For today’s post, I relegated this space to share with you something I came across in a book I am reading. The book (“7” by Jen Hatmaker) is about an experiment the author performed to pare down 7 things in her life that were taking her time and heart away from God. While she spends an inordinate amount of time rambling on about how close to the world her life has become, the author does have some amazing insights into what Christ’s church in America has become. What follows is an excerpt (long one…sorry) from the book about how we spend our resources.
“God, may we be focused on the least, a people balancing the fasting and the feast.”
“With good intentions but misguided theology, the church spends most of our time, energy, resources, prayer words, programs, sermons, conferences, bible studies, and attention on the feast, our feast to be exact. Now certainly, there is a feast, and thank you God for it. Where brokenness and starvation once consumed us, God sets us at a new table (read Psalm 36:5-9). This is the feast of the redeemed; Jesus made it possible for the wretched to dine with the Most High, neither offending His holiness nor compromising His justice. For those adopted by grace and faith, He no longer sees our failures or omissions; He only sees the righteousness Jesus covered us with. We stand behind Christ, made white-as-snow perfect from His substitution on the cross.
The currency of salvation includes blessings, redemption, fulfillment, peace, healing, sustenance, forgiveness, and hope. It’s a spiritual jackpot. For those salvaged from the gutter by Jesus, these are new mercies every morning. We are easily overwhelmed by the goodness of God, which knows no bounds. The gospel is so liberating; it is worthy of adoration every single second of every single hour of every single day forever. We will never be the same. This is indeed the feast, and to celebrate it is utterly Christian.
But the feast has a partner in the rhythm of the gospel: the fast. Its practice is unmistakable in Scripture. Hundreds of times we see reduction, pouring out, abstinence, restraint. We find our Bible heroes fasting from food- David, Esther, Nehemiah, Jesus. We see the Philippian church fasting from self-preservation, sending Paul money in spite of their own poverty, a true sacrifice. John the Baptist says if we have two coats, one belongs to the poor. The early church sold their possessions and lived communally, caring for one another and the broken people in their cities. We see God explain this idea of a fast: justice, freedom, food for the hungry, clothes for the naked. This balance is a given in Scripture.
If we ignored the current framework of the church and instead opened the Bible for a definition, we find Christ followers adopting the fast simultaneously with the feast. We don’t see the New Testament church hoarding the feast for themselves, gorging, getting fatter and fatter and asking for more; more Bible studies, more sermons, more programs, classes, training, conferences, information, more feasting for us.
At some point, the church stopped living the Bible and decided just to study it, culling the feast parts and whitewashing the fast parts. We are addicted to the buffet, skillfully discarding the costly discipleship required after consuming. The feast is supposed to sustain the fast, but we go back for seconds and thirds and fourths, stuffed to the brim and fat with inactivity. All this is for me. My goodness, my blessings, my privilege, my happiness, my success. Just one more plate.
Not so with the early church who stunned their Roman neighbors and leaders with generosity, curbing their own appetites for the mission of Jesus. They constantly practiced self-denial to alleviate human misery. In the Shepard of Hermas, a well-respected Christian literary work in the early 100s, believers were instructed to fast one day a week:
‘Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill own soul, and pray for you to the Lord.’
In the early 200s, Tertullian reported that Christians had a voluntary common fund they contributed to monthly. That fund was used to support widows, the disabled, orphans, the sick , the elderly, shipwrecked sailors, prisoners, teachers, burials for the poor, and even the release of slaves.
The difference between Romans and Christians on charity was widely recognized by unbelievers. The pagan satirist Lucian (130-20o c.e.) mocked Christian kindness: “The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end. Their first lawgiver put it into their heads that they were all brethren.”
These Christians did not limit their assistance to members of their own subculture either. The Emperor Julian, who attempted to lead the Roman Empire back to paganism, was frustrated by the superior compassion shown by the Christians, especially when it came to intervention for the suffering. He famously declared: ‘The impious Galileans relieve both their own poor and ours…It is shameful that ours should be so destitute of our assistance.’
What would the early church think if they walked into some of our buildings today, looked through our church websites, talked to an average attender? Would they be so confused? Would they wonder why we all had empty bedrooms and uneaten food in our trash cans? Would they regard our hoarded wealth with shock? Would they observe orphan statistics with disbelief since Christians outnumber orphans 7-1? Would they be stunned most of us don’t feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, care for the sick, or protect the widow? Would they see the spending on church buildings and ourselves as extravagantly wasteful while twenty-five thousand people die every day from starvation?
I think they’d barely recognize us as brothers and sisters. If we told them church is Sundays and we have great music, this would be perplexing. I believe we’d receive dumbfounded stares if we discussed “church shopping” because enough people don’t say hello when we walk in the lobby one hour a week. If they found out one-sixth of the earth’s population claimed to be Christians, I’m not sure they could reconcile the suffering happening on our watch while we’re living in excess. They’d wonder if we had read the Bible or worry it had been tampered with since their time.
But listen Early Church, we have a monthly event called Mocha Chicks. We have choir practice every Wednesday. We organize retreats with door prizes. We’re raising three million dollars for an outdoor amphitheater. We have catchy t-shirts. We don’t smoke or say the F word. We go to Bible study every semester. And then what, American Church? Well, we go to another one. We’re learning so much.
I think the early church would cover their heads with ashes and grieve over the dilution of Jesus’ beautiful church vision. We’ve taken His Plan A for mercy to an injured lost planet and neutered it to clever sermon series and Stitch-and-Chat in the fellowship hall, serving the saved. If the modern church held to its biblical definition, we would become the answer to all that ails society. We wouldn’t have to baby-talk and cajole and coax people into our sanctuaries through witty mailers and strategic ads; they’d be running to us. The local church would be the heartbeat of the city, undeniable by our staunchest critics.
Instead, the American church is dying. We are losing ground in epic proportions. Our country is a graveyard of dead and vanishing churches. We made it acceptable for people to do nothing and still call themselves Christians, and that anemic vision isn’t holding. Last year (2011), 94 percent of evangelical churches reported loss or no growth in their communities. Almost four thousand churches are closing each year. We are losing three million people annually, flooding out the back door and never returning. The next generation downright refuses to come.
Ironically, this is the result of a church that only feasts.
When the fast, the death, the sacrifice of the gospel is omitted from the Christian life, then it isn’t Christian at all. Not only that, it’s boring. If I just want to feel good or get self-help, I’ll buy a $12 book from Borders and join a gym. The church the Bible described is exciting and adventurous and wrought with sacrifice. It cost believers everything, and they still came. It was good news to the poor and stumped its enemies. The church was patterned after a Savior who had no place to lay His head and voluntarily died a brutal death, even knowing we would reduce the gospel to a self-serving personal improvement program where people were encouraged to make a truce with their Maker and stop sinning and join the church, when in fact the gospel does not call for a truce but a complete surrender.
Jesus said the kingdom was like a treasure hidden in a field, and once someone truly finds it, he will happily sell everything he owns to possess that field, a perfect description of the fasting and the feast. It will cost everything, but it is a treasure and an unfathomable joy. This is the balance of the kingdom; to live we must die, to be lifted we bow, to gain we must lose. There is no alternative definition, no path of least resistance, no treasure in the field without the sacrifice of everything else.
Oh Lord, may we be focused on the least; a people balancing the fasting and the feast.”