Friday, January 02, 2009

Welcome to the New Year; now let's do the right thing

Happy 2009!

I realize it's been awhile since I've blogged. School, work, and Christmas got the better of me, so there I went, disappearing from the blogosphere.

I regularly read another blog called The Evening of Kent, which I started reading because of another blog I read regularly. I find myself agreeing with a lot of what KW Leslie says; oh, there were a few posts about a month ago about speaking in tongues that I didn't agree with (still don't), but I think there are some theological issues where Christians can agree to disagree gracefully, and no one's going to go to hell because we don't see eye to eye. But on Leslie's normal posts, I think he and I agree about 95% of the time.

He only posts about every three or four days, so I was happy to see he'd posted again when I checked the blog this morning. As usual, his post made me want to stand up and applaud. Rather than just linking to the post, and risking you not reading it, I'm posting his thoughts here, with his permission:

January fasting, and why it’s a crock.

Seeking direction for the year? Try following some of the directions Jesus already gave.

Got back from Spokane with another cold, likely given to me by another nephew. They’re little germ-farms, these nephews. Cute but deadly. Also got back with a bit of an idea, provoked by the pastor of my sister’s church.

The sermon last Sunday had to do mainly with inspiring the congregation to join the pastor in a 21-day fast so that they could collectively determine God’s will for the new year. This is standard practice for some evangelical churches: It’s January; let’s fast. (Mainliners have had enough fasting… if they celebrated Advent properly, or at all.) It’s sort of the evangelical Christian variation of the New Year’s resolution, although many of us make those too—the fast indicates that we resolve to follow God this year, as opposed to last year, which didn't meet personal expectations; where our devotional lives went completely to hell as soon as summer vacation made us busy with… free time? Whatever. We were busy. But this year…

…Well, let’s just say that Christian devotions tend to rise and fall depending on the latest charismatic fad, and in January it’s fasting. Which is made all the more appealing by the fact that we American Christians in particular have packed on an extra 15 pounds thanks to all the holiday food, and fasting seems a good spiritual way to lose some weight.

The purpose behind fasting, in the scriptures, is basically mourning:

* Someone is dead, and a mourner is sad and won’t eat.
* Someone remembers a sad event or holiday, and won’t eat.
* Someone repents of sin, wants to show sorrow, so they make themselves look pathetic and don’t eat.
* Someone really wants God’s help, and wants to appear pitiful and worthy of mercy, and doesn’t eat.
* The rulers, some of whom were concerned about God’s wrath on sin, called a fast for the previous two reasons.

But why do people call fasts nowadays? Sometimes repentance; sometimes contemplation. But most of the time it’s ’cause we’re asking God for direction. We wanna know what He wants us to do. We wanna know what His plans for our future might be. We want a vision for the future—because “without a vision, people perish,” as an acquaintance of mine kept misquoting yesterday. So we want God to show us what to do so that we don’t keep stumbling around in the dark.

But it struck me a few weeks ago how much we really do know what we’re supposed to be doing—and the problem is that we really, truly, honestly don’t want to do it.

Flash back—or flash forward, ’cause Jesus is talking about the end of the world—to Jesus’s story of the sheep and goats. Not literal sheep and goats, of course. Goes like this:

As soon as the Son of Man comes, in His glory and all the angels with Him, He will then sit His throne of glory, and every people-group will be gathered together in front of Him. He will divide them from one another, like a shepherd divides the young sheep from the young goats, and will put the lambs by His right hand, and the kids by His left.

Then the King will say to those at His right, “Come. You have been praised by My Father. Take possession of the Kingdom; it has been prepared for you at the universe’s creation. For I was hungry and you gave Me food. I was thirsty and you gave Me a drink. I was a foreigner and you included Me. I was poorly clothed and you dressed Me. I was weak and you came to help Me. I was in trouble and you came to Me.”

The right-minded will reply to Him, “Master, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You a drink? When did we see and include foreigners, or dress the poorly clothed? When did we see a weak or troubled person and go to them?”

The King will reply to them, “Amen I tell you: To anyone who did such things for the most obscure of My family members—you did so to Me.”

Then He will say to those at His left, “Get away from Me, you damned people—into the perpetual fire; it has been prepared for the devil and its angels. For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat. I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink. I was a foreigner and you didn’t include Me; poorly clothed and you didn’t dress Me; weak and in trouble and you showed no concern for Me.”

They will reply to Him, “Master, when did we see You hungry, thirsty, foreign, poorly clothed, weak, or in trouble, and not serve You?”

He will reply to them, “Amen I tell you: To anyone who didn’t do such things for the most obscure, you didn’t do so to Me.”

These people will go away into perpetual punishment. The right-minded go into perpetual life.

—Mt 25.31-46 KWL

What did the “goats” get sent to hell for? Obviously, for not feeding, clothing, helping, visiting, or including the needy of all sorts. Are we doing any of this at all? Or are we just sending money to organizations that do it—or arranging for our church to send money to such organizations so that we don’t have to?

Seems to me that this is something that your average Christian is not personally involved in, and had better bloody well get involved in if we ever expect to inherit the Kingdom. Trouble is, despite how obvious the lesson is, people figure they can either do it by proxy, or figure there are enough government employees or charity workers to take care of everyone—or they’re participating in a fast and hoping to God that God doesn’t call them into any such vocation.

If you’re fasting and wondering what God wants you to do, I think we need to fast for a different reason: We need to mourn and repent of sitting on our lazy American asses while there are needy people in our towns who are needlessly suffering while we worry about the weight we’ve gained after Christmas. We need to stop casting about for a mission other than what God’s already commissioned us Christians to do, as if He’s didn’t really mean it when He told us to love our neighbors, and is gonna offer us a second option that appeals to our ego more. We don’t need to seek a new vision; we need to obey the one we were already given.

You wanna know why we’re not seeing victories in our lives, or having satisfaction in our ministries? It’s because we’re neither obeying God nor actually ministering in a way God approves of. Our so-called “ministries” consist of entertaining flabby, soft, passive Christians, lest they grow bored or get offended by actual challenges, and go elsewhere and take their money and attention with them. That new direction that we’re fasting and hoping God reveals to us? Deep down, we’re looking for something that will “fulfill” us—meaning that’ll make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside, yet not actually involve any sacrifice or hardship or suffering on our part. Deep down, we’re looking for something that will remove us from the misery and vice of this world; something that will make our church well-known and get it attention; something that will raise tons of money and build shiny buildings that don’t do anything. Deep down, we’re looking for a Christianity that doesn’t look at all like anything Jesus went through; we want to be Epicureans, where pleasure rather than obedience is the highest good, and freedom from anxiety comes through “God-given” possessions rather than through the God-given Holy Spirit.

Our fasts are a joke. Have been since Isaiah’s time, when God said even then that they pissed Him off. He doesn’t want fasts; He wants obedience. Isaiah’s got some fun comments on fasting:

Day by day they look for Me

and want to know My directions—

as if they were a people who behaved rightly

and hadn’t abandoned God’s justice.

They ask Me for fair decisions.

They want God to come near.

“Why do we fast, and You don’t see it?

Why do we afflict ourselves, and You don’t know it?”

Look: You take pleasure in your fast day.

You don’t work; but your employees sure do.

Look: Your fasts result in debates and fighting,

to attack with evil hands.

No fast like today’s will make a sound heard in a high place.

Is this anything like a fast I prefer?—

a day for a person to refresh the soul?

to bow the head like a blade of grass?

to lie down in rough clothes, in ashes?

Is that called a fast, a day pleasing to Yahweh?

Isn’t this the fast I prefer?—

Open the chains of the oppressed,

loose the straps of the yoke,

set the broken people free,

and break every yoke.

Isn’t it to share your bread with the hungry?

to bring home the needy homeless people?

to cover those you see naked?

to not hide yourself away from people?

Then your light will burst like day

and your health grow quickly,

and rightness go to your face,

and Yahweh’s glory gather you together.

Then you call and Yahweh answers;

you call for help and He says, “I’m here.”

If you turn away from the yoke in your midst—

the pointing finger and evil saying—

If you spend your life on the hungry

and satisfy the life of the afflicted,

your light rises in the darkness

and your night is like noon,

and Yahweh guides you continually.

—Is 58.2-11 KWL

And He promises a few other nice things… if His people would just obey.

You want direction? God is ever-present when you are actually doing what He wants you to do and serving His people. You aren’t waiting around for advice; you’re getting it instantly, sometimes before you even ask for it, simply because you stopped begging Him to come to you, and went to where He is. Don’t waste His time with anything else.

© K.W. Leslie

What he's posted here troubles me. Not in a theological manner, because I agree with what he's saying; instead, it troubles me because I agree with him.

As I've examined my heart and my life this past semester, I've found a couple of things that are in direct opposition to each other: I want to help others, and I'm a selfish, greedy woman. This was made clear to me at Christmas time when I kept thinking, "This is the birth of Christ I'm supposed to be celebrating. Why am I all about the presents?"

This whole subject is troubling. It SHOULD be troubling. I see the church failing miserably to do these things, and offering only excuses for why we're not doing them. And even though I try to help when and where I can, I still see myself as terribly selfish and greedy, especially as we leave the Christmas season. I've been confronting my own selfishness and greed head on, and it's not pretty.

There are a lot of people in my own community who need help. I could help them, but I'm busy. I have a husband and son, I'm in school, I work full time, and I just don't know where I would fit in helping those people. But lots of other people are just as busy as I am, and they find time to help the people in this city who need it. So maybe what it really comes down to is that 1) I'm lazy, and 2) I'm really uncomfortable around people I don't know.

Leslie's right; we don't need to fast and pray about what God wants us to do, because He already told us what we need to do. Maybe each of us needs to pray about how we go about taking care of those in need, but I'll tell you this right now: God has already given you permission to help.

Welcome to the New Year, folks. Now, let's get out there and do the right thing.

1 comment:

Do Good said...

I don't think that helping others and being as you described are all that far appart. I think that many times when we do help others, we are at the same time helping ourselves.

I believe that everyone wants to do more to help others than they are actually doing. I think that people often don't do more because they are so busy in their everyday lives that doing good gets put on the back burner. It's not that they don't want to do good, they just forget with their busy lives.

People also don't realise how easy it is to help someone else out and make the world better a lot of the time. Or that it doesn't have to take a lot of time or effort to do good. Or that helping others often ends up being a way to help yourself be the better person you want to be. Sometimes all it takes is a smile, encouragement or a hug.