Head and Heart – Fasting Edition

The Lutheran Church and all of the heirs of the Reformation share two things in my opinion.  They share a bias toward the head expressed in doctrine and arguments over doctrine.  Because of that doctrine and because of the crisis that birthed them, they are constantly warning against “works righteousness” which means being afraid that saying “you should do this” will be taken as deserving of reward when it is done.  That led, over the centuries, to a complete loss of expressions of piety.  What did we lose as we lost those expressions of piety?  What we probably lost was the best pathway from the head to the heart.  Thinking about the sermon on the mount series, Jesus is never afraid in his practice section to say, you should do this.  The big three are the three practices of lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  These are the practices that as Joel says “rend the heart and not the garment (Joel 2:13)”.

Now if you look at me, you know that I am anything but a faster.  These days even the Roman Catholics seem to have lost the practice, or it has been reduced to less than half understood rules.  But, the Orthodox maintain a good understanding and regime of the spiritual practice of fasting.  The key understanding of fasting is that you are doing it to learn to exercise control over your desires and internalizing the Ash Wednesday truth that this body is dust and to dust it will return.  In old style language you are mortifying the flesh (Romans 8:13).  The Orthodox, at least externally in America, are immensely graceful in their practice of the fast.  It is encouraged in all, but it recognized that most will not be able to hold it.

This page gives a great run-down of the Orthodox fasting practice.  You can immediately see how incarnate the practice is embedded in time and space, and how tough it would be.  It should also be noted that the Orthodox practice a form of spiritual direction that is somewhat alien to protestants.  The protestant ethos is very much “the priesthood of all believers” taken to the extreme in that each believer is their own spiritual director.  (Yes, that is role of pastors, but would a Lutheran minister attempt to say and do what an Orthodox priest does without thinking he would quickly find himself without a parish.) For a people as drenched in scripture as the protestants of old were, that is not a bad tradition.  But we are not that people.  At least not right now.  The fasting rules in individual parishes and for individual people come under the spiritual direction of your priest or spiritual father.

We are not all eyes or hands, but we are all members of one body.   I like that image when I think of looking at other traditions, but also when contemplating faces within one parish.   We can learn things without saying that I must be a hand also.  We can also sometimes recognize what might be vestigial or missing limbs that should be present.







Leaven & Lenten Practice (March 2013 Newsletter Pastor’s Corner)

leaven iconThis articles owes a debt to an article in Touchstone – Dylan Pahman’s The Yeast We Can Do. Unfortunately right now it is behind the paywall. You could always subscribe.

He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”Matthew 13:33
Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”Matthew 16:6

Yeast or leaven must be one of the most powerful metaphors in the bible. It is used both as a parable for the Kingdom itself, and for the forces that oppose the kingdom. If I were the disciples I might have asked Jesus to stop and tell us which. You can’t have it both ways. Nevertheless, I think there is a common thread in both cases that Jesus was calling to the disciples’ attention. It only takes a small amount of something compared to yeast to make or ruin the entire creation.

Passover, the Jewish festival that Holy Week fulfilled, contains an interesting additional law and practice. The Jews were commanded to eat unleavened bread. We know this from Exodus with the comment that it is bread made in haste. But the standing law given for Passover for succeeding generations was that for seven days they should eat unleavened bread, and on the first remove all leaven from the house. Anyone caught eating leavened bread would not just be ceremonially unclean for the Passover, but would be “cut off from Israel”. (Exodus 12:15) The old housewives’ tale is that this is the origin of “spring cleaning”. The Rabbis, thinking like Eve in the garden and observing the severity of the penalty, have erected even higher walls. To avoid even the slightest possibility of owning leaven under their roof, some Jews will sell their household for a day to a trusted agent buying it back after the Passover. The law always encourages following the letter and not the spirit.

Coming into Christianity, the ritual laws were no longer binding. The Passover week became Holy Week. The Christian’s preparation became the 40 days of lent. And the historic practices of lent were: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. One of the Desert Fathers, Evagrios, made the connection between good leaven and bad leaven. Reflecting on 1 John 2:16 – “For all that is in the world– the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life– is not from the Father but is from the world” – he called out gluttony, avarice and pride as the “frontline demons”. These were the bad yeast to watch for. When simple gluttony held sway, it would not be long before lust would follow. The person given to greed is easily swayed by wrath and envy. Whatever you might think of Evagrios’ progression of sin built around the seven deadly sins, the metaphor of leaven makes sense. It is certainly easier to laugh off a small indulgence. It is a lifetime of laughing off small indulgences that builds to greater sins and ruin of the entire life. A lifetime of disrespecting the Word is built upon that Sunday where sleeping in just felt better. A deathbed of terror and not knowing what to say is constructed from a lifetime of neglecting even our bedtime prayers.

Looking at the Sermon on the Mount and specifically Matthew 6, Evagrious countered that bad leaven with what he put forward as the good. Jesus there recommends direct almsgiving in private where the Father issues the reward. He follows that with the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer which in Matthew he precedes with “go into you private closet”. Like yeast, you don’t see this working publically. And following that prayer, Jesus issues the expectation to fast. Also in secret, adding “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face”. The Lenten practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting are connected as the small things that counteract those frontline demons of avarice, pride and gluttony. The greedy are called to give it away, the prideful to bend the knee in prayer, the gluttonous to fast for a time.

The Church Fathers were much more comfortable than most Lutheran ministers with directing works. But truth be told, so was Jesus. And there is definitely a way that these things can be made into a new law. When almsgiving, prayer and fasting would become the outward magic that we never let touch our hearts, we are being as pharisaical as selling our possessions for a day. These things become the metaphor for the Kingdom when we allow them to work on us, when that Spirit kneads into our heart the message of the gospel. Because we have received mercy, we are able to be merciful. Because Christ is our mediator, we can call God our Father. Because we have the promise of the Kingdom and the New Jerusalem, this world and its kingdoms’ glory can be turned away. Our abundance and our food comes not from mere bread.

Our faith, our families, our congregations, and our society might seem very brittle because we have not kneaded that lump of dough. We’ve let the leaven of the Kingdom sit on the surface. We’ve foresworn the spiritual practices in our lives. As James says, “be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in the mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (James 1:22-24) Jesus might put it somewhat differently, “some seed fell on hard packed ground where it was quickly devoured”. (Luke 8:5) Working the leaven through the dough, preparing the soil, changing the hard heart is not magic. It is like leaven. It starts small, and then works throughout the dough.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem…

Full Text

…The father desires for all His children to be under that protecting wing. That protecting wing that has taken care of and planned out all the necessities. All the ultimate necessities – our sin which separated us from the Father that prevented us from being gathered, the death that results from that sin, the raging of the adversary who stands behind all the Herod’s of this world who desire to kill us – The Father has supplied all our necessities in His son Jesus. Under the cross our sins have been buried. While in the tomb – Christ triumphed over that adversary – descending into hell to proclaim the victory. And on that third day – that glorious necessary third day when the course was complete – rising from the tomb and putting death forever under his feat. God desires all his children to be under that protective wing – his mighty arm of Jesus Christ….