Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke? -Isaiah 58.5-6
Lenten Fasting wasn’t a thing for me growing up. As a family, we did not observe the church calendar or engage in liturgical practice of any kind, apart from the occasional responsive reading found in the back of the hymnal at church. Oh, wait – that’s not true: we did have Pancake Tuesday a couple of times, but I had no idea that this was connected to anything important. So when I began to explore this whole Lent thing as an adult, I was kinda on my own.
I remember sitting in a donut shop once, overhearing an older fella talking to those at his table about his plan to give up the usual things: in his case, donuts, cigarettes and alcohol. A lady at the table laughed and said ‘Cigarettes and alcohol are easy.’ I mentioned that the conversation took place in a donut shop, right?
People’s glib comments that they should probably indulge in this or that because they would be ‘giving it up for Lent’ in a week or so began to register as I experienced a Lent-related Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. No one ever seemed to be giving up parsnips or exercise or regular hydration. Lenten fasting seemed to involve something really great – and typically decadent or otherwise dangerous – that a person was considering giving up for God. At best, it seemed that people treated Lent like New Year’s resolutions, with good intentions and little actual follow-through. Mostly, though, it was a largely hypothetical form of ironic, tongue-in-cheek piety. Nobody I knew actually observed Lent.
Eventually, I would meet people who did fast regularly as a discipline. From these people, I would come to understand a little more about the nature of fasting in biblical, historical and contemporary practice, but it was slow going at first. What I was really hoping to learn from people I knew (rather than from the writers of dry books) was what practices and observances entailed and how these fostered a deeper, more meaningful spiritual journey. However, it seemed that fasting was this thing that many of the people who practiced it seemed to be really reluctant to discuss for fear of appearing prideful – like talking about it would rob it of its esoteric magic. I wondered whether this was true, or whether most folks didn’t talk because they didn’t have any foundational understanding either.
So I simply began my own annual Lenten journey, deciding that I’d learn what there was to learn through personal experience. It seemed to begin by deciding what to give up. I figured I’d sort out the why and the how as I went along.
I considered the classic defaults – sugar, caffeine, dessert, beer, second helpings of sugar, caffeine, dessert or beer – but they all seemed a little cliche and, to be honest, felt a little more like weight loss strategies than spiritual discipline. However, in the early-mid 2000’s I read on the internet that the average 40-year-old North American male had about 5 lbs of undigested red meat in his small intestine. I had believed it and, in response, had done a couple of 10-day cleansing fasts involving a daily chug of saltwater in the morning followed by a cayenne pill with an organic lemon juice/maple syrup chaser at mealtimes and lots of water. The toilet bowl results of these aggressive dietary actions had been both undeniably gross and yet strangely compelling. An idea emerged: seeing Lent as a spiritual cleanse might lead to a recalibration of sorts. I decided to try setting aside things that I felt might somehow be clogging my life up and impeding my health and growth. It was time to tackle some habits.
Over the years that followed, I refrained from surface things like swearing, buying records, making excuses, and misleading with words, eventually moving to deeper, grittier ones and then combining two or three to see what the outcome might be. It seemed that in fasting from habitual behaviour, I would become increasingly aware of my reason for setting it aside every time I felt the impulse to engage in it. I thought about my relationship with God a lot more, which seemed to be a big part of the point. Also, with each Lenten fast, I found a rather natural byproduct was the discovery or development of a related character piece. For example, the year I gave up social media I rediscovered my love for books. It seemed that being free from constantly posting, commenting, liking and updating had also freed me for reading the words of other people and writing my own. I hadn’t expected this. The annual reboot seemed to be yielding good things.
And yet there has always been a common theme to my own little annual Lenten journey:
the outcomes would benefit me.
A few weeks ago, as I began to consider Lenten options, I came across Isaiah 58. In it, I heard God ask ‘Is this the kind of fast I’ve chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?’ I wondered if all this self-denial for ultimate personal gain might not be a bit too transactional.
What might a personal Lenten fast designed to loose the chains of injustice look like? What might I set aside to untie the cords of the yoke of the other? What products might I fast from in an effort to be personally engaged in ethical harvesting or creation care? What aspects of my everyday life have been permitted to remain unchecked because, while they may indirectly break someone’s heart, they don’t directly break someone’s law? What if I just continued my fast beyond Easter indefinitely? What if I wasn’t alone in this – how might the world change?
What might I fast from for God’s sake, not my own?
I needed to have some kind of answer to many of these questions in time for Pancake Tuesday. However, now that we’re passed that, I’m reluctant to discuss what I’m learning while I’m learning it. In the past, there is the projection and in the future, there is the reflection, but now is that in-between time.
Perhaps we can talk about it later in a local shop over responsibly-sourced coffee or something.