Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fasting as Body Training

“Fasting is a person’s whole-body, natural response to life’s sacred moments.” Our exploration together of the mysterious discipline of fasting has been unpacking this definition by Scot McKnight. Personally I have been struck by the truth that fasting is a whole-body act. In other words there are times when we feel out of sync – times when our “soul” desires one thing, but our body desires another. Our soul desires to have the sin of lust defeated. Our body longs to surrender to lust. All too often, the body wins. This is related to fasting in that fasting is not only a turning of the body toward the soul, but it is also a training of the body by the soul. The Apostle Paul says something similar in his first letter to the Corinthians.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 7.24-27, ESV, emphasis added).

Self-control, this last aspect of the fruit of the Spirit, is one that our culture does not value. Sadly, the church has followed the values of the culture. When was the last time you heard a sermon on self-control? Gluttony? Fasting? Moreover, notice some of the aspects of the fruit of the Flesh that the Apostle records in Galatians 5.19-21 – sexual immorality, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, envy, drunkenness and orgies. Each of these is in direct opposition to self-control. Aspects of the fruit of the flesh and the fruit of Spirit both involve bodily actions. Thus, the transforming work of the Spirit will involve the syncing of the body and the Spirit – the training of the body to keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5.25). 

God’s Word encourages us to engage in practices of faith (i.e. spiritual disciplines) that will enable us to live by the Spirit and to keep in step with him (Gal 5.25). It is within this context that we should understand all the spiritual disciplines and especially fasting. Because we desire to inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5.21), we must engage in practices that will open our souls and bodies to the transforming presence and power of the Spirit. Because the Apostle Paul did not want to be disqualified (1 Cor 9.27), he disciplined his body to keep in under control.

I have come to learn that fasting is a gift to God’s people to train the body to listen and obey what the Holy Spirit is saying to the soul. We are embodied persons.  Therefore, God desires his saving work of transformation to not only include the soul but also the body. The “Spiritual” life includes “bodily” actions. Have you ever considered fasting in this light?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Fasting as Body Turning: Part Two

In chapter 3 of his book, Fasting, Scot McKnight takes us on a simple journey through the ways the Bible describes the sacred discipline of fasting. Last week we explored how the Bible exhorts us to fast for corporate confession, namely, during events like Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, or seasons such as Lent or Good Friday. Now Scot describes the biblical example of fasting when God seems absent.

Let’s be honest, each of us has experienced times and even seasons during which God’s presence is nowhere to be found. “Most of us know the dryness of prayer or the low ceiling off which some of our prayers seem to bounce.” It’s during these times that Holy Scripture exhorts us to sensitively communicate with God through fasting.

In 1 Samuel 4, God’s Word records for us a time in which God’s presence was actually stolen from God’s people by their enemies, the Philistines. Specifically, the Ark of the Covenant, which represents God’s presence, was captured from God’s people by the enemies of God’s people. Eli, who had guided the Jews for forty years, heard of the Ark’s demise, fell over backward, broke his neck and died. His tragic death punctuates the severe trauma God’s people were enduring at the hand of the Philistines. This was a grievous moment for the Israelites and this grief created a dark momentum that Samuel responds to in chapter seven, with these words to the people.

“If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only. Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you” (1 Sam 7.3-5, ESV).
So the people gathered at Mizpah and fasted together as a way of responding to the horror of the departure of God’s presence, the tragedy of Eli’s death and to confess their sins to God.
When tragedy strikes us, when God’s presence seems to depart from us, when our life of prayer has stalled, the example God’s Word sets forth is to turn our bodies toward the direction our souls are feeling as a way of seeking the presence and victory of God. Although this must not motivate our fast (remember fasting is responsive), this way of seeking God’s presence and victory often ushers in the presence and victory of God (cf. 1 Sam 7.6-12).

Has God’s presence been stolen away from you by an enemy? Has tragedy made it difficult to enter into communion with God in ways you have known before? Has to busyness of life relegated the life of faith to near absence? I exhort you to read and meditate on 1 Samuel 4-7 and ask the Lord to guide your response to the grievous absence of God’s presence in your life.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fasting as Body Turning: Part One

According to Scot McKnight, “Fasting is a person’s whole-body, natural response to life’s sacred moments.” In Chapter three he unpacks what he means by “fasting as body turning.” In chapters one and two, Scot described a biblical view of self that unifies the body and soul. There is an undeniable link in the Bible between the material and immaterial. The Bible does not divide body and spirit, as we are often tempted. Instead, the Bible exhorts us to participate in practices that highlight and strengthen the unity between body and spirit. Hence, the sacred practice of fasting. 

The most frequent form of fasting in the Bible is intimately related to an organic unity between body and spirit. The Bible often describes fasting as turning of the body toward the spirit during sacred moments when God’s people are called to a corporate confession of sin. In the contemporary church “very serious moments” like confession of sin rarely lead to fasting. Scot asks us: “Is there a need for a place in our church calendar – not just universal but also local – for repentance as a group by fasting?” We seem very accustomed to calling people together in order to feast (potlucks, barbecues and banquets), but how anxious are we to come together in order to fast. The Bible seems to assume the importance of a corporate bringing together of the body and the spirit by calling God’s people to fast together. Once again the Bible confronts our American sense of self. We are familiar with individual repentance and keeping the idea of sin as something between God and me. God’s Word, on the other hand, calls the people of God to confess our sins together. For many of us, fasting is a private matter. Not so much – in the Bible.

The most common corporate confession of sin in the Bible that led to fasting was Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.

Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord (Leviticus 23.27, ESV).

The Hebrews were not allowed to do any work during Yom Kippur (23.28). This was such a serious requirement that anyone who did not comply with the requirement by working or not fasting was to be cut off from God’s people and would be destroyed (23.29-30). The people were not only instructed to refrain from food and work. The self-denial extended to such an extreme that they were not allowed to wash or anoint themselves. They slept on the floor. They refused friendship. They also abstained from sexual intercourse. The reason for such severe requirements for an entire day was “to bring their entire person into harmony with the gravity of sin and the need to turn from sin toward God.”

What relevance does this have for us living as Christians in 2012? I do believe we should awaken the discipline of corporate confession of sin that leads to fasting. Scot recommends something like communities of faith entering into a Good Friday fast because that is the day we remember the ultimate Day of Atonement. What are your thoughts?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Always Bad

Here’s a brief proposition.

Death is always bad.

Our church family is in a bit of a fragile state because one of us is no longer with us. Vera Cook’s funeral service was today. It was an amazing service in which I was able to participate. However, even the best funeral services are always enveloped in darkness, because it is a funeral service. Whether it is the Wake/Visitation or the funeral service itself, we all struggle with what we should say to the grieving. “I’m sorry” is usually the safest and most helpful thing to say. Often times a well-intentioned desire to comfort the grieving results in statements that downplay how bad death is. It is these well-intentioned statements that I would like to address briefly. Death is bad and when we downplay its badness we can impose guilt and be very unhelpful to the grieving.

Some clarifying remarks. Please notice my proposition states that death is bad. I’m not asserting that the end of suffering is bad. I would never want to say that “going to heaven” is bad. I am simply stating that the means by which most of us will arrive in heaven, namely death, is bad.

Why is death bad? I would like to offer at least two reasons.  

1) Death is bad because it destroys the design of God’s good creation. The creation narrative describes what God in his goodness originally intended.

then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature (Gen 2.7, ESV).

 These words from the creation narrative should shape how we think about life and death. God shapes the form of man from the dust of the earth, places him on top of the soil and breathes into him the breath of God’s life and man becomes what God designs. Death is bad because it is the undoing of what our good God created and intended. Death reverses the creation of God. Death steals the breath of life from a human God created. Death forces that human back under the soil that God had overcome through his act of creation. Death destroys what God formed returning his creation back to dust. Because it destroys the design of God’s good creation, death is always bad.

2) Death is bad because resurrection is so good. What we often read in the Bible as referring to life after death is what should really be called “life after life after death.” In other words we do have a few phrases here and there like, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1.23) and “being away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5.8). The majority of times, however, when God’s Word is plainly discussing our future hope, we are being promised, not something after we die, we are rather being promised a world without death because the world will one day be overcome by resurrection. My favorite description of that plain hope is found in 2 Cor 5.1-5

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed (i.e. death), we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (resurrection body).  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee (ESV).

From this passage the hope of New Testament comes into focus. Paul’s hope is not that one day he will die and get to heaven. Now it is true that when Paul died, he did go to heaven and for that he was thankful (Phil 1.23; 2 Cor 5.8). Still the true hope of the Apostle is that one day he will receive his resurrection body that God is protecting for him in heaven. In fact, Paul longs to put on that body without being found naked. He desires to be clothed from above without having to go through the process of earthly death, because death, even if it leads to something good, is always a bad thing. Thanks be to God, a generation of believers will receive their resurrection bodies without having to endure the undoing of God’s creative design. This is why the Bible refers to death as our last enemy that is not yet subjected to the Lordship of Christ (1 Cor 15.25-28). I suppose another reason we could say death is bad is because it continues to rebel against Jesus as Lord. Death claimed another victim today. But thanks be to God, one day death will become a victim, itself.

With the hope of the New Testament in mind, we are now able to respond appropriately to Vera’s death. Death is not a blessing. Death is not a good thing? Are we glad she is no longer suffering? Yes. Are we glad she has been reunited with Lowell, her husband? Absolutely. Are we thrilled to know that she is in the presence of Jesus? Certainly. We grieve, however, because a bad thing happened to Vera. We are sad because death has taken someone we love from us. We groan because we have once again been reminded that all things have not been made new, that the world is not as God intended. We grieve and mourn however as those who have hope, because one day God will damn death to hell, forever. And on that day, those whom death has taken will rise and God will transform their bodies to incorruptibility, breathe into them the breath of life and Vera will exclaim will countless others “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15.57, ESV).