In less than two weeks, we’ve seen society drastically change as things shut down, people isolate, and world leaders and health authorities race to fight and stop the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zooming in on the church, it’s clear that we’ve lost the privilege of gathering together in our church buildings, campus spaces, and room rentals—potlucks and coffee receptions, worship nights and in-person Bible studies are all no longer options for ministry.

The circumstances beg the question: can we still be the church without the tools that we’ve become so accustomed to using?

An unintentional and unwanted fast

How devastatingly ironic is it that we’ve lost the familiar circumstances that often embody Christian culture during the midst of a key traditional religious season: Lent.

An ancient tradition, Lent is the period of 40 days before Easter in which Christians across nations reflect on Jesus’s journey to death on the cross in prayer and fasting. The fast has traditionally been from food, but recent modern takes on fasting have included forgoing other common aspects of life, from using makeup to binging TV shows.

Lent is a time of grief, reflection, and penance over the brokenness in the world that made Jesus’s sacrifice absolutely necessary.

And with a little-understood disease literally plaguing nations, we cannot help but witness the visceral gravity of how sin has infected our world.

To fast during Lent means to forgo some of what makes life comfortable, to choose to face and reflect on the core longings of the human heart, instead of being distracted by temporary gratifications. It’s a time where we choose to see and grieve over the need for Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, a sacrifice that would ultimately lead to the fulfilment of those longings and the glorious restoration of this universe.

A friend once told me that God uses fasting to expose not just the needs that we have, but also the longings of our hearts and bodies. As we feel the weight of these longings in periods of fasting, we see how God is able to give and sustain our faith so that we might be able to bear this weight.

In this season of social-distancing for COVID-19, we’ve already seen an increase in levels of anxiety, chaos, selfishness, ignorance, and fear through public dialogue. Perhaps this is something that you have felt more deeply than others. The unwitting global “fast” from in-person social gatherings, free movement, and regular work routines is taking its toll on all of us.

God uses fasting to expose not just the needs that we have, but also the longings of our hearts and bodies.

It’s urgently clear that this world groans in bearing these struggles, that all are looking for a cure not just to COVID-19 but to some of the wounds of human existence—the hurt of yearning for intimate connection, material stability, and security in the future.

And these wounds are especially magnified by what we have all been forced to give up.

Those who follow Jesus identify with these groanings, particularly through forgoing modern comforts for the Lenten fast. However, there’s a core difference: the longing of the Lenten fast does not lead to crushing despair and anxiety, but rather to the need for a Saviour, the call to rectify what is broken, and the joyful hope for a future of restoration.

Called to fast, called to action

Jesus’s journey to the cross started the moment he came into the world, “fasting” from the comforts of heaven to be fully immersed in life, experiencing the pain of being human.

During his time here, he “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). In this time, Jesus did not sit idle but instead was moved out of a fierce love for people to counteract the injustices he witnessed.

He received and drank water from a Samaritan woman, who was tired from heartbreak and being shamed by her town.

He touched a man suffering an ugly skin disease, who was cast out from his community.

He offered grace to a woman disgraced by adultery, who was publicly humiliated by some with prideful ulterior motives.

So—how will the church follow Christ’s example during this time of crisis?

The longing of the Lenten fast does not lead to crushing despair and anxiety, but rather to the need for a Saviour, the call to rectify what is broken, and the joyful hope for a future of restoration.

When we no longer have the privilege of sitting and waiting for strangers to step into our church buildings out of curiosity or need, we must go out and reach towards where they are.

When we see the selfishness of people who hoard and steal supplies, we must be generous in sharing our own resources and time.

When we hear the ignorant racism of people who demonize and blame a specific ethnic group for COVID-19, we must denounce it and bring people from that ethnic group into the fold of God’s family.

I’ll be the first to admit that these actions are not easy; that they require us to abandon a comfortable posture towards people that forces us out of our comfort zone. Yet, this is the “fast” God commands us to follow: fasting from the comfortable living that often distracts our pursuit of God’s justice and mercy.

Isaiah speaks these words on fasting:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6)

As we adjust to social-distancing, we will be forced to find new ways to be the hands of Christ, reaching out to those in need in more creative, intentional ways of building relationships that show his love and draw people closer to him.

More than ever, we are called to action.

This means more deliberate and persistent phone and video chats with those on the edges of our community, who are especially troubled by isolation. This means braving grocery store and pharmacy trips as able-bodied people, for those who are more vulnerable and confined. This means engaging and walking with people to see and have compassion for their fears and anxieties over this time.

In being forced to “fast” from our more comfortable spaces and methods of inviting people to Christ, I have great hope that the Holy Spirit will move and the church will come through in unexpected ways.

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