fasting is not a Whole30

I was grateful for Communion last night because I was painfully hungry. This is not a metaphor. Accidentally failing to eat enough for supper yesterday is about the closest I will get to fasting for a while because of some meds I’m on. It is, I admit, a relief, but it would also be easy. Traditional. Comforting, in a way, if I were able—not to “choose a fast”—just to not eat sometimes for Lent.

I rarely come to Lent knowing how I should move through this season. Perhaps the main reason is that repentance and self-examination are the things I do best, by which I mean my inner life generally fluctuates on some scale between self-criticism and self-improvement until God is shaking me by the shoulders going SNAP OUT OF IT! Usually, as everyone around me is talking about mindfulness and tough love, I’m feeling a sneaking suspicion that I’m supposed to repent of navel-gazing.

For a long time I loved Lent for precisely this reason, that it appeals to my natural religious instincts. If you’re Protestant, it generally goes something like this: someone asks you what you’re giving up for Lent, and then you feel guilty that you didn’t remember it was coming up. Then you muse about for a few days asking yourself what you should be doing better at. You don’t ask anyone else, and if you’re like me you sort of halfheartedly pray about it while continuing to stick this semi-imaginary burden squarely on your own shoulders. After perhaps wondering for a while how much, exactly, God cares about your extra ten pounds, you settle on giving up something you’ll miss, but which won’t disrupt your life too much.

Of course, being a religious overachiever, I got tired of that and decided to Do a Hard Thing a few years ago. I ate only fruits, vegetables, rice, and beans, and bought food for my food pantry with the money I saved. I don’t know if that sounds really noble and intense, but it wasn’t that hard; I would console myself, not with prayer and worship, but with thoughts of how many calories I was saving. I never really prayed for the world’s poor all that much, either. I was disappointed. I’d Done The Thing, but God hadn’t Changed My Life in return.

The gospel of self-improvement can function in much more subtle ways than we expect. Let me be clear that I am still operating this way when I say that the way white Protestants do Lent is often more reflective of upper-middle-class white culture than it is of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We love 30-day challenges, don’t we? Self-improvement is so much a part of our culture that we readily map those concepts onto Lent. Then we’re simultaneously happy to have “earned” an extra-big slice of cake at the end of the forty days—and, eventually, frustrated that our fast once again didn’t seem to have much to do with Easter.

Some of my friends are Orthodox. They fast from dawn until the end of the service every Sunday. They fast full days several times a year. And for Lent, they are encouraged to do without meat, fish, eggs, dairy, oil, or alcohol. Maybe that sounds like setting yourself up for failure; I think maybe that’s the point. When everyone in the community participates in the same fast, failure and success take on new meanings. Your spiritual practice is no longer about you and your “growth”; it’s about the life of the community and the work of God.

Maybe by next Lent I will have such a community. For now I have only conviction: to fast in a way that is not about me. To learn to lean on God. Success or failure will not be keeping my rule with perfection, or making some kind of personal breakthrough. To succeed is to disrupt my seamless rhythms enough to remember how to look for God breaking through the newfound cracks.

This winter has been, in some big ways, a season of loss for me, and so for Lent I’m taking on a couple of new practices. At the service yesterday, though, my mind raced with those old thoughts—shouldn’t I give something up? how can I call this a fast? have I repented enough today? And then came the Psalm.

O Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
    if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

As the priest prayed that God would enable us to serve him in peace of mind, I did not wonder whether I deserved any such thing. I made off with that blessing and carried on with things because what I deserve is ashes and dust; but what God gives is bread and wine and blessing and grace.

May your fast, whatever it is, convince you only of abundance.

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