A fast is meant to be a time of personal reflection on our own need for God's mercy. It should be bathed in humility and a sincere desire to move beyond our current state of sinfulness.
Yet, as this passage in Isaiah reminds us, we too often seek God's mercy for ourselves while neglecting to be merciful to those whom God has called us to serve.
I'll never forget the day I first met a woman I'll call Marissa. A young woman with a beautiful but sad face, Marissa came into Open Door Community House where I serve. She was dirty, her clothes were torn, eyes downcast and shoulders slumped. Without saying a word her entire demeanor stated, "I am worthless because everyone tells me so."
She had grown up in the foster care system and was on her own at age 18. She had turned to crack cocaine as a way to numb the pain and feelings of worthlessness and to find a sense of belonging. The people she found to accept her weren't friends, but they kept her supplied.
Marissa came to our facility because, as she said, "I was just walking by. It said ‘Open Door' and something inside me said you might help me." She was placed into our transitional housing program where she met caring staff members and other homeless women, all older than she was. They patiently listened to her stories of pain, of mistrust and of wanting to be loved. They put aside their own issues and gave themselves to her to help her heal. They offered mercy. They gave her hope. They became her family.
These homeless women, who society often says have nothing to offer (and who sometimes think this themselves), became agents of mercy and change through Christ's love for this young woman.
Within two weeks, Marissa was standing straighter, making eye contact, smiling and speaking of plans for her future.
"If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday" (Isaiah 58:10).
It's about relationship. We can give food, clothes and money, and this is good. We also are called to humbly start giving ourselves.
What does God want from us? What kind of fast is acceptable? These are the words of Isaiah:
This is the kind of fast day I'm after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I'm interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You'll call out for help and I'll say, "Here I am."
If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people's sins, If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight. I will always show you where to go. I'll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—firm muscles, strong bones. You'll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You'll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You'll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again. (Isaiah 58:1-12, The Message)
During this Lenten season, may each of us examine the condition of our own hearts, humbly seek God's mercy, and shower mercy on others through the giving of ourselves to help meet their needs.
May our hearts and lives be like a "gurgling spring that never runs dry."
Merciful God, thank you for accepting me as I am. Give me the grace to accept others, to offer mercy, to work for justice, and to build relationship with those in need. Show me this day who has a need that I may help meet, and help me to offer the light of your love to them.
Kim Jenkins is the executive director of Open Door Community House in Columbus, Ga.