Never in over 50 years of ministry have I felt as helpless about the state of our United Methodist Church. Talk of separation is rampant. I love our United Methodist Church and am committed to the Wesleyan faith and way. I get knots in my stomach when I think of the possibility of division.
Our bishops have recognized the critical nature of our situation and have written a book “seeking a way forward.” Numerous others have proposed institutional or structural plans that might save us from division. I’m afraid the common feeling is that the divide is so pronounced that staying together as “one” denomination is impossible. Honestly, that is where I have been in my feelings and thinking.
I’m afraid we are cursed with a sense of the impossible.
The Holy Spirit has intervened and challenged me through Scripture.
Matthew and Mark tell a story of the disciples of Jesus being cursed in the same way. Jesus had been with Peter, James and John upon the mountain alone for spiritual renewal and rest. There on the mountain He was transfigured in their presence, and Elijah and Moses came to visit with them. Peter wanted to stay there and build three tabernacles – one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. But Jesus wouldn’t allow that. We all have to leave that mountain place of excitement, joy, exhilaration and spiritual high and return to the valley. So Jesus and the three disciples did just that.
On coming down from the mountain, they were greeted with confusion, conflict and confrontation. But more crucially, they met a man in desperate need. His son was possessed by spirits that took his breath away, made him unable to talk, caused him to go into convulsions and to foam at the mouth and grind his teeth. The young fellow would not eat, and he was wasting away. In desperation, the father had brought his son to the disciples, asking them to heal him and to cast out the demons, but they could not.
After his sharp word of disappointment – “O faithless generation! How long am I to be with you?” – Jesus asked that the little boy be brought to Him.
In this father we have a picture of near despair, yet a burning hope — a picture of faith that struggles with reality. He can’t help but rehearse the awful, dreadful, condition of his son. “He’s been like that since he was a child,” he said. “He often throws himself into the fire or into the water and tries to destroy himself.” Still painting that awful picture, the faith and the hope of this father comes to the surface: “if you can,” he says, “let your heart be moved with pity and help us.”
Jesus probably interrupted him, saying, “you say, ‘If you can.’” Then He gives us that bold affirmation, “all things are possible to him who believes.”
Note a universal truth. “To approach anything in the spirit of hopelessness is to make it hopeless. To approach anything in the spirit of faith is to make it a possibility.” The tension within us is the sense of the possible struggling with the curse of the impossible. William Barclay, in his commentary on this story says, “most of us are cursed with a sense of the impossible, and that is precisely why miracles do not happen.” (The Daily Bible Study, p. 224)
That leads to the truth I want to underscore as it relates to the present state of the church. We discover it in the attitude of the father of the afflicted child. Originally he had come seeking Jesus Himself. Jesus was on the mountain top and only the disciples were available. His faith was badly shaken when the disciples seemed totally helpless, so badly shaken that when he came to Jesus all he could say was, “help me, if you can.” Then it happened: face to face with Jesus, suddenly his faith blazed up again. “I believe,” he cried.
Everybody thought the little boy was dead, but Jesus healed him. Later when he was alone with the disciples, they asked him privately, “why were we not able to cast out the demon?” Jesus responded to them, “this kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting” (verse 29). I believe here is the distinctive Christian truth for where we are in our seeming hopeless impasse: a sense of the possible empowered by the Living Christ, activated by prayer and fasting.
A lot of folks, including me, have been calling for prayers for the unity of the church. I want to be bolder. Believing that we are in a desperate situation, as desperate as that father with his son, according to Jesus, the answer now to our situation is prayer and fasting.
For too many of us, fasting is a strange thought, not something we have seriously considered. Wesley, our father in the faith, strongly urged the early Methodists to practice fasting, but he also sounded a warning about extremes: “some have exalted this beyond all Scripture and reason; and others utterly disregarded it.” Some speak of it “as if it were all,” he said; others “as if it were nothing, as if it were a fruitless labor.” He concluded, “fasting is not the end, but it is a precious means thereto; a means which God himself has ordained, and in which therefore, when it is duly used, he will surely give his blessing” (“Upon Our Lord’s Sermon On the Mount”: Discourse Seven).
We need good and expansive teaching on this neglected spiritual discipline. I lodge one significant claim in this call. Fasting is more than denying ourselves food. It is choosing to act out, by temporarily denying ourselves food, that we do not live by bread alone. We are completely dependent upon God, and we deliberately choose voluntary weakness. We become identifiably humble in the face of the problems with which we are dealing. We admit to each other, and primarily to God: only you can get us through this “mess.” We cease trying to define the unity we seek, believing that God will provide the unity God desires for God’s church. We become less clamorous in seeking our own way, and more receptive to what God may intend for us.
We must see fasting as an invitation. Scripture is full of this invitation. God invites us to fast because God wants us to desire more of God’s presence, intention, and will. If we say yes to God’s call to prayer and fasting, God will honor God’s promise to heal and restore God’s people.
David spoke about fasting as one way he humbled himself before God (Ps. 35:13; 69:10). I want to humble myself before God. I am tired of the struggle. I am confused in mind, and pained in heart. I have been reasonably successful and affirmed in much of what I have attempted in ministry, but with the division that is obvious and ominous, I urge us to become humble and recognize that this is one of those situations that can be resolved only “by prayer and fasting.”
Let’s heed Mr. Wesley’s word about in what manner we are to fast. “Let it be done unto the Lord, with our eye singly fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father; to express our sorrow and shame for our manifold transgressions of his holy law; to wait for an increase of purifying grace, drawing our affections to things above; to add seriousness and earnestness to our prayers; to avert the wrath of God, and to obtain all the great and precious promises which he hath made to us in Jesus Christ…Let us always join fervent prayer, pouring out our whole souls before God, confessing our sins with all their aggravations, humbling ourselves under his mighty hand, laying open before him all our wants, all our guiltiness and helplessness” (ibid.).
How then shall we pursue it?
Wesley suggested a pattern for those in Methodist classes and societies. After the midday meal, refrain from solid foods until tea time the following afternoon. World Evangelism of the World Methodist Council has been calling people to make Thursday to Friday the fast time. The Confessing Movement is calling the entire United Methodist Church to join us in prayer and fasting using this method. Of course we urge prayer and fasting in whatever way is possible for you, but we believe it will be powerful and redemptive for our entire connection to pray and fast together for the unity of our church….unity in Christ, which he wishes us to experience. Let’s do it together on Thursday and Friday.
Immediately after Paul’s Damascus road conversion, he fasted for three days, waiting to receive clear direction from the Lord (Acts 9:9). That was a pattern throughout the New Testament…the Church fasting for supernatural wisdom and direction. While in Antioch, Paul and his team fasted and prayed for prophetic direction. They were given a strategic mission assignment to reach the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-2). This mission tour changed history. Paul and his team again prayed with fasting when they needed to select and commission the elders of the new churches that were born out of their missionary journey (Acts 14:23). Can we follow in that pattern?
The spirit of hopelessness is rampant, the calls for division are being sounded, plans that might give us unity are being presented, and frustration and confusion are pervasive. The time is ripe for embracing voluntary weakness through prayer and fasting. Christ cannot give us unity if we are not willing to receive his grace and the unity that is his gift to the church. Could it be that this can come only through prayer and fasting?