Have I Been Disfiguring My Face?

Whenever you fast, don’t be gloomy like the hypocrites. For they disfigure their faces so that their fasting is obvious to people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting isn’t obvious to others but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18

I have been brought up short by Jesus’ above words.

You see, recently I blogged a couple of times about fasting from TV for Lent. My intention in doing so was to share my experience. The plan was to post occasionally the ups and downs of fasting from a habitual (though not necessarily sinful in itself) behaviour. What does fasting in this way uncover in my heart? How is God teaching me through this Lenten season? When I (or we) deny myself (ourselves) something I (we) want, what effect might that process have?

But it occurred to me that blogging about this may in fact violate Jesus’ teaching on fasting in the Sermon on the Mount. Especially if at any point I share the challenges of such fasting. Sad as it is that fasting from TV may actually prove difficult for me once in awhile, surely blogging about it (disfiguring my face) inadvertently draws attention to my spiritual efforts. “O woe is me! I have to read instead of turning to Netflix! How horrid is my life!” Nevermind the fact that it’s a voluntary fast.

So let me say this. Fasting in this way doesn’t make me a spiritual hero. Pastor or not, I am not super-spiritual. If anything, fasting in this way shows me that I have allowed something frivolous to become a mindless habit. Because I have had a moment or two where I wanted to turn back to this habit. Maybe precisely because it is a habit, not so much because there is anything intrinsically good about the activity.

Here’s another thing about this. Some might say it’s sort of empty to fast in this way, that there’s nothing particularly worthwhile about engaging in this Lenten practice. But I think for me fasting helps me understand how profoundly I am affected by a culture that tells me I should be able to have what I want when I want it. Why deny myself?

First, Jesus tells me to deny myself. And if that somehow doesn’t take on flesh and blood in my everyday life in practical ways, what can it possibly mean?

Not only that, but all of our habits, being habits after all, have a pretty direct affect on us and on people around us. A habit is a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up. Some are fairly benign; others are addictive and dangerous; and many fall somewhere in between and can cross over from one to the other.

If I habitually were to watch an hour of TV before supper, for instance, what else should or could I be doing? And if it becomes genuinely habitual, I may even find myself annoyed that some outside force, person, or situation requires me to break the habit involuntarily. I may even develop the feeling that I am in fact entitled to enjoy my habit uninteruppted.

So part of this process is becoming more self-aware. Sometimes it’s not until we attempt to give something up that we realize and experience how great a hold it has had on us.

More than that, it’s ultimately about gaining more freedom, ironic as it sounds. Because breaking myself of a poor habit allows me time to be with my kids, to be more productive in my work, or to enjoy something more substantial like a good book. Or it can. Whether it does, is up to me.

In the end, I don’t think I have been disfiguring my face, so to speak. But just in case, from now on I may not make posting about my Lenten fast too much of a habit.

Lenten TV Fast Update Part 2

On recent Saturday mornings, my son Eli and I have been watching The Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon on Netflix. Most recently we watched a bunch of episodes of the Marvel show WandaVision on Disney+. After that I would sometimes watch an episode or two of Law & Order.

But now I won’t be doing any of that until after Easter.

Now, I confess that I know exactly what it’s like to spend a few—maybe even several?—hours watching TV, and then afterwards having this feeling of, well, waste.

More specifically, it’s the feeling that my time spent passively enjoying a show didn’t really add anything to my life. I might very well have enjoyed it, but I don’t take anything away of value. At least most of the time.

But when I use that same time to read or perhaps work on a blog post, my mind and my heart are more actively engaged. I get something from it. It adds something to my life, to my day, to my imagination, to my sense of accomplishment. It has value beyond the time spent doing it.

Don’t get me wrong. I probably will return to watching superhero cartoons with Eli once Lent is over. Indeed, I love doing that with him. I will probably also watch other kinds of TV again.

At the same time, I hope and pray that my experience of Lent—and of fasting from TV—will change my attitude and my habits.

In the meantime, I will take full advantage of not watching TV to do other things that are both enjoyable and life-giving.

Lenten TV Fast Update

So it’s day three of no Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, or Disney+.

So far, so good.

I’ve noticed a few things. First, it’s not really something I miss per se. But because of the habits that I’d formed, I’m aware of the absence of it. I miss or at least am cognizant of the change in my routine. It’s amazing what I would do because it’s what I was used to doing. Lent is giving me the opportunity to reflect on and change habits.

I also have a little more time. When I would watch something while eating lunch, my meal was always done before whatever I was watching. But I kept watching. Today while eating I listened to a podcast. When I was done eating, I got back to work. I kept listening to the podcast, but it wasn’t the same as passive entertainment; it was spiritually edifying and intellectually stimulating. Lent is teaching me a bit about what Scripture calls “redeeming the time” (Ephesians 5:16).

Lastly, there have been moments when I’ve thought about “adjusting” my commitment to fasting from TV for Lent. Maybe I could only fast from certain portions of it. No doubt an excuse to keep some of what I want. However, I’m not going to change the parameters of my fast. To that end, Lent is helping me experience the value of not always getting what I want.

With 37 days to go, it should be interesting to see what else I learn from observing Lent.

Lent

Having grown up Catholic, I am quite familiar with what it means to observe Lent. Though I confess that in recent years I have not observed it. Not because I am a Baptist pastor, but more likely because I simply haven’t wanted to bother. I confess that I am not an exemplar with respect to spiritual or even more general personal discipline.

It’s a struggle.

So while I am familiar with what Lent means, I’ve never really taken it that seriously. At least not beyond the occasional giving up or fasting from something. Things like junkfood or sweets. You know, the usual culprits.

This year both my wife and I have decided to be intentional about entering the Lenten season. For my part, I am giving up TV: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, YouTube, and DVDs. While it may not be for you, for me it’s a thing.

But that’s not enough. I have to do something in place of watching TV. That is, when I would normally be inclined to watch a show, instead my intention is to pray and/or read. When I say read, I mean the Bible (of course) but not only the Bible. I have shelves full of wonderful theological and spiritual books. I even have some devotional books that include reflections on Lent itself. I may even indulge in some fiction.

When we think of fasting, we most often think of food. But we can fast from any number of things. Think about social media. Think about getting off Facebook for Lent. Consider a fast from complaining. When you’re tempted to gripe about something, ask God for help to be thankful instead.

The reason for fasting is to refrain from something you want and would normally allow yourself to have. Or to fast from something that adds little value to your life and only wastes time; and then to replace it with an activity that reminds you of your dependence on God.

Sometimes growing closer to God requires holy subtraction. Such holy subtraction may give us time and opportunity for more life-giving things.

Or perhaps you need some holy addition. That is, prayer, Scripture reading, and other spiritual disciplines have little to no place in your life. Maybe Lent is the time to take the time to begin your day with The Lord’s Prayer and to ask God for help to see him at work throughout your day.

Lent is the season in the church calendar that leads up to Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection (Easter) Sunday. Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas. It begins tomorrow with Ash Wednesday. It’s an invitation to mark our time and routine differently, to allow God’s word and our relationship with him to determine our daily rhythm.

One piece of advice I would give, especially if Lent is entirely new to you, is this: keep it simple. Pick one small thing. Remember the purpose is to allow that one thing to draw you to God, to remind you of Jesus.

I could say more, but for now I won’t. Besides, I have forty more days.