Heading into this last week of Lent, I’m reminded of two parables about the Kingdom of God—the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) and the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). I sense God’s call for some of us that have chosen not to fast and pray or maybe started, became overwhelmed, and decided to stop. Along with this, I keep hearing “spiritual milk” and “spiritual maturity”. I sense this is a season where God is wanting to draw, nourish, and mature us; break us out of our current habits and everyday routines and bring us closer into relationship with Him, ourselves, and others. Even if we decide to enter in just this last week, even if we choose only one seemingly small thing to abstain from and instead take those moments to turn to God and pray, there is growth and abundance waiting.

2 Corinthians 3:18 describes this best: “And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” That is the opportunity, the invitation right now. For a short time, put away the things that won’t satisfy, grow, or change us in order to seek Him more and thereby become more like Him.

For those fasting and praying, I’ve developed a guiding framework that might help navigate through this time with Jesus:

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It came out of the questions:

How do we get spiritually hungry—for God and the things of His Kingdom?

Why do we grow complacent?

How do we come alive and stay fully alive in Christ?

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When we fast, we can be prepared for some uncomfortable things to surface: insecurity, loneliness, anger, anxiety, depression, discontent, boredom. These emotions are all normal parts of the human experience and are fertile ground on which to meet Jesus. But if they are ignored, distracted from, or stuffed down (with food, entertainment, social media) they actually lead to complacency and spiritual stagnancy.

If we fast and pray, we can recognize moments of discomfort as opportunities to engage with ourselves and meet Jesus, to say no to the things that offer false comfort or security, we can press into the empty spaces in order to find His Presence, as Mark Sayers said. In doing so, we are engaging in spiritual battle. We are engaging in discipleship.

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The first step is choosing one or multiple things to abstain from for a period of time. When the moments of saying no arrive, we identify the feelings, the patterns of consumption or idolatry they’ve led to, and we repent or turn away from them. A simple, very effective, very powerful prayer in these moments can transform us through the work of the Holy Spirit:

I repent and renounce participating in a spirit of ___(anger, fear, discontent, insecurity, etc.)___.  Jesus, what do you have in its place? (wait, listen)

Out of this repentance and listening comes release and renewal. Learning and growth. There’s also a natural rhythm of hearing what God has for us and walking forward in faith. That’s where the “Risk” part comes in. Listening and acting based on what He’s saying. Maybe it’s changing a small habit, maybe it’s reaching out to a friend or even a stranger. Maybe it’s trying something new or just starting on that thing you’ve been putting off until now.

Then comes rest. It was a natural part of Jesus’ rhythm—stepping out in faith/risk, giving of Himself, and then coming back into communion with God through prayer, quiet time away, being with His closest friends. This can be a big reason we find ourselves losing ground after a spiritual risk or breakthrough. Instead of coming back into relationship with God for renewal, we go to other things to be restored.

We might stay in this rhythm of discipleship for a while as we move continually through the different stages. The discipleship sphere is where we turn to Jesus, learn from Jesus, risk, and rest in Him. This generates learning and growth. But I’m realizing there’s a whole other sphere we can move in and out of:

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Sometimes, we have opportunities to move from compassion, led by the Holy Spirit, to engage in acts of service and love. This is the Kingdom of God breaking out in our lives and the world around us. This is where love is generated. Where we can be in that flow of connecting with God, ourselves, and others. Knowing who we are, Who God is, and giving out of that identity and belonging. This is where we create change in our families, friendships, neighborhoods, and cities.

But it will be contested. That’s where contending comes in. Contending is what keeps us in the flow of the Kingdom.

There were a couple weeks of just staying within that Kingdom flow and feeling so much life and seeing so many amazing things taking shape in my family, friends, neighborhood, and church. But then things started to go sideways and get hard again. Disillusion, conflict, and fear quickly crept in. But because I had this framework and the safeguard of fasting to keep me from distracting myself or seeking false comfort in food or entertainment, I reached out to some house church friends to start contending with me. I could’ve easily moved back into patterns of consumption and complacency, but instead I stayed in that cycle of connecting, contending, creating.

Another time, I found myself in a funky place for a couple days around parenting issues. I realized there were some new emotions and old struggles that needed to be released to Jesus and exchanged. There was a very specific moment when I was playing with one son on the trampoline and hoping the other one would not join us any time soon—just needing a break from dealing with some difficult behaviors. I realized the feelings, asked Jesus to take them from me and then the so important, “What do you have in its place?” Not more than a minute later, that son came out and asked if he could join us. Amazingly, the feelings of frustration, anxiety, hopelessness I’d had were gone and I actually did want to hang out with him again.

The overall issues didn’t magically disappear but engaging that situation through prayer kept me in a cycle of repent/release, renewal, and rest vs. moving back into stagnancy, disconnection, complacency. This is what leads to such growth and transformation. Moment by moment, we are putting off the old self and putting on the new (Ephesians 4:22-24).

If I hadn’t met that moment with Jesus in prayer, if I had nursed hard feelings towards my son, I may have gone into another cycle.

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It’s important to point out when we find ourselves in difficult places, when we feel far away from God, others, or who we want to be, we are most likely in an opportunity for learning and growth. That other place of creating and connecting feels really great, but sometimes when things seem worst, that’s exactly where God wants to meet us so He can transform us and the world around us.

I had planned to meet up with some ladies at Shoreline Village for a Native American festival on a Saturday. We had a hard time finding each other and all ended up leaving early wishing we hadn’t gone. We were trying not to spend money or eat treats because of the fast, along with practicing a Sabbath rest, and I remember wandering a bit afterwards past shops and restaurants feeling empty, disconnected, depressed and powerless. Later, I realized this was actually a call to intercede. I’d been struck by the emptiness and despair as the dancers and musicians were performing and had soon after walked away feeling powerless. Because I was fasting and not able to reach for food or entertainment or just buying something to feel differently, I was actually more in tune with what was happening spiritually. That would have been a perfect time to repent and renounce empty religion, depression from generations of loss, and powerlessness based on systemic injustice. And to ask what God wanted in its place. I’m not down on myself about it but I am left wondering how it would’ve played out by being in prayer, contending in real time.

I’m not proposing fasting and prayer as the only way into discipleship. It can, however, be a powerful means to move from various degrees of separation from God, ourselves, and others into deeper and richer connection and Kingdom fruitfulness. During this Lent season, I’ve experienced such fruitfulness and I think doing it in community has made it more powerful. The Kingdom of God is meant to be shared! Isaiah 58 says:

Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.

While I was praying through one of the 24/7 prayer hours, I was repenting and renouncing complacency for myself and on behalf of the church. Afterwards, I asked Jesus, “What do you have in its place?” In my mind’s eye, I saw him gesturing me over to Him and saying, “Come. Follow Me.” I had the sense that what He was offering was discipleship. We’ve talked about discipleship a lot and heard many amazing quotes from Dallas Willard. But this was the first time I really got excited about it. I realized what He’s offering us is the kind of discipleship that produced Peter and James and John. People that know Him intimately, hear Him readily, and move powerfully to fulfill His purposes.  

But first we must come closer. First, we must spend the time with Him. Learning to listen. Allowing Him in to every part of our life and seeing what that looks like. Discovering Who He is in our friendships, at work, at home with our families or roommates, and in our free time. He is beautiful and kind, gentle and generous and will not disappoint.