Friday, September 25, 2009

Two for One-Fasting and Study

Newspaper column for September 25--Study

“God probably doesn’t exist. Don’t worry about it.” This arrogant statement was observed on a banner on the side of a bus in London this past summer. Author Darryl Tippens saw this while in the United Kingdom a few months ago.

The sign disrespects many world religions—not only Christianity. The eight words are in-your-face paid “advertising” that makes “choice” a god. The banner shouts: live your life as you wish. Do what you like. Hurt others if you will. There is no absolute love. Satisfy yourself. God is a myth.

Years ago, just north of Montgomery, Texas on Highway 49 North, resident “Rock” Jones declared with boldness his belief in God. Signs and placards hung along his fence that fronted the highway. And on that fence, he had signs that proclaimed “Jesus is Lord” and God as “Rock of Ages.”

My soul sighed when I heard Tippens tell of the bus banner. However, I also celebrated last week, when an accident victim on a news story gave praise to God for his rescue. Anti-God talk is nothing new. It happened in the Garden of Eden when Satan first tempted Eve, and it will keep happening until the end of time. God only grows distant when we distance ourselves from God.

This week, in our look at the inner disciplines, let’s consider the act of study. Author Richard Foster suggests four areas of study that are closely related to understanding God: the Bible, God’s creation, other works about God, and the human race.

Foster says as we study these and practice other inner disciplines of prayer, fasting, and meditation of scripture we come to know God and his work. The Bible is not just a compilation of hero, heroines and stories of wickedness, too. The Bible is an autobiography of God how he loves and deals justly with deep seated sin.

In the book of Jonah, Jonah is not the main character, God is. In the gospel according to Mark, we get Mark’s inspired perspective about God, but the story is about God. In Acts of the Apostles (these titles are man-given), it could more accurately be called Acts of the Holy Spirit. As we repeat our readings and studying this history of God, who has long been wooing humanity to himself, a deeper understanding of God is unveiled.

As our age grows chronologically, we also observe and comprehend more of God’s extravagant power in the natural world. By the sheer power of his words, Genesis one says he spoke this world into reality. Daily, amazing facts and intricacies are discovered about our habitat—intricacies of a buffalo gnat, newly discovered galaxies, unseen viruses, and genetic makeup. As we study nature, we come to grips with Paul’s statement that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

As we read the story of Jesus’ walk on earth we witness in him an exact likeness of God. Jesus is co-creator, who showed us the full extent of God’s love (John 13). When we study and observe human kind, in some we see God’s love lived out again and again. And when we consider those humans who choose the dark side, we have learned through study of their character that they are capable of vile acts against other males and females created in the image of God.

When study of scripture, truth in print, is embraced it is like taking a bath in cleansing water. The grime and dirt we pick up from rubbing shoulders with bad influences can be showered away. We can assist in washing negative God-graffiti from hearts and off bus banners.

A psalmist wrote, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). God’s story, found in the Bible, is a classroom and liberating, freeing us to love instead of hate, stimulating us to grow instead of stagnate.

newspaper column from Sept 11--Fasting

Fasting is one of the inner disciplines, allowing the body to go hungry and even thirsty so that the mind and heart can fill up with better things from God’s table. While food and drink are necessary to sustain the body, it is beneficial to the inner person to step away from the fast foods and over-stuffings to focus on God.

Fasting brings about physical benefits such as body cleansing and weight loss, but these should not be our motives. John Wesley said about fasting, “Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven.” Richard J. Foster agrees with Wesley, saying that worshiping God during a fast should be the all-in-all goal—the only way “we will be saved from loving the blessing more than the Blesser.”

I remember studying the topic of fasting when a teen. Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were challenging, “When you fast…” An imperative is implied by the word choice of “when.” Jesus did not say “if” you fast, but “when.” I didn’t try to fast until I was in my thirties, and I found it both difficult and enlightening—it really showed me what a slave I was to my cravings.

We’re familiar with the act of doing without food for eight hours or more. Our word “breakfast,” is from the two words “break” and “fast.” We sometimes fast before medical tests or procedures. My mother said that my Dad, a minister, often went without food because he was so intent on caring for a needy family that his focus was on them and not mealtimes.

While the idea of fasting is familiar to us, the practice is foreign. Fasting from food is not the only type of fasting. The apostle Paul said that married couples will sometimes fast from sexual intimacy in order to devote themselves to prayer. Others recognize disturbances in their lives and choose to fast from them, such as dating, from the media, from noise, or they fast from speaking words.

The first recorded teaching of Jesus about fasting is in the book of Matthew, and he cautioned about the motives behind fasting. “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:17).

During Bible times fasting, folk often let their bodies go unkempt, put on scratchy “sackcloth,” and smeared ashes on their bodies. But Jesus said for the best reward, avoid tell-tale behavior. God is not looking for an outward display of piety. He is looking for humble hearts, sanctuaries where he can abide. And when God takes up residence in hearts, he becomes the janitor—cleaning like no one else.

The Bible also tells about times of corporate fasting, when groups of people agree to fast and pray. When an evil edict gave permission for citizens in Persia to slaughter Jews, young Jewish Queen Esther asked for three days of agreed fasting from food and water from the Jews in the citadel of Susa before she approached King Xerxes seeking a solution.

I you choose to fast for a first time try a lunch to lunch fast. You will miss dinner and breakfast. Drink fruit juices, pray throughout the hours, but especially at the time you would normally have your meal spend that time in devoted prayer.

One time when Jesus disciples talked about regular food, Jesus said, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about” (John 4:32). He spoke about a feast between God the Father and Jesus, who chose to stay in God’s will and was empowered to finish the work of salvation for mankind.

Despite the wondrous variety of good things God gave us to eat, the best food isn’t calorie laden. The superior food is to do the will of God and often that path is revealed through the discipline of fasting.

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