Fasting From Church

In my last post, I gave three reasons for fasting. Pretty standard stuff really. You can probably google “why to fast” and get similar responses (although I haven’t tried, that post was entirely off the top of my head/bottom of my heart). My point is, fasting has been around a long time and has a proven track record as a very useful spiritual exercise across a variety of faith expressions.

But the same cannot be said for what I’m posting here. My previous post was really more of a prelude to this one, helping me get my thoughts in order (I think by writing) and give you some context for where this is going. I did google various appellations of “fasting from church” but I couldn’t find where anyone has done this or framed it in these terms. Makes me a little nervous to be out here on my own. This might go incredibly bad. But it sure seems like the thing to do.

This year for Lent, the church I pastor, Vineyard North in Wake Forest, NC, is fasting – from church. Each Sunday after Ash Wednesday until Easter, we are giving up our normal 10:00 AM Sunday service and devoting that time to serving our town. Sound crazy? Yeah, well maybe. But we figure the best time to serve non-church people is while all the church people are in church. So far we’re making arrangements to spend some quality time at an assisted living facility right down the street from us, to tutor kids who need help with math, science, grammar, etc, and to do household chores for our neighbors living close to the church. We’re also already planning to make these sustained, ongoing things, not just a one-time or short-term flash in the pan.

Now, a church focusing on serving its community isn’t really news. A lot of churches do a great amount of good in their communities, including a number of churches right here in our town of Wake Forest. Doing it on Sunday morning is a little different, but still, not unheard of.

But calling it a fast? Like church is something we need to fast from? What’s up with that?

Well, I’m glad you asked.

The way I see it, our reasons for fasting from church track with the reasons I gave the other day for fasting from food (convenient  right?). So here they are again with a fast-from-church connotation:

1. Fasting is taking a deliberate break from something that is good but tends to get out of balance.
Too much of a good thing and all. Food is good, necessary even, yet we fast from it to restore its proper place in our bodies and lives. I think it’s the same with church. Church is good. I love church. The worship. The preaching (I only like my own once in a while, but I like doing it!). Communion. Praying for people. Hanging out before and after. Playing with the kids. I love it all like I love a really good brunch buffet.

But just like food, the Sunday service can get out of balance. When a church expends so much of its energy and resources putting together a Sunday service, to the exclusion or limiting of other things, that is out of balance. That’s too much dessert and not enough vegetables. All the things we typically associate with “church” are only one part of what church is/should be about. Fasting from our routine is a good way to restore that balance.

2. Fasting enhances awareness of spiritual reality.
With regard to church , this one feels the most counter-intuitive but I’m convinced it is true. Why? For one, Jesus promised that in serving others we would meet him in those we serve (check out Matt. 25.31-46). As odd as it may sound to some, it can be easier to to find Jesus outside the church than inside.

I think fasting from church can lead to greater spiritual sensitivity because it breaks two bad tendencies we church-goers have at the same time. We have a tendency to expect spiritual things to happen at church. That’s where we pray for people, where we talk about God, etc. We also have a tendency to expect spiritual things not to happen outside church. Church becomes the box where our spiritual stuff goes, safely not interacting with our ordinary, workaday lives.

I think this dulls our sensitivity both at church and outside. We think the Spirit may move during a worship service, but we’re used to that. Good, but no big deal. And we’re pretty sure the Spirit doesn’t move outside the church setting, so why even bother paying attention to that?

See what I mean? Fasting from our routine, our spiritual status quo, can break through our desensitized state. Which is good for us both when we are at church and when we’re not. Especially when we’re not because outside the four walls of the church is where the Spirit is most active. The same should be true of us. See, Jay-Z and Kanye are wrong. There is church in the wild. The Spirit is just waiting for us to show up.

3. Fasting shows solidarity…
My point the other day was about the difference it makes in how you think about people who are hungry once you’ve experienced what that actually feels like. I tried to explain what real hunger feels like, but I can’t fully express it in words and I still have no idea what it feels like to be that hungry and have no prospects of food. Even during my longest fasts, food is always readily available. I can only imagine the desperation, but I can identify at least in part with their suffering.

“Suffering” seems like too strong a word to carry over though. The neighbors whose yards we rake probably won’t be suffering all that much. The kids getting tutored will only be suffering the standard amount that goes with algebra, verb conjugations, and chemistry. That’s real suffering and I don’t want to minimize it, but common really. I hope the folks at the assisted living facility aren’t suffering too much more than the dull ache of loneliness. Which is bad enough, but not as dramatic perhaps as people starving. And I don’t want to presume that just because someone is not in church they are spiritually suffering. Such thinking would come from a really high, self-righteous place. I’m scared of heights like that.

But I do think fasting from church gives an opportunity to show solidarity with people we might not otherwise even meet. Hanging out with people, serving them in real, ordinary ways, choosing to be with them instead of staying in our bubble, that shows solidarity. I hope it sends a message that we value these people more than our church routine. That we would rather be with them – raking their yards, puzzling over quadratic equations, and listening to their stories – than be in our building without them. I hope they receive that message. I hope we receive it too.

So our church is fasting from church. We’re going out to find church in the wild. I’ll let you know how it goes. Oh, and if you’re in the area and looking to do this church thing different, contact me. Let’s talk.

3 reasons for fasting

For some reason, I have had a hard time writing this post. About the church I pastor, Vineyard North in Wake Forest, NC, going on a fast – from church. I’m not sure why, and those who know me may not believe this, but sometimes I have a hard time with words. A hard time getting out what I want to say and avoiding what I don’t want to say. But I can’t wait any longer to explain, I’ve waited too long already. So, fasting. Let me say a word about that, because it seems like such a weird thing in our world. Going without food for an extended period of time? Sounds more like an eating disorder than a religious thing. Part of my hesitation to talk about fasting is that I’m a big advocate of it personally (meaning I fast fairly regularly). I have quite a bit of experience with it and part of me wants to share the ins and outs of my experience to help out those who want to try fasting. But then I worry about people misusing what I say and harming themselves. Eating disorders are a serious problem. And then there’s alternate fasting, from things like Facebook, your phone, meat (the “Daniel fast”), carbs (aka, the Atkins Diet), television, etc. Seems like we take a word these days and stretch its use to cover lots of other things and then get confused with what it means or meant. I tried a phone fast at the first of the year – it was harder than food in some ways (what does this say about me and/or our phone culture?). Taking the standard food fast as a foundation, here’s what fasting is/does:

1. Fasting is taking a deliberate break from something that is good but tends to get out of balance. Too much of a good thing is not good. Overeating is a pervasive problem in American culture because we just have so much food. It’s everywhere. You will realize the extent of this once you’ve gone a week without eating. You can’t hide from food in our culture. And just because the category is good, doesn’t mean everything within that category is good. Have you seen the video about how Chicken McNuggets are made? Yuck. But you know what, I have eaten them since I saw that. Why? Because I love the way they taste. And don’t get me started on Pop Tarts or Little Debbie Swiss Rolls. Food is good. But not all food is good. One interesting effect of fasting is that it decreases interest in bad food and bad eating habits. I used to take my coffee with tons of cream and sugar. Because I grew up in the South where we drink our dessert and call it iced tea. It was during a fast several years ago that I developed a taste for black coffee and tea with nothing added in. Now if I can just teach my palette to find those McNuggets as repulsive as they deserve…

2. Fasting enhances awareness of spiritual reality. Fasting increases focus. If you have done short fasts you may not believe this. You may think fasting makes you tired and cranky. It does early on. Especially if you are breaking a caffeine addiction at the same time (I recommend staggering these). But after a few days (3-5 for me) the sleepy/cranky/growling tummy goes away and you get into this extended period (how long depends in part  on your fat reserves) of clarity, inner peace, and heightened focus. I become particularly attuned to the depth of existence. Life is not flat. It’s like the material world we experience with our senses is the floor with all this space above it. There is a deep spiritual dimension to life. I hope you know what I mean, but you may not because we are not always aware of it. The more embedded we our in our materiality, the easier it is to perceive the spiritual dimension. Interestingly, you also become more aware of the material plane. It’s not trading one for the other. It’s enhanced awareness all around. Like smell. I only have a marginal sense of smell most of the time, but during a fast, I’m like a bloodhound. Because I have kids, I still have to cook some meals while fasting. This can be hard early on, but it gets easier. A few years ago during a long fast I was baking something and I realized that I could track its progress with smell alone. Not just smell when it was done. I could smell the dough at first and I could smell the mix of dough/bread, and then I could smell as it became baked and browned. It was a heightened sense of the material world itself.

3. Fasting is a deliberate embrace of suffering as a way to show solidarity with those who suffer. There are a lot of hungry people in this world. Some within a short drive of where you and I live. Despite the ubiquity of food in American culture, there are still people who go days without eating, not because they are fasting, but because our society has failed them. And yes, I meant how I worded that. I don’t want to get overly political here, but I quickly tire of hearing people who have never experienced hunger a day in their lives rail against things like food stamps or healthcare or other aspects of the too-thin safety net in place in the United States. Don’t talk to me about hunger until you’ve tried it. Not to mention all the people around the world living in extreme poverty. Dying needlessly when the change in my car’s ashtray could save them. For everything I just said about awareness and peace and clarity (all true!), fasting also comes with a good deal of pain. Any aches or pains you sometimes feel will show up during fasting and be accentuated. You can alleviate a lot of these by staying well hydrated (food in the stomach acts like a sponge and makes hydration easier normally, during a fast water goes through the body pretty quickly), but you will feel aches. This will increase your sympathy for all those who can’t just fill up their water bottle with the ease we can. You will get tired more easily. You won’t have as much strength. Fasting not only enhances spiritual reality, it will bring you into a renewed awareness of your humanity. We give lip service to all humans being equal, but we don’t often mean that as much as we claim to. Placing yourself with the poor through fasting can help lower inflated self-esteem and raise the respect you have for others who have been less lucky than you (I suppose fasting could also lead to a doubling down on religious arrogance and further despising of those less ‘holy’ but wow that would be missing the point).

Okay. Enough for the moment. If you are medically capable, I encourage fasting. Lent is a good time to try it because so many other people are as well, the overall momentum can give you a boost.

Of course, I still have to explain how I got from this to what our church is about to do. Which is not a food fast. Our church is going to fast from church. Here’s an explanation of that.

If you have questions about fasting and/or experiences to share, it would be great if you left a comment. There is a round button back at the top of the page (on the left). Click it and let me hear from you.