In the Anglican church, it is common to hear someone ask, “What are you doing for Lent?” The answers are a mixture of giving something up and taking on something new. You often hear things like:
“I am giving up chocolate for Lent.”
or “I am cutting back on alcohol.”
or “I am going to read the Bible more.”
or “I am going to volunteer at the soup kitchen.”
The question often arises, why do we fast and take on disciplines for Lent? Is there something earth shattering about giving up chocolate? The answer is no. So why do it? Here are four simple but profound reasons.
Fasting for Obedience
1) The first reason is that Jesus asks us to do these things (see Matthew 6:1-18). It is about obedience. Of course, he doesn’t specifically ask for chocolate. That is not the point. Rather, it is part of a three-fold challenge from Jesus that gives focus to Lent. It is traditionally listed as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
These are meant to be serious practices, but not legalistic ones. Jesus wants us to pray because prayer is the language of our relationship with God. It is how we grow closer to God. Jesus wants us to fast because fasting allows us to find freedom from unhealthy habits. And Jesus wants us to give alms because it is an expression of care and compassion for people in need, and we need to practice doing that. Giving up chocolate or alcohol or whatever is an expression of fasting and doing without, not for its own sake, but for education and healing.
Learning through Fasting for Lent
2) Fasting is partly about learning. I don’t mean about facts, but about deep inner truths. It helps us realize that many people live in poverty and will never have what we are struggling to do without. We grow in humility as we see that we can do with less than we think we need, and that we have resources that can be used to help others.
In the book of Isaiah, fasting is closely connected with justice. The prophet criticizes those who fast and do other religious rituals, while simultaneously perpetuating injustice. He writes, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry…?” (Isaiah 48: 6-7a). Part of the purpose of fasting is to help us develop a heart of compassion, which leads to generosity of spirit.
Fasting for Reflection and Growth
3) Fasting for Lent also teaches us something important about our inner life: we need heart healing. This is Jesus’ main goal. He calls us to fast because he wants us to grow deeper in maturity. The problem is that we have many unhealthy habits and attachments in our lives. For instance, let’s say I fast from all sugar during Lent. It doesn’t seem big. But the reality is that I would find that hard. I am used to quite a bit of sugar in my diet. Therefore, when I find it hard, I need to ask myself, why? What am I learning about myself? What am I learning about what I serve?
Now let’s imagine that it is so hard that I find myself getting irritated at my kids or wife. Again, I need to really think about this. What is it within me that is struggling? This should be easy: just stop eating sugar. But why don’t I have the patience and strength?
In truth, it is not easy. And this is the point. We don’t mature and grow unless we push beyond what is comfortable. If everything is comfortable, we stagnate. Giving up chocolate or alcohol–or whatever–amounts to putting controlled spiritual and emotional stress on our lives. This is partly so that we can push through it. But the real reason is that it gives us a glimpse into our souls and shows us we need healing.
Fasting for Lent for Healing
4) Healing is the point. God is nothing but love, and looks with compassion on our struggles. God wants to heal our souls, and this doesn’t happen quickly. The New Testament doesn’t distinguish heart, soul and mind in the same way we do. They are a whole, and inside are a mixture of positive and negative emotions, impulses and drives. There is compassion, hospitality, courage, love, and a host of other good stuff. There is also anger, fear, lust, unhealthy hungers, violence, prejudices, and a host of other bad stuff. They are all mixed up together.
Part of the Good News is that Christ came to bring healing and wholeness to human beings. He brings grace, mercy, and love to transform our hard hearts into soft hearts. This is neither a simple nor a quick process.
We tend to hide our hurt, pain, and negative emotions. But if we bring them into the gentle light of Christ with honesty and humility, he will heal them over time. Sometimes we need to do this soul work with another person guiding us, be it a spiritual mentor or a psychologist.
Fasting for Lent helps us to find the areas of hardness in our hearts by surfacing what needs the most healing. The next step is to pray for God to heal those places. Spend time in prayer for your inner being. God wants to birth within you a new creation. This is the deeper meaning of fasting.
This week, we travel back to the book of Isaiah, one of the major prophets of the Old Testament. This section of Isaiah was written to a people newly returned from exile, but today’s passage also calls us forward to the coming of Christ. In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus quotes it to announce the heart of his own mission when he begins his ministry. Join us around the virtual table as we talk about God’s hope-inspiring plans for us in Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and the coming of Christ.
How does God call you to Jesus-style justice and reconciliation? Please join the conversation! Add your reflections in the comments below or visit the Hope Canteen on Facebook.
In this series, we are looking at Michael Frost’s book, Surprise the World!, with its challenge to live surprising lives. He uses the acronym B.E.L.L.S. to describe what this might look like. In previous reflections, we looked at the first four letters, which stand for BLESS, EAT, LISTEN, and LEARN. Today, we are looking at the fifth and final habit: SENT by Jesus.
This last habit is different from the other four. It is not so much about doing something as it is growing into an identity, which is to see yourself as one who is sent by Jesus. Who we are affects how we live. At the beginning of the Christian movement, all of the disciples were sent out to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God. They understood that, while every Christian was not called to be an Evangelist, every Christian was meant to be an ambassador for Christ.
Over time, “missionary” came to refer to a select group of people who traveled to foreign countries as Evangelists to proclaim the good news of Christ. And that is important and necessary work. But back home, where most everyone was Christian, there didn’t seem to be much need of ambassadors for Christ. That was someone else’s job that happened somewhere else.
Called and Sent by Jesus
Part of the Missional movement is to help people reclaim their identity as being called and sent by Christ. Michael Frost invites us to take time during the week to claim this identity by reflecting on it by journaling. Even if we don’t journal, we might take some time to look over the week and see where we have been able “to alert others to the universal reign of God through Christ.”
He reminds us again that this is not about being an Evangelist. Not everyone has that gifting. Rather, by living this life of blessing, eating, listening, and learning, we are offering through our lives a glimpse of God’s love in action. Our lives point to the Kingdom of God when we live according to its values. Here are four of them:
At the heart of our Christian faith is the great reconciliation between God and humanity through the cross of Christ. This greater reconciliation becomes the foundation for reconciliation to grow “between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, black and white and Asian and Hispanic, and so on.” The act of reconciliation is a core expression of God’s reign and rule. We announce and demonstrate God’s Kingdom through reconciliation.
This is why reconciliation between Indigenous and settler people has been so central to our mission in the Anglican Church of Canada over the last several decades. But we are also called to reconciliation in our own lives. We are called to allow God’s healing to infiltrate relationships where they are broken by anger, hurt, and unforgiveness.
In our baptismal vows, we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” as we respond, “I will with God’s help.” The church at its best has always looked for ways to help the marginal or disadvantaged. Christian greats such as William Wilberforce, John Wesley, and Charles Spurgeon led campaigns for the betterment of society. More recently, people like John Stott, Martin Luther King Jr., and Desmond Tutu have engaged deeply in causes around poverty and racism. When we work for justice, we work for the Kingdom of God.
Beauty is a central pointer to the Kingdom of God. We can feel the presence of God deeply on a mountaintop or in a beautiful cathedral. Where do you experience beauty? Is it through a piece of music that deeply touches your soul, or the well-ordered cells under a microscope? How do we create beauty? How do we spend time encouraging beauty or experiencing it?
Jesus didn’t just talk about the Kingdom of God. As he worked to heal broken people, he showed us how much God wants wholeness for a hurting world. Some professionals—nurses, doctors, mental health professionals, and so on—are dedicated to wholeness in various ways. But everyone can further wholeness through acts of encouragement, blessing, and healing for people who are struggling. This is the deeper meaning of blessing others (missional habit #1). It might look like a listening ear, but it is also a sign of God’s love for that person THROUGH you.
Frost encourages us not just to do all of these things, but also to take the time to reflect on them. Reflecting on our experiences brings greater depth. We gain insight when we examine how we felt about a certain experience. We learn about ourselves by taking the time to discern how God is operating in our lives. Spend some time reflecting and identify where you have been acting for the Kingdom. This action will help you to see more opportunities as they arrive. Own your identity: God has called you and sent you.
(NOTE: These reflections are only meant to be a synopsis and study of Michael Frost’s work, Surprise the World! Our purpose is to encourage our readers with these great ideas. If you interested in going further, please go read the book. You can order it here:
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Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper. . . . But there was another question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? . . . Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?
In this series on the 20th Century, I have been trying to show how this eventful era has forced Christians to face some hard questions. In answering those questions, we have had to learn some hard truths and expand our understanding of the faith.
This dynamic came up again during the Great Depression in the person of Dorothy Day (1897-1980). In her response to the great questions of the day, we see a profound challenge to the church at large: “Whom is the church for?” In one sense, it seems like there is an obvious answer to this question: the church is for everyone. Ideally, that would be true.
The Church in the Halls of Power
In reality, since the time of Constantine (272-377 AD), this hasn’t been the case. While there have been some important exceptions, church leadership has largely associated itself with the rich and powerful in society.
Especially in Europe, Bishops and Kings have traditionally worked closely together. In the French Revolution, the Catholic church stood with the collapsing monarchy against populism and democracy. In Russia, at the brink of the Communist Revolution, the church was closely allied with the Tsarist regime as the protector of Holy Orthodoxy. Here, too, it was opposed to worker’s rights.
The Great Depression: A Time of Worldwide Turbulence
For those of us born long after these events, it is hard to appreciate the turbulence of the world in which Dorothy Day lived and began her work in 1932. It is important to understand this world, and how it shaped her answer to the question: ‘Whom is the church for?’
Dorothy Day didn’t answer the question in a systematic theology textbook. She worked out the answers in a world that seemed to have failed. World War I had devastated much of Europe and had destroyed millions of lives. The Spanish Flu had killed millions more. Within two decades, the Great Depression hit with a vengeance, destroying wealth and agriculture. Millions found themselves in poverty and out of work. This drove labour unrest, agitated in part by the rise of worldwide communism following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. Different churches responded to these events in a variety of ways. I want to focus here on Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day: An Unlikely Saint
Day can seem like an unlikely candidate for sainthood. She had a passion for peace and justice, but it didn’t start in the church. From an early age, she was a journalist and activist, working on the staffs of several socialist publications. In 1917, she celebrated the Russian revolution’s toppling of the Tsarist regime, but her anarchist sympathies kept her from loving the authoritarian Bolshevik government.
Throughout the early 1920’s, she lived a bohemian lifestyle. All the while, she continued her journalism, covering everything from striking iron workers to interviewing Leon Trotsky. Then in 1925, she found herself to be pregnant during an affair with the English botanist, Foster Batterham. This surprised her because she had thought herself unable to conceive following an earlier abortion, which she later called “the great tragedy” of her life.
Becoming pregnant was a great joy for Dorothy Day. Out of this joy, she started rethinking religious faith. She had always assumed that religion was just what Marx called ‘the opiate of the masses.’ Religion was supposed to be a crutch for suffering people to give them hope. But here she found herself praying, not because she was unhappy, but because she was so happy. She later explained it like this: “The final object of this love and gratitude was God. No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.” She came back to faith and had her daughter baptized. Batterham left, having no desire to be a father.
A New Vision
Coming to faith didn’t change Day’s convictions about peace and justice. She was as passionate as ever. Everywhere she looked, she saw the sufferings and injustices that the masses of humanity were enduring. What changed was her vision. When her leftist friends struggled to understand her new interest in faith, she told them that Jesus was promising the new society of justice they were looking for. Faith just gave her the next step.
Peter Maurin, Co-Conspirator
In 1932, she met Peter Maurin. He was an odd fellow. Day later described him as “a genius, a saint, an agitator, a writer, a lecturer, a poor man and a shabby tramp, all at once.” During the Great Depression, he had lived with a parish priest. He did odd jobs, all the while devouring the priest’s library. He read everything from Aquinas to St. Francis to the papal letter on Labour, Rerum Novarum.
When Maurin met Day, he outlined his vision. He felt that it wasn’t enough to denounce injustice. Instead, one must also announce a new social order and try to live it out. His vision had three parts. First, to create a newspaper to tell the story of this new vision. Second, to create Houses of Hospitality in which the poor could obtain shelter, food and clothing. And third, to create rural cooperatives. In this vision, Day discovered what she was made for. Where Maurin never had the ability to put his ideas into reality, Day found her calling.
Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement
She moved quickly. The first issue of the Catholic Worker was published on May 1, 1933. It has been in continuous publication ever since. The newspaper focused on what it meant to imitate Christ in the midst of the Great Depression. For Day, dealing with labour issues was central. Her biggest competitor was the Communist Daily Worker. Day opposed the Daily Worker’s promotion of class warfare, Marxism, atheism, and abolition of private property. She envisioned a publication about ‘work and men and the problems of poverty and destitution and man’s relationship to his brothers and to God.’ The newspaper was hugely popular and influential, running a subscription of over 100,000 early on.
Houses of Hospitality: Meeting Christ in the Poor
Day wasn’t just a journalist. The hopelessness of the unemployed millions shook her profoundly, and she felt the need to spend the rest of her life serving them. This was the role of the Houses of Hospitality, places where volunteers committed to live and work alongside the poor as well as to serve them. People would stop in for meals and encouragement by the hundreds.
“As far as Dorothy could tell, (Christ) demanded the readiness to wash vegetables, cut bread, and clean up after hundreds of noisy, often ungrateful guests, day after day, year after year.” 1
For Day, this work was all about Jesus Christ. She cultivated the unique ability to see Jesus everywhere: “Wherever she turned, Dorothy saw Christ up on his cross. One of her rules of life was to seek the face of Christ in the poor. She found him there, and in so many other places. Christ was the person in line for soup and bread; Christ was the drunk woman having the same conversation over and over again; Christ was the enemy combatant; Christ was the priest she disagreed with; Christ was the young person begging for spiritual direction; Christ was in every reader she wrote for.”1
The Fight for Justice
Day never stopped agitating for justice. She continued to support unions and the rights of workers. She showed up on picket lines and wrote about them in her paper. In California, she stared down the police. People called her a communist. She was jailed, shot at, and ridiculed. The FBI continually investigated her.
Her lowest point came from her commitment to pacifism. She denounced the U.S. entry into the Second World War, which caused her to lose thousands of subscriptions. None of it disturbed her. She always felt that she was just walking the way of the cross. Day kept her focus on Christ until the day she died in 1980.
Solidarity with the Poor
Through it all, she only owned a creaking bed, a writing desk, an overflowing bookshelf, a teapot, and a radio. She followed the tradition of the many Christians who lived in poverty out of love for the Gospel.
What made Day different was that she represented a new kind of holiness. It wasn’t just about prayer and sacrifice, though she was very faithful in church attendance and daily prayer. It also wasn’t just about serving the poor, though she did this daily for decades. The newness in her expression of faith in Christ came from her commitment to live in solidarity with the impoverished masses and to struggle with them in the path of justice.
Hers was a very political Christianity. I began this reflection with Dorothy Day’s guiding question, ‘Whom is the church for?’ Her life embodies her answer: above all things, the church should stand in solidarity with the poor, because one finds Jesus there. As her master said, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink… whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25: 35-40)
Dorothy Day’s Lasting Influence
Day’s witness has forced several generations of Christians to ask hard questions about the church’s relationship with the politically influential. We will return to this question in the reflection on Oscar Romero. Day’s story has had such an impact on the church because her holiness is so obvious, her vision so clear, and her commitment is so compelling. Many people, even in her lifetime, saw her as a living saint. She had no patience with this. Her reply was always, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
1 From the introduction to The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus by Dorothy Day (Plough Publishing House, 2017). This is a compilation of quotes from her various writings.
According to Jesus, as we live into our discipleship, we are storing up Treasure in Heaven. In my previous article in this series, I reflected that Treasure is Jesus’ metaphor for what we value the most: what drives our lives and tells us what we want to be known for. Jesus tells us that we need to focus our life on the Kingdom of God.
Discerning What Is Most Important
So, what does that mean? We can begin to understand what Jesus is getting at by looking at a powerful criticism he levels against his spiritual opponents, the Scribes and Pharisees. He criticizes them for focusing on small things that might look like they are important, when in reality, they are missing the bigger picture. He says,
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.
Jesus is telling them (and us) that when we look at our actions, we need to be sure that everything we do is marked by ‘justice, mercy and faith.’ Here, Jesus is following a long tradition of Jewish discernment about what is most important about following the law of God.