In the middle of the desert it can be hard to remember that every bit of dust and stone is love spoken into place. That each blade of brave grass and every dark shadow cast by a towering rock is sustained by that same Love which holds you and breathes into you each breath.
Sometimes in the desert you have to look hard to find the love; other times it pours over you.
I watch as Jesus walks into the desert, sent by the same Spirit who had just descended and confirmed him beloved.
Sent from that baptismal river of blessing to be hungry and weary, alone with the wild animals and his devilish tempter, stretched to his limits for forty days until Satan left and angels came to tend him.
He’d just heard his Father speak His love over him.
Maybe it’s only in the desert that we test and prove that love, learn that that love is strong enough to carry us through every drought and sandstorm.
Maybe that is the love of the desert, the stripping away of everything else until we lean on that love with all our weight and discover that this love will hold us. That, yes, this love will lead us out of everything familiar, and sometimes we’ll see the pillar of fire and other times our eyes will sting from the smoke, but we will be led. Guided. Guarded. And fed by God himself.
Our call in the desert is to lean into that love.
I watch how Satan fights, each of his temptations, as Ross Hastings shows, an attack on Jesus’ ability to rest in his Sonship. And I watch how Jesus responds to each one by leaning into his belovedness. He uses all the tools he has been given: Scripture, first and foremost, and prayer, but also his body. He fasts.
Our bodies: thermostats and thermometers
A few months back I looked up all the references to fasting in Scripture. Often, fasting flowed from inner experience as an expression of the deep grief or longing a person or community was feeling. The Israelites fasted as they mourned the deaths of Saul and his army, and Nehemiah fasted as he mourned the destruction of Jerusalem (2 Sam 1:12 and Neh 1:4). David abstained from food as he pleaded with God for the life of his son, and the Jews expressed their kicked-in-the-gut sickness over the upcoming holocaust by fasting (2 Sam 12:16-23 and Esther 4:3). There are times your grief is so deep your whole body cries out to share in its expression; fasting is one such way.
Our bodies are thermometers, the pains, longings and actions (including fasting) of our bodies reflecting what is going on deep within us. They can also be thermostats, able not only to sense and reflect our temperature but to help us recover and maintain warmth toward God.
Sometimes God commands His people to fast as a way to help them awaken again to His love and turn their whole selves back to Him (Joel 2:12-13). Fasting is not a way of subjugating the body so we’re free to pray. It’s a form of integration, a way of becoming more, not less, embodied and unified and whole in our prayer. I realized this one day as I pictured my body slouched in a corner, back turned on my heart and soul which were filled with longing and grief. My body, feeling the same grief, was stuffing chocolate in its mouth, seeking comfort. Helping my body to put down the chocolate and come with my heart and soul to God can be a way of bringing all the parts of me into God’s healing presence and allowing Him to make me whole in His love.
Sometimes God calls His people to fast; other times He says, “Celebrate now and fast later” (Neh 8 and 9). God knows we’re human and the use of our bodies is a powerful tool: there are times we need to engage our body in repentance through fasting and there are times we need to savor flavors and celebrate together, using the thermostat of our body to help us press into joy, not to escape the struggle but to strengthen us for it. It’s like God said to Elijah when He sent him food as he was lying under a bush in the desert praying to die, “Eat, for this journey is too much for you” (1 Kings 19:7). Fasting and feasting (whether on food or music or natural beauty) can both be ways of using our bodies to help us turn back toward God. It all depends where we’re starting from and which way we need to be turned.
Leaning into love
Two weeks ago I sat, clinging to the cross, and leaned my head back, thinking it bare wall behind me. When we stood to leave the room, she took my shoulder and turned me to see what I’d been leaning my head against, what she’d kept seeing as the backdrop to my tear-stained face. One row after another of heart-rocks, each on its own rough, sandy backdrop. Each a reminder as she’d walked the several weeks along the mountain desert trail: even in the desert, the heart of God toward us is love.
Taking it deeper:
Can you hear the invitation for you this week? Are you needing to let your body help you celebrate and receive the joy of the Lord? (More thoughts on that next week but you can pray with me about this and look for ways to begin.) Or are you needing to let your body help you re-awaken to God’s love by fasting from something? Skip a meal; forego chocolate; unplug from facebook—watch where you turn to fill the empty space or satisfy loneliness and step away from it for a while, choosing to turn your body as well as your heart and soul to God instead. Notice both what your reaction to the discipline tells you about your internal state, and how it helps awaken and turn you back to listen for the Voice that calls you beloved.
This is the third in a Lenten series of posts exploring what it might look like to live fully alive to God with our bodies as well as our souls. Click on the links to read the first two: