Fasting is one of the most common and visible practices of Lent. It is one of the fundamental practices of Lent, recommended or even required in varying degrees by many denominations. Many Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays through all of Lent. The Orthodox churches take on a progressive fast, simplifying and restricting their diet more and more each week of Lent.
So what exactly is fasting? In the most literal sense it means refraining from eating. But thousands of years of tradition have given us many variations on what fasting can look like. Many now fast from things other than food, like caffeine, alcohol or media. Or give up certain types of food, usually particularly rich or extravagant foods.
So why in the world would we do this? Well, at the most basic level, we do it because it is a biblically recurring practice. Kings, prophets and even whole nations have fasted to show repentance or to prepare themselves for some great calling or event. Jesus himself fasted in the desert for 40 days in a time of preparation for his ministry.
We fast to take seriously our bodies as a part of us. We are not souls inhabiting a fleshy machine or a mind being carried about in a vehicle of blood and bone, instead we are some mix of all of these, a mind, a body, a soul, inseparable and interwoven. How we treat our bodies and what happens to them will affect the state of our minds and souls. We pray with our bodies. We preach with our bodies and we serve with our bodies. If we ignore them in our life with God we are leaving a part of us behind.
We fast to take God’s blessings more seriously. Many of us fast from things which are not inherently bad, like caffeine or meat, to be reminded of the goodness of God in giving us those things. When we have an uninterrupted flow of something we can be tempted to forget its source and become unthankful and entitled. We forget that the good things we have are a blessing and not a thing we have earned or required. Fasting helps reset us to 0,0. So we can see things where they really are and not where our skewed perspective puts them.
Finally, We fast to free ourselves for devotion to God. Many good things can become sinful if we let ourselves become reliant on them. They become one more barrier to our love and devotion, one more piece of baggage we are carrying. Many of us are literally addicted to things like sugar, caffeine, social media or technology. A dependence which should be reserved for God and a dependence which the world can use to twist you around. When we fast we invite God into our lives to free us from good things which have overtaken us.
Fasting reminds us of our bodies, reminds us of our blessings and invites God to free us from addictions and burdens in our day to day to life. When we fast we are joining with thousands of years of Saints and believers who have gone before and millions of Christians around our present world who also yearn to grow closer to God. And fasting doesn’t have to end with Lent. Through Lent we have been assembling a series of spiritual disciplines to carry with us all year. Fasting, prayer, bible study, silence, we take these with us to continue to grow in our faith and devotion all year.
This evening, or for many of our fellow Christians, this morning, we will observe Ash Wednesday, the solemn first day of the season of Lent. Like the rest of the Church Calendar (which we follow when we observe seasons like Advent and Lent or holy days like Resurrection Sunday, Good Friday or Pentecost), Lent is a season which draws us into a story. Advent, perhaps most obvious of any season, draws us into the hopeful expectation of Israel, anxiously awaiting God’s savior who will arrive and bring God’s love and peace into the world. Advent also calls attention to our own hope and expectation, as we await the return of the savior to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth.
Lent draws us into a different story. Lent is the season of dust and ashes. “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” Lent is a season of smallness. It is a season of repentance. If in the Advent story we are faithful Israel in expectation, in Lent we are sinful Nineveh who falls down and repents of our sins and unworthiness. We are faithless Israel who has built up idols while Moses was on the mountain. We are the elders of Israel who are desperate to be ruled by less than God. There is a harsh character to Lent.
But this is not the only story of Lent. We are also following in the footsteps of Elijah and Moses who fasted while God prepared them for kingdom work. We follow Jesus who fasted for forty days and was tried and tested. Lent is a story of preparation and communion with God, letting go of weights and burdens and learning to run fully towards God’s kingdom.
It is in the spirit of both of these that we enter into Lent. Naming our sins and our failures in repentance, falling on God’s mercy to heal us and lift us up from the dirt. But also casting aside those things that hinder us, learning to present ourselves to God without baggage and burden. In light of these things it is a practice of the Church to focus on spiritual growth during Lent. We repent of the sins that cling to us, we set down the burdens and distractions which are not sinful themselves but have become something we rely on instead of or in addition to God, finally we add practices that help us grow in our faith.
Many of our Youth at HVBC are committing to join with the Church in our community and our world in pursuing these practices during the season of Lent. We have discussed dozens of different spiritual disciplines they can engage in and many of them have chosen to commit to practicing one or more of them through the forty days of Lent. We will be discussing the experience and supporting each other through weekly accountability. If you are a youth who was not able to join us on Sunday we encourage you to consider taking on a practice. If you are a parent of a youth we encourage you to come alongside and participate with us, by supporting your youth’s chosen practice through prayer and encouragement or even joining in yourself.
For the duration of Lent we will be revisiting these practices and themes during our youth group meetings, check back here to see further reflections on Lent as we move together through this season.
Finding a Lenten Practice
Below is a list of practices that we discussed during our time together. These aren’t the entirety of Lenten practices just suggestions and common options. Here are a few guidelines to help you find the right practice for you:
1) Choose something which seems difficult. If you see something and say “I couldn’t live without this” and it’s not God, air or a minimum of food and water it might be a candidate. If you see something and say “that’s easy” it likely isn’t a good choice.
2) Pick something you could actually do. Committing to pray 4 hours a day is a great goal but if you know that isn’t going to be possible for you, pick something else.
3) Use good judgment. God is not going to fault you for doing what you need to do. If you choose to forego your cell phone don’t ignore your parent’s call. If you forego internet use you still need to do your homework that’s online. You all are smart enough to distinguish between Netflix versus homework or instagramming your friends versus answering a call from a parent.
4) Try to balance positive and negative. When we give something up during the season of Lent we are doing so to move closer to God. If you are abstaining from a food consider saving or collecting money to give to a charity that combats world hunger. If you are refraining from soft drinks consider donating to a clean water group. If you are trying to control anger try to replace it with acts of kindness. Through the prophet Isaiah and his disciples God said (Isaiah 58)
“3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Match your fast or offering with kindness and giving and justice in the world around you.
A Selection of Lenten Practices
Repent of lingering sins in your life which damage your relationship with God and others:
Anger Lust Harsh language
Laziness Greed Pride
Violence Disrespect Carelessness
Minimize or Remove things which are unnecessary and can hold you back from God:
Sugar Caffeine Sweets
Television Video Games Internet
Limit phone use to essential calls
Don’t buy unnecessary things
Go without makeup
Give away clothing
Limit the your wardrobe during Lent
Add practices that help you grow in your faith and help you better show God’s love in the world:
-Read your bible daily
-Read books about faith or people of faith
-Spend time in silence or stillness every day
-Practice restraint in conversations so that others have a chance to speak
-Take on extra chores in your home.
-Volunteer in your community
-Worship through music every day
-Take time every day to consider one piece of media you consume (a song, a tv show, a book) and consider whether its themes and messages are positive or negative and whether it helps you grow as a person.
-Learn about an issue in the world or your community and find ways to get involved.
-Finish your homework and commitments early in the week so you can rest on Sunday.
-Learn about world events and pray for them.
-Learn a short repeated prayer and pray it throughout the day.
-Pray every morning and every night.
Whatever you choose I encourage you to find partners in accountability, either amongst our youth group or in friends and family (or both!).