Time seemed to stand still. A woman drove her car through a red light, crashing into Becky’s side of our Volvo. We had a green light all the way. I was driving. Our car flipped over, then spun around and around crossing two lanes of opposing traffic. The sun roof popped off. Windows shattered and glass spread throughout the car, and our hair, and our clothes, and our pockets like a shower of hot water. After the car stopped spinning, it was resting upside down on its roof on the curb on the opposite side of the street, a twisted pile of metal, broken glass, and dripping engine fluids.
Then, my dear sweet young unconscious wife, seven months pregnant with our second daughter, suddenly went into massive and violent seizures. Blood seemed to be coming from everywhere. After what seemed an eternity, but which probably only lasted for about a minute, her seizures violently stopped. Then it was perfect stillness and absolute silence.
In that moment it appeared as though my childhood sweetheart, the love of my life, my wife of almost four years had just died -- right in front of my eyes. Inside, I screamed, No. Outside, in the world, I reached for my vial of consecrated oil, anointed her head and blessed her and our unborn baby -- by the power of the priesthood -- to live. In the few moments between her stillness and the words of the ordinance, a thousand other thoughts and images of the future flashed through my mind. Too many to mention today.
For the next day or so, I didn’t – I couldn’t -- think of anything but my wife’s and my unborn baby’s life and health. Hunger, thirst and everything else faded into insignificance. (I should say that our oldest daughter was not in the car with us that day; she spent the day with my mother as Becky and I went to lunch together.)
Now, there is a reason I tell this story. It has to do with my theme today, Fasting and Prayer. I will try to explain.
At times of extreme stress -- for example, a terrible automobile accident, or a major natural disaster -- we often go into a type of hyper-focus. We think of nothing else, other than the health and safety of our family and friends. We are so attentive to the pressing issues at hand, all other things fade away -- at least for a brief period time. We are so into the moment, that nothing else matters.
We are so busy looking after and caring for others that we may not realize that we have not eaten anything -- till much later that night.
Now, something along the same lines can also happen to us in times of extreme joy. For example, when a dear friend, perhaps a convert you haven’t seen for over 35 years, makes a surprise visit to you all the way from Australia. You hug and talk and talk till late in to the wee hours of the morning. You forget for a period of time -- even outside time -- all temporal concerns. So “caught up” are you in happiness and joy, that all earthly concerns fade away. The next morning you awake, return to normal, and enjoy a shared meal. Everything in its due time.
In or after experiencing these heights or depths if we add the idea of an overt communication -- and even an ongoing communion -- with Deity, we can set them deep in our souls, writing these moments on the contours of our heart. Never to be forgotten. Yes, through prayer we can pierce the veil of forgetfulness and see into the vast realities of the eternities. Right here on earth. Right now, and forever.
While the searing immediacy of the exquisite pain, or joy of these scenes does not last very long, we can, as the poet said, “Hold infinity in the palm of [our] hand, And eternity in an hour.” (William Blake)
But sooner or later we do return from an adrenalin rush, to focus on the growing hunger which -- in the midst of great strivings or deep joys – had become of secondary concern.
Upon reflection, this hunger -- which can act as a stand in for other “desires, appetites and passions” -- becomes something which we, under normal circumstances, can now more easily put back into its proper and perfect place. It is something we can now take care of naturally and profitably. We do need “constant nourishment” to our body and spirit. But for a time, we are not harmed by the lack, in fact in some wonderful way, the feeling of hunger facilitates our focus on important things, on “the things of God.”
Joseph Smith observed that,
“The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity -- thou must commune with God.“ (Joseph Smith -- Teachings, Page 137)
So, let’s experiment for a few moments in looking at these opposing, yet similar scenarios. Let’s examine what is the core experience of these highs and lows. Let’s focus on the kernel of this idea: that we can enjoy the paradoxical melding of two supposed opposites: the inner and outer, the spiritual and the material, the earthly and the heavenly, the merely human with the sublime divine. Being an hungered, but also being filled. To overflowing.
In a wonderful way, a special kind of prayer can greatly assist us in making this needed connection with the Divine. That special kind of prayer is a fasting prayer. I prefer to think of fasting not as, fasting and that we should remember prayer, but as a specially-dedicated prayer assisted by fasting. This assist, by fasting, can become a key element in our personal quest to be at One with Jesus -- as He points the way back to Eternal Life with our Father in Heaven. Jesus is indeed the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
When we fast we feel in the pit our stomach a growing sense of physical emptiness. A feeling of lack. A feeling of need. A feeling of yearning to be full again. When we feel this physical feeling of need, let’s also remember our inner spiritual awareness of need. The spiritual mirroring the physical. The physical pointing us to the spiritual. When we feel the physical need for nourishment of tangible, edible food; let’s use this gnawing physical hunger to remind us that we also need “constant nourishment of both body and spirit.” After we make this connection, let us go about actually fulfilling those shared, mirrored, very real twin needs.
One can enter sacred, holy space in many ways. We can do so in the Temple; in contemplative, meditative pondering and prayer; in service to others; in Sacrament meeting when we focus on remembering the life and sacrifice and love of our Savior, Jesus Christ; and yes, we can enter sacred space through the portal of fasting -- Fasting and Prayer. Or, as I have suggested, a specially-dedicated prayer, assisted by fasting. It has been said that fasting, without prayer is simple going hungry. While there may be a few side benefits, physical benefits, from a periodic fast, these pale in comparison to the eternal value of a spiritual fast. Paradoxically a physical fast can and should become a spiritual feast.
Every prayer is sincere, every prayer is precious, when we seek to commune with our Father. However, just as there are varied times and circumstances and needs, so we can and should offer up periodic special prayers. Prayers accompanied by the power of fasting.
Let’s all remember to use these ritual places, spaces, and sacred moments as a periodic opportunity to inculcate these eternal principles into our inmost selves -- in our Sacrament worship, in our Temple worship, and yes, in our fasting and prayer – or, rather, personal worship.
It is Personal
Now, please listen to how President Joseph F. Smith described the Law of the Fast, and how he cautioned against certain excesses.
Quote: “The Lord has instituted the fast on a reasonable and intelligent basis…. Hence, those who can, are required to comply thereto; it is a duty from which they cannot escape; but let it be remembered that the observance of the Fast Day by abstaining…from food and drink [for two meals] is not an absolute rule, it is no iron-clad law to us, but it is left with the people as a matter of conscience, to exercise [in] wisdom and discretion. Many are subject to weakness, others are delicate in health, and others have nursing babies; of such it should not be required to fast. Neither should parents compel their little children to fast. I have known children to cry for something to eat on fast day. In such cases, going without food will do them no good. Instead, they dread the day to come, and in place of hailing it, dislike it; while the compulsion engenders a spirit of rebellion in them, rather than a love for the Lord and their fellows. Better teach them the principle, and let them observe it when they are old enough to choose intelligently, than to so compel them.” End quote.
Our fasting, indeed our prayers -- even why and how and when we do missionary work – this is all personal, between us and the Lord. The bishop does not ask us how long we fast, or how deeply we fast and pray. This matter is left to us, to our own discretion. It is between our heart and the Lord’s heart. As Joseph Smith said to a Catholic priest visiting Nauvoo, “I teach the correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
As much as the Heavens desire us to rise to our full potential, none there will (and none here should) exert compulsion in any degree.
Our fasting need not be lengthy or particularly painful to be efficacious. It is the idea of what we are doing -- and the yearning we let our inner-selves express – which makes it work in us. It is the mix of the spiritual with physical laws related to this inner and outer experience which makes it work. Not its length. We need not fast for a week -- much less for forty days -- to show our love of the Lord. Two meals, consecrating our hearts and lives to the Lord, along with the concomitant donations on behalf of the poor and needy, are enough. It is the depth of our consecration, not how many hours we go without food. [FOOTNOTE 1]
Symbol and Power of Fasting
In fasting we know there is an end to hunger; we will be filled again. Remember though, there are those in the world, near or far, who are not so sure there is an end to the hunger they feel inside. Physical hunger. Yes, our fast offerings do in fact offer tangible assistance to those who hunger. And, there are also those around the world, both near and far, who hunger – though they may not yet fully recognize it -- for a better way. For the Spirit. For Wholeness. For Oneness. For Fullness. For God. Or a closer communion with God. A hunger for the things of the spirit. We too need to feel this spiritual hunger. We all need Heavenly manna.
Especially when we add a spiritual aspect to the fasting equation, we realize that for some in the world their common situation is one of lack, a constant feeling bordering on emptiness, a lack of fullness. Again, in the very real world of this physical life, they hunger for food which may be found on grocery stores, or in bishops’ storehouses. And, in the very real world of this spiritual life, there are those which hunger for real spiritual food which can be found in the testimonies of our members and missionaries.
For some, going without table food is the rule. For some, going without spiritual nourishment is the rule. There are some who desire to feast, but they are without means. In like manner, there are some know they can spiritually feast, but have some other kind of lack – perhaps self imposed -- which prevents them from partaking.
Others, have sufficient means, and to spare, for even daily feasting. (Perhaps much of the modern world.) In the midst of all this plenty we can use fasting to learn to see into the human condition -- and into the heavenly realm -- by paradoxically focusing on lack, on emptiness, on leanness, on less, so that we can – again, this is a paradox – in some wonderful way, see into the true meaning of what it means to be full, to be filled to overflowing. [FOOTNOTE 2]
When we feel full, spiritually, we speak of our cup overflowing, we speak of our hearts being full, we speak of our hearts swelling as wide as eternity. However, some missionaries go to the biggest cities of the world, or to distant settings in a far away land -- far from the prosperity and opportunities and benefits of a modern society. They see many who are on the precipice of real need. Serious want. Missionaries are in the change business. They help people move from one situation to another. From a lower plane to a higher one. Or, form a higher place to even greater heights.
Suggestion: Can we think of our personal fasts as (in a symbolic way) our best inner-self, seeking to be a kind of a missionary to our current outer-selves? In other words, we seek to teach and impress these special spiritual insights and newly enlivened principles of a higher plane, to a higher self. Now, I am not making too much of this experiment. All I mean is that we can view fasting as a time -- or a moment outside time — where we “gaze into heaven five minutes” and see that of a better realm. [FOOTNOTE 3]
Monthly we are afforded the opportunity to fast and pray and donate a generous fast offering -- the value of two meals, or many times that as we are able. For some of us these months rush by, they come and go. Some of us even forget which Sunday is Fast Sunday. Others eagerly look forward to this once-a-month event and dedicate their fast to the Lord for special purposes. [FOOTNOTE 4]
Of course, there are those unique circumstances where we intuitively know deep inside that we need to pray with fasting. The Book of Mormon sometimes uses the term, mighty prayer. Because of the pressing desires we do not want to wait till the next Fast Sunday.
Joseph Smith described these periodic experiences thusly,
"Reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience [in this case, assisted by fasting]. Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject." (Joseph Smith, HC 6:324)
Perhaps we can feel to have more of these experiences. [FOOTNOTE 5]
In the Scriptures
In the scriptures Ancient Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement. King David wrote that we “humble our souls with fasting” (Ps. 35:13). Daniel taught that he sought God “by prayer and supplications, with fasting” (Dan. 9:3). Joel preached that we are to “turn …to [God] with all [our] heart, and with fasting” (Joel 2:12).
Jesus fasted just prior to the beginning of his earthly ministry. Paul wrote that [in] “hunger and thirst” (2 Cor. 11:27) he “prayed with fasting” before he “ordained elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). Paul then urged us to, “Give [ourselves] to fasting and prayer” (1 Cor. 7:5). He further wrote that when he was “in perils…in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, and in cold and nakedness….” he fasted. (2 Cor. 11:27). We can too. [FOOTNOTE 6]
So, why fast? Because fasting as we have described, helps create in us, in a way nothing else can, a wrinkle in the fabric of the veil which separates heaven and earth. Our sacred fasts are a brief moment in time – perhaps outside time -- where we break away from the physical world and into the heavenly world; where we rise from the tangible gross matter of the material world into the more refined substance of the spiritual realm; where we are less in time, than eternity; where we focus not so much on the temporal but the eternal.
When we can move our focus from the physical hunger to spiritual hunger, from physical pain to spiritual healing, and from the physical to the divine, then our fasts serve their purpose. [FOOTNOTE 7]
Why Not Now
Why not use our monthly fast as a special opportunity for prayer, for closeness, for insight, for new ways to see, for power to overcome, for power to know, for power to do. Yes, as President Kimball asked, “Why not now”?
It is time for some of us to fast with more depth, with more focus, with more seriousness, with a sense of eagerness to pierce the veil and see the vast realities which stand behind the great symbols of the Sacrament, the temple endowment, and yes the fulcrum of fasting and prayer – which can and should be, “fasting and rejoicing.”
We rejoice now that we see, now that we are connected even more surely than ever before, now that we are empowered at a higher level, to be and do what we are destined to be and do.
President Monson, citing one of the great Protestant ministers, said that when “willingness overflows obligation . . . [we would] gladly do more if only [we] could.”
This explains the mystery, now made simple, of how a sensation of physical emptiness can paradoxically foster and motivate us to a feeling of spiritual fullness. AND it offers us special insights into the heart of our Precious Savior, our Dear Redeemer Jesus… and how he yearns for us to be with Him.
To Fast and Pray
To fast and pray is . . .
- to humble ourselves
- to elevate and focus our thoughts
- to put one’s flesh under control of our spirit
- to overcome the world
- to rightly order our desires, appetites, and passions
- to lay aside the impulses which cause us to be less than we know we can be
- to yearn for the good, the eternal, the generous, the divine
- to seek unity, oneness, wholeness, completeness
- to seek communion, communication with the divine
- to seek inspiration, even revelation
- to make the veil between heaven and earth a bit thinner
- it is to pierce the veil of forgetfulness and see the face of God, and his Life, and his Heart
- and it is to identity with the inner yearnings Jesus felt when he fasted and prayed for us (whether in the desert or in the Garden)
- to love our neighbor as ourselves
Fasting and prayer in this manner becomes a token of the value we place on the heavenly in the midst of the earthly. It is a symbol that we can live in the world, but not of the world.
Joseph Smith challenged us to elevate our minds to “rise higher and higher… until [we] can ‘comprehend with all Saints what is the breadth and length, and depth and height; and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge.’” (Ephesians 3:18–19)
A fasting prayer need not be connected to dramatic events, but rather the still small moments of evening contemplation and prayer, the sacred silence of our being able to feel the impact of His kind and loving request to, “Be Still and Know that I Am God.”
Only through giving our whole souls over to the fasting experience, can we truly declare with the Lord in DC 59, that “Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer.” (DC 59:14)
Our Shared Mission with Jesus
In conclusion, after fasting for 40 days, Jesus walked out of desert and into a nearby synagogue. He opened the scriptures and read aloud from Isaiah (chapter 61). When Jesus finished the reading He declared Himself to be the fulfillment of the principles in this verse (a summary):
- to “preach good tidings . . .
- to bind up the brokenhearted,
- to proclaim liberty to the captives . . .
- to comfort all that mourn…”
“6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen?
- to loose the bands of wickedness,
- to undo the heavy burdens,
- and to let the oppressed go free . . .
- 7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, …” [FOOTNOTE 8]
Dear brothers and sisters, I bear my witness of the value of Fasting coupled with Prayer. Mighty Prayer, for in my extremities, this is, naturally where I have turned. I have been blessed by the Lord -- even in the midst of such prayers, and of course in the days that follow, as I have prayed and fasted for myself, or members in my family. I have discovered for myself that in times of seeming impassable barriers, He opens a way. Perhaps not as quickly or directly as we might originally have wanted. But in these new paths, I have found new and renewed ways to love see, to love, and to understand, and where and how to repent, where needed. Through tears of yearning and tears of joy, and in fasting I have been able to better see and better love Jesus.
I realize in preparing these remarks that I need to apply myself more regularly, and more deeply in adding deeper fasting to more constant and sincere prayers. I know though, that He has calmed my troubled heart and shown me the way in times of special fasting. For this I am grateful.
I pray we can all find deeper and abiding joy in fasting and prayer, in the name of our Exemplar in these things, and our True Friend, even Jesus Christ, Amen.
It is Spiritual
Recall this from the Lord in DC 29, “I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was [solely] temporal; . . . Behold… my commandments are spiritual…” (DC 29:34-35). There is always a spiritual component to the Lord’s ways and commandments. It is there, even when we don’t take the time to notice. But when we do notice – even if it takes a while to realize it -- these are the special, sacred “ah-ha” moments with the Lord. Some of our most satisfying, some of our most beautiful, and some of the most personal and cherished moments with Him are when we wake up to some important eternal principle, one we have never fully comprehended before, but now one which helps us see into His heart that much more deeply. These are the moments that fasting and prayer can afford. That a fasting prayer can afford.
A brief story about dear Sister Bowen: Some years ago in a ward meeting I offered a somewhat lengthy list of power words, power principles, those doctrines and special words from the scriptures and from our Savior, and yes from Joseph Smith which bespeak the beauty and power of the Gospel and the Atonement. After the end of the meeting, Sister Bowen came up to me said, “You missed one.” I asked, “Which one?” (Of course, I had missed many, how could anyone give the definitive list.) Nevertheless, I did ask her. She simply responded, “Awake.” One might also add to this, another simple word, “Arise.”
When Jeffrey R. Holland was president of BYU, his wife, Patricia Holland offered this wise counsel with respect to the Book of Abraham’s recounting of the Garden of Eden, and the temple. We can think of this as we contemplate the impact of a consecrated prayer while fasting (and while delving deeply into the scriptures),
Quote: The Lord has not placed us in this lone and dreary world without a blueprint for living. In DC 52, we read the Lord’s words: “I will give unto you a pattern in all things, that ye may not be deceived.” (DC 52:14) … He has given us patterns in [all across sacred scripture]; and he has given us patterns in the temple ceremony. As we study these patterns, we must continually ask, “Why does the Lord choose to say these particular words and present it in just this way?” We know he uses metaphors and symbols and parables and allegories to teach us of his eternal ways. . . . // We need to [think and] search in this manner, and we need always to look for deeper meaning. We should look for parallels and symbols. We should look for themes and motifs such as those we would find in a Bach or a Mozart composition, and we should look for repeated patterns. … // These all seem to me to be symbols of higher principles and truths, symbols carefully chosen to show us the way…. // And, obviously, the temple is highly symbolic … Concerning the careful choice of words and symbols [there]…. I [listen] to every word. I [watch] for patterns and prototypes. … I believe [these words are] very carefully chosen words, [some] of those rich words—with meaning after meaning after meaning. … End quote.
President Kimball, in his full powers and stature as our living prophet, spoke about the timing of the choice we make on when to choose:
Quote: “The time will come when there will be a surrender of every person who has ever lived on this earth, who is now living, or who ever will live on this earth; and it will be an unforced surrender, an unconditional surrender. When will it be for you? Today? In twenty years? Two hundred years? Two thousand or a million? When? Again, to you... I say, it is not if you will capitulate to the great truth; it is when, for I know that you cannot indefinitely resist the power and pressure of truth. Why not now?” End quote. (President Spencer W. Kimball, Ensign, Sept. 1978, p. 8)
Joseph Smith described how enlightening it can be to receive inspiration, even revelation.
“We consider that God has created [us] with a mind capable of instruction, and a faculty which may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect; and that the nearer [we] approach perfection, the clearer are [our]views, and the greater [our]enjoyments, till [we have] overcome the evils of…life and lost every desire for sin; and like the ancients, arrives at that point of faith where [we are] wrapped in the power and glory of [our] Maker and is caught up to dwell with Him. But we consider that this is a station to which no [one]ever arrived in a moment: [we]must have been instructed in the government and laws of that kingdom by proper degrees, until [our] mind is capable in some measure of comprehending the propriety, justice, equality, and consistency of the [the Celestial Kingdom].…” (Joseph Smith -- Letter to the Brethren, January 22, 1834. Teachings, Page 47)
“The Spirit of Revelation is in connection with these blessings. A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing . . . those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God -- and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus.” (Joseph Smith -- 27 June 1839; Teachings, Pg. 151, The Words of Joseph Smith, page 5-6)
Sometimes because of a pressing need or desire, we devote ourselves to a special prayer. Perhaps we go outside, perhaps in our backyard, out of the way, and out of sight, to a personal private place. Perhaps it is to a secluded place in a forest clearing. We knee down and offer our hearts to God. Perhaps the need is so great we prepare by delving into the scriptures, either we want to research a certain topic which is related to our desire to reach out to God. Or, perhaps we simply seek to read and ponder about the Savior and His Atonement, as we prepare to make a special pleading.
When we are touched by the spirit, we can more easily, and more naturally go the extra mile, or, as President Howard W. Hunter quoted one Christmas,
This year, mend a quarrel. Seek out a forgotten friend. Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Write a letter. Give a soft answer. Encourage youth. Manifest your loyalty in word and deed. Keep a promise. Forgo a grudge. Forgive an enemy. Apologize. Try to understand. Examine your demands on others. Think first of someone else. Be kind. Be gentle. Laugh a little more. Express your gratitude. Welcome a stranger. Gladden the heart of a child. Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth. Speak your love and then speak it again.
At important moments in our history presidents have often proclaimed a special Day of Thanksgiving. This goes all the way back to our Founding.
In times of war, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War II and others, presidents have also proclaimed special days of Fasting and Prayer. When our country was more attuned to these things, a Day of Fasting and Prayer offered us all a communal opportunity to come together as one. It still can. Fasting can help bring a country together, empower a church in faith, unite a family in love, and as individuals make whole our souls.
President Kimball recited the following poem in one of the meetings at the dedication of the Washington DC Temple. Think of these sentiments as we envision the sacred walls of the private room we retreat to, to offer up a fasting prayer, or as is described in the Book of Mormon, “mighty prayer and fasting.”
Enter this door as if the floor within were gold;
And every wall of Jewels, all of wealth untold;
As if a Choir in robes of fire were singing here.
Nor shout, nor rush, but hush, for God is near.
When Jesus read Isaiah he ended with the following words.
Listen now to what Jesus read at the end of that verse, and for how it describes the comfort received by those who mourn. And listen for how those who came to the rescue blessed those that stand in need: He said that they “give unto [those who sorrow] beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for [their] mourning, [and] the garment of praise [to cover their] spirit of heaviness….” This is how in fasting we can truly love our neighbor.
Now listen to how Isaiah describes what happens inside us, when we fast as he has chosen -- “8 Then shall [the] light [inside us] break forth as the morning, and [our] health [our spiritual health] shall spring forth speedily: . . . 9 [When we] call…the Lord shall answer; [when we] cry… he shall say [to us], ‘Here I am.' . . . then shall thy light rise…and [any] darkness [inside you shall become] as the noonday: 11 And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and…in drought…thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. . . . thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.”
This is the fast He has chosen.
Isaiah 61 – See temple imagery in Isaiah’s blessing, “that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.”
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