PRAYER, FASTING, and advocacy are all spiritual disciplines—ones that we need right now. Several faith leaders came together this spring to call our brothers and sisters in our diverse faith communities to tie these three spiritual disciplines together “for such a time as this.”
What kind of time is this? We are living in a time when vulnerable people in the United States and around the world are facing tremendous threats from this administration and this Congress—threats that will be on vivid display in the budget debates that will consume Congress after Labor Day:
Every day now, politicians and the pundits debate what obstruction of justice technically means, and ask how resilient our political institutions are to a presidency that almost daily goes beyond “unprecedented.” But while we all wait for the next crisis to hit and anticipate the new media cycle about it, we dare not miss what people are faith are always supposed to be most concentrated on — the poor and the vulnerable who are facing unprecedented threats from funding and policy decisions that lie just ahead.
I like to call Ramadan a personal spiritual boot camp. One not only fasts but also prays more, is more careful of one’s interactions with others, tries to exhibit more patience and love. The hunger and thirst — even the overall sense of exhaustion one feels by the end of each day — is a fuel that pushes a Muslim to do better, to fight the internal impulses towards negativity and sin, and to become a better person. Is that possible without fasting? Maybe. But with fasting it is definitely probable. By the end of the 30 days of Ramadan, one feels invigorated, nearer to God, and somehow optimistic.
Lent is a season of preparation. But the process of preparing for Easter does not need to be all negative commitments and focused on the things we don’t do.
One opportunity for developing new positive practices during Lent involves learning to see. The Gospels recount at least three different instances after the resurrection in which followers of Jesus were not able to recognize or “see” him: Mary at the tomb mistaking Jesus for the gardener, the road to Emmaus, and the delayed reaction when Jesus gave great fishing advice.
The truth of Easter is not always readily apparent. It requires the ability to see clearly. This means rubbing our eyes, clearing them of gunk, and focusing our vision.
Having recently shifted from spending most of my day in an office to spending almost all of it outside, I’ve been ruminating on what it might mean to practice seeing the non-human or natural world more clearly. Here are my initial reflections:
Have you ever been moved by a sunset? A star-filled canopy of the night sky? A canyon-filled horizon? A towering wooded cathedral?
What was the feeling? Gratitude for the beauty? Humility in the midst of grandeur? Inspired to greatness while experiencing greatness? Joy in celebration of it all?
At the heart of the Lenten season is an interesting paradox.
Lent is not observed in the making of Lenten commitments, but you can’t actually observe Lent without making a commitment.
Elsewhere at Sojourners, Jarrod McKenna reminds us that Lent is not ultimately about “giving up stuff” but about “the preparation of our hearts for what God has done in Christ.” Adam Ericksen encourages us that, “The worst thing we can do during Lent is to be tempted to earn God’s favor through self-denial.”
To both these points and posts I say, amen.
But as a lifelong Protestant who recently returned from spending time with Benedictine monks and nuns in New Mexico, I’ve come back with some evolving perspectives on fasting and other ascetic practices from the Catholic tradition. This isn’t in contradiction to either of these authors’ perspectives but more of a summation of my recent convictions as someone who has tended to skip the Lenten fasts altogether.
Here is what has struck me. I do not believe most Western Christians today are so focused on giving up their creature comforts for Lent that they are in danger of making their faith dependent upon physical fasting. Maybe I’m generalizing too much. So I’ll make this statement more personal:
My greatest struggle has not been that I have been so committed to “giving up stuff” for Lent that I have forgotten that God’s grace is unconditional. Rather, I have tended to avoid the discomfort of giving up my daily habits and physical dependencies by using a vague sense of “inner attitudes” of preparation as an excuse. As a result, I believe I’ve been missing some real opportunities to be receptive to God’s grace.
There are few reasons I believe this to be so important.
It snuck up this year, as though I’d almost forgotten about it until I saw friends in another time zone posting Mardi Gras pictures. Mardi Gras is this week? I thought. That means Lent begins this week?! Maybe it’s because I don’t go to church right now, or because I’m not in a spiritual community like I was before I moved cities. But for whatever reason, it came fast and unexpected, and something inside won’t let me pass it up. As much as I disagree with some of the traditional teachings about Easter and various interpretations of why Jesus was crucified, I have always had a penchant for Lent.
Lent is a time that draws out the heart’s ability to draw nigh to your Creator. Of drawing closer to God, to others, to the wide open world around us. A time for spiritual reflection and inner examination. A time to pause. A time for simplicity. A 40-day season containing strong, beautiful symbolism. Death from life. Life from death. The two are inseparable. Hope is reborn, recycled out of crushed pain and heartache. The timing of this season enhances the meaning all the more to me, as we begin Lent in the waning winter, in which it is still snowing as I write this. But we end Lent well into spring.
If my name had a synonym, that'd be it. At least if we're going by the most-commonly-used word to describe me by both friends and strangers, Asians and non-Asians.
At five-one-and-three-quarters and just a little over 100 pounds, I will be the first to agree: I am small. No matter how much I eat or how little I exercise, I have still been able to get away with jeans and form-fitting dresses from high school. It's great — but the problem is, it makes it all the easier to hide my struggles with food.
A few weeks ago, some of my fellow interns and I decided to celebrate "Fries"-day (Friday) with an Amazon Local deal for Z-Burger. $22 worth of food for just $11. It was an intern's dream come true. It was also two days after Ash Wednesday.
After finishing my last fry, I texted a friend about how greasy my insides felt but how good the splurge was. He shared what he'd had for lunch, and despite my bursting stomach, I responded with "Ooh that sounds so yummy." That's when I realized I had a problem.
Building on the momentum from last year’s fast on the National Mall, the #Fast4Families campaign has entered into its next phase: a cross-country bus tour. Keeping with the theme “Act; Fast; and Pray until just immigration reform is achieved,” #Fast4 Families kicked off its national bus tour on Jan. 27 from California, where hundreds gathered in support.
The tour across America includes two buses heading through approximately 155 cities in more than 75 congressional districts on northern and southern routes. At each of these 100+ stops, fasters will engage with pro-reform advocates, including faith leaders, who are keenly aware of the moral crisis caused by our broken immigration system.
Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. I grew up in a small evangelical church that only paid attention to the Christian calendar on Christmas and Easter. But over many years now, I have learned to celebrate the richness of all the Christian seasons from my friends in more liturgical traditions and from marrying a Church of England priest!
Lent offers us the much-needed spiritual preparation for Easter. Ash Wednesday is the place to begin; and that often includes fasting — in different ways and traditions. At Sojourners, we usually have a big staff pancake breakfast on Shrove Tuesday morning, the day before Ash Wednesday. But today, many of us are fasting.
Ash Wednesday doesn’t begin a hunger strike, but rather a season of self-examination, spiritual reflection, repentance, sacrifice, and focused prayer. Lent is a time to examine our hearts and lives, to acknowledge our sins, to look for the ways we are not choosing the gospel or welcoming those whom Jesus calls us to.
I completed my fast. I fasted for seven days as a participant in the Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform & Citizenship. I fasted because Jesus cared about the "least of these" in his society, and as a follower of Jesus, I'm called to do the same. More specifically, I undertook this fast to raise awareness of these particular "least of these" in our society.
I was quite certain that some within my community of influence would disagree with me on this particular spiritual practice, whether theologically, politically, or socially. The pushback I did receive turned out to be more theological than anything. Perhaps that is just because of the circles I am in, but it went something like this, “I’m all for fasting as a personal spiritual thing, but associating it with a political cause is just wrong. Jesus came to save us from our sins and keep us individually out of hell.” The assumption is that Christianity has nothing to do with Public Square.
I'm still processing the political and governmental, not to mention partisan, implications of immigration reform. I'm certainly not under the impression that one simple bill at a federal level will "fix" immigration any more than the Civil Rights Act of 1968 fixed discrimination. Which of course is not to say that either is unimportant.
Do you believe in the spiritual realm? I mean really believe; not in your head — in your disciplines?
Do you believe that spiritual power can alter, transform, or even redeem social, institutional, structural and even legislative power?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I’m not sure I really believed … until recently.
On Sunday mornings, in the midst of our safe sanctuaries, our five-song worship sets, our 15-minute sermonettes and our one-hour services that can be timed with an egg timer, how does our worship and our practice offer witness to the reality of the spiritual realm? How do our disciplines engage the inner world beyond the good feeling we get from songs that comfort us? Comforting songs are valuable in our worship. In fact, God uses those songs to remind us of the ways the Holy Spirit interacts directly with us, knows us, and knows our most intimate needs. But how does our worship — how do our congregations’ spiritual disciplines strengthen our understanding and engagement with the powers, the principalities, and the world beyond our own homes and sanctuaries?
“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
In his book titled Fasting, Scot McKnight writes that a grievous sacred moment is what prompts us to fast and that moment is often caused by severe pain, suffering, or sorrow, which often includes the oppression of the innocent. This sorrow prompts us to focused prayer and fasting.
I entered a sun-up-to-sundown, water-only fast as part of the National Call to #Fast4Families on Dec. 3.
I fasted because of a strong conviction concerning the broken and unjust realities of the American immigration system. For our generation, immigration reform is a biblical justice issue.
As the least productive Congress in history begins to wind down its first legislative session, immigration reform is coming to a boil.
It’s already been 160 days since the Senate passed its immigration bill and the House already has 191 co-sponsors on its bipartisan bill. Still, House Republicans have failed to take the next step and have only voted on one immigration provision so far this year — Steve King’s (R-Iowa) amendment to defund DACA and deport DREAMers.
And with King (most famous for saying young immigrants have “calves the size of cantaloupes” from lifting 75 pound bags of drugs across the border) at the helm for Republicans on immigration, it’s no wonder that they’re getting nowhere on immigration.
But the tragic irony of all of this is that King’s own constituents (myself included) overwhelmingly support immigration reform. Recent polling by The American Action Network, a conservative outside group, shows that 79 percent of voters in his district support the tenets in the Senate Gang of Eight bill. Despite that popularity, King and his shrinking list of allies in the House have kept Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) from addressing the moral crisis afflicting millions of workers, children, mothers, and fathers.
(Editors Note: On Nov. 12, faith, immigrant rights, and labor leaders launched the “Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship,” taking place on the National Mall. The following remarks are from Jim's speech given at the event.)
Despite the overwhelming public support — among all political stripes — to fix our broken immigration system, Washington's utter political dysfunction is blocking change.
It is time to pray and fast for a change that now feels like a "miracle." And that's what we now pray for. Pray against the racial fears and messages that are being used against immigration reform. Pray for courage and character on all sides — for Republicans who believe in an inclusive party and nation to stand up to Republicans who want an exclusive party and nation and for Democrats not to use this as a political issue for their self-interest. Pray for political leaders to do what few of them do well — to put other people's needs, especially poor and vulnerable people's needs, ahead of their own political agendas.
Pope Francis on Thursday told world leaders gathered in Russia for the G-20 summit that a military intervention in Syria would be “futile,” urging them to focus instead on dialogue and reconciliation to bring peace to the war-torn country.
The Argentine pontiff’s first major foray onto the global stage comes as the U.S. Congress prepares to vote on a military strike against Syria in response to a reported chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21.
For Francis, just six months on the job, the Syria question will test his ability to summon the power of his global bully pulpit and could play a major role in shaping the global image of a man who’s drawn more attention for his down-to-earth pastoral appeal.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to lose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” wrote the ancient prophet Isaiah (58:6). As Christians around the world enter the season of Lent, the challenge of the prophets is to not enter into empty rituals, but to recommit ourselves to fearless acts of justice.
This Lent Christians are standing in solidarity with Syrians by joining a rolling fast launched by Pax Christi International. The acute suffering of civilian communities in Syria has been made immeasurably worse by a shortage of bread, Syrian’s staple food, caused in part by the deliberate bombing of bakeries.
Open to anyone concerned about the anguish of local communities caught in Syria’s civil war, the campaign, called “Bread is Life – Fast for a Just Peace in Syria,” is a direct response to the fact that many Syrians feel abandoned by the rest of the world.
Amy Lester has followed Jesus for decades, but her keen appreciation for his sacrifice on the cross came only recently when she started eating like the prophet Daniel.
During Lent, which starts Feb. 13, the 40-year-old mother of two keeps a type of Daniel Fast, which involves eating only food from seeds (vegetables, fruits, unleavened grains), drinking only water and practicing daily devotions.
A similar regimen kept Daniel and his friends free from corruption in King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian court, according to the Bible. Now the Old Testament example guides growing numbers of Christians in the 40-day period of preparation for Easter.
“We set apart a sacrifice in Lent in order to identify, even the smallest (bit), with what Jesus sacrificed for us,” said Lester, who attends University Carillon United Methodist Church in Oviedo, Fla. “He died for me. The least I can do is to sacrifice the foods that are comforting to me.”
It was the summer of 1994 and about 10 friends and I sat huddled around Bibles in my friend’s living room. It was a “scripture party.” The lights were dim and the air was full of anticipation and mystery. We did not know what God might reveal as we opened the book of Revelation and read it out loud, in community, in one night.
This bears resemblance to the way the early church would have read the scripture. They were an oral culture, not a written one. The Hebrew Bible was written on scrolls that were read aloud to congregations. Most of the New Testament was written as letters to the worshiping bodies of whole cities (i.e. the saints in Ephesus, the church in Philippi, the body in Corinth, etc.). When received, the letters would be read out loud to the whole church community and received as God’s instruction revealed through the apostles for the edification of their communities.
Imagine being one of the very first followers of the Jesus “Way” (Acts 9:2).
Imagine being a persecuted religious group. You have to use code — the sign of the ichthys — to identify yourself to other believers for fear of religious persecution. Only when you are gathered together in secret can you speak openly about your faith. Only then can you be fully known and appreciated for the whole image of God that lives inside of you.
Imagine huddling in a secret meeting place and reading the Apostle John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ for your nascent faith community in Ephesus or Smyrna, or Pergamum, or Thyatira, or Sardis, or Philadelphia, or Laodicea (Revelation 2-3). Imagine living in Ephesus and reading Paul’s prayer for your church to understand its hope and inheritance (Ephesians 1:17-2:22).
And imagine being rich in the early church and hearing James’ letter warning: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your field, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
Imagine hearing it all for the first time. It all feels so real. The call to holiness feels so urgent because God feels so present.
I’m on day 14 of my Ramadan fast — almost the halfway point. My schedule has been so scattershot with travel that I haven’t been able to make it to a mosque yet. Nonetheless, lightheadedness brought on by lack of water and sleep has become my new normal.
I asked Daisy Khan, Imam Feisal’s wife and the Executive Director of the American Society of Muslim Advancement: “What about sleep? How do people do it?” She explained, during Ramadan we live like angels. Angels don’t need sleep. They don’t need food or water.
“But how do they do it, physically?” I pressed.
“Spiritual energy,” Daisy said.