It is Easter. Alleluia! Or, more properly, it is Easter-tide. Palm fronds saved from Sunday’s service two weeks ago are woven homemade crosses drying on the kitchen windowsill or (in my case, on the pile of mail stacked on my desk). The signs and symbols of Lent and Holy Week – along with the bins of empty plastic eggs – are packed up as we savor the last morsels of Easter chocolate many of us denied ourselves for lo those forty days. Refreshed by caffeine enjoyed anew with gusto, we put decorations into storage till next year’s Lenten fast returns and we begin the ritual again by asking ourselves “What to give up for Lent this year?”
To be honest, I did not give up chocolate or caffeine for Lent this year. Or last year for that matter. And as long as I have plans to travel to England during Lent I will not give up chocolate or caffeine as my Lenten discipline. I will not purposefully cut myself off from the widely available British treat of chocolate covered digestives with a cuppa Yorkshire tea during my travels. But traveling hasn’t stopped me from being more creative and circumspect about my choice of fast. This year I fasted (with varying degrees of struggle and success) from dependency on social media so that I might grow more mindful of my dependence upon God.
For the last several weeks, I have contemplated the rhythms of fasting and feasting as a part of Christian discipleship. How does the experience of fasting help shape us when we finally break it and enjoy the feast? In what ways are our daily lives punctuated by choices we make to abstain from certain pleasures so we might be more conscious of our need for God? And, conversely, how do we share the joy we receive in the presence of God with one another so we seek to extend it further into our communities? How and why should fasting and feasting be a part of our discipleship, our way of living that is meant to help us grow in Christlikeness?
Last month, while in England, I had the opportunity to read the manuscripts of early Methodist pioneer Mary Bosanquet Fletcher housed in the John Rylands Library of the University of Manchester. Having taken requisite Methodist history classes in seminary, I knew Mary Fletcher was the first woman John Wesley permitted to preach in the 1770s. Later, she became the wife of John Fletcher, who is often considered the theologian of the Methodist movement. They were married for four years before his death and her continuation of their ministry in the same parish for the next thirty years before her death. Her journals, diaries, private thoughts, and letters embody the largest collection of Methodist papers in existence with the sole exception of John Wesley’s papers. Though I had expressed research purposes relating to my doctoral thesis, the experience of reading her handwriting ministered to my heart and soul in ways I never could have imagined.
It wasn’t the words that Mary Fletcher used that illustrated something fresh to me about discipleship. It was the ebb and flow of her journal entries among the occasions she regularly recorded over the decades. There were times in which her entries were considerably more sparse contrasted by other times in which her entries were especially numerous. But without fail, on holy days, significant birthdays and anniversaries, she journaled about her experiences in private prayer, public worship and the holy conversation she had with persons she knew through her ministry. Journaling was an indelible feature of Mary Fletcher’s life. Other writing projects she authored and published for the Methodist movement may have diverted her from her personal journaling at times, but I am convinced that journaling was as much as her discipleship as was Bible study, regular Eucharist, tithing and participating in regular class and band meetings.
The spiritual disciplines help us establish a way of living our lives for Christ. Mary Fletcher, like John Wesley, called spiritual disciplines “means of grace” which are the regular things we do as Christians that open us up to God’s grace and the activity of the Holy Spirit in this world. Discipleship is living in those daily moments, submitting ourselves regularly to God so divine grace can make us more Christlike. Holy fasts and holy feasts are special events which offer perspective to the ordinary everyday. Fasts and feasts ebb and flow throughout the year to help transform the everyday experience. These holidays (or holy-days) highlight our regular disciplines, transcending them from the daily fabric of our existence, which in turn, gives back to the ordinary-ness of our lives as we grow in Christlikeness.
There are times I wondered if a Lenten fast is nullified by Easter feasting. In reading Mary Fletcher’s journals, noting the ebb and flow with which she made journal entries, I understood her seasons of profuse writing were not negated by the seasons of terseness. Nor did periods she lapsed in writing void those periods of profusion. She was consistently journaling, reflecting on God’s goodness and allowing divine grace to transform her to become a worthy example to many as she became more and more like Christ. Like a tide that ebbs and flows upon a shore, the disciplines are like waves, ever-present with the rising and falling of the water. Discipleship is a life-long endeavor, regularly punctuated by the fasts and feasts we keep, consistently renewing and transforming us so we might be worthy vessels to offer the life giving water of Christ to a parched and weary world.