bathroom floor, forget about using the electric mattress pad to warm your bed before getting in, and find your way in the dark without that lamp on the timer?  Consider trying it, and give the money you save on utilities to a community service organization that helps people who can’t pay their gas and electric bills.  Go through the clothes in your closet – yes, spring is coming soon! – and instead of stuffing the floppy bag into the chute of one of those clothing donation bins, decide that you will seek out and personally hand each piece of clothing to someone who needs it.

The real question we all want to be asking as we enter into this season of Lent is How can fasting from _________ deepen my connection with others or God?

If you are one of my regular blog readers, I suspect you are already trying to live a godly life – I know I am, but it’s sometimes hard, isn’t it, when we lead such busy lives?  The Israelites thought they were living a pious life – going to Temple every day, following God’s laws, even fasting, as Isaiah tells us in the opening verses of Chapter 58.  And they couldn’t understand why Isaiah wasn’t impressed with them, why he didn’t notice or acknowledge their fasting. Here in Isaiah 58:3-5 from The Message is his response:

3-5“Well, here’s why:”The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
a fast day that I, God, would like?

So if Isaiah is speaking for God, what kind of fast is God after?  What would He like?  Let’s continue reading at verse 6 –

6-9“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

9-12“If you get rid of unfair practices,
quit blaming victims,
quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.

Where is there injustice, exploitation, hunger, material need, loneliness in your community, your family, your church, that demands your presence and attention?  Are you willing to become known as a Christ-follower empowered to restore, rebuild, renovate, and make the community livable again? As you think about what you can sacrifice and consequently give, ask God to lead you in the discovery process.  And then, I pray, you will listen to the sound of His voice.