In college, I was assigned a three day detox fast as an assignment for my yoga course. Don’t judge me; I had tight hamstrings and a lot of stress. Detoxing is something spiritual people to do get rid of harmful toxins in the body. I still don't know what a toxin is, except that it must ultimately cause cancer and premature death. We had two options for this detox: three days of water mixed with apple cider vinegar, lemon, and cayenne pepper. Or, three days of ingesting fruit. I went to Piggly Wiggly and cleared out the fruit aisle. I ate mounds of fruit—baked apples for appetizers and frozen bananas for desert. The detox worked, well, because of fiber. Fruit has a lot of fiber.
I’ve not detoxed since because I was miserable without pork and ice-cream. I craved bread—sourdough with a thick crust and tangy chew. And I went to straight to Panera when the clock struck the seventy-second hour. Fasting is difficult because desire arises from abstinence. Prohibition creates longing, which is psychology 101 and the reason why I want Chick-Fil-A on Sunday.
Why would anyone fast? Why would anyone voluntarily suffer? It goes against every impulse in my body. I love food. I plan my days around when I’m going to eat. Fasting is best placed in between meals.
We are an anti-fasting people living in a culture of fast food and Google and Amazon Prime. John Ortberg calls it the Cookie Monster philosophy: “See cookie. Want cookie. Eat cookie.” We also live in a culture of overconsumption. On the Fourth of July, no one holds a fasting competition. We have hot dog eating competitions because nothing screams, “America” like fifty hot dogs. When there’s a crisis in my life, or in the church, I overindulge.
It never works.
This is why Lent is so necessary, and also difficult and rewarding. For forty days we become like the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for forty years waiting on their daily deliverance of manna before they finally arrived at the land of milk and honey. Lent helps us realize that we become healthier by becoming dependent, vulnerable, and needy. It's a deeply un-American season.
Christians typically begin the season by remembering that Jesus was hurled into the wilderness to fast at the start of his ministry by the Spirit (not Satan). If I’m going to fast, then the Spirit better hurl me into the wilderness, too.
In the larger narrative, Jesus was just baptized. Now, he’s in the desert. It’s not punishment; it’s preparation. Water and wilderness go together. Think of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea into the desert or Noah wading on the waves of the wilderness. God often uses scarcity to prepare, or reform, or educate his people. The point is that Jesus is in the wilderness, like Israel before him, and God is shaping his heart for something important.
Satan, which means the Enemy or the Adversary, is there waiting in the wilderness with temptations. Satan is easy to caricature: red suit, pitchfork, horns. But evil doesn’t look like that. The Adversary is the nagging the voice of reason inside your head: “Hey, you’re hungry; that’s a good thing. Turn the stone into bread. No one will ever know.” He’s got a good point. There’s nothing wrong with food; we have five or six taste buds that prove it. Let me get another piece of that sourdough.
Self-deception is so easy.
I’ve heard it said that Jesus’ first temptation isn’t about eating. The real temptation is to be full, or to never lack. It’s the temptation to be a slave to our appetites and to have every desire met. Think of the voice that tells you that you’re entitled to whatever you want: happiness, another five dollar coffee, a better job because you've been working so hard. Everything exists for your pleasure—especially the five dollar coffee.
Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is meant to sound like Eden. Remember Adam and Eve? They are in the garden with everything they need. Then, this conniving serpent says, “You know what? You can actually have more. There is one thing that God is hiding from you. Go for it. Take a bite.” You know what? He's right. A little more won’t hurt. Until it does. When you’re always fully satisfied, you may fool yourself into thinking you can actually save yourself. You will never die. You can be a god. Then again, good luck digging yourself out of a grave.
Jesus knows this and so he cites Scripture, “The human being is not nourished by bread only, but by every word that comes out of God’s mouth.” The truth is that we’ll never be full, unless God becomes our bread. Buying new clothes secretes endorphins in our brains, but it doesn’t satiate our souls. Jesus realizes that if he had bread, he’d be hungry the next day. If he had a beer, he’d be thirsty again. But learning to be satiated with the word of God, learning to feed on the bread of heaven, means he’ll never be hungry again. Jesus’ fasting foreshadows something that he will say later in John’s Gospel: “I am the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”
Here’s the point: “After fasting forty days and forty nights, [Jesus] was hungry” (Matthew 4:2).
If the point of fasting is hunger, then what are we hungry for?
Are we hungry for Jesus?
In college, that fruit fast was meant as a detox, to clear me out. Spiritual fasting operates the same way—it clears us out and reveals the things that control us. We are more than a collection of appetites to be satisfied and our desires have to be disciplined or they become our gods. Saint Augustine put it like this: “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”i
I faithfully participate in some fast for 40 days ever Lent. One year I swore off coffee. Know that smell of freshly ground beans? It’s the smell of Satan. Other times I’ve given up Facebook or social media. I’ve fasted from food on Fridays with the Catholics and become a vegetarian for forty days. I've never enjoyed it. Not once. But here’s the silver lining: when I’m done with the fast, I come out different. Stronger. Prayerful. A better heart. Others have said that we fast to feast on God.
Jesus tells his people this in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Your Father who sees [your fasting] in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-18)
When you fast you might drop a size in your jeans and more importantly, become holy. Each time your stomach rumbles, your heart rumbles, too. Self-denial draws us out of ourselves into God and others. Think of the others who are forced to fast, simply because there is not enough food. Why do we have so much, after all? If you give up Instagram, then you might notice that your worth is not based upon the number of people who ‘like’ a photograph. Rather, your worth is that you are Beloved, created in God’s image.
Fasting is not meaningless suffering or martyrdom. The reward is a transformed heart. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is not only worried about your actions, what you do, but he’s also concerned about your inner life. The heart is the center of your being. What comes out of you proceeds from the heart—all of your actions and intentions. Change the rhythm of your heart and you will also change your life.
One Jewish manual says that fasting works because it makes our bodies slow down so that our synapses will not click and our brains will not process quite as quickly.ii We physically force ourselves to move slower and to draw our eyes inward to the things that truly nourish. Notice what controls you. Be more mindful of God’s presence. Pay attention to those who are hungry and be grateful for God’s provision.
In other words, become hungry for God.
i.Augustine City of God
ii. Lauren Winner Mudhouse Sabbath
It’s good to escape. It’s better to live in the place where others go to escape. Still, there are times when I wish for nothing but to escape from the place where the southeast goes to escape. Life is difficult and denominations implode. There’s simply too much to keep in the air and something is bound to drop—it’s usually the second child. And if life's not difficult, then it’s monotonous. Here's another day that will feel just like yesterday and if this toddler yells, “Get me a drink!” one more time, then I’m getting a second mortgage at the Motel 8.
I get away, if only to a coffee shop or for a run through the forest, to regain clarity about what I should be doing and then, summon the energy to do it. I search for transcendent moments beyond the routine of cooking and writing, temper tantrums and e-mailing, evening news and social media. I escape because I know that there is more—depth, an interruption to the hum drum, salvation. And if I can’t find salvation here, then I’d better go find where it’s hiding.
Jesus and the disciples needed to get away from time to time. Death was imminent in this particular moment. Jesus had recently taught them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering ‘at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day.’ At best, Jesus turned out to be lousy Messiah. At worst, he’s a liar and a fraud.
Peter loses his temper and says, “God, forbid it.”
Jesus rebukes him.
It’s time to get away.
Six days later, Matthew writes, James, John, and Peter are walking up this mountain in sweat-saturated robes. Their feet are pounding the ground, knees wobbling. It’s the perfect time for a walk. If the disciples can summit this mountain, then they might also summit whatever waits for them at the bottom.
Mountain trails are sympathetic metaphors for our lives. The trail’s curves are as treacherous as our own winding and meandering. Unforeseen obstacles appear and require improvisation. There is breathlessness from either exhaustion or beauty. Maybe both. The summit is visible, but there’s always another switchback. The pain is therapeutic. One day we must see the promised land, so we keep putting one foot in front of the other.
At the top of Mount Tabor things get weird, which is polite for trippy. The disciples have either foraged some bad mushrooms or God’s presence is revealed. There is a dazzling light. Garments are as white as snow. The veil between heaven and earth is pulled back. Time stops. There is silence. Moses and Elijah appear next to Jesus. Is this hallucination? Most dream dictionaries concur that Moses is standing in for the Jewish law and Elijah is representing the prophets. And Jesus fulfills both.
“It’s good to be here,” says Peter who has since been named ‘Captain Obvious.’ “Let’s put up some shacks. This moment doesn’t have to end. We can stay here.”
Have you ever tried to capture a moment? It’s futile. Moments can’t be contained any more than a picture can capture your mother’s smell and presence. That piece of frozen cake in your freezer will not capture your wedding day. Or, the vile full of water from the Jordan River will not give you back the moment when your feet sunk into the mud at the riverbank. All moments, especially the holiest ones, will eventually come to an end.
A cloud rolls in with a thunder before Peter even finishes his sentence. A voice booms from the heavens saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” The dazzling clouds rolled out as quickly as they rolled in and they were left in darkness and fear. Listen to him—even the parts about the suffering.
The church’s word for what happened to Moses and Jesus is not tripping. It’s transfiguration, or metamorphosis in Greek, which means to change into something more beautiful. The caterpillar was actually a butterfly, but no one could make it out. In other words, the disciples saw what was there all along, but was obscured by fear and ignorance and busyness.
Now, many of us have experienced something like this—well, maybe not dazzling light, ghosts, and voices from heaven. But we’ve had moments become transfigured and time becomes different, other-worldly, even. Time’s relentless marching stops for a cigarette break. And something becomes holy.
“Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw a backyard cedar transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the the grass with lights in it, utterly focused. It was less like seeing then being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. ….I have since only very rarely seen the tree with lights in it. The vision comes and goes, but I live for it, for the moment where the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
There’s a key to interpret this story, one that’s so well-hidden that it’s hardly noticed. Matthew’s first verse: “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.” All of this took place on the seventh day. Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor on the Sabbath day. And when Peter says, “It’s good,” he very well could be talking about the seventh day of creation, Sabbath, a day that’s not only good, but it’s so good that it’s holy.
In the creation story, God brings light, hangs the stars in the sky, the creeping things are creeping, the flying things are flying. God picks up dirt and blows into it to form humankind. It’s this beautiful poem. Finally, God rests on the seventh day. Not because God is tired, but because God’s intention is enchantment.
Humans are so self-absorbed that we think we’re climax of God’s creation, when God turns to us and says, ‘All I have is yours.’ But the final brushstroke of creation wasn’t Adam and Eve; it was God’s rest on Sabbath. Creation isn’t about us. It’s about Sabbath--resting, delighting, enjoying, being.
If heaven is to come to earth, then it will start with Sabbath. This is the day when time and eternity touch; a mystical moment where time changes. Time is not running out, nor is it standing still. It’s different. It’s transfigured—infused with eternity. The past, present, and future are simultaneously wrapped inside of one another. The ‘eternal now’ is tangible. The beauty underneath all things peeks out of the rubble.
We make a mistake when we say that Sabbath is about escape. Sabbath is about freedom. It’s learning to submerge yourself in life—deeply. All of it. God didn’t create Sabbath to escape creation. But God created Sabbath to dwell with it—the pain and the glory. Transcendence and difficulty. Suffering and ecstasy. To see the reality of the world and not run away, but embrace it for the sake of truth and justice.
Sabbath is God's slow transfiguration of the world.
Do you think you can live in the world a little differently? At least for a day, or until it becomes the rhythm of your life?
The disciples longed to escape from the pressures of life, the difficulties of following a Rabbi who was walking the road to the cross. Who wouldn’t? It’s good to get away. Vacations are great. But the problem with escaping is that it can be misused as an opiate. It dulls the symptoms, but won’t cure the disease.
The same world was waiting for the disciples at the bottom of the mountain. There, at the foot of the mountain, a grieving father was looking for healing for his deeply ill child. And that father is waiting to see a transfiguration of his child. Further down the road, there was a cross and a tomb.
Is God present there, too? Can there be transfiguration?
Jesus didn’t give the disciples escape. Jesus gave them Sabbath, which is another way of saying 'intentional living.' Jesus was teaching them to see the world as it is—both hard and beautiful. God is transfigured on the highest mountains, but God will also emptied into the world’s worst hells. And the disciples were about to discover that the same Jesus they saw on the mountain shining in glory, will be the same Jesus on the cross.
And here’s even more surprising news: even the crucified Christ can be transfigured.
I wonder what beauty surrounds you. I wonder what pain surrounds you. I wonder if God is transfiguring both. Now, if someone is causing you consistent pain and suffering, then you should get away. This isn’t about martyrdom. Don’t misunderstand me. But generally speaking, Christians are not a people who run away from another’s pain. We’re a people of Sabbath, who believe that there is light everywhere and in everyone waiting to be revealed, if we just hang in there.
The world was broken, but God didn’t leave. God put on skin. And so we empty ourselves into the world, as Christ was emptied into us, because we believe that there is no pain that is beyond transfiguration.
Can we look deeply into the face of a screaming child and see that he’s not possessed, but hungry—for attention, rest, food? Can we look at the disfigured hands in the nursing home and not run away, but remain present in her pain and beauty? Can we look at the divisiveness that threatens to tear apart a denomination and stand alongside God’s people until there is transfiguration? Can we walk with others toward the cross and experience humanity’s worst evils, and wait for a God who doesn't let death become the end of the sentence?
Will we fight together for transfiguration? Or, do we just escape?
He might as well have told us that the kingdom won't grow unless it's buried in the dirt.
The kingdom of God begins in a womb of darkness where there's no air to breathe and life is pressing in from all sides, leaving the seed trapped with no escape. The weight of the world bears down upon it. Plus, if the dirt is any good then it's called compost, which is a fancy word for manure that's been aged long enough to become black gold. The seed is emptied into a world entrenched in violence, division, and deep loneliness. It takes root in the heart of the mourners, the meek, the poor. God's trajectory in Jesus is fundamentally down and he is only lifted high when he's put on a cross. The kingdom of God isn't this far of place; it's here, in the manure of our world.
If your life is imperfect and broken, then that's the kind of soil God prefers to be planted in.
God seems to have a propensity for small and insignificant things. When God creates there is only chaos and a dark void, but then there's light and order. God chooses the little nation of Israel amidst the world's powerful kingdoms. And when God lifts the veil to truly reveal Godself, we don't see a soldier or a king on a throne. Instead, God becomes a seed placed in a poor, teenagers body, Mary. Here's a list of synonyms for God: I Am Who I Am and an infant in a feeding trough; the Lord and an itinerant rabbi; El Shaddai and an enemy executed by the state.
The word we use to describe God is omnipotent, or all powerful, and that's a fine thing to believe, but God's almighty kingdom doesn't take the shape of a kingdom like Rome. The Kingdom of Rome was compared to an eagle flying at high speed, crashing into its prey, and latching its talons into its flesh. God's kingdom is less assertive--just a mustard seed. Shall we put this on our flags? We are as strong and mighty as, well, a seed.
Jesus' metaphor should restrain us from conflating God's kingdom with the United States.
My mom has this mustard seed necklace--a simple gold chain with a kitschy little heart that holds a mustard seed levitating in the center. It's so simple that she almost threw it away, but said to herself, "how can you throw away the hope of a mustard seed?" A seed, at least, is a promise that there will be something more. Wherever there is a seed buried in the dirt and the manure there is also hope. A tiny thing can become a bigger thing. A little seed in the ground. A little yeast in the batter. Michael Pollan, a food writer, said that ancient cultures used to think that bread-making was magic. You’d start with a little ball of dough and yeast, but the yeast feeds on the starches and releases carbon dioxide. The gluten traps the carbon dioxide. Then, your bread somehow doubles in size overnight creating enough sustenance for the entire family. It’s a miracle akin to the feeding of the five thousand.
Jesus says we have this small seed, but when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants.
Here's the problem: this is, to put it generously, not true. A mustard seed does not become a mustard tree. It grows into a mustard shrub, no bigger than, say, 20 feet with a single nest of birds. Ezekiel compared a mighty kingdom to a cedar tree, large enough for birds of every kind to nest and find shelter. But Jesus compared his kingdom to a mustard shrub, which to the original listener, was a weed. The Kingdom of heaven is like a weed. It's a nuisance like kudzu. It grows and spreads and you can't seem to get rid of it. God plants it in your heart and it takes over until it no longer belongs to you. It started so innocently--you joined a church and a few years later you're on the church council, member of the choir, and the soup kitchen team. It appears that your life is no longer your own. We think that God makes no discernible difference in our world, but at the end of a long day or year we may look back and realize that something has grown resiliently and obstinately through the rocks, thorns, and hardened soil.
Can we please have our garden back?
This is why, I presume, Jesus was arrested by the state. He was a nuisance and a threat to all of our manicured gardens. But you can’t get rid of the Kingdom of God with a bottle of Roundup or a cross. It's just not that easy. The powers of the state locked the seed into the darkness of a tomb and sealed the stone tight. But we know that the darkness is fertile soil for something new to grow. Three days later, new life began to peek out of the ground taking shape and sprouting new branches for the birds of the air to nest. Now the seed is planted and will one day grow in every heart and atom of creation. And if you look closely, you'll spot the seed hidden in all the world's crosses, the lives that are falling apart, and the crises that are too big for such a small seed. It's there, germinating, and waiting to burst into new life.
Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School has a poster on his office door that reads “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let the Christians of the World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.” Ask him about it and he might tell you, “It would certainly be a good thing for Christians to stop killing anyone, but you have to start somewhere." One would suppose we could agree on this modest proposal, if we could agree on anything.
We live in fractured world where division is the air we breathe. Turn on any news pundit and they’ll say, “Well, we’re just so divided now.” It’s deeper than partisan politics. We are a people of tribes—country clubs and civic clubs; Walmart or Target or the Asheville Mall; Ingles or Aldi or the farmer’s market. We are as divided by the logos on our shirts and the food in our pantries as we are by where we live and go to school. By the way, will Duke University and the University of North Carolina fans ever find a way to unite?
My own denomination, United Methodism, has a dubious relationship with unity. We began as a movement within the Church of England blending together strains of Anglicanism, German pietism, Catholic mysticism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Wesley’s ecumenical spirit led him to take the best of other traditions and juggle them together creating a hodgepodge theology of grace.
But schism is in our DNA. We’re Protestants, after all. Wesley, who vehemently opposed schism with the Church of England, eventually laid hands on Thomas Coke and sent him to America. Today, my ordination is traced back to John Wesley and no earlier. There have since been other splits and mergers. Schism, like divorce, seems to get easier with each iteration. The people called Methodists, and the holiness movement, morphed into pentecostalism and other forms of methodism. Most recently, we nominated ourselves a ‘united’ church only fifty years ago when the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical Unity Brethren in 1968. We’re due for another break up.
There’s an old motto that circulates attributed to John Wesley, which he never said: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity." The problem is that we can’t agree on essentials and rampant liberty isn't a viable option to create a covenant together. Some doctrines and practices are so antithetical to the good news of Christ that they merit division, even if it’s to our lament.
The problem for me, at least recently, is this letter to the Ephesians. It’s really inconvenient, isn’t it, that we’re handed this letter when American politics are the juiciest and denominational split seems so appealing. Even when I want the denomination to fall apart and banish political foes to the innermost layer of hell, I read Paul's words and have to bite my tongue. There was no greater cultural or religious divide as that between Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) and Paul (or whoever wrote this) is pleading for God’s chosen people to start getting along with Gentiles who were the eleventh hour workers, the prodigal sons, the ones begging for crumbs on the floor like dogs.
Here’s a miracle that’s about as unbelievable as resurrection: Christ has created a new humanity—a third race, as the church fathers used to say. The person and work of Jesus is about tearing down walls beginning the wall between heaven and earth. Jesus forgave our sins, breaking down the wall between us and God. His own body accomplished this work, holding together both God and flesh—immortality and mortality—divinity and humanity. In his ministry, he crossed over into Samaria and invited the ‘far off’ to come home, like the prodigal son.
There’s no other sensible reason to sit across the table from someone you hate, unless you believe that Jesus Christ is present in the power of the Spirit breaking down barriers. If it’s true, then there’s a reason to have church. If not, then we should continue to sit with insiders and scapegoat and complain about those on the outside. Let's build another wall because who cares. But the Jews and Gentiles shared a table and broke pita and drank wine. Together, the different notes blended to make a harmony that neither could make alone.
Unity doesn’t exist where there is uniformity; diversity is the key ingredient.
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
It’s a unity based in the very nature of God. There's oneness, but there’s a complexity within the one. God is one, but God is Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No one person is separate from another nor is one consumed into another, but each is held in communion in a divine dance of love. It’s the love of a community that spills out to create, redeem, and sanctify the world.RSS Feed
A theologian I admire reminds us that we have one Bible, but it’s infinitely complex. Total consensus is never the chief end, not even in the Scriptures. There are diverse voices, contexts, opinions, and theologies that are all inspired by the same Spirit. The early church canonized four different Gospels with four different christologies, or imaginations of the significance of the person and work of Jesus. When an early Christian named Tatian tried to harmonize all four Gospels into a coherent, uniform story called the Diatessaron, the church called it a heresy. No one wants a drab, watered down story of Jesus that has no context and thus, no courage to say something meaningful to particular people in real times and places.
Can we belong to one another despite our differences in this fragmented world? Our Bible does this. The early church did this with the power of the Holy Spirit that blowed on them and set hearts on fire at Pentecost. Jesus does this in his body and his mission. God does this in God’s self. It’s much bigger than one denomination’s struggle over articulating human sexuality; it extends to our idolatry of political ideologies and even more so to our unwillingness to look a stranger in the eye and listen, have a hard conversation, and admit that we're sinners who might be wrong.
It’s amazing that we still care about this in our culture with our current squabbling. Division may be warranted and lamented as an order of preservation, especially if we disagree over the basic essentials of the faith. But other folks are obstinate in their love for the church with a pigheaded hope that we might become the foretaste of God’s kingdom that will include every race, nation, economic, and ethnic group. And it’s a profound Methodist thing not to believe in some vague sense of Christ’s imputed unity, but to pursue it and allow it be imparted by the Spirit among us today. We’re not there yet. There’s always a tension between where we are and where we are headed—the already and the not yet—and we have an optimism that God’s grace can close the gap.
I also think I'm sure of this: if we will ever bear witness to unity, it won’t be a result of some political ideology spouted from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or a Bishop's prophetic stance, and definitely not a blog. But it might start with us and the ways we live our lives as every day Christians--in our churches and in our communities from the grass roots. It's worth a shot. After all, Paul tells us that peace has come and we’ve seen it. It’s Jesus. It’s the body Christ. It must be us.
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