“Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?Isaiah 58:5-8
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.”
February 2020 is already upon us! And with it comes Ash Wednesday – the beginning of the long season of Lent – on the final Wednesday of the month. Lent can be a really meaningful season. It’s a season in which we are invited to gather up the burdens and worries and distractions we carry in our hearts, and to turn and lay these things at the foot of the cross. It’s a season of repentance, a season to acknowledge our human limitations, to turn back toward God and let God’s way be our way.
Many Christians choose to engage in some sort of Lenten practice or discipline in order to deepen their faith experience. Classically, these take the form of the great three Lenten disciplines: fasting, prayer, and alms-giving. People might choose one or some combination of these three to help them reorient their priorities around God and to draw closer to God in faith. Oftentimes, this ends up taking the form of temporarily “giving up” something for Lent, usually something we enjoy – like sweets, soda, video games, social media, and so on – and we can end up focusing more on the “what” we’re giving up than on the “why.” (I know in previous years I have been guilty of trying to disguise dieting practices as a “Lenten fast”!)
But this text from Isaiah – which is one of the options for the first reading on Ash Wednesday – invites us to think about our Lenten practice, especially fasting, in a much broader way. “Is not this the fast that I choose,” says the Lord, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” This picture of fasting is profoundly relational, deeply concerned about justice and care for the marginalized.
So in these weeks that we have before us, before the start of Lent, I want to invite you to consider how you might engage a Lenten practice/discipline more in the model of Isaiah. Instead of looking only inward in introspection, I encourage you to look outward, to see where – in your sphere of influence and experience – you might go about loosing bonds of injustice and freeing the oppressed. Instead of depriving yourself of something you enjoy, how might you instead go about making sure that others are not deprived – that those who are hungry have something to eat, and that those who are cold and homeless might be clothed and sheltered?
There are lots of ways to do this. Perhaps you could challenge yourself to make a special offering to an organization that does justice and charity work you are passionate about; if you’re looking for a place to start, both the NE Synod and the ELCA’s websites detail the fantastic ministries that the Lutheran church is doing all over the globe. Or if you want to get more face-to-face involvement, you could consider volunteering at the mobile food bank (Feb 13, Mar 5, Apr 16) or down at the new food pantry location, or perhaps getting involved as a volunteer in a local organization like the Center for Survivors. You could reach out to the schools to ask how you might be able to help needy students and their families.
The point of all this is that Lent is much more than a time to feel low-key crappy about ourselves and refrain from eating chocolate. It can actually be a joyful time of turning back toward God and seeking God’s presence in the faces of our neighbors. Lent has the potential to be a transformative time of spiritual renewal. So I encourage you to be thoughtful about whatever kind of fast that you choose.