Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lent One: Embracing Hunger

My childhood faith tradition was dismissive of Lent and its practices. Why would God care if we gave up chocolate? Or fasted on certain days?
When God led our family into a more liturgical congregation, we discovered the value of spiritual disciplines and the joy of a liturgical calendar. Lent is an essential part of both.

Lent offers a time to pause and review, to consider what we’ve been feeding ourselves, to examine the values that hold us most tightly.

Food seems like a small part of that, yet giving up even something as simple as chocolate can become a daily reminder.

For years I’ve given up sugar during Lent. That necessitates giving up chocolate, sweet desserts, sodas, even coffee. It forces me to read labels, rethink menus, and acknowledge, yet again, that for me “sweet” too often equates to nurture.

Giving up sugar, chocolate, Facebook, whatever the choice, is a good way to peel ourselves free from unhealthy patterns, and a way to remind ourselves that it’s okay to want and not have. We won’t die if we don’t feed every desire. In fact, deprivation of harmful desires is an essential first step toward health.

This year, though, I’m not giving up sugar.

I’m reaching toward something deeper, though still a bit unclear.

Lent points us back toward Jesus in the desert, in his forty days of fasting and prayer.
Temptation of Christ in the Desert, 12th Century France

And I’ve been praying about that first temptation: 
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’  (Matthew 4:1-4). 
Set that beside Jesus’ statement, just days later: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled.” Matthew 5:6.

What does it mean to live by more than bread alone?

How do I live in a way that is nourished more deeply by the daily word of God?

And here’s the question that’s been troubling me: what am I most hungry for?

Last week I wrote about confession, and shared the Ash Wednesday prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.

I’ve been pausing on the first section of that prayer, and puzzling over the realities of my own daily life:    
We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.
 Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.
Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.
Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.
I reread some of that and think “Well, no, I’m not really that self-indulgent.”

Or “my love of goods and comforts is not nearly as intemperate as some people I could name.”

But that’s not the point.

In fact, to even begin that conversation suggests an inordinate hunger: for self-justification? Self-righteous vindication?

It occurs to me that our hunger, almost by definition, is focused on self: looking good to ourselves or others, feeling fed, nourished, comfortable, safe.

It’s all about us.  

And how could we help it, in a culture that tells us from morning to night that we’re worth it, that our every wish deserves to be met, that we should never have to wait for service, never take second-best, never sacrifice our own demands? Even our churches (some, not all) allow us to imagine that it’s all about us: music we like, sermons that “feed” us, God’s blessing for us and only us.

Even salvation: is salvation about a happy future for ourselves, or a healed and whole creation for us all? 

Is it all about me?

What do I really hunger for?

And what Lenten abstinence will free or satisfy?

I wrote two years ago about “hungering far past rightness": 
"Righteousness," to me, was a competitive activity, with a strong punitive edge.
 Who would hunger and thirst after that? And what would it mean to be satisfied?
Dig a bit, and it turns out the original Greek word used in Matthew’s gospel, “dikaios,” is the same as the Hebrew word "tzedakah", a word used throughout the Old Testament to describe the character of God and God’s restorative actions: justice, truth, compassion, kindness, making right, renewing, restoring, ensuring good things for those without, restraining the powerful, lifting up the weak, repairing ruined vineyards and fields, ensuring wise governance and an equitable economy.
We have no word that comes even close. 
As part of that post I attempted a paraphrase of Matthew 5:6-7 
 Your greatest joy, benefit, health, will come from trusting God’s plan, and doing your best to live it, without insisting on your own rights, your own needs, your own safety.
And your greatest joy, benefit, health will come not from simply wanting God’s plan in your own life, but longing to see it revealed in the world around you, in the health of creation, provision for the poor, restoration for those mistreated. As you long to see God’s goodness revealed, you will, in fact, have that longing fulfilled. 
Reading back over those words, I can see I missed some important elements, highlighted in commentaries that explicate this passage:
Hungry Children, Creative Commons Cate Turton
 Department for International Development

First, hunger: my knowledge of hunger is sadly lacking. I’ve never been in a situation where my very life is threatened by lack of food. I’ve skipped meals, even on occasion fasted for days, but there’s always been food nearby. The word “hunger,” as used by Jesus, would have meant something much deeper than I fully understand: a desperate longing. A craving that consumes all attention and directs every ounce of energy.  An overwhelming neediness waiting, and watching, for food.

Second: righteousness. There’s something going on in the forms of Jesus’ words that suggests an outcome both specific and complete, both immediate and in the future: “the whole object, and not a part of it”, “now in part, fully hereafter.”

The more I hunger for righteousness, the more I see the brokenness around me and realize that our brokenness is all part of the same shattered wholeness.

And the more I pray to see the world as God sees it, the more overwhelmed I am by the need, yet amazed at the glimpses of grace and great mercy. 

Puzzling over commentary highlights, I came across this:
St. Austin, wondering at the overflowing measure of God's Spirit in the Apostles' hearts, observes that the reason why they were so full of God was because they were so empty of his creatures. 'They were very full,' he says, 'because they were very empty'" (Anon., in Ford). 
Here is a mystery worth pursuing: how do we become so empty of ourselves that God’s fullness overflows?

And how do we grow past a superficial hunger to a craving for justice and righteousness so deep it reshapes our spending, reframes our conversation, redirects our every ounce of energy? My first task this Lent is to prayerfully track down the superficial hungers that distract me from the one great hunger: TV shows that have crept onto my schedule, trivial pursuits that have squeezed out better things, good things worth doing that have kept me from the best.

And then, the bigger, harder task: embrace the hunger that will never be fully satisfied, but that opens our eyes and hearts to the world's great need and daily draws us closer to the one who made and loves us all. 
"Ever filled and ever seeking, what they have they still desire,
Hunger there shall fret them never, nor satiety shall tire, -
Still enjoying whilst aspiring, in their joy they still aspire."
('Chronicles of the Schonberg-Cotta Family,' ch. 9,
 from the Latin Hymn of Peter Damiani, † 1072.) 

This is the second in a Lenten series.

Other Lenten posts:
    Ash Wednesday: Confession Booth, February 15

From 2013:

     Lenten Song: Remembering Ranan