“Giving Up Money for Lenten: A Spiritual Excercise”
Oh, How I Love Starbucks
We are grateful that Maryland came very close to passing marriage equality and that they will take another vote after January. In the meantime we need to invite more Maryland residents to become part of our Foundry congregation so they get a chance to be part of a faith community that believes in marriage equality.
I think we should declare April "invite a Marylander to Foundry month."
We have members of this church who have family in Japan. Some have not been able to get through to their family and loved ones yet. We keep them in our prayers.
We're starting today a new series of talks like nothing I've ever done before. Our sermons during Lent this year are based on a spiritual practice we are calling a money fast. Michelle Singletary who came up with the idea calls it a financial fast.
Michelle Singletary is an expert in personal financial management. Her belief is that many Americans are in debt or financially stressed because we are not thoughtful or prudent about our spending. For her, a money fast is a way of learning how to become aware of how much unnecessary spending we do so that we can learn how to live within our means.
If living within our means is a problem for us, doing a money fast as a way of getting our spending under control is probably a good idea.
But, during Lent, for me the money fast has a bigger purpose. Its purpose is to think about the role money plays in my life, to think about and learn about how spending affects my relationship with others; how it affects my relationship with God; how it affects my spiritual life; how it affects my relationship with my own soul.
We have 10 small groups who will participate in the money fast during Lent. One group has already started their fast. Most of us will begin our fast the first Sunday in April and conclude it on Easter Sunday morning. We will break our fast on Easter Sunday morning, maybe with a good brunch.
Michelle Singletary suggests that during the money fast we spend money only for absolute essentials – food staples, medicines, personal hygiene products. She suggests that we not use credit or debit cards, any kind of plastic. But everyone can make their own rules.
Even if this is not a good time for you to do a money fast, it might be interesting for all of us to work at being conscious of the ways we spend money during Lent this year.
Let me add this -- for me a money fast is not anti-money. I do not think money is a bad thing. I do not think that spending money is bad. I Timothy 6:10 does not say that "money is the root of all evil." It says: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains."
"The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil," it says.
One of the things I am learning already from preparing for the money fast is how much of a convenience having money can be, how much time it can save, how much enjoyment it can add to life.
In fact, one of the things I expect I will learn from the money fast is how good it would be if we could figure out how to help people who have very little money get some more in order to make their lives better.
While it is just an experiment, just a spiritual practice, I expect the money fast may make me more sensitive to what it might be like to be poor and to have to think about every cent you spend before you spend it.
I know being on a money fast is very different from actually being poor. For one thing, on a money fast I can cheat anytime I decide to. All I will lose is a little self-respect. If you are poor and you decide to cheat you can lose the roof over your head or your next meal. Big, big difference.
Being on a money fast will not mean I understand what it is like to be poor. But I expect it will make me think about what it must be like to be poor more than I usually do.
I want to talk about two questions today. They are: Why fast? And why a money fast?
First, why fast?
Every religion I know of includes some kind of fasting. Muslims fast from food, drink, smoking, and sex from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. Jews fast from all food six days of the year including Yom Kippur. Buddhist monks and nuns fast every day from 1 p.m. until breakfast the next morning. They fast 2/3rds of the day. Most Hindis fast one day a week, different days for different divinities -- Mondays if you are a devotee of Shiva; Thursday if you are a devotee of Vishnu.
Mormons fast the first Sunday of every month. Roman Catholic Christians are obligated to fast from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. (When I was young it was every Friday. All of us ate fish in my school cafeteria on Fridays to accommodate the Catholic students who were not allowed to eat red meat or poultry on Fridays. We ate fish in my house on Fridays because my father believed the fish you got in the stores on Thursday was the freshest fish of the week.)
It is not unusual for Pentecostal and charismatic Christians to commit to a week-long fast, a two-week fast, or even a 30-day fast as a way of renewing their intimacy with God if God seems distant, or as a way of asking God to answer a prayer.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, encouraged fasting among Methodists. He preached a sermon a number of times entitled "When you fast." In it he encouraged fasting. He suggested the normal length of a fast was a day or half a day. He said that we should not fast so much that "the body [is] denied too much, so to become unfit for what God has called us to do." Don't harm your health, he said. He said that when we fast we must be careful "to humble our souls as well as our bodies." He said that we should not fast in order to try to get special rewards from God. And he said that, for Methodists, fasting must include "prayers and gifts to the poor; works of mercy, within our power, both to the bodies and souls of men [and women.]"
So while John Wesley is a little cautious about fasting, not too much for too long, not fasting as a self-indulgent practice, he advocated fasting.
This is why I believe in fasting: By fasting, we can learn spiritual truths about ourselves if fasting is accompanied by self-reflection, conversation, and prayer. Twenty-five or 30 years ago I learned something very important about myself as a result of fasting.
I fasted from caffeine one Lent. I drank lots of coffee and diet soda in those days. When I went cold turkey on caffeine I got terrible head-aches. After the first week, I started going to a masseuse. During the massages I got very, very tired. The masseuse who then let me sleep on his table for half-an-hour or 45 minutes after the massage.
I thought a lot that Lent about why I used so much caffeine that it would give me fierce headaches to give it up. I discovered an important spiritual and psychological truth about myself.
Part of me found it unacceptable and a shameful thing to get tired. I had two speeds that were emotionally and spiritually acceptable for me – energetic and busy or drop over dead at the end of the day.
There were a lot of other questions I started asking myself. Why wasn't being tired okay for me? Did it have anything to do with my assumptions about God and grace? Did it have anything to do with my understanding of salvation? Did it have anything to do with my fears about death?
It raised lots of questions I found myself asking about my own soul.
I believe in fasting because we can learn some important things that there may not be other ways of learning as well. I think it would have never occurred to me that I had an irrational phobia against being tired had I not fasted from caffeine that Lent long ago.
Another reason I believe in fasting is that it convinces us that our faith is important to us. Fasting strengthens our faith.
If I fast from something during Lent and it is something that feels like a sacrifice to me, I convince myself that Christ is more important in my life than I would otherwise be likely to believe.
I think this is why Muslims pray in a public, inconvenient way five times a day. Part of a Muslim's soul says Allah must really be important to me if I interrupt my life to publically do this five times a day…if I go without eating during daylight hours for an entire month. I must really care about Allah if I do this.
I don't want to say we trick ourselves into believing, but I will say this: A practice is more likely to convince of faith than thinking is. When I pray I am more likely to believe in the presence of God in our world and in my life than when I try to figure it out in my mind.
I don't pray because I believe in the providence of God. I believe in the providence of God because I pray.
So a practice like fasting, that costs us something, convinces us in layers of our intellect and will deeper than our consciousness.
There are two great dangers of fasting.
Fasting makes us sort of narcissistic for awhile. Giving up something that has been a central part of our lives causes us to focus on our own thoughts and feelings probably way too much. It is part of the reason that fasting is a temporary thing. It tends to make us too self-absorbed. I am blogging about the money fast during Lent and I am amazed at how self-consumed my blog is already. Some other folk are going to have to contribute to the blog so it is not just about me.
Secondly, fasting is no substitute for living just and compassionate lives. This is the power of what Isaiah quotes God as saying about fasting:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Fasting may be a good way to learn something about ourselves. Fasting may be a good way of strengthening our faith. It is no substitute for just and compassionate living every day of our lives.
Let me add a word about why a money fast.
Oh, how I love Starbucks.
Out of all the money I spend, the money I spend at Starbucks makes the least sense…and it is the spending that I most don't want to give up when I do the money fast. On my way into the church every morning, I love to buy a cup of hot tea at Starbucks. It costs $2.70. Sometimes in the afternoon I love to take a walk and buy a second cup of tea for $2.70. My Starbucks gold card is dated 2003.
I drink my tea black. I pay $2.70 for tea bags and hot water.
When I first started buying tea at Starbuck, the baristas would motion me to come close and then they would whisper to me: You know you can buy a box of tea bags make your own tea. You don't have to spend all this money for tea."
Even the Starbucks employees were trying to help me not spend so much money at Starbucks.
So I know this. The way I spend money is not purely rational. So I suspect there is something I can learn about my heart and soul by paying attention to the way I spend money.
I expect that until I start the money fast April 3 I will continue to buy tea at Starbucks. After the fast, I expect it will be the first place I will spend money Easter morning.
But in between I hope that the money fast will teach me something about my relationship with God, my relationship with my own soul, my relationship with others, and especially my relationship with the poor.
John Welsey, "When you fast," at http://www.biblebb.com/files/jw-001fasting.htm.