To Give Up, To Stay Up, In Order To Look Up

As part of our “rule of life,” my wife and I wanted to practice the spiritual disciplines of fasting and vigil-keeping. In my experience, in the United Methodist Church, there has not been much taught on these two spiritual disciplines and I have rarely seen a calling to put them into practice as a congregation. As a pastor I have often failed to do this.

Fasting is defined by Lynne M. Baab as “the voluntary denial of something for a specific time, for a spiritual purpose, by an individual, family, community, or nation.” Elmer Towns defines fasting as “a nonrequired discipline (you don’t have to do it) where you alter your diet (there are many kinds of fasts) for a spiritual reason (there are many reasons to fast) and accompany the experience with prayer.”

During the season of Lent, fasting is often practiced as individuals “give-up” something for forty-days, reminiscent of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. Such fasting can include everything from food to television to chocolate. Fasting from consumer items or everyday practices can free up time for prayer and Bible study, as well as money for service projects and missions. One can also fast from attitudes and behaviors such as gossip, pessimism, selfishness, or impatience.

Many times Lenten fasts are legalistic practices learned from childhood rather than spiritual exercises practiced in order to grow closer to God. Foster writes, “Fasting must forever center on God. It must be God-initiated and God-ordained. Like the prophetess Anna, we need to be ‘worshipping with fasting’ (Luke 2:37). Every other purpose must be subservient to God.” One might fast in order to know God more deeply, to wait on God for answers to a problem, to lay one’s fears before God, to listen to God, or to simply worship God in both in word and action. Towns writes, “When the dark days come, remember to fast and pray. Why fast? To wait on God. When you are praying, fasting, and waiting, you are putting yourself in a position where God can help you. God is always there for you, but when you fast, God comes to help solve your problem. They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their stamina, even when things go wrong.”

Vigil is often defined as a purposeful watch kept during sleeping hours in order to pray, meditate and fast. Foster uses the term “watchings,” defining the term as “abstaining from sleep in order to attend to prayer or other spiritual duties.” Heather Hughes explains that the word vigil “comes from the Latin vigilia, originally for a soldier’s night watch, but adopted by early Christians for a nighttime synaxis, or worship meeting. Now we most often hear the word referring to the night office of the Liturgy of the Hours, evening worship the night before a religious celebration, or the wake after a loved one’s death.” St. Benedict’s rule included the observance of such vigils or “watchings.” Dallas Willard describes “many nights when [he] would awaken about two o’clock and spend an hour of delight before God just dwelling in one or more phrases [from the Lord’s Prayer].”

Heather Hughes explains that keeping vigil

is an act of prayer and communion with God which helps us to know him, and thus ourselves. This increased awareness then aids us to rightly discern the what, when, where, and how of future action…

…we become aware of our surroundings – God’s good, yet fallen creation. We get to know who we are and how we fit into the divine plan. Beyond this, we begin to discern how we might enter more deeply into God’s work in our own souls and the world around us…

We are given the chance to become fully awake…

I have had wonderful experiences with fasting and vigil-keeping in the past. One Lenten season, my family and I fasted from television. Every night, for forty days, instead of flopping into the recliner and turning on the television, we sat as a family and talked, played games, spent time together. I remember it being a wonderful couple months. Then, over the last two years, serving in Rock Hall, Maryland, our Women’s Ministry sponsored a reading of the New Testament beginning on the evening of Good Friday and ending with the Easter Sunday sunrise service. Men and women in the congregation would sign up for half-hour blocks, come to the church, and simply stand in the pulpit, reading the New Testament aloud, following where the person before them stopped. I had the privilege, along with my wife, to read at two and three in the morning. The church was quiet except for the scripture being read, there were no distractions, and there was a heightened awareness of God’s presence. Many people who read spoke of this awareness, this closeness, they felt to God as they read or sat listening to His Word in the early hours of the morning.

Unfortunately, with the busyness of life and the many transitions our family has recently dealt with, these were two more spiritual disciplines that my wife and I did not practice as we had hoped we would when we wrote our “rule of life.” But I look forward to fasting from those things that take my time away from God and people like television. I look forward to the times that I will intentionally wake up in the early hours of the morning or the midnight hour in the months to come simply to sit and talk to God.

That is the word, isn’t it? Intentional. We must be intentional. That is the whole purpose of a “rule of life.” It helps us be intentional in our spiritual disciplines, pointing us in a direction we know will lead us into our Heavenly Father’s arms. When we fail, we get back up and try again, not out of guilt, but out of hope. This is the hope, that with God’s help, we can build new habits and practices, new ways of daily living, that will help us to “pray without ceasing” and to “walk as children of the light” in relationship with the One who placed the light in the sky and in our hearts.

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