February 14th this year is both Valentine’s day and Ash Wednesday. Perhaps not the obvious pairing of celebration days as one calls for romance and the other calls for self-denial. Actually, I’m sure an argument could be made that true romance does involve an element of self-denial – treating your loved one rather than treating yourself – nevertheless, for many Christians, it probably won’t be romance that they have on their minds on Wednesday 14th February. This is because Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent a season of penitence and self-denial which invites us to focus on God.
Lent remembers Jesus’ own 40 day period of fasting in the desert. Even at his weakest Jesus was able to deny himself and resist temptation and Lent encourages us to practise self-denial as well. Of course, self-denial is not confined to Lent, any more than romance is confined to Valentine’s day, but marking these things in our calendar can remind us to do what we’ve been meaning to do all along.
Society is moving in a direction of immediate gratification. Why only eat strawberries in the summer when you can get them all year round? Why only eat chocolate eggs at Easter when they are in the shops from January? Why get up and change the TV channel when you can do it immediately with a remote control? Why get up to change the thermostat when you can control it from your phone? Why wait for the 10:00 news when the headline notifications appear on your phone immediately? We want it and we want it now. And increasingly we can get it now as well.
Some thinkers have even suggested that a society of immediate gratification is having an adverse effect on some young adults. They have grown up getting what they want very quickly – and so when they become adults and their hopes, dreams, and career plans don’t fall into place straight away, they can find it hard to deal with.
Fasting really goes against the grain. In a society where we are told about the importance of 3 square meals a day, and where snacking is encouraged, it can be surprisingly difficult to cut out snacks, or coffee, or to miss meals, but that is the nature of self-denial – it’s difficult. Some may choose to have a media fast. In a society where Media is all around us it can be a very strange experience to take a break from our radios, TVs and the internet. Some Christians may choose to take something on rather than give something up. A time of personal prayer each day, or reading a book – like Rick Warren’s ‘Purpose Driven Life’ for example.
Whilst these disciplines can be hard to keep to – the benefits are significant. For those who miss meals, feeling the occasional pangs of hunger can help us to know our bodies better and we will almost certainly feel more grateful for our next meal – fasting can dramatically increase our sense of thankfulness. In addition, fasting can help in your relationship with God. Sometimes praying to God can be like talking to him in a crowded room with many other distractions going on. You can shout but you can’t really hear anything. Fasting can help to remove some of that noise, some of those distractions and so prayer with fasting can help you connect with God in a more intimate way.
Will you be taking on a fast / Spiritual disciple over Lent this year? What benefits have you experienced from fasting in the past?
Rev Andy Clark
Not so long ago my favourite football team signed a new striker. He immediately became a favourite with the fans. He was a South American striker and whilst the home fans liked him. He, unfortunately, became something of a figure of fun to the other supporters. This is because after 10 games he still hadn’t scored a goal! My friends took great pleasure in pointing this out.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “he is a really hard worker the fans love him!” “Who cares – he hasn’t scored!” they laughed, and the laughing only got louder as after 15 games he still hadn’t broken his duck.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “he’s a team player – he’s made a number of good passes and important assists.”
“But he never scores!” they scoffed.
As you can imagine I always had to concede defeat in this particular footballing argument. I believe it was somewhere around the 20 game mark that he finally scored. I have to say it was a great relief – I had grown weary of defending him! For all the hard work that he did for the team – in the end he was a striker and a striker’s key responsibility is to score goals. The striker that isn’t getting any goals is not truly fulfilling his purpose in the team.
Surely for the Christian the first responsibility is to love. It certainly isn’t always easy and I guess there can be many differing evidences of our discipleship but, as Paul says, ‘If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.’
May I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy new year! And may God help us as we do our small part to fill 2018 with love for God and love for others.
Rev Andy Clark
I’ve had a clear out this week moving two van loads of stuff to the tip! I’m rather enjoying the space that has been created.
During the clear out I saw Tennis racquets, Golf clubs and Tae Kwon Do gear! I remember buying the racquet – it had Andre Agassi’s name on the cover. I felt sure that it was only a matter of time before I played tennis at the same level Agassi did! I played a lot of tennis that summer and really improved as a player but then when winter came I played football instead. In the following summers, I barely played tennis and I can’t describe myself as a good tennis player today. Golf and Tae Kwon Do happened a bit later so I was old enough to know I probably wouldn’t become world champion! I felt Golf would be a game I could play throughout my life so I invested in some clubs. To this day Golf is still the most frustrating game I have ever played – it could make me turn the air blue! I didn’t feel I was improving quickly enough so I gave up.
I had a practical reason for giving up Tae Kwon Do but I still gave up. Actually a review / clear out of my old stuff reminded me of all the things I have given up. I’ve found old journals – I remember deciding that I would keep a journal to help me keep track of my life. It lasted less than a week!
Cycling and skateboarding were things that I gave up on. I could be a very good musician now if I had kept going with the piano, the guitar or the harmonica. I didn’t – I gave up on all 3. Rather embarrassingly – I even found a book called ‘Never Give Up,’ and I hadn’t finished it!
I found several footballs. Actually, I have played football throughout my life – not at a high level – but I have kept going with it.
Another thing I have kept going with is my faith. You may think that is obvious for a Christian minister to say that but ministers have doubts the same as everyone else. I have often thought that I am not a very good Christian but I have kept going. Sometimes my love for Him has blown hot or cold but I have kept going. The real thing that helps me keep going is God’s love. I have never doubted it. I’ve sometimes doubted his leading – or whether I am following that leading correctly and I’ve sometimes doubted whether he can really bring good out certain situations. But I have never doubted his saving love.
His love is what keeps me going. That’s why my Bible isn’t in the loft with the old Tennis racquets, Golf clubs and Tae Kwon Do gear and all the other things that I’ve given up on. Persistence may not have been one of my great qualities through the years, but faith has been there since I gave my life to Christ. And I hope it will always be there – because His love will always be there.
How about you? Is God front and centre in your life? Are you trying to squeeze him into the loft with other things you are not using? Or somewhere in between?
Rev Andy Clark