What is Lent?
First off, I think evangelicals have learned a little bit to not overreact against the more ‘traditional’ or ‘liturgical’ church context (though I would argue we all have our traditions and liturgies). And so there is a healthy respect for the church traditions that have been handed down to us through the centuries. One of them is the season of Lent – a time to prayerfully and even sacrificially reflect upon the work of Christ, specifically his death moving into his resurrection. During this time as well, many appreciate fasting of all different types, if not also taking up other spiritual disciplines.
But that is another ‘bad’ word, right? Disciplines. Sounds harsh. Sounds legalistic. Sounds so religious.
It can be, just as tradition and liturgy can be. But it does not have to be as we maintain the proper focus of heart turned to know our God. In all its various forms, spiritual disciplines can be grace-effected activities.
Our church, Cornerstone, has decided to participate in Lent as a whole church. Thus, from 22 February to 7 April, we will be encouraging our people to fast in varying ways as we seek God together, and then we will end it all with a celebration on Easter Sunday, a breaking-of-fast (breakfast).
To prepare the church, I am going to give a teaching on Sunday around the area of fasting. In my own review of some things, I again picked up Richard Foster’s classic, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. In the book, the Quaker author looks briefly at the varying spiritual disciplines held by the church over the the past 2 millennia – meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, celebration. There could be others to mention, but that list of 12 is quite sufficient.
To kick off the chapter on fasting, I love these words that Foster quotes from John Wesley:
Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it.
Because of the former – super exaltation of the practice – we have tended to lean towards the latter – utter disregard. Not to mention that we also encounter a pleasure-oriented, fill-your-every-desire culture in the western world today. Hardly any room is made for such an important practice of the church.
For me, I recognise that certain spiritual disciplines come more ‘easily’ than others. Such things as study, submission, service and worship are a joy. Others, like fasting, meditation and solitude challenge my extroverted self and active mind.
Therefore, it was quite refreshing to renew myself around the disciple of fasting from the words of Richard Foster.
Some might argue that fasting is not really a new covenant expression of our faith. It was part of the old wineskin, if you will. I think it really hard to argue such, mainly because Jesus talked about it right in the midst of other things we are convinced that were to continue on following his resurrection and ascension to the Father – mainly giving and prayer (see Matthew 6). Of course, we don’t find a plethora of practical examples in the New Testament, but we do find some – i.e., Acts 13:1-3 and Acts 14:23.
Is fasting supposed to be law? Well, no and yes. No, if we mean it in some kind of modern understanding of religious law as legalistic dogma. But, yes, in the sense that law (or torah) simply means God’s instruction for his people. I am pretty certain we find good instruction across the whole tenor of Scripture with regards to the practice of fasting.
In all, I look forward to this time of seeking God in prayer and fasting as a church community. And our prayer focus will be around how we are to be affective salt and light in our community for Christ as both individuals and as a church body. During this time, maybe some will fast for one day. Maybe some will take up extended multiple-day fasts. And for others, like nursing mothers or those who need food to accompany their particular medication intake, might choose to fast from specific items like chocolate or alcoholic beverages.
I believe such is a great opportunity to draw into God first and foremost, and then see our own lives changed while God also attends to our prayer-focus of reaching people with the good news of Jesus Christ.