The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune…
When William Wordsworth penned those words in 1802, they were true enough. Now, they seem positively prophetic. We are a people wildly out of tune with the harmony of the universe, and so tone deaf we do not even know there is a tune.
We rush and run and work and strive and grasp. And all the while, we are growing more and more deaf to the harmony that sustains and undergirds our lives, the Heart that beats the pulse of outpouring, generous love though all that is. The flow of love is restricted, constricted, even stopped in us…because we will not stop to listen and be loved.
I know, because that is how I’ve lived most of my life. I know, because I see other people doing the exact same thing.
It’s not just the busyness, though God knows that is exhausting enough. It’s the way the sheer constancy of 24-hour access to the world at our fingertips wears on us. It’s an endless rising tide. But we can’t live at flow tide all the time. We need periods when the tide ebbs, and we can stop swimming for dear life, catch our breath, and lie in the sun.
We need these seasons of quiet and rest not just in our physical, exterior lives, but also in our spiritual, interior lives. Without such seasons, we will get caught in the riptide of the human tendency to try to pull ourselves up to God by our own bootstraps. Which, of course, we can’t. But we sure like to try, don’t we? (Or is that just me?) We pray and read the Bible and do good works and go to church and tithe and serve, and when God still seems far away, we redouble our efforts. We try harder. We work longer. We beat ourselves up and hammer ourselves down and wear ourselves out. And all the while the doubt and fear and anxiety that we’re trying to ignore keep threatening to overwhelm us. So we try harder. We work longer. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.
We are out of tune.
This is not the way of Jesus. It is certainly not the easy yoke that He promised. “Come to me,” He said, “and I will give you rest.”
Lent is upon us, friends. For those who are weary and worn, Lent probably seems like one more Thing To Do. But oh friends, if that’s how it feels to you, lay your burden down. Lent is a season of rest, a season of hush and quiet, a season of listening to God’s symphony of love—for you.
The Heart of Spiritual Disciplines
Those of you who are at all familiar with Lent are quite possibly thinking, “What is Kimberlee smoking?” After all, everyone knows Lent is a season of fasting and repentance. And sadly, for many (most?) people the two words fasting and repentance leave a bad taste on the tongue. I think this is largely (though not entirely) because these spiritual disciplines have been abused, used as mallets with which to hammer people into “holiness” or served as ends in themselves.
It should be fairly obvious to anyone who pauses to think for a few moments that manipulating people into a certain behavior is unlikely to have many (if any) positive outcomes. So it is singularly unhelpful and counterproductive to wave our fingers in people’s faces (including our own!) and say, “Fast and repent or else” or “If you really loved Jesus, you would fast and repent.” You can repent out of true guilt, but you cannot repent out of false guilt—and emotional manipulation almost always produces false guilt. Similarly, fasting is pretty much pointless if you’re doing it out of guilt. God will use anything, I grant you, but a grudging or guilt-ridden fast is probably not going to have the effects that fasting is supposed to have.
Which brings me to the use of these disciplines as ends in themselves. Let me be clear: the purpose of a spiritual discipline (whether it’s observing the church year or fasting or praying or anything else) is always to lead us more deeply into God’s love and into ever deeper dependence on His grace.
Let me say that again: the purpose of a spiritual discipline is to lead us more deeply into God’s love and into ever deeper dependence on His grace.
Spiritual disciplines are not Things To Do in the sense of something we check off a list, like washing the dishes or answering email, and they are never ends in themselves. They are a means of grace (which means, at least in part, that we ought to use them graciously!). We don’t fast for the sake of fasting. We fast to enter into a deeper dependence on God.
The Lenten Discipline of Fasting
During Lent, the purpose of fasting is to create space and silence in our lives for God to speak. I believe God is speaking all the time—delighting over us with love and rejoicing over us with singing. There is always heavenly music to dance to, but we are out of tune. The Lenten fast is one way to get back in tune.
For me, this usually means fasting from some form of media. Now, I already live a minimally media-saturated life for my context, but even so, the endless rising tide surges around me, and I try to step away from it to higher ground during Lent. I do this because I want to hear God more clearly. I want to clear from my mind the clamor of all the other voices vying for my attention. I want to look to God for my sense of identity (I am His Beloved!).
The media fast is not because media is bad or because I’m trying to earn God’s favor. Not at all. The fast’s purpose is God—hearing God, listening to God, loving God, and perhaps most especially, receiving God’s love for me. In fasting from other voices I learn to depend more fully on God’s.
The Lenten Discipline of Repentance
Repentance goes hand in hand with fasting. Fasting creates space for us to listen to God, and often what we hear in that space is a call to repentance—largely because when we step outside our usual ways of doing and being, things bubble to the surface that we can ordinarily ignore by going back to our habitual rituals of consumption (whether of food or media or work). The fast interrupts those habits, and we find ourselves face-to-face with those things we really don’t like to look at.
For me, minimizing media has made me aware of just how much I crave others’ approval. I’ve known this about myself since I was 13. What I didn’t know was just how deep that rabbit hole was (I rather doubt I’ve plumbed its depths yet) and how idolatrous this craving was. It tainted everything. It has been so much a part of me for so long that it seemed to be intrinsic to who I am. It was part of my identity. And I needed to repent of it. (And I continue to need to repent of it.)
Repentance is the realization that we have turned our faces away from God. We are looking in the wrong direction. (Usually we’re looking at ourselves.) And God knows that for us to live well, we need to be living in Him and gazing on Him. So He gently calls our attention to the idols in our lives that have captured our vision and asks us to give those gods to Him and turn our eyes back to His.
An Invitation to Rest and Be Loved
So as you think about your Lenten fast, and as you practice it, remember that it’s not a measuring rod with which to beat yourself up or judge others, nor is it inherently valuable in and of itself, much less something to check off your spiritual to-do list.
Rather, it is an opportunity to enter into the rest that Jesus promises. It is an invitation to hear God speak to your heart words of healing, words of wholeness, words that bring you rest, words that bring you back in tune with the joyful music that hums at the heart of the universe, the music of God’s unfailing, never-ending, always and forever love.
I pray, friends, that these next weeks of Lent will be a season of restful listening, rich with the love of God. I pray that you will be rooted and grounded in His love and would have power to comprehend, with all the saints, how wide and long and high and deep is His love for you, that you would know His love, which surpasses knowledge, and that you would be filled to the measure with all the fullness of God.
Next month I’ll write about the third traditional Lenten practice: almsgiving or charity. For now, given that it’s only a few days into Lent, what are you fasting from? More importantly, why did you choose to fast from that? What burden do you need to lay at the foot of the Cross so you can receive the love of Jesus?
In Circle of Seasons, after I discuss each season is a section entitled “Living the Season.” As we walk these seasons together, which idea will you try—or have done before and will continue—this year?
This is Amy: Next week we start Invitations From God by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun and will discuss the intro and chapter one.