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 want 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 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. Stay tuned for an explanation of that.
In the meantime, 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.