I’m back! After a few months off while my family moved, blogging resumes for yours truly. The holidays were busy for Mrs. Newton and me, as we loaded up the truck (like, four times!) and moved from North Louisiana to the sprawling metropolis of Northwest Arkansas. Shannon began working here as a professional counselor and I’m moving forward with the physical ministry plans for Restless Heart, our retreat center that we plan to set up in the mountains here. Medical issues greeted us after Christmas here in Arkansas but we’re both finally on the mend and have turned our attention to settling into a new rental home and preparing our hearts for Lent.
Today marked the beginning of the second church season of 2017, the season of Lent. One of the most ancient of seasons (even older than Advent), Lent was a lengthy period of time preceding Easter meant to draw the Christian into humility and repentance in recognition of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. In the Western Church (Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican, among others), Lent is the 40 days preceding Easter Sunday, starting on a Wednesday called “Ash Wednesday.” That would be today!
For the first time, Mrs. Newton and I attended an Ash Wednesday service. We have started worshiping with an marvelous Anglican church here in Fayetteville and we’re smitten. It’s such a neat body of believers, contemporary yet traditional, young and energetic, and new to this world (it’s a church plant). This week, we’ve spent four consecutive days with at least one member of the church. Crazy, eh? On Sunday afternoon we had the normal church service, then Monday we had coffee with the pastor to get familiar with Anglicanism and his church, then we went to a pancake supper on “Shrove” Tuesday, and finally had the traditional Ash Wednesday service today. Each time we’re around the church, we’re more comfortable with all the new-to-us faces and excited to see what God has in store for both the church and for us.
Back to Lent. Usually, Lent involves the fasting from something that makes up a regular part of your life in order to free up time and attention to focus on God. Some people give up coffee or sugar or some other food element, while others stop eating meat or some refrain from physical intimacy. The point of doing so is to focus your dependency on God to meet your needs during the day and to free up time to spend with Him.
This year I have decided to spend two hours a day outside of the house (where I spend most of my time) and instead spend it outside. Not in the car, not in the store, but outside by myself where I can pray, listen to God, and spend “quiet time” with Him. I have also decided to blog every day for Lent — to post short notes related to the Passion of Jesus. Today I start off with a post on fasting.
The Truest Fast of All
“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed, cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will spring up speedily.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.” (Isaiah 58:6-8; from “The Message”)
In tonight’s Ash Wednesday service, one of our readings was Isaiah 58:1-12. As the passage was read, Mrs. Newton and I glanced at each other with a look of “isn’t this amazing?” Once again the Lord was reminding Israel that to obey His commands was better than sacrifice, and to live a life of self-sacrifice for the sake of other people will be honored by Him. The people of Israel in Isaiah’s day were pious on the outside, keeping the fast of the Day of Atonement and all the other religious rituals commanded by the Law. But there was something wrong. God didn’t seem to be honoring the piety! Trouble came upon the land with regularity and Israel’s enemies were making life tough for the nation. “Why is this?” the people ask in verse 3.
God’s response is classic.
“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground.” (vv. 3-4)
The people had been religiously right but inwardly wrong. They overlooked the well-being of other people as they went about their “religious” lives. What God wants is a contrite heart that seeks the good of other people. “Do unto others,” and so forth. Jesus once told a crowd that there were two great commands: 1.) Love God fully, and 2.) Love your neighbor as yourself. The people of Isaiah’s day did not keep the second, which, to be honest, also indicated that they really didn’t keep the first.
So God sets the record straight. What does He want His “religious” ones to do? I see eight things.
- To break the chains of injustice
- To get rid of exploitation in the workplace
- To free the oppressed
- To cancel debts
- To share your food with the hungry
- To invite the homeless poor into your homes
- To put clothes on the shivering ill-clad; and
- To be available to your own families
All of these actions benefit other people. They are not glamorous and not showy. And they almost all cost us something. True fasting is a heart issue and not simply one of refrain. But God has always been more interested in the attitudes of our hearts than in the acts of piety we do in His name. Every action is validated by the heart’s attitude.
I’m reminded of several phrases from Scripture,
“Man does not see what the Lord sees, for man sees what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)
“Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:27
This Lent, watch over the intentions of your heart, that they may be pleasing in God’s sight. Remember to set others first above yourself. Do acts of kindness. Seek to be an agent of God’s Kingdom. Jesus went to the Cross to benefit others. He suffered and died so that enemies and aliens could become His brothers. Forgiveness through His blood set captives spiritually free and canceled our sinful debt. He laid down His life for us, forsaking Himself in the process. This is the spirit of a true fast. It’s not just an outside action: it’s an inward attitude that manifests itself in outward actions that benefit other people. We would be wise to follow our Lord’s example this season!