Fasting

16″When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so 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)

I’m not fasting today. I won’t be alone. I’m not sure what percentage of Christians participate in a regular fast, but I’m sure it’s small. You can read a lot about fasting, but I don’t hear many people talking about it much. I live amongst Christians who take scripture very seriously but would consider it odd for anyone to fast.

Why is that? How do we look at the Matthew passage above and not hear it as a call to fasting? Fasting isn’t completely ignored. There are plenty of books that talk about Christian fasting, and the number of books that go into other reasons for fasting are plentiful. The picture that I used above is from a yoga site.
John Wesley fasted regularly and called Methodists to do the same. For generations, Roman Catholics have been instructed to fast, or at least abstain from certain meats, as a means of preparation for the eucharist.
Scot McKnight is working on a book about fasting. He states in his thesis:

Fasting is never the central spiritual discipline of the Christian life. Fasting is not a separable spiritual discipline like prayer or study or solitude. Instead, fasting is a physical condition in which all the disciplines can occur. Fasting is not effective in and of itself but is the expression of the kind of person – a person who has given all of herself or himself to God – that stands before God in trust and obedience, yearning for what that person wants in the face of God in the hope that God will hear that yearning.

I plan to read more of what he has to say, but I’m stuck on “effective” at this point. One good word that I heard about fasting was that we should watch out for our need to get something out of fasting. It’s not for losing weight. It’s not for cleansing. Maybe this is what Scot is talking about.
People who are grieving, or in shock, or even very excited sometimes fast without planning to. They don’t do it as a spiritual discipline, they do it because they’re just not hungry, just not able to sit down and think about what they’re going to eat. It’s probably one of the reasons we bring food to wakes. Those who are grieving may not want to eat, but at least they don’t have to prepare anything and will have plenty of choices when they do decide they need something.
There’s plenty more that can be said about fasting. I’d enjoy further discussion either in the comments section or at theologeeks. Here’s another passage from scripture about fasting, this one from chapter 58 of Isaiah.

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light
will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness [a]
will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will
call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend
yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you
always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.

Not Reading

I was recently reading a post on the Jesus Community blog which discussed the love of reading and how Paul asked for his scrolls in 2 Timothy. It’s a good post about how much we love to read, and it probably rings true for many in the Christian blog world. We’re readers, or we wouldn’t be here.

I’ve mentioned the Ekklesia Project before and how one of the things the members and guests enjoy at the annual gathering is the tables of books from Wipf&Stock, Brazos and others. The fact that we’re all book junkies becomes apparent when you see us circling the tables like vultures. It probably helps that there is usually a conference discount, but we may be approaching book gluttony.

But the members of my Sunday school class are not in danger of book gluttony. Most of the people in my class are not readers. I don’t mean that they don’t read Volf, or Hauerwas or whoever else the rest of the theologeeks are following these days. I mean that they don’t subscribe to newspapers, and they don’t go online to read the news. They may occasionally read some things that are work related or hobby related, but they probably aren’t likely to spend much time circling bookstores or a publisher’s table.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the class. They are good people who are supportive and helpful and mission minded. They just don’t want to have to read.

As a teacher, this can be frustrating. I’ve had copies of books that I intended for the class to read at home and had at least one member say “Just keep it, I won’t be reading at home.” So maybe I should be more demanding. Maybe I should find other materials. Maybe it’s too late to form good reading habits as an adult if you’ve never read much before adulthood. Maybe reading just isn’t that important.

But it feels important. There is much to know, much to learn, and not all of it is available on videos. Not all of it can be read to you during worship. Most of it must be studied more than one hour of one day of each week. So I think good Christians should be good readers. We should study. We should encourage one another.

Last week during Sunday school, we read a chapter of scripture out loud. I intend to do more of that and try to be clear that I think reading is expected. In the meantime, if you have suggestions, I would be very receptive.

Theologeeks-patience

I’m excited. After starting the Theologeeks forum last week, I now have 2 new posting members. I know, that sounds a little pathetic in the internet world, but it’s good news to me. I also have 2 other members who haven’t yet posted.

I teach an adult Sunday school class that averages about 12 people each Sunday. At the UMC church I’m part of, that’s a big class. And some days, we have almost 20 people, and then we’re the largest. If you figure in the number of children we bring when we’re present, we’re about 1/3 of the Sunday school attendance.

But this class took a LONG time to form. I’ve been back at this church for about 10 years. I would say the first three years were formative in terms of the class. I was not teaching right away, merely attending a class that would sometimes consist of me and the teacher. I consented to sharing teaching duties and after time, took over sole responsibility.

I have had Sundays during which I am the only person there. I would prepare a lesson, imagine questions that might arise, and find that I had an extra week to prepare some more.

But people came, people welcomed one another, and people worked together. This is the class that I came to with information about a food program. Not enough information, but enough that they said “Sure, let’s try it.” Now we serve over 50 people a month.

I don’t know what God’s time looks like, with the whole “a thousand years are like a day” but I know that we are impatient. I know that if all it takes is 40 days to make a purpose driven life, then that purpose may not be all that great. We are slow forming things, and it takes time and God’s patience to shape us.

So I’m encouraged by the Theologeeks forum. It got a mention at the Methoblog which resulted in Theologeeks finally being Googleable. The only previous result was a dead page, but now all other results eventually lead to the forums.

I hope other bloggers and internet readers will come and discuss things, and if they don’t come to Theologeeks, I hope they tell me where they are discussing these things. The blog world seems to often be about lots of people talking to one another, with very little potential for dialog. I’d like more opportunities for us to share with each other.

Rev. Randy Cooper, episcopal candidate

I thought I might post about the role of Bishops, what needs to change, how the role seems to vary from conference to conference, and that sort of thing, but there’s plenty of that out there, and I really just wanted to talk about one person anyway.

In June, at the Memphis Annual Conference gathering, Rev. Cooper, or “brother Randy” as he would probably prefer to be called,”was unanimously declared the delegation’s episcopal candidate and was heartily and unanimously endorsed later by annual conference delegates.” (That’s from a Reporter summary of the conference which I’d link, but that’s all it says about the nomination.)

Randy has been serving the Memphis Conference for about 25 years, and I’m no expert about his ministry, but he has not served a megachurch or even a large 500+ members congregation. He has committed to serving churches which are, at least in this area, normally given pastors who are right out of school or getting ready to retire.

No pastor can fill a pulpit without making someone upset, so I won’t say everyone thinks he’s great, but I have no doubt that everyone who has known him would agree that he takes both Word and Table very seriously.

I don’t know if good pastors make good Bishops, but if they do, brother Randy will make an outstanding Bishop. His service to the body of Christ has been profound, and I hope God will continue to bless his ministry regardless of what particular path it may take.

It’s not your Bible.

“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?”

When I was watching the movie Luther a few months back, I was jarred by one scene in particular:

-Have you ever read the New Testament, Martin?
-No, Father.
-Not many have, but in Wittenberg you will.
-Wittenberg?
-A doctorate in theology.
-You’re sending me away to study?
-I’m sending you to the source…the Scriptures.
Christ Himself.

What caught my attention is the fact that a priest would not have READ the New Testament. Since people started keeping up with such things, about 6 billion Bibles have been sold. That’s more than half of the current world population, so even trying to imagine a time when a priest would not have actually read the New Testament is nearly impossible.

We have many different versions, translations, and perversions of the Bible to choose from. If you haven’t read the New Testament by now, it’s because you haven’t chosen to, not because you haven’t had the opportunity.

But the church in Martin Luther’s day wasn’t interested in having everyone read the New Testament, or the Original Testament either. They could listen to it, be taught from it, and even carry the church’s copy in to worship, but it wasn’t something to be handed around and put into more popular formats.

Maybe the church was too protective, and Luther (as well as others such as the Waldensians) did the church a great service by helping put the Bible in our hands. The church, however has not been careful enough to instruct us in reading the Bible.

Now you can pick up a study edition, a for teens edition, even a YOU edition and jump right in. The iBible video on Youtube is a parody, but it’s not as effective considering how close it is to the reality of what’s available.

The idea that the Bible belongs to you because you purchased it in a store is dangerous. I heard a teen testify to literally turning through the Bible and opening it to a random page when needing advice on a decision. She admitted that she was confused by the passage she flipped to. Of course she was. No one had taught her to read scripture. No one had informed her that she didn’t own the word of God, that if used improperly, the Bible could end up being just another book, or worse, a means for our own self-gratification.
So how do we learn to read scripture? I teach an adult Sunday school class, and we’ve spent time talking about it, and I do think small group studies are necessary, but worship is the best place to learn. Scripture is the language of worship. We listen together. We pray that the words will do their work, that the pastor will speak truth, that the Spirit will move us. We sing scripture, we pray scripture, we are enculturated by it. Thanks be to God that we can receive such a gift.

Theologeeks

I’m not sure whether I came up with the term theologeeks, or my wife called me one first, but we’re not the only ones to use the phrase, as I found out when I tried to register the domain theologeeks.com.

I’m using it for a group of people who will be meeting (at least) once a month to discuss the church and the Triune God. I did find that it shows up in only one place on Google, and that’s at the dead site mentioned above. I wonder if they’d sell it?

There are actually lots of theologeeks out there, people who can’t wait for the newest N.T. Wright book, or have a signed copy of Hauerwas and Willimon’s Resident Aliens sitting prominently on their bookshelf.

The Ekklesia Project that I’m part of is full of theologeeks. Every year at the gathering, there are tables full of books from several publishers. I’d say it’s one of everyone’s top ten favorite things about the gathering.

The favorite thing, hands down, is conversation. Just sitting around between sessions, after worship, in the halls, in the dorms, on the way to the grocery store and talking about what we do at our churches, signs of the Kingdom, signs of the spirit is really why most of us come back each year; to see old friends and to make new ones.

So, the Jackson Theologeeks group is to build on that; to give those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about church more time to talk to one another. It’s good church work. We shouldn’t be left alone to our thoughts all the time, and most of us don’t have anyone in our local congregation with whom we can discuss such things. We read and post things on the internet, but human contact is much more important. Let’s try it and see.

Jesus Camp

During the summer, our church has been offering movies on Wednesday night (yes we have a license to do so). This week, the movie was Jesus Camp.

I couldn’t attend with the others in the church, but it still reminded me that I had wanted to watch this when it first became available on video. So I watched it last night.

Now I wish I had been there when other members of my congregation had attended. I would have liked to have heard some of the discussion.

There is no doubt that in some ways we should be horrified. My wife walked through during a scene in which a young Pentecostal girl was explaining how churches that are still and quiet are dead churches, and it infuriated her. And rightly so. This child had been told that there was only one way in which to worship.

But there is much to commend in how the people in this movie think. They really care about what their children are doing, how they are raised, what will influence them. The children speak Biblical, if not always graceful, language.

We are afraid to form anyone’s mind. We want everyone to figure things out for themselves. This is not the Way of Christ. We pray that He will form us, and will guide us in forming others. It doesn’t always have to be done with a hammer, as it is by many in this film, but we are being formed by something, and if it’s not Christ, we should beware.