One of the particular features of the prison environment for these guys in Korea is that all electronic devices are removed from the them as they’re checked in. That must be tough! The other day at a family party I glanced across at my sister and three of her daughters; there they were sitting together but each one busily tapping at a mobile. I was about to make a mildly disparaging remark when I looked round to see that my wife and daughter were doing exactly the same. These days, wherever we are, and whatever we do, we have media on tap. I don’t really understand streaming and stuff, but - given the right number of megabytes at your disposal - you can have pretty much anything or everything that Hollywood or Bollywood or Abbey Road or Muscle Shoals or Broadway have ever produced, right there at your fingertips. Maybe these days - with so much media on tap - we’re less able to cope with being alone than any of our forebears.
But I think it’s every bit as important as ever it was, that we take time to be alone. And retreats, fasting, even a prison cell in Korea, can help us to do this: to think things out for ourselves, to remake contact with the real self behind our public face, to discover our own perspective, make up our own mind, and choose our own way, rather than having all of that formed for us. Fasting is good for me, however I choose to do it; I used to think of Lent as a chore, but now I regard it as a blessing.
These days we mostly think of fasting purely in terms of food. Many modern diets use the word fasting, like the one where you fast until six pm and then just have a light meal to end the day, on two or three days each week. That one works quite well, by the way, in my experience. But really, fasting is a whole lifestyle change, and it has less to do with food than with time.
Time: these days we have lots of spare time, and lots of choice as to how we spend it. Religion, or I should say churchgoing, is seen as one spare time occupation among many, and it’s easily crowded out by the others. Despite all my best efforts, church doesn’t seem to compete as entertainment. Should it be competing though? If churchgoing is a spare time occupation, what does that say about how we relate with God?
In my childhood days, while not everyone gave things up for Lent, I always felt that everyone thought they ought to. The fast of Lent was part of our culture and tradition, like Ramadan within the Muslim community. Some time ago, a Muslim colleague was asking me some rather searching questions about how I kept Lent. I muttered something about giving up chocolate and reading the Archbishop of Canterbury’s designated Lent book. He shook his head gently and said, “And you’re a minister!”
But then again, to fast in an overly serious and ostentatious way isn’t necessarily good. Jesus didn’t seem to think so: we read of him condemning the Pharisees because they liked to pray on the street corners, where people can see them pray, and they would make their faces unsightly with ash so everyone would know what they were doing. So as one of our Ash Wednesday readings we have Jesus saying we should fast in secret, so that only God will know we’re doing it. Old Testament prophets complained that though the people were keeping all the feasts and the fasts, their lives didn’t match up to what God really wanted. Micah tells us how to be: “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
However we keep the fast, we shouldn’t be doing it just to tick some kind of religious box. God doesn’t want us to fast, or at least not just for the sake of fasting. Our fasting should be purposeful. Prophets of old pointed out that fasting without thinking about why you do it just makes people bad tempered and grumpy, without changing their hearts one bit. The fast of Lent isn’t about how we get through these forty odd days, it’s about what we’re going to do with the rest of our life.
Even spending a week in a Korean gaol probably means that at the end of the time, though you might come out feeling healthier, de-stressed, and more truly yourself, once you’ve gone straight back into the tyranny of work, of the media, of the mobile phone, of the rat race, you’ll be back to square one in no time. I think it’s likely to be a very temporary fix.
A temporary fix because those who do it aren’t wanting or expecting anything more: it’s a break from the rush and tumble, but that’s still the life they choose to live. I think Lent has a different challenge from that. Lent encourages us to make faith and belief central rather than spare-time in our lives. Like Abraham, whose whole life was changed by the promise God made him, even though he found it hard to believe to begin with. Like Jesus, who tells those who go with him they must take up their cross to do it.
Peter tried to shout Jesus down when he told them about the suffering and death that lay ahead for him in Jerusalem. I imagine the others felt the same: their Lord was the Messiah, God’s chosen one, and Jesus was saying sounded to Peter like defeatist talk, like giving up before he started, as though all these plans that surely must work because God was behind it all, would instead fall apart and come to nothing. “You mustn’t say such things!” he protested.
No, Jesus tells him, your way is the way of the world. What Jesus is doing is not the way of the world, as he heads for Jerusalem. There’s nothing short-termist or superficial here, nothing that just looks good on the outside. In fact, the events themselves, when we reach them, will look to Peter and the others like the most dreadful loss, their teacher completely and utterly destroyed. Their hopes destroyed with him.
But Jesus has not gone to Jerusalem to secure the temporary release of some people from the rule of the Roman Emperor; He is going there to take on death and defeat it once and for all, to lift from our shoulders the deadening impact of sin. Love without limits and life without limits, is what the cross stands for.
I quite enjoyed that story from Korea. I wouldn’t want to do the same: I’ve spent one night of my life in a police cell, and I’m in no rush to repeat the experience. But in reality all of life is a prison; to be earthbound is to be unfree - as the words spoken on Ash Wednesday remind us: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But those words are followed by these: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” Like Abraham, we have been given a promise, and it’s the promise of the cross. “Take up your cross and come with me,” says Jesus. Anything else is a temporary fix at best, and even religion is no more than a temporary fix if we keep it as just a spare time hobby. Those fierce prophets of old told the truth when they said, “Unless you do it with your whole heart it’s not worth doing at all.” But Jesus says this to us, and makes this promise: my cross is life and light: live in me, and I will live in you. Amen.