Prompted by my church’s (Hyde Park Union Church) thought-provoking reflections on Lenten practice in our monthly newsletter, I shared with our pastoral staff and our congregation some thoughts on my experience with fasting. Over the years, I have fasted both communally with my prior church for the 40 days of Lent, and also individually as a one-day fast several times throughout the year.
The key for me is that it’s not just about fasting alone; it is being very intentional about fasting for the purpose of praying at the same time.
As an individual fast I have done a Ramadan-like fast of sun-up to sun-down, which I will do every Friday during Lent this year. On the occasions I’ve done so, I find that around what would be lunch time I start having hunger pangs, and every time I think I want to eat, I pray instead—not a formal, pre-set prayer, but for whatever or whoever I think it’s important to pray for at that moment: a friend who feels guilty for putting her mother in a nursing home, a church member who is sick, the innocent victims in some catastrophe on the other side of the world, my little geriatric dog who may be suffering more than I know, my own weakness or selfishness, etc. I end up praying about 6 – 8 times through the course of the day, and I find this has three main effects for me:
- Attentiveness to God: It’s like what they called in my college days spiritual breathing—an off and on communication with God throughout the day that is very organic, non-formal, and natural, as if I’m conversing with another person. It ‘s a way to practice a discipline of attentiveness to God without it feeling like ‘discipline.’ For anyone who keeps saying “I need to pray more,” this is a way to do so.
- Sharing in Jesus’ bodily sacrifice: In fighting back temptation from the outside and hunger within, I am forced to consider over the course of the day Jesus’ temptation in the desert and His suffering on the cross. Our God sacrificed Himself for us by walking in the flesh and humbly bearing up under privations for love; we must sometimes bear privations for love of each other. What am I willing to give up to serve others in love? How do I step up more (in my family, my church, my community) as I see others bearing a heavier burden? How do I dig deeper as the ranks of the vulnerable continue to swell—down the street, across town, on the other side of the world—as the recession grinds on?
- Remembering the lilies of the field: I need less than I think I do. I don’t need to consume it just because it’s there (the cookies by the secretary’s desk, the sandwich in the cafeteria, the boots on sale at Macy’s). I know that I have everything I need, but do I appreciate what I have? Am I investing enough energy in being a good and generous steward of what I have, or am I squandering my energy/time/resources in pursuit of something I don’t really need, or in procrastinating on what I know I should do, or on misdirected efforts? Can someone else benefit by what I’m able to forgo?
In the final analysis, it puts me in a funk to dwell on my shortcomings and the gap between what is needed and what I actually offer. This is not a happy practice. But Lent is the season where a concentrated effort on such self-examination and attentiveness to God should occur. Fasting for me creates the physical prompt throughout the day for me to pray on these matters, when my natural busyness may not otherwise allow.