True and False Fasting

My inspiration for this Lent’s spiritual practice came from Twitter. There, among the streams of the sublime and the ridiculous, came this challenge from Lynne Hybels:

“Years ago a friend said that if I read Isaiah 58 for 30 days in a row, it would turn my life upside-down. I did. She was right. Try it.”

This seemed particularly appropriate for Lent, a time devoted to self-examination, penitence and fasting. Lenten fasting isn’t only about fasting from food, although that can be an important discipline. Fasting can be any intentional abstinence — from television, from gossiping, from social media. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says, “Fasting reveals what controls us.” I have certainly found this to be true. It is not until you try to do without something that you realize the hold it has on you and what deeper needs it masks. I never thought of myself as particularly tethered to my phone until I decided to abstain from electronic communication on the Sabbath. Talk about Fear of Missing Out!

But fasting isn’t only about what we give up; it is about what we can gain. Throughout Scripture, fasting is a way to draw near to God, to hear his voice, to know his will. Isaiah 58 will be my perfect companion this Lent. It challenges me to see the kind of fasting God honors. It shows me the true path to God’s blessing. It brings me to the headwaters of holiness.

I’m going to read Isaiah 58 every day this Lent and see where it leads me. Will you join me?

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Uphill, Both Ways

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A year ago, I hadn’t even heard of this little village. And now, I’m staring into the indifferent eyes of a cow, so exhausted (and perhaps a little delirious) that I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just sit down and stay here forever. I could learn how to make delicious cheese from my new friend’s milk, although by the look she’s giving me, we clearly need to know each other better before that will happen. I could live a simple life that wouldn’t require me to walk one more step up and down these never-ending hills. Perhaps I could open up an inn to welcome the thousands of people, like me, who trek past these cow pastures in the beautiful green hills of Galicia in Spain, looking for God.

I am a pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an ancient path that has been trod by everyone from 12th century monks to social media millenials. For at least a thousand years, people have walked here, doing penance, seeking healing, hoping that every step will lead them to an encounter with the divine.

I am an unlikely pilgrim on this 80-mile trek. I am not a “Let’s go hiking!” kind of gal. I exercise juuuust enough to keep heart disease and general decrepitude at bay. My idea of a day in nature involves a cool drink, a good book and a nap in the shade. But after months of training, here I am, picking my way carefully up and down rocky slopes, dodging cow patties, skidding through slimy mudslides and peeing in the woods. Why?

I am here precisely because it is difficult, uncomfortable and simply something I would never do. I am here in the spirit of Romans 12:1:

“…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

I serve God with my gifts and talents, but rarely in a sacrificial way. I give out of my abundance — of skill, of resources, of time — but always within my very comfortable comfort zone. I had always understood that verse from Romans to mean my whole life should be presented as a sacrifice. But I had come to wonder: what would it look like if I presented my actual body, the body that hates unnecessary exertion, inconvenience and discomfort, as a sacrifice to the God I claimed to love?

I had a romantic notion of what My Camino would would be like. (People talk about El Camino in highly personal terms, as if each one is different). I would write and pray and take beautiful photographs. I would meet other pilgrims and have surprising and deeply satisfying encounters with God. At the end of each day and at the end of the week, I would feel a noble exhaustion, a satisfied sense of sacrifice. “See,” I would say to God, “Look what I have done for you.”

This is not exactly what happened. As I found myself struggling with pain and exhaustion, I learned a few things along The Way:
1.  It really is possible to go uphill both ways.

When I set out, I thought I was prepared, both physically and spiritually, for the challenge. I thought I had within me all that was necessary to offer this sacrifice. But the uphills aggravated an old injury, which made the downhills painful and slow. I knew this was going to be difficult, but suddenly, I feared it would be impossible.

2. Sacrifice is impossible without grace.
I thought this was something I was offering to God out of my own strength and will. But my strength failed and my will only wanted to sit down by that cow pasture and become part of the scenery. It turns out I couldn’t offer this gift to God without first receiving His gift of grace to me. I was so eager to say to God, “Look what I have done for you,” that I had forgotten that He was the one who making every step possible.

3. The smallest moment of joy will sustain you.

One day, my husband and I were walking when we heard singing in the distance. As it grew nearer, we recognized the familiar words from a hymn: “Here I am Lord, is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night …” As the singers approached, we joined in, making a hauntingly beautiful sound in a cool forest glade.

There were other moments like that, when I thought I was done for, when song, or prayer, or just seeing a familiar face at the next village’s watering hole lifted me out of myself. I was refreshed, refueled, renewed.

4. Sacrifice is the means for revelation

In his classic Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster puts this way:

“By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done.”

I thought this pilgrimage was all about what I wanted to offer to God. But it turns out, He had something in mind, too. Like a sauna that sweats out the impurities in your body, sacrifice can extract spiritual toxins from your soul. In my next post, I’ll explore just what God was up to on My Camino.

 

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To Die For

In the courtyard of Caiaphas' house, Jerusalem

In the courtyard of Caiaphas’ house, Jerusalem

Have you ever watched someone you love when you think they’re not looking and think, “Yes, if it would mean your happiness, if it would save your life, I’d die for you.” 

Maybe you have believed so strongly in the righteousness of a cause that you were willing to risk your very life for it. Some powerful images come to mind: the lone protester defying tanks in Tianamen Square, civil rights marchers facing snarling dogs in Selma, or a line of martyrs kneeling on a beach, seconds before they are beheaded for their faith. I am in awe of such people.

Popular culture is full of epic love stories and tales of heroism that demonstrate love and commitment so strong that it would pay any price to protect and ensure justice for the innocent.  These stories give us goosebumps and allow us to believe in the goodness of humanity.  They are beautiful stories, but they are not the story of Good Friday.

Like all of Jesus’ life, the story of Good Friday turns a familiar narrative upside down:

in this story, the Hero doesn’t sacrifice himself to save the innocent; he dies to save the villains.  Think Batman dying to save The Joker and you’ve got some idea of what happened on Calvary.  

This is how Paul’s Letter to the Romans puts it: 


We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him. (The Message)

 

We can understand dying for someone worth dying for. But what about the person who has hurt you deeply?  Would you give up everything so that person could live a life of freedom and peace?   What about the parade of evildoers that come into view every day:  terrorists who murder and rape, child abusers, financial criminals, politicians who make the veins in your neck pop and bile fill your mouth. Any volunteers to die in their place? Anyone?  

Maybe when I’ve mastered Jesus’ command to bless those who harm me, I can tackle something more challenging.  But for now, my answer is:  I would die for my husband. I would not die for Donald Trump.  But Jesus would and Jesus did.

And it wasn’t just for some abstract multitude of Sinners. What Jesus did was also very specific, very personal, and beyond any human calculus of good or bad, worthy or unworthy. Before He died for All of Humanity, he willingly died for one human: Peter, his weak and cowardly best friend.  The intimacy of his sacrifice is often lost in the Grand Story of the Passion. 

It all played out in a courtyard, where a cold wind blew and a rooster crowed.

There Peter stood by a makeshift fire that couldn’t warm the spiritual shiver slicing through him. Just a few hours before, he proclaimed with great bravado, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!”  Those words mocked him now; with each denial, he grew colder and more ashamed. The rooster crowed, and his despair was complete. Bad enough he had failed so miserably, but His Lord knew he would and knew he did.

He knew he did because Jesus was near, just beyond that courtyard in a dark, damp pit, utterly alone. Jesus heard the rooster crow and He knew it happened exactly as He said it would.  Peter — His comrade-in-arms, who promised to defend him to the end — had failed him miserably. His friend has broken his heart. And still, He allows himself to be tortured and humiliated and mocked, not only for the sake of all sinners past present and future, but also for this sinner, for this one, weak, flawed man who had abandoned Him.  

Christians often talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  If we’re anything like Peter, that means there are times we’ll boast about our faith and our fidelity and in the next breath, lie to save our own skins.  It means that, for all our confidence in our own goodness, we will falter and break His heart.  For us, in our humanity, this would seem to be a deal breaker.  But Jesus knows that our human frailty, while painful to Him, is exactly why He had to step into the breach.  

This Good Friday, let us not be satisfied to say that Jesus’ sacrifice was grand, sweeping and for the salvation of all.  Let us stand in the courtyard with Peter, shocked at the pain we have visited on our Lord.  Let us crouch in the pit with Jesus, the Hero of this upside-down story, whose sacrifice for the unworthy was and is intensely personal, emotionally costly and for the salvation of one.  

And let us remember that Peter’s story didn’t end in that courtyard and neither does ours. God will do for us what he did for Peter:  Forgive us.  Give us resurrection life, fueled by the Holy Spirit.  Give us grace to heal, reconcile, love, maybe even to sacrifice ourselves for those we consider “unworthy.”  

More from Paul’s Leltter to the Romans:

“We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”

Not cowering in that courtyard — but standing tall and shouting our praise in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory.

 

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True Love is a Folded Newspaper

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If you dare to open a newspaper, watch TV or venture into a store in the frenzied run up to Valentine’s Day, you’ve probably run the gift gauntlet between the sublime (anything with diamonds) to the ridiculous (silly silk boxer shorts printed with large red hearts). Perhaps you’ve had the overwhelming feeling of shame that comes from believing that if you don’t get or give the perfect gift, or arrange The Bachelor’s idea of a romantic dinner, you have failed at this love thing.

To hear the world tell it, Valentine’s Day is the Ultimate Love Litmus Test,

whether you’re in the early stages of love or have been together so long your wedding video is on VHS. The size, cost, or intimacy of the gift is supposed to tell you something about the relationship. Did he give you jewelry? He’s a keeper. A toaster? Generally, not a good sign, although I once got a cordless drill for my birthday and I was thrilled. Every gift, every card, every part of The Valentine’s Day Experience is scrutinized for clues and hidden meaning about the relationship. That’s a lot of pressure on something so delicate as love.

Valentine’s Day can be particularly tricky if you’re married to someone who chafes at being told to be romantic on command by Hallmark and 1-800-Flowers. My husband is, by nature, a generous and caring person; he just doesn’t like having that generosity and care dictated and scheduled by someone else. When the whole world has gone Valentine-mad, it can be easy to forget the flowers he brings me for no reason or the fact that the cat that he wasn’t thrilled about adopting is nevertheless sitting in my lap. No one ever asks me about those things. Instead, people want to know, “What did he get you for Valentine’s Day?” What I want to say is, “Let me tell you about the time he handed me a folded newspaper.”

Like most couples, we have different ideas about how things should be done. For instance, how to read the newspaper. We get three papers a day, and I read them in the same order every day. First the local paper. Then the New York Times. Then the Wall Street Journal over lunch. With each paper, I begin with Page 1 and read in the order in which the editors put it together. Being a writer, and a respecter of authority, I figure that a professional put the paper together in this particular way for a reason, and that’s good enough for me. In other words, I read the paper the right way.

Now — how shall I say this delicately? — my husband is a newspaper anarchist. He’ll read sections out of order. Within sections, he’ll pull pages out of sync. He’ll even mix and match from one paper to another. You can imagine what I think of this.

Then one day, this happened: We were riding on a crowded train together and found seats far apart from each other. I took one paper, he another to read on the ride into the city. When we got off the train, we exchanged papers. The paper he handed me was in pristine condition: perfectly folded, sections in order, not a page out of place. There was only one explanation.

“Why didn’t you read your paper?” I asked.
“Oh, I read it.”
“But it’s in perfect order!”
“I knew you were going to read it next and I know how you like it.”

I just about cried, right there on Track 24 of Grand Central Station. He folded the paper for me, even though my rigidity is as annoying to him as his anarchism is to me. It was a trivial thing — a tender, loving, selfless, trivial thing. That day, hundreds of commuters brushed past us on that platform, not knowing that the Ultimate Love Litmus Test was unfolding right before them.

I will spend this Valentine’s Day with a man who folds the paper for me.

Don’t get me wrong. I like getting jewelry. I love roses (just not red). I even like flowery cards and candlelit dinners. And I did love that cordless drill. He gives me all these things, maybe not on proscribed days, but according to his own Romance Calendar. But as much as I love those things, I don’t want my head to be turned by them. I want to hold fast to the words of St. Paul, who couldn’t have had newspapers in mind when he wrote this, but who nevertheless lays down the challenge of loving God’s way:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

This kind of love is more costly than anything Tiffany’s has to offer. It can be elusive and sometimes downright impossible. It asks us to think less of ourselves and more of the other, and not just when we’re feeling all lovey and besotted with them. Especially when we’re not feeling lovey and besotted with them. When, by the grace of God, we manage to be patient and kind, when we do not insist on our own way (even though we’re clearly right!), when we bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things— well, then we get a glimpse of True Love. Not Hallmark love. Not Hollywood Rom-Com love. Not even Top 40 Romantic Ballad love.

True. Love.

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