Today is Ash Wednesday. Perhaps you’ve noticed folks with a mark of ash on their foreheads, a reminder for millions of Christians around the world that we are finite and fragile beings—from dust we are formed and to dust we will return. In many traditions, this is the first day of Lent, a weeks-long preparation for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Like Jesus in the wilderness, his followers remind themselves that life cannot be sustained on bread alone. For centuries, the practical way of learning this lesson has involved some sort of fast. You’ve heard the question, or considered it yourself: What are you giving up for Lent?
While my Adventist upbringing never included the practice of Lent or Ash Wednesday, as a young adult I found myself intrigued by the idea of a specified period of time that could be useful for kicking a habit—caffeine, dairy products, TV-before-bed, smart-phone-first-thing-in-the-morning. All were candidates in various years.
Such an exercise in self-discipline is not entirely without merit—though it’s hard to say whether it had any lasting impact on me, spiritual or otherwise. This year, however, I was reminded of Isaiah 58, a fantastic prophetic word about fasting and religiosity. God tells the prophet to parody the people’s complaints back to them: “Why do we fast and you don’t see; why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?” Where is our religion getting us, God?
To which God eventually replies:
Isn’t this the fast I choose:
releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated,
and breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
covering the naked when you see them,
and not hiding from your own family?
Then your light will break out like the dawn,
and you will be healed quickly. —Isaiah 58:6-8 (CEB)
There is some ceasing or “giving up” in this fast—stop oppressing your workers, for example (v. 3)—but there’s also a lot of doing. Release. Untie. Set free. Share. House. Clothe.
Now that’s a fast! My temptation is to add all those actions to my ToDo list, set them for “repeat daily through April 1,” and buckle down for a spiritually heroic 40 days. Except by now I know myself well enough to be suspicious of impressive lists of “Shoulds.” They rarely produce much in the way of lasting change. I should floss daily. I should eat more servings of greens. I should get to know my neighbors. (A good friend and former youth pastor eloquently reminds himself not to “should” on people . . . It’s sage advice.)
So, what then? Give up on Isaiah’s vision as either impractical or only for the saintly among us?
The missing piece, I’m convinced, is to be found in our feelings—like in the sense that we feel compassion. Note this is not in the sense that we know we should be compassionate (there’s that Should again). But rather something like we see in the Samaritan of Jesus’ parable. As Dallas Willard points out,
The one known as the Good Samaritan, in the story by Jesus (Luke 10:30-37) was distinguished from the priest and the Levite by the fact that “when he saw him [the wounded man], he felt compassion” (verse 33). This feeling of compassion is what led him to help the man and “be a neighbor to” him (versus 36-37). [^1]
We can safely assume that the priest and the Levite absolutely knew that they should have compassion—and perhaps they were hurrying on their way to teach or preach just such a lesson. But the Samaritan felt it. Luke’s Greek word which we translate as ‘compassion’ has to do with a deep feeling in the gut. Compassion grabbed hold of the Samaritan man. He didn’t conjure it up; he didn’t “should” himself into action; he had become “the kind of person who”[^2] feels compassion when encountering a wounded human in a ditch by the road.
Here’s something of which I am convinced: We can’t conjure up compassion, but we can decide to order our lives in such a way that we become the kind of people inclined toward compassion, love, and forgiveness. We can make intentional decisions and engage it time-honored practices that open us to transforming grace. This is what we mean by the spiritual life, by becoming more like Jesus.
While such transforming Grace is indeed mysterious, the habits by which we are formed in this grace need not be a mystery. Of late, there has been a resurgence in the Christian world in recognizing that life with Jesus, life open to the Spirit, is so much more than (though not less than) the ideas to which we subscribe.
One example of resurgence is a new book (named Christianity Today’s 2018 Book of the Year) by Tish Harrison Warren entitled Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. Not only is her writing voice delightful, her practical depth is truly instructive. Each chapter centers on something she does during the day—making the bed, brushing her teeth, losing her keys, fighting with her husband, sitting in traffic. Through each of these experiences and routines, she uncovers practical possibilities for spiritual formation, as well as connectors to the more formal elements of our faith—like baptism, worship, prayer, and Communion. In her words:
“In these pages we look at life in one day. We look at faith in small moments, spiritual formation in its molecular form—not because this is all that matters, but because the only life any of us live is in daily, pedestrian humanity” (23).
So, here’s the invitation. For the next 40 days, in preparation for our 4 Days with Jesus (March 29 - April 1), let’s read Tish’s book together. Why? Because we all need wise guides in our journey with Jesus—and she’s one. Why else? Because compassion can’t be conjured up with some “shoulds”—rather, it sneaks up on us, as we choose to order our living in ways more open to grace. And why else? Because reading together is better than reading alone.
Here are three ways you can participate:
- This blog will be an online gathering, as we post on a couple chapters a week. The Comments section is open, so let’s talk!
- For a next-level experience, find a couple friends (or strangers—why not?) who will commit to meeting once a week to talk about the book. If you form a group of three or more, the books are on us! (Email email@example.com to claim your books.)
- On Sabbath mornings, Journey Sabbath School class will be reading along and talking about the book, starting this week, February 17. They meet at 10:30am in the Ministry Center, which is the classroom across from the Church Office—and you are invited.
Six weeks from tomorrow, “4 Days with Jesus” begins. Between now and then, consider embarking on a fast, of sorts. The prophetic God-infused vision is to become the kind of people who feel compassion—the kind of people inclined to release, untie, set free, share, house, and clothe. The path to get there starts with the ordinary. What better season to examine the ordinary, everyday practices and habits that form us—and through which grace mysteriously transforms us?
[^1]: Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (NavPress, 2012), 121.
[^2]: James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos Press, 2016), 16.