Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Feast and the Fast

Recently a friend sent me the book excerpt below that was written by Jen Hatmaker.  Jen is a friend, an author and a speaker whom God speaks through powerfully. 

Below is an excerpt from her next Book Seven which is not even out yet.  If you want to know more check out Jen's website: 

And if you want to be challenged in following Jesus, keep reading about Feasting and Fasting . . . .  

Day 25

I am a word girl. I’m English/Language Arts/creative writing/history. I am fully right-brained; the left half is just a dormant holding cell for the Pythagorean theorem and some business about isotopes I forgot twenty years ago, approximately three seconds after I learned it. I correct misspelled words when I text. When there is a grammatical error on the power point during worship, I have to close my eyes so I won’t be derailed by this language failure. If I lost access to a thesaurus, I would undoubtedly quit writing.

Consequently, it is words that move me. God and I do our best business in the Bible, and the power of story has changed my life. One well-crafted sentence can sustain me for weeks. Like this one we sang for the first time Sunday at ANC:

“God, may we be focused on the least; a people balancing the fasting and the feast.”

I almost came undone.

That single statement sums up all my tension, all my hopes for the American Christ-follower, the American church, the American me. With good intentions but misguided theology, the church spends most of our time and energy and resources and prayer words and programs and sermons and conferences and Bible studies and attention on the feast, our feast to be exact.

Now certainly, there is a feast in the economy of Jesus, and thank you God for it. Where brokenness and starvation once consumed us, God redeems our bankruptcy and sets us at a new table:

“Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep. O LORD, you preserve both man and beast. How priceless is your unfailing love! Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” (Psalm 36: 5-9)

This is the feast of the redeemed; Jesus made it possible for the wretched to dine at the same table with the Most High, neither offending his holiness nor compromising his justice. When he looks at those adopted into the family by grace and faith, he no longer sees an ounce of our failures or omissions; he only sees the righteousness that Jesus covered us with. We stand safely in the shadow of Christ, made absolutely white-as-snow-perfect because of his substitution on the cross.

The currency of salvation includes blessings, redemption, fulfillment, peace, healing, sustenance, forgiveness, and hope. It’s a spiritual jackpot. For those of us salvaged from the gutter by Jesus, these are new mercies every morning. We are easily overwhelmed by the goodness of God, which evidently knows no bounds. The gospel is so beautiful and liberating, it is worthy of adoration every single second of every single hour of every single day forever. We will never be the same. This is indeed the feast, and to celebrate it is utterly Christian.

But the feast has a partner in the rhythm of the gospel: the fast.

Its practice is unmistakable in Scripture. Hundreds of times we see the reduction, the pouring out, the abstinence, the restraint. We find our heroes of the Bible fasting from food – David, Esther, Nehemiah, Jesus. We read about the Philippian church fasting from self-preservation, sending Paul money to sustain his mission in spite of their own poverty, a true sacrifice. John the Baptist tells us that if we have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor. We watch the early church sell all their possessions and live communally, caring for one another and the broken people in their cities. We see God explain his idea of a fast: justice, freedom, food for the hungry, clothes for the naked. This balance is a given in Scripture.

If we ignored the current framework of the church we see and instead just opened up the Bible for a new definition, we see the faith community adopt the fast mere moments after discovering the feast. What we don’t see is a church who hoards the feast for themselves, gorging, getting fatter and fatter and asking for still more; more Bible studies, more sermons, more programs, more classes, more training, more conferences, more information, more feasting for us.

I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point, the church stopped living the Bible and decided to just study it, culling the feast parts and whitewashing the fast parts. We are addicted to the buffet, skillfully discarding the radical simplicity and generosity and costly discipleship required after consuming. The feast is supposed to sustain the fast, but we go back for seconds and thirds and fourths, stuffed to the brim and fat with inactivity. All this is for me. All this is for me. My goodness, my blessings, my privileges, my happiness, my success. Just one more plate.

Not so with the early church who stunned their Roman neighbors and leaders with their generosity, constantly curbing their own appetites for the sake of the mission of Jesus. There was no end of their self-denial in order to alleviate human misery. In the Shepard of Hermas, a well-respected Christian literary work written in the early 100s, believers were instructed to fast one day a week:

“Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord.”

In the early 200s, Tertullian reports that Christians had a voluntary common fund they contributed to monthly. That fund was then used to support widows, the disabled, orphans, the sick, the elderly, shipwrecked sailors, prisoners, teachers, burials for the poor, and even for the release of slaves. [i]

The difference between Romans and Christians on the practice of charity was widely recognized by unbelievers of the time. The pagan satirist Lucian (130-200 c.e.) mocked Christians for their kindness: “The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end. Their first lawgiver put it into their heads that they were all brethren.”

These Christians did not limit their assistance to members of their own subculture either. The Emperor Julian, who attempted to lead the Roman Empire back to paganism, was frustrated by the superior compassion shown by the Christians, especially when it came to intervention for the suffering. He famously declared: “The impious Galileans relieve both their own poor and ours…It is shameful that ours should be so destitute of our assistance.”[ii]

I wonder what the early church would think if they walked into some of our buildings today, if they looked through our church websites, if they talked to the average attender? Would they be so confused? Would they wonder why we all had empty spare bedrooms and piles of uneaten food in our trash cans? Would they look upon our hoarded wealth with shock? Would they see the number of orphans in the world and wonder why we haven’t swiftly eradicated that crisis already? Would they be stunned to discover most of us don’t feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, care for the sick, or protect the widow? Would they look at the money we spend on our church buildings and on ourselves and grieve at the extravagant waste while 25,000 people die every day from starvation?

I think they’d barely recognize us as brothers and sisters. If we told them that church is on Sundays and we have an awesome band, this would be horribly perplexing. If we explained how we’re “church shopping” because enough people don’t say hello to us when we walk in the lobby one hour a week, I believe we’d receive dumbfounded stares. If they found out that one-sixth of the entire population on earth claimed to be Christians, I’m not sure they could reconcile the scope of suffering happening on our watch while we’re living in excess. They’d certainly wonder if we had ever read the Bible, or worry it had been tampered with since their time.

But listen Early Church, we put on a monthly event called Mocha Chicks. We have choir practice every Wednesday. We organize retreats and give each other pedicures. We’re raising three million dollars for an outdoor amphitheater. We have catchy t-shirts. We don’t smoke or say the F-word. We go to Bible study every semester. (“And then what, American Church?”) Well, we go to another one the next semester. We’re learning so much. We love Beth Moore.

I think the early church would put on sackcloth, cover their heads with ashes, and grieve and wail over the destruction of Jesus’ beautiful church vision. We’ve taken his Plan A for justice and love to an injured lost planet and neutered it down to clever sermon series and monthly Stitch-and-Chat sessions in the Fellowship Hall, serving the saved and blessing blessed people. If the modern church held to its biblical definition, we would become the answer to all that ails society. We would no longer have to baby-talk and cajole and coax people into our sanctuaries through witty mailers and strategic ads; they’d be running to us. The local church would be the heartbeat of the city, undeniable by even our staunchest critics.

Instead, the American church is dying. We are losing ground in epic proportions. Our country is a graveyard of dead and vanishing churches. We made it acceptable for people to do nothing and still call themselves Christians, and that anemic vision isn’t holding. Last year, 94% of evangelical churches reported loss or no growth in their communities. Almost 4000 churches are closing each year. The American church is losing almost three million people annually, flooding out the back door and never returning. The next generation is downright refusing to come.

Ironically, this is the result of a church that only feasts.

When the fast, the death, the sacrifice of the gospel is omitted from the Christian life, then it isn’t Christian at all. Not only that, it’s boring. If I just want to feel good or get some self-help, I’ll buy a $12 book from Borders and join a gym. The church the Bible described is exciting and adventurous and wrought with sacrifice. It cost believers everything, and they still came. It was good news to the poor and stumped its enemies. The church was patterned after a Savior who didn’t even have a place to lay his head and voluntarily died a brutal death, even knowing one day we would reduce the gospel to a self-serving personal improvement program where people were encouraged to make a truce with their Maker and stop sinning and join the church, when in fact the gospel does not call for a truce but a complete surrender.

Jesus said the kingdom was like a treasure hidden in a field, and once someone truly finds it, he will joyfully sell everything he owns to possess that field; a perfect description of the fasting and the feast. It is supposed to cost us everything, but it is a treasure and an unfathomable joy. This is the balance of the kingdom; to live we must die, to be lifted we must bow, to gain we must lose. There is no alternative definition, no path of least resistance, no treasure in the field without the sacrifice of everything else.

Oh Lord, may we be focused on the least; a people balancing the fasting and the feast.

 [ii] Epistles of Julian, 49

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