I Didn't Plan to Give Up This Much for Lent!

First a confession: I totally stole my title from a tweet by Andy Crouch. As soon as I read it, I started laughing and said “Exactly!” With everything that is going on with COVID-19 it is easy to forget that we are still in the season of Lent… but we shouldn’t! Embracing Lent might just help many of us through these next few weeks. Let me explain.

It really is fascinating looking at how fast everything is developing with this Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic (yes, it is officially a pandemic now). I just glanced at my last post and I find it hard to believe that it was only 15 days ago that I wrote it! We are now in an almost complete shutdown. Schools are closed, sports events are cancelled, restaurants and bars are closed (except takeout), no large gatherings are allowed, worship is going online for all churches, recreation facilities are closed, the US-Canada border is closed, and on and on. It seems like every day we get news of more closures and restrictions. San Francisco has already issued a “shelter in place” order, and we may see that here too before this is all over (before I could even finish this article I saw a news alert that ALL Californians are being told to say home!).

Life as we know it has come to a screeching halt.

Life as we know it has come to a screeching halt. Those of us that can work from home are doing it, some are still able to work with modifications, but many are simply staying at home. There is a bit of novelty to it that is… dare I say… fun? But we all know that feeling won’t last if this goes on for weeks or months. And beyond that, there is the very real concern that those we know and love could become sick or even die. And even if it isn’t someone that is close to us, we know that there are many in this world who are suffering at this moment.

I need to add a quick note here: There are those for whom this time is very much the opposite of a slowdown. Our health care workers and first responders (and others too) are busier than ever and may even be working to the point of exhaustion. This post is not primarily for them – I recognize that they are in a much different place. This post is directed at those who find themselves in a kind of “quarantine.”

So back to Lent. How can this ancient Christian practice help us now? The season of Lent is a time when many of us choose to “fast” in some form or another. We choose to cut things out of our life in order to create more space for prayer – more space for the Holy Spirit to move and speak into our lives. But now we have things being cut out of our life that are not by our choice. Even though we are notoriously good at partnering with nature to fill any vacuum in our over-scheduled lives, we are being helped in our discipline by a world that is moving at a slower pace. The way things are looking right now, for many of us the adventure of our week may be going to the supermarket or the hardware store. This lack of control can be unsettling, but it can also be a blessing. We can look at all of this as a curse, or as a potential gift.

…we are being helped in our discipline by a world that is moving at a slower pace.

My two boys are now 14 and 16. The way things are going I have no doubt that they will be telling stories for the rest of their life about the “coronavirus pandemic of 2020.” I hope that some day they will be old men sharing the story and their kids and grandkids will roll their eyes at the beginning of the well-worn tale. But what tale will they tell? Right now we all hope that it will not be a tale of sickness and death. But I also hope that it will not be a tale of fear and insecurity, or a tale simply of lost weeks and months of life.

The decisions that we all make right now determine what this break in routine will be. So why not embrace the “fast?” Take the time to pray more and wade more deeply into scripture. Look for the opportunities that come as friends and neighbors need a helping hand or a listening ear. Be present with our families, reach out in love to the lonely. Read some of those books that we have been putting off. Plant a garden. Take a walk. Avoid the temptation to make this about productivity and instead look for joy and peace. And if suffering comes? Well, that too is part of Lent, is it not? Jesus Christ suffered and died so that we might have life.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

– John 10:9

Fasting? Ash Wednesday.

cross

Ash Wednesday is the day marking the beginning of Lent – 40 days (not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter. This year, that happens to be March 5th. Traditionally, Christians have taken time during the season of Lent for repentance and prayer – often accompanied by fasting. While I grew up in a Christian tradition where I was never exposed to Lent, I was introduced to the concept of fasting for spiritual reasons. During my university studies I first encountered Lent, and since then I have embraced it as an important part of my yearly rhythm.

Why Fast?

Fasting has long been an important spiritual practice for those desiring to draw nearer to God. Even Jesus fasted for 40 days immediately after his baptism.  I’m not going to take time in this post to give a full explanation of fasting, other than to say that it is a way to focus more attention on God while denying some of your physical desires. If you have never done it, you should give it a shot and Lent is a great time to test the waters.

How to Fast for Lent

Those who fast for Lent typically choose to “give something up” during the season in order to make more room to pray, meditate, and have space for God to speak. For many people this involves the traditional idea of fasting from food (think “break-fast” as the time when you break your nightly fast). Sometimes this is a food or drink that you don’t really “need” (like chocolate, pop, sweets, etc.) but one that you crave. In this way you have a reminder throughout your day to pray whenever you crave that particular food – a constant reminder of your need for God. Personally, I prefer fasting from a type of food for this reason. But if you struggle with food in general (dieting , eating disorders, overeating, etc.) then a food fast is probably not the best idea. In fact, there are many other things that you can “fast” from in order to create some space during Lent. Here are some ideas that I have heard of:

  • If you drive a lot (commute): give up the radio/music in your car (a great time to pray)
  • Fast from certain types of media: music, TV, movies, Facebook, Twitter, video games, etc.
  • Give up sleeping in late so that you can get up earlier to read your Bible & pray

There are lots of great ideas of things that you can fast from – you are only limited by your imagination.

Caution!

If you are dealing with an addiction (smoking/alcohol/etc), then fasting from those things is also probably not a good idea. Addictions require serious professional help and a “season” of fasting is not going to be enough. Also, don’t use this as your next diet plan. Fasting is meant to draw one closer to God, not as a self-improvement project (this could apply to other “bad habits” like swearing, criticizing others, etc. being used as a fast). The reality is that there are many bad things that we could “fast” from, and they are something we should address. But the kind of fasting we are talking about with Lent is more about giving up something that is quite possibly “good” in your life – in order to deny yourself and turn to God.

Why Not Just “Add” Something Instead?

I’ve heard a lot of talk in recent years about adding something good for Lent instead of fasting (like volunteering, reading a devotional, etc.) While I understand the motive, I would caution people who might want to use this approach. Most of us probably have busy lives already and “adding” one more thing is just another way to stay in control (and even perhaps to justify yourself) without having to do what is really hard – slowing down! Fasting is about denying oneself – a very different thing. So while Lent may be a good time to develop some positive habits in your life, don’t confuse that with the concept of fasting.

Final Thoughts:

If you are going to give fasting during Lent a try, set a realistic goal. Give up something that will be difficult, but not so hard that you are bound to be miserable. Also, remember that this is not about proving yourself somehow. Some people start off fasting strong, then as soon as they partake in what they were fasting from they give up because they “failed.” Just pick it up again and keep going. Remember: the goal here is to draw nearer to God through repentance and prayer and to create space for that to happen. Finally, pay attention to Jesus’ warning about fasting:

 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).