What a Quaker Might Give Up For Lent…

 

Thinking about Ash Wednesday 

Yes, we are dust, but we are earthly dust, springing from a divine creative adventure. Dust is good.  It is the place of fecundity, of moist dark soil. We are frail, but we are also part of this holy adventure reflecting God’s love.  Like Jacob, this event offers us an opportunity to pause, notice, wake up, and discover that “God is in this place” and now we know it! It invites us to take a “beauty break,” to repent, turning around, and see this awe-filled, precarious world in which we live. And that will always embrace our relationships with others, others who should be sharing with us the good things of God’s creation.

Matthew 6:1; 5-18

6“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them;… 5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

 14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

 

Given the number of references to fasting in the Bible it is not surprising to find a great deal of emphasis on this practice in seventeenth century England. Many of the converts to early Quakerism came from such groups as the Seekers, Baptists, and Independents, all of whom put great emphasis on the Bible. George Fox himself knew the Bible well, and his thought and expressions were often influenced by it. Because of our more recent history it may come as a surprise to you that in the opening generation of Quakerism Friends took fasting very seriously. 

At the time Roman Catholics were “fasting” from the flesh of animals on Friday, although not from the flesh of fish. There were also national “fast days,” called because of droughts or other calamities which threatened the nation. There were smaller groups of people who fasted together – as in the case of “a seeking people, who kept one day in the week in fasting and praying” with whom John Camm and John Audland met when they arrived in Bristol. 

Referring to his 1647 wanderings, George Fox in his Journal  recorded that “I fasted much, and walked abroad in solitary places many days, and often took my Bible and went and sat in the hollow trees and Lonesome places. . ., for I was a man of sorrows in the times of the first workings of the Lord in me.”  

In November 1652 a well known Quaker, James Milner, predicted that Wednesday, December 1, would be the Day of Judgment, and the next day would be the start of the new “creation.”  As George Fox began to wrestle with how to address the accusations of blasphemy thrust upon Friends by Milner’s action he embarked on a ten-day fast. His Journal also records Richard Hubberthorne being “in a great fast, and after was very weak,” so that many people thought he was dead.  There are reports of several instances in which James Nayler being ‘under a fast…’

From a 1659 letter we learn that an early “Publisher of Truth”, Henry Fell, who was active in Europe, the West Indies, and Surinam in South America, was in a fourteen day fast trying to work through some inward problem or decision about whether to go with John Stubbs on a religious journey.

John Luffe, an Irish Quaker from Limerick, who traveled in ministry with John Perrot in Greece, Turkey, and Italy returned from the eastern Mediterranean by way of Rome intent on seeing the Pope. They wound up in the Pazzarella, a prison for “mad-men”. According to Perrot, while imprisoned, Luffe was murdered by hanging at the hands of church officials. Their claim was that Luffe had fasted nineteen days and died on the twentieth – having starved himself to death. Later, when Charles Bayly and Jane Stokes arrived in Rome to seek the release of John Perrot, they were also imprisoned in the Pazzarella.  Bayly, learning of Luffe’s hanging and the “official” view that through fasting, he had starved himself to death, felt called to fast twenty days, in order to show that a person might live through such a period of fasting.

These were just a few of the many reports of Friends fasting.  For what purpose did Fox and these other early Quakers fast?  For some it grew from a great longing to deepen their spiritual life,  sharpen their spiritual awareness and their desire to know God’s will more clearly.  In still other cases fasting may have been a way of strengthening the individual’s ability to meet some special challenge.  In their “fasting” some Quakers drank only water, others used wine or even sour vinegar to wash out their mouth. Some ate bread, while others did not. Most of them abstained from eating meat – either for a period or through the whole fast.

In response to Oliver Cromwell’s call in 1654 for a nation-wide fast to end a great drought Fox published: A Warning from the Lord to all such as hang down the head for a day. He wrote,  “This is the fast that the Lord requires…., to deal the bread to the hungry; this Fast the Lord Requires of you all, then no Oppressor shall be in the Land, no Bond of Iniquity, and with the Fist of wickedness there shall be none to smite each other, but with the light Christ hath enlightened you withal, it shall be condemned, and it will lead to the true Fast, the everlasting day; then shall you see the Windows of heaven opened.” He continued: “Your Fasting and Mourning for a day, as a custome, is not accepted with God, God accepts it not, to fast one day, and feast another; but this is the Fast that the Lord doth require of you, to break off the Bonds [of] Iniquity, to shew mercy to the Fatherless and Widdows, and let the oppressed go free; cast off your Pride, cast off your Highness, ambition and honor, for these things the drought comes upon you, and the plague, and the Famine, which is your figure, that you have the out-side, but you want the Water of Life; and this is come upon you which have tasted of the mercies of God, and deliverances, and then there was a tenderness in many of you, but now many are got into ease, and pride, stretching your selves upon your beds of ease, and the parched ground is a figure of your parched hearts.

It is not possible to tell how widespread fasting was among early Quakers or just how long the practice continued but it became less frequent as the 1650s turned into the 1660s and tended to disappear by the 1670s when the initial period of enthusiasm had departed from Friends.

For our Catholic, , Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterians Anglican and even some Baptists brothers and sisters this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday.  It is the doorway to a season of fasting called Lent. You are absolutely correct that though fasting is evident, neither Ash Wednesday or Lent is mentioned in Scripture. Early Quakers refused as we refuse other symbolic acts and prescribed days.  The imposition of ashes like the taking the cup or being immersed is meaningless, even hypocritical, unless there is a corresponding inner repentance and change of allegiance and behavior.

In liturgical settings the person imposing the ashes traditionally recites Genesis 3:19 that says “remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return”.  The focus is on the brevity of life and reminds worshippers that they came from dust and will soon enough end up as dust once more. The whole season of Lent is a bit morose. Participants typically give up something in order to prepare themselves for eternal life. It is as if the salvation promised and hoped for requires turning our backs on the joys of embodiment and the beauties of the earth. Adherents are told  to train their eyes on heaven, forsaking time for eternity. We agree, life is serious and risky business, and no one gets out alive. But is salvation about escaping this world of perpetual perishing or seeing everlasting beauty in each passing moment?

I’m suggesting on one hand that the brevity and uncertainty of life invites us to praise, wonder, and see the beauty, and to seize the moment—for “this is the day God has made and I will rejoice in it!”  All that I love and care for is mortal and transitory, but our very humanness is the inspiration to celebration and love. We are constantly dying, but we are also constantly living as we reflect God’s vision in the world of the flesh. This day, this moment, is a “thin place,” for God is with us, revealed in flesh, blood, and healing touch.

Often said, along with the imposition of ashes, are the words, “repent and believe the gospel.” Without ashes I plan to “repent,” turn around, live more in the moment, appreciating God’s grandeur, and believing the good news—the embodied, yet ever-lasting, gospel of beauty, wonder, and grace—the good news of walking with beauty all around me.  I’d call you to consider as a better form of fasting letting go of what keeps you from seeing and rejoicing in the beauty of the earth. It allows us to make room for delighting in being part of God’s creation and celebrating the relationships we have with those around us. 

Isaiah put such fasting is context when he declared: 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? 7Is 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? 8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;

Yes, we are dust, but we are earthly dust, springing from a divine creative adventure. Dust is good.  It is the place of fecundity, of moist dark soil. We are frail, but we are also part of this holy adventure reflecting God’s love.  Like Jacob, this event offers us an opportunity to pause, notice, wake up, and discover that “God is in this place” and now we know it! It invites us to take a “beauty break,” to repent, turning around, and see this awe-filled, precarious world in which we live. And that will always embrace our relationships with others, others who should be sharing with us the good things of God’s creation.

 

 

 

 

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