June Exercises: Fasting and Lament

Throughout Scripture we see the people of God repeatedly caught up in circumstances that are tragic. Indeed, since the fall the introduction of sin in Genesis 3 suffering and death have been an inescapable part of life. The world is broken and we are broken. Even Christ’s own resurrection, and its promise that one day all things will be revived and restored, does not shelter us from the current realities of pain and loss. Lament – the profound feeling and expression of grief and sorrow – is the right response to that pain and loss. This month we offer some suggestions that might help us grow a healthy view of life in a fallen world.

First we recognise that we have permission to lament as individuals and as communities. God does not consider it a sign of lack of faith for us to feel sorrow and grief. A large portion of the Psalms is dedicated to expressing grief and frustration. The Psalmists knew claims of injury and injustice could confidently be brought to God; only he could ultimately put things right. Lament – crying out to God in our distress – is actually a sign of faith, a statement that God is big enough to handle the world’s problems. It is a commitment to living out our faith in a fallen world, rather than our fantasy of a perfect utopia. Given the natural and personal disasters that take place in our world every day, it seems right to allow space in our lives for appropriate responses to be expressed.

Those who have learned to lament well tend to carry authenticity. That’s often why the Psalms surprise us with their honesty. When the writer is overjoyed, they tells us. When they are distraught, we read about it. There is no stiff upper lip. Instead we see evidence of a refreshing transparency. 

Theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff, after his son Eric was tragically killed in the climbing accident, wrote, “So I own my own grief. I do not try to pull it behind me, to get over it, to forget it. I do not try to disown it.” (Lament for a Son, 1987. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ) And so, our pain and grief can be fully expressed to God. We try to ‘own it’ in our prayers of lament.

Such prayers bring our pain before the only person who can make an ultimate difference – God. He does not promise us freedom from grief or suffering yet, but he does promise to meet us in the midst of them. And sometimes, in his timing, this may only be after a time of feeling very alone. It takes time for the initial shock of what has happened to sink in, time for our default protestations of disbelief and anger to subside, time for us to believe again Mr Beaver’s description of Aslan (representing Jesus): “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Corse he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (from C.S.Lewis, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.)

With that belief that God is good, in spite of the circumstances, comes a glimpse of hope. Almost all the Psalms of lament have, by the end, declared the goodness of God. He has met the writers in their trouble, or they rest in the knowledge that he is working to overcome evil – their cries have been heard.

Christian hope is unique and it can be held even through long seasons of lament. Through each of the weeks of this month I encourage you to try the following exercises in lament and fasting– click on the buttons below.

Living on Less

February: Weeks 2 and 3

Over the next two weeks let me suggest a more practical exercise in simplicity and generosity. Sometime this fortnight, try surviving one week on $50. That is, limit yourself to just $50 (per head in your household) for food and entertainment. Invite others in your family or your flat-mates to join in: this needs to be a voluntary commitment. It is going to be easier to do with more people. When you’re done, calculate how much less you spent than usual and donate the difference to your favourite charity. 

Now here’s the important bit. Reflect on your experience: Was there anything you found particularly difficult? Did anything surprise you? Has the experience changed your outlook on the way you ordinarily live, such that you would consider making some permanent changes?

Simplicity

February: Week 1

Reading the introduction to this month’s theme, it seems little wonder the author of Ecclesiastes writes in Chapter 7: “This is all that I have learned: God made us plain and simple, but we have made ourselves very complicated” (GNB). People of a certain age can still remember when the cereal options every morning were limited: Weet-bix, Rice Bubbles or Corn-flakes— that was it. Today the better part of an entire aisle offers you every conceivable combination of grains, nuts, fruits, and sugar! This does interesting (and often unhelpful) things to our ability to live simply and contentedly. 

In your Journal, make some observations on the ways in which you experience ‘complexity’ in your life (more than just at the breakfast table). What does your environment (your desk, your diary, your car) tell you about your experience of complexity? Can you identify situations where you might make choices to reject complexity and embrace simplicity?

Richard Foster suggests that we will know that we are beginning to live a life of simplicity (i.e. truly seeking God and his kingdom first) when we notice some freedom from anxiety. In addition to your other scripture readings this week, reflect on Matthew 6 this week and ask a friend to do the same. Try to meet for a coffee and discuss: are you loyalties divided? How do you know? What does that look like? What are some solutions?

Preparing for Lent

February: Week 4

The season of Lent (40 ordinary days before Easter) often arrives before we’ve considered what to do about it. Traditionally this has been a time for the church to focus on prayer (towards God), fasting from foods and/or festivities (towards self), and alms-giving (towards others). We have a tendency to turn Lent into a token stand against chocolate and the tide of consumerism, but it’s more than that. Lent is practicing the kind of life of repentance, simplicity and generosity that should flavour alI of our life. Just as Passover was created to remind Israel about the Exodus, the hardship of slavery, and the greatness of their salvation, the church has created Lent as a way of reminding us of the suffering of Christ, and our role in the world. This year Lent begins on Wednesday 26th of February.

Ironically we can be tempted to chastise Israel for their dietary complaining over forty years in the wilderness, yet be unwilling to simplify our own diets for forty days! 

In preparation for Lent, spend some time investigating the wisdom of some of the ancient Christian activities practiced during the 40 days leading up to Easter. Perhaps you can share some of your insights in the comments box below. Consider observing some simplified practices, not as a mere denial of consumption, but something you (and perhaps your community) actively put in place as a discipline to help you remember.

February Exercises

Simplicity and Generosity

Describing someone’s life as “simple” could be interpreted as an insult. But “Simplicity” as it’s defined in the spiritual disciplines does not refer to one’s intelligence, status, or possessions; instead it offers a way of living where we are no longer defined or driven those things. Simplicity offers our heart freedom from its obsessions, attachment to riches, rank and reputation; there is freedom to live contentedly, freedom to live generously. 

Richard Foster describes our current condition: “Inwardly modern man is fractured and fragmented. He is trapped in a maze of competing attachments. One moment he makes decisions on the basis sound reason and the next moment out of fear of what others think of him. He has no unity or focus around which life is oriented.” Simplicity and generosity address this condition and those distracting attachments. They encourage us to develop unity and focus, which help us, as Christ commands, to seek first the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus and the rest of the Bible have a lot to say about the Christian life as one of single-minded devotion. But both Scripture and experience suggest two main obstacles lie in the way. 

The first is what pop-philosopher Alain de Botton calls Status Anxiety— a worry “that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society… that we are currently occupying too low a rung or are about to fall to a lower one.” Worrying too much about what others think surrenders to them an authority that rightly belongs to God. In the end, that becomes de-humanising. 

The second obstacle is Material Anxiety. Francois Fenelon referred to simplicity as “the pearl of the Gospel.” If we were honest, most us would rather have the pearls! And the house, the car, the holiday home, and the boat. Nowhere is our divided loyalty more obvious than in the area of material wealth. Jesus knew it, which is why warned us that we couldn’t serve both wealth and him. Cute car, flash yellow car, or no car—the problem is not necessarily in the having, it’s in the obsessive hankering. In today’s culture, the pressure to obtain a certain level of living can be relentless. To try and convince ourselves that we haven’t succumbed, Foster* notes that we cleverly rename the vices: “Covetousness we call ambition. Hoarding we call prudence. Greed we call industry.” Again, this is, profoundly dehumanising and, ultimately, profoundly enslaving. Few of us could honestly say, as the Apostle Paul does, that we have learned the freedom of contentment in all things. 

The disciplines of simplicity and generosity are powerful antidotes to status and material anxiety. They offer us a way to enjoy life regardless of our rank or wealth, and encourage us to locate our primary identity in terms our relationship with God and his Kingdom.

Sadly, living with simplicity and generosity is made more difficult for most of us have a remarkable sense of entitlement, We accumulate position and possession because we believe that we’re owed, by God and by others. This makes it extremely difficult to address the two obstacles above, and almost impossible to be truly generous. Very few of us give away as much as we could. Consequently life becomes cluttered and fragmented as we try hold on to everything we can for ourselves. 

Fortunately, this month we will be reflecting on creative ways to introduce simplicity and generosity into our patterns of life. The suggestions aren’t sensational or spectacular; instead they are… simple. But don’t let that fool you into thinking they are easy. Status and material anxiety are part of a cultural disease that is so widespread, even a small move in the opposite direction will take effort. But the resulting trust in God, and freedom from anxiety, will be well worth it. 

*Richard Foster quoted in Stephen W. Smith, Soul Custody: Choosing to Care for the One and Only You (Cook, Colorado Springs, 2010) p78.