“We commit ourselves to (the) process because Lent reminds us that there’s something better than what we’re currently experiencing, but it’s going to take us letting go of whatever we’re clinging to in order to obtain it. We’re going to have to stop picking and choosing spiritual disciplines, and instead, come under the whole experience of what it means to lay down our lives and gain the whole world.”
Those are the words I wrote just last week. And I meant them. But I had to think deeply before I inked that on the page because I know that part of the process of Lent is fasting. And really, is there anything that people dread more than the idea of fasting? I mean, really, is there anything more boring to read about than the theology of a fast? In our “I-have-all-the-information-I ever-need-to-know-in-my-pocket society,” the answer to that question is no.
We don’t want to know about fasting. We don’t want to read about it. We don’t want to explore it. For goodness sake, truth be told, we don’t want to do it! If, for some insane reason we find ourselves agreeing to fast, we make it as easy as possible: sun-up to sun-down, and go to bed early. We wake up, we have our pancakes, and we hope that we’re not asked to do that again anytime soon.
But it wasn’t always like this.
I grew up on the Southside of Chicago — a place where you identified your neighborhood by your parish, not by what mile markers you lived between. Despite this self-identification, it always surprised me that the Lenten fast was so strictly followed by my neighbors. Being in a small, tight-knit community, even children knew that there were men who hated the church, and held to every vice, but who stood in line at the local fish store on a Friday like the rest of us.
What was this power? Why would men who couldn’t care less about the church want to follow one of the hardest church teachings?
I believe it’s because we’ve missed the point of the fast. Fasting was meant to be a communal thing.
I can dissect biblical texts and prove it to you, but the most compelling evidence of it can be proven in your own life. While you can fast alone, think about what happens to you when you do. Namely, you feel isolated, alone, and like you’ve been left the handle your problems by yourself, talking and pleading with a God who seems very cruel, mean, and distant. Now, think about when you’ve fasted with a friend, spouse, small group, or as a church. How did you feel? I would bet that you felt included, empowered, strengthened, and more faithful.
That’s because Fasting is a community realization that we went the wrong way. That we collectively embraced ideas, thoughts, behaviors, and practices that led us away from God, each other, and life abundant. We realize the ways that we weren’t there for each other. We become aware that we we’re fearful that no one would care for us, and so we took care of ourselves.
We see that we’ve become small and weak because we’re living lives of shame and hiding. Repentance– turning away — might be the path that we choose from these realizations, if we can push past the hurt and pain and fear long enough and courageously enough to walk a different path. But often, we break fast because we can’t even get there. We feel that hurt and pain, and hide again, and then turn again to our self-soothing. That choice is not a choice to sin. It’s a demonstration of just how unhealthy we are. It’s a cry for help.
The men in my neighborhood who hated church fasted because it meant they were a part of the tribe. That despite theological differences, they too could participate in church life and church community. It was the one time of the year that they didn’t have to explain that they wanted to be a part of church, but felt forced out. That’s the power of a liturgical fast. It’s the opposite of a “farewell…” statement. It’s a group-thought behavior where we all get to be on the same playing field, if only for a day. And where all our burdens, boredom, and disappointment is met with faces and voices of those who admit the same struggles.
As you abstain from chocolate, or coffee, or sugar this lent — As you turn away from binge watching on Netflix or overindulgence, I pray that you remember that you’re not alone. You’re not alone in your longing for friendship. You’re not alone when you face hardship. And you’re not alone as you walk this life. You have people who you don’t even know who pray for you. You have people who want to connect. You don’t have to bear this life alone.