Monday, April 25, 2011

Awakening: a fresh approach to fasting?

Awakening: A New Approach to Faith, Fasting, and Spiritual Freedom
Stovall Weems

What makes fasting easier? How can you make fasting more effective? Is it necessary?
Stovall Weems provides a pattern for bringing people into the discipline of fasting without making it a burden. He also proposes that following a fast can be effective in producing spiritual awakening. And he stresses the necessity of it if you desire a fresher, more passionate relationship with God.

Awakening has two parts. The first two thirds of the book is the foundational teaching regarding Weems’ approach to fasting. The last one thirds of the book sets out a pattern for implementing fasting into your life.

Early in the book, Weems makes a decent argument for the need of believers to re-emphasize prayer and fasting in our lives. He also makes a passing mention of the role of giving. And he is right on. Believers in the current generations of the church have left the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving to the “holier” people. These disciplines are regarded as special (excluding commuter prayer practice) and not attainable by “normal” people. I believe that Weems makes the point very well that everyone can approach these means of spiritual enrichment.

But beyond agreeing on the necessity, I struggled with how Weems supports his argument. I will say that I believe he is right on target regarding the need of fasting and the role of fasting in spiritual awakening. But I found his supporting argument filled with contradictory points.

Early on he refers to the community of faith he belonged to and spoke the legalistic, “our way is the right way”, approach they took (pg.31). He denounces this performance centric type of faith development. But at other points in the book, he makes his own pattern very performance centric. He begins to apply the same, “my way is the right way” arguments.

On page 76 Weems imagines this interaction with someone. “I can almost imagine someone asking, ‘Stovall, are you saying that in order to come into full alignment with God, I need to fast?’ ‘Yes! That’s exactly what I am saying and Jesus said it too.’” Then on page 102 he makes this statement, “You will get a breakthrough in your area of struggle after you complete the ‘Awakening 21-Day Plan and will enjoy freedom.’”

I don’t disagree with him on the necessity of fasting. I wish I were better at practicing this discipline just for this reason. But at points he makes it sound as if his way of fasting is the only way to make contact with God.

As I read, the distinction that I found him to be making was the difference between what he called Old Covenant and New Covenant fasting. He makes the statement that the purpose and experience of fasting in the Old Covenant (specifically the Old Testament) was radically different from the purpose and experience of fasting in the New Covenant (I am assuming he means the entire New Testament) (pg.64). I think he is way off base here.

First, I would argue that if you claim that the New Testament purpose and experience of fasting is radically different from the Old Testament and that the Old Testament form of fasting was inadequate for the task of having an intimate relationship with God, then the fasting which Jesus practiced, which was the Old Covenant form was inadequate. We are told very clearly that Jesus was faithful to the law. That means the purpose and experience of the law. And that means Jesus observed faithfully everything within the relationship with God regarding the law. If Jesus did not observe the law, then he did not fast, and his expectations of followers to fast would be hollow and invalid. Jesus did observe the law, he most likely observed the fasts, and his expectations for followers would be an example of a greater understanding of the law and the relationship with God through it (Matthew 5:17-20).

Second, Weems states that Old Covenant fasting was for the purpose of mourning, getting God to intervene during a crisis, convincing God to change His mind, and obtaining favor from God (pp. 66-67). And there are specific instances where fasting was implemented for these reasons. But regular fasting, limiting what was eaten or drank to sharpen spiritual awareness, was a part of the normal ritual life of God’s people.

Sabbath required eating only what could be prepared the day before. Some of the festivals were solemn rests when no work could be done, including preparing food, in order to humble themselves. That would be why the religious leaders were condemning Jesus and the disciples for plucking heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath. Fasting is a humbling experience, not an exalting experience. The Old Covenant connects fasting with humility in order to realign human priorities with God’s priorities.

Most of the argument about a difference between the two forms of fasting comes down to intention. Weems makes it clear that the intention behind the fast is what makes the difference. And I agree completely. Fasting is about the condition of our lives before, during, and after. If we are approaching fasting with any other intention than humbling ourselves before God so that God can work in us, through us, and around us, then we will be disappointed and hungry. But I have to wonder what Weems means by intention.

At times it almost sounds like he refers to intentionality as “think happy thoughts” and it will be enough. On page 30 Weems says, “Right thinking leads to right feelings and the way we think right is to renew our minds in the Word of God.” He nods to the need of study of the Word of God but there is very little to expand this practice. Instead it is the influence of thinking “right” thoughts that produces “right” feelings. And this sentence is three sentences behind what I consider to be the most problematic sentence in the entire book.

“You will live more holy on accident by focusing on the goodness of God than you will by focusing on all the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt nots.”

You cannot live intentionally by living on accident. You cannot be holy by accident. You cannot understand the full meaning of God’s goodness without at least comprehending the necessity of shalts and shalt nots. And you cannot live out this later statement, “…if you don’t feel like obeying God then there is something wrong with your feelings.” (pg.90) Weems goes on to say that “the majority of the time we should feel like obeying God.” You cannot obey God without focusing on what God requires. Call it what you will, obedience is still focusing on what we shall do and shall not do.

I believe that Weems is another of the current crop of preachers who is trying to draw an imaginary line dividing religion and relationship, claiming the former is dead and the latter is critical. And that distinction needs to die a quick death, soon. There is no line between the two. It is an effort to eradicate a word that should, instead, be clarified. Religion is relationship. It is the relationship that God offers to us. Religion is the response to the relationship that God offers to us. There is no separation of the two. The more the two are separated, the more the orthodox faith of Christianity will be diminished and undermined to the point of an amorphous and irrelevant social organization with no life-altering power.

I was given a copy of this book free of charge in exchange for an honest review by the WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Heaven Is For Real

It is making waves in the talk show circuits. It is on the best sellers list. Wal-Mart has a whole pile of the book. It is a smash hit.

Heaven Is For Real tells the story of a little boy, Colton Burpo, who undergoes a serious surgical procedure. While under the anesthetic Colton experiences the wonders of heaven, the very throne room of God. The story is told from Colton's dad's perspective. Todd Burpo is a Wesleyan minister. Colton begins to divulge little pieces of what he experienced long after the surgery. The book tells of the little pieces of Colton's experiences that he shared over the course of a couple of years.

This is a sweet book. The innocence Colton portrays makes you want to follow in his dad's footsteps, "Tell me more." It is a very quick read. I got through it in just a few hours. But I can't say that I liked the book.

I'm probably too much of a cynic. Maybe I'm ingrained in my own beliefs too much. But as I read through the story, I couldn't connect with the experience Colton had. There were just little pieces here and there that I couldn't fit into my worldview and theology. I am not going to go so far as saying it is bad theology. It is just familiar theology. And that is my sticking point.

I wish that I could lay aside the understanding I have come to. I wish that I could lay aside the years of study and discovery and let this story wash over me as a faith building experience. But I can't. There are just little points where ideological red lights go off and tiny sirens of doubt ring in my ears.

But with all of that in mind, I sincerely hope that Colton touches many people and gets them on the path to discovering God. I hope that his family shelters him from the crush of people who would love to take advantage of his experience of grace. And I hope that if you read this story, you will have a deeper blessing of God.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Love Wins - Rob Bell's book about heaven, hell, and everyone in between

Who goes to heaven? Who goes to hell? And who gets to choose?

These are the questions that Rob Bell sets out to answer. To cut to the chase, Bell believes that God chooses everyone going to heaven. He argues that God is interested in a good story. And a god who allows people to live for approximately 72 years and then potentially spend eternity in hell does not make for a good story. For Bell, God allowing everyone to spend eternity with God makes a better story.

And it does. It makes for a good story.

And I agree with Bell on a good percentage of what he says early in the book. In general I believe that traditions and opinions of contemporary believers have strayed quite a bit from early beliefs. It is also interesting what biblical gymnastics are employed to argue for beliefs about the afterlife. Bell challenges the comfy armchair pictures and opinions about heaven and hell that we most commonly run into in today's churches. He draws out the many biblical approaches to heaven and hell. He makes some really solid points that I agree with.

But the darn Arminian within me cannot agree with Rob's final arguments that everyone will be have been redeemed to the point of eternal celebration with God. I can't go there with him. I don't read scripture the same way.

The farther Bell goes with his position, the farther he gets away from discipleship and how I understand faith. Yes, I admit, my disagreement is about how I believe and how I understand scripture. It isn't that he is the great heretic of our time. It isn't that he has violated the fellowship of faith. It is that I don't agree with him.

And it is time to face the truth about our beliefs. Your beliefs are your own. They are either compatible with other people's (living or dead or long dead)or they are incompatible with other peoples's (living or dead or long dead). That, however, does not make your beliefs the rule and standard by which everyone's beliefs are to be judged. I can promise you that your beliefs are just as laughable from God's point of view as mine are.

There is a lot to be said about orthodoxy, though. And I'm sure that someone else has said a lot about it. So I will be brief. Orthodoxy, or the doxy of orthos, with a little "o" (not to be confused with Orthodoxy with a big "O" and really cool beards) is basically the idea of sticking to what is normal or traditional. It means holding to the mainline or what is enduring. There are some ideas that have endured and have been the unifying thoughts of Christian beliefs.

I know that there is a growing contingent of believers who believe that there has been a major revision in history that has excluded alternative beliefs and doctrine.

Yes, history is written by the victors. But the odd thing about the victors who have written Christian history and doctrine is that they write about their own failures and their own mistakes as well as the weaknesses of their opponents. So don't try to argue that the "heresies" of the early church were just sour grapes or ganging up on the little guy. From the beginning of teaching about the kingdom of God, there were acceptable and unacceptable beliefs. There were right and wrong beliefs. There were choices that were affirmed and choices that had to be put away.

Beliefs have to be weighed, not by personal opinion or what makes us comfortable. They need to be weighed by the measuring line of the enduring norm. The ideas that have stood throughout time are what will shape us as a people. And when something that sounds nice or draws more people in because it is easier to chew goes against the enduring norm, then we need to have enough integrity to admit that it is wrong and find our way back to the enduring norm.

Love Wins, in my opinion, crossed the line from the enduring norm and steps into a place where the church does not need to go.