Finding a Voice Together
by Michael Peat
"Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?"
Isaiah 58: 6
The writer of these lines is criticising those in his community whose religion he regards as superficial. They may go through the motions, taking pride in painstakingly following every finer detail of religious rituals, and fasting obsessively. But as we say nowadays, they have "missed the wood for the trees": They are ignoring what matters most to God, which is that those who are unjustly oppressed may be set free from the things that hinder their flourishing as human creatures made in God's image.
This appeal to "true fasting" echoes a complaint rightly voiced in many a book about the Christian season of Lent. This complaint is that the idea of keeping Lent, and specifically the discipline of fasting with which it is often associated, has been trivialised. Instead of being a prayerful decision to abstain from some everyday benefit for forty days in order daily to remember our dependence on God and prepare to celebrate the joy of Christ's resurrection, Lenten fasts are more often misunderstood as a 'self-help' challenge, an annual peg on which to hang a new attempt to lose weight or prove our will-power. The book of Isaiah's insistence that we see past superficial self-serving rituals and focus instead on enabling that wide-ranging freedom that truly matters to God is as important for us to hear today as it was for the Israelite community to which it was addressed. The writer will go on to spell out what this implies for the way folk in his own community treat other people, encouraging them to get into the habit of sharing bread with the hungry, housing the homeless and clothing the naked (verse 7).
But if the habits of "true fasting" are about seeking to "break every yoke," then there is something to be said for also considering what oppressive "bonds" and "yokes" we ourselves carry that hinder our flourishing as God's children. We were made for loving relationships with each other as well as with God, so developing compassionate habits will certainly help us, as well as other people, towards becoming the people God intends us to be. But dealing with deep-seated anxieties that damage our sense of self-worth and belief that we have a valuable role to play in God's purposes is also part of 'breaking the yoke' that oppresses us. It is this aspect of "true fasting" that this year's Churches Together Lent Study groups will focus on, using a Lent course called Finding a Voice.
The course uses clips from the film The King's Speech to help us think how we might grow in courage and confidence as we play our valued part in God's unfolding purposes. This film is about the man who, unexpectedly, became King George VI, and his long struggle to deal with the stammer that blighted his life. Like any film based on real people and events, The King's Speech understandably takes certain liberties with history so as to tell a compelling story in under two hours! But it captures the inspiring courage and perseverance of the Duke who became king, as he tackled an affliction made all the more fearful by the number of public speaking engagements his royal role imposed on him. It also gives a touching insight into the king's growing friendship with the speech therapist (Lionel Logue) whose methods, though sometimes unorthodox, encouraged and enabled him to gain some control over his stammer. Hilary Brand, the author of the Lent course, says this:
"When I first saw the film I immediately realised how many of its strands resonated with the teaching of the bible. The Old Testament is full of tongue-tied and terrified leaders; the New Testament is full of commands to encourage one another. Both Jesus and the apostles had strong messages about the power of words for good and for evil. Both Old and New Testaments are full of the idea of being called to a task – and often that calling is to speak out. Beneath all that is the amazing promise of the Holy Spirit as an encourager, standing at our side, unseen by the wider world – a concept I saw as given a memorable image in the character of Lionel Logue."
It is particularly appropriate that we will be sharing this Lent course in groups that bring together Christians from different churches in Whaley Bridge, since God's desire for us to encourage one another is a key theme. From mid-February onwards, there will be several groups meeting at different times and on different days of the week, as well as an opportunity to watch the film together at Whaley Bridge Uniting Church on Saturday 9th February (2.30pm). So let me encourage each of you to share in this learning and encouraging experience together with fellow Christians from diverse church traditions, trusting that through it God's Spirit may strengthen us to speak out for the cause of God's kingdom on earth.