Sunday, February 20, 2011

True Fasting

This is a bit of an early Lenten post, but since it’s about time to start preparing for Lent, I thought I’d share some thoughts.

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the LORD’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
then you will find your joy in the LORD,
and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

* * *

A few weeks ago I was up late working on a paper when my doorbell rang. As a woman living alone in a rough neighborhood, red flags immediately went up, and I froze for a minute or two, hoping whoever it was would leave. When the doorbell resounded I decided to go downstairs and see who was there, though I did not open the door.

“It’s Johnny!” I heard from the other side.

“What is it, Johnny?” I asked in a friendly tone that disguised my sinking heart and cringing face, knowing very well that this homeless man was looking for money.

“I noticed the snowplows left a pile in your driveway, Ma’am,” he said. “I wanted to clear it off for you.”

“Oh, that’s okay Johnny,” I reasoned helplessly. “I’m not driving anywhere tomorrow.”

“Well, it’s just that, I can get it out of there for you for five dollars.”

“Johnny,” I insisted with an exaggerated cheerfulness, self-conscious of the fact that I had no intension of opening my door, “I can take care of it tomorrow. It’s a little late for shoveling.”

“But, Ma’am,” he struggled painfully, “I don’t have anywhere to stay tonight. For a couple dollars, I can stay with a man down the road.”

It was a familiar enough story I remembered from my college days with my homeless friends by campus. But I was no longer a college student in a well-lit, well-patrolled campus; I was a single woman living alone in a high-crime neighborhood. And thankfully for me, I had no cash on me.

“I’m sorry Johnny,” I yelled with that exaggerated pleasantness that felt quite hypocritically thin that night, “but I don’t have any cash on me here.”

There was a pause. “Well, do you have just a little change?”

I realized I did have some outside in my car, but I wasn’t about to announce the fact. “No,” I lied, “I don’t have any. I’m sorry, Johnny.”

The incident disturbed me for the next 24 hours or so. I do not know a single person who would suggest to me that I should have done otherwise that night, and I didn’t necessarily think I had made the wrong decision to keep my door locked as “the least of these” stood outside in the cold (don’t worry, Mom!). Perhaps all I could have done that night was to turn Christ away in the form of a homeless man, but there was no way I could have felt good about it.

And now, as we prepare for Lent, I am remembering some words my rector’s wife shared with the women of my church last year. A healthy season of repentance is not only characterized by a time of fasting, she explained to us: the Church has historically understood the discipline of repentance in terms of fasting, prayer, and alms-giving.

As I prepare for Lent and think about ways to include fasting, prayer, and alms-giving into my lifestyle, I am remembering that night with Johnny. We do indeed live in a time that generosity is plagued with the concern of enabling addictions and unhealthy lifestyles (not to mention personal danger). Indeed we do. So did the people to whom Christ initially spoke the radical words from the Sermon on the Mount.

Remembering that night with Johnny outside my locked door, I plan at least over the course of Lent to have cash on me, and to be prepared to “give to the one who begs from you,” as Christ commands us. I rather hope Johnny comes back (during the day!); I hope to be ready for Christ when he does.


Christian H said...

You don't have a mail slot, do you?

That seems awfully impersonal and rude, of course. I'd open the door. But I'm not a young woman living alone.

MCS said...

Em, Can't blame you for not opening the door; I think I'd have done the same thing in that situation. I'm somewhat in the same position as you--with a couple of differences: I'm an old person often living alone.

I think you've hit on a good solution: Always have some small cash on you for just such situations.

I've always tho't when it comes to these kinds of situations: Better to "get taken in" by some story than miss the chance to help Christ in another person.

Your solution is perfect: Keep some small money for just such situations.

And as to Lent: I found myself thinking yesterday that Lent is a little over 2 weeks away. How to do something mindful every day? MCS

Ellen said...

Wow, this is really hard!
REALLY hard.
I can understand why you would be disturbed, I would too.
David Mains says he would keep some cash in his pocket on Sundays specifically waiting to see who the Lord would bring his way for him to give it to...

Christian H said...

I have a question for you: have you ever written sonnets for Lent? I'm thinking of doing one per week (two lines a day). I'm not up to one a day, I don't think. Do you have any advice? You seem the best person to ask.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Thanks for posting (strangely enough) the Scripture.

I feel in many ways that I'm not as far along in understanding God's (as they say in academia) poet(h)ics. But there is something in those verses that resonates with me. There are tons of prophets (secular and religious) who agree in pointing out how Christians worship God and dismiss their neighbor with the same mouth. But the Scriptural response seems to introduce a third category, Sabbath.

I'm not sure what to make of it, but it feels beautiful. Even if (as you point out) sometimes all these ideals work out awkwardly on Earth, and not (yet) at all as they will in Heaven.

Em the luddite said...

Sorry I've been so bad about responding, folks: computer problems, but it's all clear now.

Christian, I can't tell you how happy I was that you would have opened the door. The fact that most people think I did the "right" thing bothers me, and thus the fact that you personally would have done otherwise does justice to the complexity.

I haven't ever done Lenten sonnets (at least not as a series), but as you noticed I did indeed to an Advent series. You are right; one a day is brutal. In my case, I was going from the daily readings in the BCP. I would read the passages with Advent in mind, copy down passages that struck me into a Word document, and then read over what I came up with to see if I could identify common threads. Sometimes it worked better than others. If you want to try that method but go with a (much more sane) weekly pace, you could go with the Sunday readings. I'd love to read what you come up with!

Thank you all for your empathy as we struggle through the issue together. It does seem to be pretty close to the heart of the Gospel; it would do it injustice to suggest that it is easy.

Oremus pro invicem (let us pray for each other)!