Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Fasting

We are now a week into the Lenten season. Are you trying to give anything up? I am, although I admit I’ve failed about as much as I’ve succeeded. I’m more ok with that than you’d think, something I’ve written on before. Lent really is one of those things in which attention to the failures may be as helpful as resounding successes. The point of the season, after all, isn’t to accumulate gold stars for how well we’ve done but to practice recognizing our need for God.

The tradition of giving something up for Lent is connected to the spiritual discipline of fasting and can be traced back to the early days of the church. Bobby Gross, in his new book Living the Christian Year, notes that initially Christians fasted on the Friday and Saturday before Easter as a way of remembering both Christ’s death and entombment. Later the fast stretched to include all of Holy Week. By the Council of Nicea in 325, some churches had extended such observances to a forty day period of fasting and repentance much like the modern Lenten season.

In fasting, a person temporarily refrains from something good in order to make room in one’s life for something better, namely, the moving of God’s Spirit. For instance, a person refrains from eating for a period of time in order to dedicate the time normally given to meals to the seeking of God in prayer. For a more modern twist, a person might choose to give up TV, Facebook, an hour of sleep, or some other activity for the very same reason - to fill that time up with the pursuit of God's presence.

In the process of fasting, we are reminded of our dependence upon God and our freedom from dependence upon anything else. Most of the things in our life are fine in themselves (gifts from God, in fact), but it is amazing how we can become consumed by these things without even realizing it. We think we can live without them if we so choose, but of course we rarely get around to trying. Fasting during Lent is a time to try. Giving up a favorite activity or a favorite thing for Lent is a way of allowing one’s spirit to remember, I may enjoy these things, but I do not need them. They are not my master. God, alone, is my portion.

The inward discovery that all we need is God should lead to changes in outward behavior. Namely, we often should find ourselves becoming a more generous people. In giving something up we discover that we can also give something away. For example, if you have a Starbucks a day habit that you lay aside for forty days, that’s a decent chunk of change you’ll have come Easter morning. What will you choose to do with the extra money? One possibility is to give it away to those who need not practice fasting because their lives are already an exercise in need.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever – Psalm 73:25-26

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