I have fasted before. The discomfort begins in my middle, works its way up to my head. The thing I lack soon dominates my thoughts. I learn more about the thing – and my relationship to it – in its absence than I did in its presence. This fast was a little different. I abstained from church, of all things.
This alone is not remarkable, and may seem a small sacrifice, indeed. Church has been many things to me over the years, but rarely something for which my spirit longed, as the poor fellow in the middle of a fast longs for beef and potatoes. If you go to church you may know what I mean. Like any human institution, churches grow habits and symbols and patterns of speech. They become more and more themselves as time goes by. Growing up in the church I learned by osmosis our mutual understanding of hair styles and neckties and tattoos, and a hundred other symbols. Without overt instruction I learned how to speak in a code that signaled my adherence to the church’s world view. If this sounds like criticism I assure you that it is not; churches try – as loving parents try – to build a shared understanding of the world and a safe haven for their message and members.
The problem is that the church’s culture – a layer intended to protect the message – may grow translucent, if not opaque and can easily obscure the message. Perhaps it was easier for the apostles; the scandal of Jesus’ teaching, his adoration of anyone who would come, his fierce opposition to opaque religious practices; all this offered a stark contrast and clear decision. No one chose the church; they merely entered the church because they chose Jesus.
I did not exactly choose this fast. The church I attend tries to keep its layer of culture very thin and clear, that those who come will see through it to Jesus. That it often succeeds in this is demonstrated by growing crowds who come, perhaps to meet Jesus, perhaps only to bask in the joy of those love him. So many come that the church is nearly full and, to make more room, some regulars attend services on another day. For me, for several weeks, this was not possible and, thus, my fast.
For years I would have said, “I have the Bible, I have prayer, and this is enough” but I have noticed that I, too, have developed my own culture, a mottled layer of personality and preference that often insulates me from Christ, often prevents him from being seen through me.
Perhaps the best part of getting older is a growing certainty that I do not want to become more and more myself. I have tried that and know well – a knowledge made clear again during this fast – the poverty of my own soul, a selfishness that often prevents me from imitating Christ when I am alone, sometimes even from seeing him clearly when I am alone. But, then, it was not his intention for man to be alone.
I choose Jesus and so I enter the church. Sometimes I come with a full heart, anxious to thank him, ready to give. Sometimes I come empty, to bask in the joy of others who love him, to be softened and healed, to be fed and freed from the prison of self.
I am thankful for the Church and especially for my church, a human institution to be sure, but one that tries so hard not to obscure the message, that all who enter may clearly see the beauty of Christ and hear him say “Come!”.