Several years ago, I descended into a prolonged period of depression. “Descending” is exactly what it felt like – sliding down a steep, increasingly narrow and seemingly bottomless hole.
Those years were my “forty days” in the wilderness when everything that had been certain in my life was shaken. My mega-Lenten season when meaning and mission as I had known it disappeared. The difference between before and after could not have surprised me more. It was as though I had gone through a cosmic wormhole, only to come out on the other side in an utterly strange and new world.
Gradually over time, some of the old familiar resurfaced and the new became familiar enough that I did not remain disoriented. But there would be, as is inevitably true in life, no going back to what had been.
Even my faith. Though still anchored in the core person and message of Jesus Christ, my faith experienced a shaking up and a redirecting – a process at once traumatizing and rejuvenating.
Of the many passages of scripture that spoke to me in this wilderness season, one in particular was from the Apostle Paul. Throughout his life and ministry, he went through several periods of struggle and relational disruption. In each defining moment, he clung to certain essentials of his faith, one of which was to continue to remember the poor.[i]Keep to the basics.
And so it was that I too clung to the understanding that, when all else is shaken, my faith in Jesus continues to call me to remember those who are marginalized economically, socially, and spiritually. This mission remains what I have always devoted my life to. Stay with the basics.
I am by nature a non-ceremonial type. Give me informality, spontaneity, variety in the corporate worship experience. I am a Pentecostal, one who “flows with the Spirit,” listingwherever He leads.
At the same time, I do value liturgical seasons and the stabilizing strength that ritual brings to faith. We didn’t celebrate Lent in the faith community I grew up in, but we did observe an ecumenical moment around the Holy Week. My free-spirited faith disposition somehow felt very much at home in those scripted daily noon hour gatherings, three-hour Good Friday services, and Easter sunrise celebrations.
Fasting was another ritual we practiced both in that Holy Week season and at other times as well. With fasting, I have long had a love-hate relationship. As it should be. The very idea of fasting is that we give up that which we are not inclined to give up. If I enjoy giving up something – coffee, for example – then I am really not giving it up. I am simply finding an excuse not to have to have it. Drinking coffee, as you might have guessed, has never been my thing.
Now, hot chocolate or an Arnold Palmer (ice tea, lemonade mix)? Giving them up would be fasting for me. Not quite the same as going without food altogether for 40 days, but still something I’d have to work through. Then again, is that what Lent is all about, parting with hot chocolate for six weeks?
Yet in spite of my very natural struggle with fasting, I have come to recognize the spiritual benefit of the traditional Lenten practice of going without something for a season. As with anything, it can be done either with a sense of gravitas or in sheer silliness. Much eternally is to be gained by taking the season seriously. And neither Lent nor biblical fasting were meant to be trivialized.
Even so, my free spirit jostles with the discipline of the ritualist and asks, What does it really mean to fast? In what has become my personal, annual response in this pre-Easter season, I dig into my faith tradition and rediscover the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen?”
That Sage of old speaks to a people who assume they are righteous. They are intent on seeking after God and humbling themselves. In all this they are sincere.
But they are sincerely limited in their understanding of what God expects. Is it not enough to cry out to God, to seek to know God, to humble oneself before God? Apparently not.
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please,” cries Isaiah. You exploit your workers. Your fasting ends in fighting and arguing and coming to blows. And that is only for starters.
Is fasting merely for calling out to God and humbling yourselves? I can’t believe Isaiah is saying that! What is wrong with calling out to God and humbling yourself?
If you really want to fast, Isaiah responds, then set people free from injustices and whatever is oppressing them. Share your food with those who are hungry and provide shelter for those without. Clothe the naked. And, while you are at it, don’t ignore people in your own household who are in need.
Isaiah presses on. Stop pointing fingers at others. Stop with the malicious posting on Facebook and talking bad about your neighbors or people in other churches or the other political party. Take a true Sabbath rest, shunning the modern 24/7 approach to life. Stop saying things that haven’t been vetted by God first before being uttered. At least that is my take on “idle words”.
What stirs me about this passage in Isaiah 58 is that the outcome of all this kind of fasting is joy and celebration, restoration and healing – and a whole new sense of mission. Just like experiencing Easter after Lent. Which is exactly what we would expect should happen when we walk through a long season of self-denial, prayer and repentance and then encounter the resurrection. We get to party!
Not quite. At least not party in the sense that we think of Mardi Gras, that indulgent holiday that has grown up on the front end of Lent. No, the joy and celebration that comes with Easter is entirely different. Sure there is dancing and shouting – I am Pentecostal after all – and why would we do any less with the amazing discovery that our crucified Lord is risen!
However, the party that Easter and, even more so, Pentecost invite us to is a celebration that fulfills the Isaiah vision of fasting. The Isaiah fast leads us to take on the coveted roles of Repairers of Broken Walls and Restorers of Streets with Dwellings. In other words, we who have learned to walk through times of desolation until we come out at the empty tomb discover that we can restore and repair others, whole communities even, lying in desolation.
As we walk through Lent, we follow in the steps of what we have come to call the “passion” of Christ, spiraling down and down like a depressing black hole until we arrive at “Good” Friday where all hope is lost. The one we adore is now dead and buried in the grave.
There is a very odd teaching in the New Testament and the Apostles’ Creed about Jesus descending into hell to preach to those imprisoned in that dismal place. Chronologically it occurs between his death on the cross and his resurrection. He, who knew no sin, goes through hell to reach those who are on the margins of God’s grace and people’s favor.
Then – boom! – Easter morning dawns and we encounter the amazing news that He is risen! Not just risen to move on and out of our lives, but risen so that no one need be marginalized, lost or without hope again.
Such is the power of incarnation – that God enters our world to identify with us in our darkest hour, until the resurrection breaks through our darkness. So, too, we who have experienced both darkness and resurrection are able to enter into the darkness of others, to bring resurrection power to all we encounter. God’s incarnation leads us to our own. Herein is the meaning of Pentecost, coming fifty days after Easter. That God calls us who are being set free to go forth and free others.
My thoughts here are not about trying to find meaning in my own or anyone else’s wilderness experience. Much tragedy and pain is beyond explanation in this life. But mission can – and will – arise out of the ashes of suffering.
Lent and fasting remind us of the mission-creating value of those wilderness experiences. Loss, whether voluntary or forced, can be a great mentor – if we let it.