visiting a widow

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27

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I met her on Sunday. Mike, Ashley, and I were walking through the streets of La Fe, the village-community within La Ceiba, Honduras in which we work as missionaries. We took a picture of every family in front of their home, printed it, and gave the picture along with a Bible to each family as a Christmas gift. When we came to her house, she stood out to me because she was the oldest person I had yet seen in La Fe. She was seated in a plastic chair outside her home, slightly hunched with age, doing nothing but sitting and watching.

We took her picture and returned a few minutes later with the printed copy and the Bible. She admitted that she could not read, but assured me that she would give the Bible to one of her family members who would be able to use it. I encouraged her to do so, told her “God bless you,” and continued on to the next house.

On Tuesday, I looked for her again. At first, I found her house, but not her. Her son told me she was sick and in the house of his brother, a few streets over. When I found the house, I discovered her laying on a small couch, curled up, and clearly in pain. My heart felt heavy to see her suffering. I bid “good afternoon” to the house and gently explained to the young woman who came to greet me that I had met the “abuelita” two days earlier, had given her a Bible, had found out she could not read, and was wondering if perhaps she would like for me to read some scripture to her. They welcomed me inside and handed me a Bible.

I had not prepared a thing. I simply turned to some familiar passages and read them with reverence: Isaiah 25, John 10, Psalm 23, and Romans 5. A man and another woman soon came in from the back room and sat with us to listen in. The five of us listened to the beautiful words of God together and shared a few moments of peace in the midst of a crazy world. God blessed me with the words I needed to get the point across, in Spanish: God takes care of us when we feel helpless, like a shepherd guarding his sheep. Our hope in this life of suffering and death comes from knowing that Jesus suffered in our place on the cross. Without him, we have nothing at all. With him, we lack nothing at all.

The old woman said nothing during all of this, except to express her agreement when one of the other women stated her gratitude to me and to God for my unexpected arrival. I replied that God is a good Father, who gives good gifts at the very moment we think we cannot do any more. His word of promise is our hope in this life. After we prayed together, I offered to return in two days to read some more scripture aloud for them all, and they welcomed me back.

God’s mercy to us is profound. He came to us clothed in weakness: a child, a humble man. He spoke our language. He wore our clothes. He entered our homes. He visited us in the middle of our despair, called us back to the Father, and gave his body to us. The greatest gift he gave was his own self.

For us now, it is the same. God only approves of religion that is characterized by Christ-like mercy and Christ-like purity. When we enter one another’s homes, speak one another’s languages, and give ourselves to one another, with the Word of God, we find that making disciples is a reality within reach, as is joy. It is joy of which the principles and the gods of this world know nothing whatsoever.

There are many widows and orphans who need family, and many wandering souls who need to be called back to the Father. The best gift you can give them is yourself.

Receive from Jesus, give him away. Receive from Jesus, give him away. Receive from Jesus, give him away…

[Jesus said,] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51

[Jesus said,] “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:36

fasting: a breath of fresh air

Fasting is like a spiritual breath of fresh, cold, mountain air. It may sting your throat for a moment, but it widens your eyes, straightens your back, and clears your head. It feels so much better than the humid stuffiness of oppressively hot, dead air.

Fasting is a biblical discipline found in both Testaments. It is an important reminder that the human person is not merely body, not merely soul, but is both intertwined, and each part affects the other. Biblical saints practiced it as a context for prayer (Daniel 9:3, Acts 14:23), repentance (Joel 2:12-13), petition (Ezra 8:23), humbling (Psalm 69:10), and devotion (Luke 2:36-37). This verse from 2 Chronicles 7, when God confirmed to Solomon his acceptance of the temple, succinctly summarizes the layers of meaning in fasting:

…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14

Fasting is about humility

Humility, next to love, is probably the most fundamental Christian virtue, just as pride is the fundamental sin. There can be no faith without humility, no endurance, no self-sacrifice, no joy, no Christ-likeness. I can hardly think of a more beautiful or inspiring sight in the world than a truly humble man or woman.  How much love, peace, and joy those people have!

Fasting is useful, therefore, because it humbles us. Speaking from personal experience, fasting reminds me of how utterly dependent I am on God’s daily provision, both physical and spiritual; it reminds me of how pathetic I am on my own, and how weak my will”power” is; it reminds me of the luxury I live in everyday while so many millions in the world go hungry, prompting me to pray for them; it reminds me that just as I cannot live without food feeding my body, neither can I live in newness of life without the words of God feeding my soul. Fasting reminds me of my neediness, in every aspect, which only God satisfies.

Fasting is an outward expression of an inwardly humble heart; or, more likely, of a mostly proud heart that wishes to be humbled.

and prayer

Fasting cannot be separated from prayer. More often than not, in the Bible, the two are mentioned together. Along with a decluttered digestive tract comes a decluttered mind. With clarity of thought comes clarity in prayer.

Often in the Bible, fasting was a way to focus on praying for something really specific, such as a pressing need or a certain issue in the world. Fasting, like that breath of cold air, heightens the senses, physical and spiritual. It tunes you in to the world outside yourself; to which, in our self-absorption, we are all too often oblivious. It also tunes you in to the Holy Spirit, who speaks profoundly in scripture, and truly communes with the humbled heart in prayer.

A word of advice: do not bother fasting without setting aside a special time of prayer. In prayer, speak honestly, casting all your cares on God, confessing your sins to him, interceding for others. I often default to the Lord’s prayer or a familiar psalm for words. Remember that it is not about the number or piety of the words in a prayer, it is about the love and the honesty in the words.

and “seeking his face”

“Seeking God’s face” is a biblical expression used throughout scripture, and it means what it sounds like it means: to seek intimacy with God, longing to interact with him “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exodus 33:11).

As the body cries out for food during fasting, so the mind and spirit cry out for the living Bread, Jesus (John 6:51). Communion/the Lord’s Supper/the Eucharist vividly and regularly reminds us that Jesus himself is what satisfies the hunger in our souls. Fasting does the same thing, using the same metaphor.

Jesus said,

Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them, and then they will fast in that day. Matthew 9:19-20

Jesus is the bridegroom, we are the ones fasting while we wait for him. One day our fast will end forever, at the “wedding feast of the Lamb.” Meanwhile, we fast, seeing as through a glass darkly, anticipating the day when we will really see face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).

God’s “face” – his character and personality – is painted for us in scripture. Seeking his face mostly means seeking him in the Bible. Meditation is crucial. If the words of God are food, then meditation is digestion. Christian meditation is not mindless. It means engaging with the text in a personal, slow, thoughtful way, absorbing it into your head and heart. I would recommend meditating on one paragraph over skimming one chapter every time.

Fasting is useful because it eliminates distractions, making the way to God clearer.

and turning from our wicked ways.

 I think Joel says it best:

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Joel 2:12-13

There is something called “godly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:10) which Joel describes here. It means seeing sin for the ugliness it is and mourning for one’s commission of it. It exists under the beautiful truth that God is a God who gives grace, mercy, and unending forgiveness. That is its basis and its hope.

Here in the book of Joel, the prophet was also referring to mourning for the corporate sins of the Israelite nation. That kind of repentance (such as, on behalf of America) is real too. Things in this country would change if every disciple of Jesus living here regularly set aside days and times for fasting, praying, and repenting on behalf of America. Too often we “don’t have enough time” because we are too busy buying into the lies and sins of America along with the rest of America.

 “Yet even now” – even though your sin is piled to the sky – “return to me.” To fast is to repent; to turn from the vain things of the world and our petty concerns and turn again to the living God. It is a grace-filled thing.

As always, the motivation is much more important than the method. Look elsewhere on the Internet for suggestions of method; there are plenty of resources. However you choose to do it, do it wholeheartedly and humbly, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, knowing it is better by far to ignore the rewards of this world and to instead live Corum Deo – “before the face of God.”

And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:18