Lent is a season in which some Christian traditions (including many of my Presbyterian brothers and sisters) practice fasting. We “give up” something that gives us pleasure in order to attend to our spirits and to the Spirit of God. In years past, I’ve given up meat and/or sweets, being aware of how I use food (especially sweets) to feel better, especially when I’m stressed.
This year is different. For the past four months, I have been on a medical leave of absence due to stomach and other gastro-intestinal problems. Over the past two years, I’ve given up foods that hurt my body. Many of those foods give me pleasure: chocolate chip cookies, avocado, ice cream, wine, black tea, ginger. And the list is much longer than this. From what do I fast when I’ve already given up so much?
It is, in part, a question of discipline. Self-control is easier for me when avoiding one or two items. It grows more difficult with the more foods I add to the “do not eat” list. Even if I chose not to give up another type of food, do I really want to fast from something else, such as television or time on my smart phone? They could potentially be spiritually renewing disciplines, opening up space in my schedule and my heart for prayer. But giving up one more thing feels hard.
I attended an Ash Wednesday service at a local Roman Catholic church. The priest described Lenten fasting as giving up something that gives us pleasure in order to make space for God and others. Not that attending to God’s presence or making time for family or being kind to strangers are unpleasant activities. I think the priest was encouraging us to reflect upon the ways we waste time on activities or foods that don’t really matter in the long run. I don’t really need chocolate, but I do need God. I don’t really need to binge watch “How I Met Your Mother,” but a lingering conversation with friends over a good meal nurtures my soul and strengthens those relationships.
The question for Lent then becomes: How might I make special space for God and others?
Maybe fasting isn’t the best way for me to answer that question. Maybe it is trying a new exercise to train my soul or intentionally spending time with my neighbors. I expect that the addition of a discipline will force me to “give up” a little television time and also maybe time on my smart phone. But, it won’t be because I’ve lost something that gives me pleasure. Instead, I will have added something that brings soul satisfaction and perhaps even joy.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Pres. as the Director of Contemporary Worship and Media. She blogs weekly at reverendrachel.wordpress.com.