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Is this the fast that I choose?

by T. Denise Anderson Inspired by Isaiah 58:1-12 Oil on canvas
don't look up

Perhaps you have noticed the questions—during Lent, every week when we gather for worship on Sundays and on Wednesdays, there will be a question that arises from the Scripture readings, a question to sit with and ponder. During these forty days, we will be seeking, asking honest questions for deeper faith.[1]

Some Christians worry about asking questions—does asking a faith question mean your faith isn’t strong enough? Is it wrong to express doubts? Or maybe we avoid questions for fear of looking foolish—what if people notice all the things I don’t know? Will they think I’m ignorant?

For Lutherans, questions are absolutely a matter of faith. Questions are the foundation of our faith heritage, memorably repeated in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, over and over again: “what does this mean?” I have hypothesized that Lutherans would prefer a good, well-worded question more than a flimsy answer.

Part of the reason is that questions keep the conversation going. And our faith questions are asked here in the presence of God, because we are continuing in conversation with God. This is not a contest among philosophers, crafting a wordy question for academic discussion. This is not a self-help inventory, not an interrogation, and our questions are definitely not for trivia night—and whew, trivia night in St. Louis, that is an entire culture in itself.

A good question is one you can sit with for a while, pondering, resisting easy answers. My spiritual director often asks me—and it stops me in my tracks every time—“Where is God in all of this?” It’s a step beyond affirming that, yes, God is present: this question asks for evidence. Where? What do you notice? Where is God in all of this?

Now our conversation might be getting uncomfortable because maybe you thought Ash Wednesday was about showing up to get ashes on your forehead, check that off your list of things to do, and then go about your business.

But guess what—all the things you can fast from, all the penitence, any discipline you can take on or any charity you can throw in the direction of the poor—any of those things you can do…are not really about you.

I mean, you can still make it about you. Even Jesus admits that’s a possibility, that you can give money to people who are poor and make sure everyone knows about it, and you can pray publicly with beautiful language and keep one eye open to see who’s paying attention, and you can post about your fasting on social media. And Jesus is clear about the outcome of these actions: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”[2] If you like to impress other people with your feats of faith, have at it.

But if you’re seeking God, well, it’s gonna look different. Because all of the Lenten disciplines are an invitation to grow in relationship with God. So here’s another question: what’s your next faithful step?

You’ve already started with confessing your sin, and that’s a good start. Rooted in reality. We can’t build a relationship with God if we’re not honest about ourselves. But neither are we here to wallow in our sin. God didn’t create humans just so we can feel bad about everything. We’re created for joy, for union with God.

And on the flip side of obsessing over sin, we’re also not looking for perfection. Perfection is a lie, and it wouldn’t save you anyway. Perfection is kind of a trap—if you’re looking for a perfect self, you’ll grow too inwardly focused; if you’re waiting for a perfect world or the perfect situation, you may be waiting a really long time and in the meantime, everything stays just as broken as it has ever been.

We can lament that the kin-dom of God is not already complete, and we can still take the next faithful step. This is what I think of whenever people get upset about signs that says “Black lives matter,” because well, don’t all lives matter? Of course all lives matter, and all lives matter greatly to God—even non-human lives matter to God, animals and plants and everything in between.

But here in this world, at this moment and in this place, we need reminders that Black lives matter, because there are too many stories of Black lives treated with indignity, Black lives disproportionately imprisoned, Black lives subjected to racism in healthcare or education, too many Black lives lost.

Until racial disparity and disproportionality are no longer measurable, until the close of the wealth gap between white families and families of color, until equality is no longer in question, we’re just gonna have to keep saying that Black lives matter. Maybe it makes us feel bad to be reminded of this truth, but lying about reality or pretending things are fine because I happen to feel fine—this has gotten us nowhere. Saying “Black lives matter” is part of the truth that sets us free.

We also acknowledge the truth of hardships faced by our LGBTQIA+ siblings in Christ. We pay attention to climate change and advocate for the care of all of God’s creation. We care for people who are hungry by providing food and also investigating the systems that do not adequately make food accessible to everyone.

These aren’t merely good deeds because we’re good people—we are humble people, interested in restoring relationships, taking one step at a time, proving by our actions that we really do mean it. We do this not because we can impress God with our goodness, but because we have received God’s grace and we know God’s love for all creation and we answer the call to discipleship in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit empowers us to keep expanding the reach of God’s kin-dom.

There’s a lot of brokenness and a lot of pain, and sin is a real problem. The work is big, but never too big for God. Because there’s also an endless fountain of God’s mercy, a deep well of grace in Jesus Christ, an eternal anointing of healing in the Holy Spirit.

What fast does God choose for you? Where is God calling you—inviting you—to stop and take notice of your heart and the site of your treasure? Where is God calling you to concentrate your energy in caring for your neighbor?

If you’re really here to build relationship with God, then what will be your next faithful step? God guide our steps in this journey, onward to the cross and onward to resurrection.


Pastor Cheryl

[1] Theme provided by A Sanctified Art. [2] Matthew 6:2


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