What, really, constitutes a meaningful fast?

I’ve been thinking about that question as Lent approached – it seems useful to have an answer before Lent arrives …  Or maybe just to arrive at an answer during Lent …

When I was growing up, I remember, I was encouraged to give up desserts, or to watch less TV, or not to eat meat one day a week.  And as I grew older, I became less certain how meaningful any of these acts are.  At least on the level at which I practiced them, they were pretty trivial (and non life changing) disciplines.

It really came home to me one year in seminary, when another seminarian who had skipped breakfast and lunch that single day, as we ate dinner (with no limits on portions or refills) said that that now, after her great sacrifice of missing two meals, she knew she was living in solidarity with poor people around the world – she knew what their lives felt like.  And I thought to myself, you really have no idea what it means to be chronically hungry.  You really have no idea what it feels like to watch your children fail to thrive because you can’t provide them with enough food.  I’d done fasts of three and five days at a time on nothing but water.  I’d even done a fast (months, I think, but I based it on losing thirty five pounds) on less than five hundred calories a day.  But I had no idea what it meant to be chronically hungry.  Because I always had a choice.  Because my fast (or diet) was always temporary.

The idea that you are willing to give up something for God makes sense to me.  But what I had been giving up really, in the balance of my life, seemed pretty trivial.  So when it was suggested to me that, rather than give up something for Lent, I might want to take on something for Lent, I thought it was worth a try.  I’d take all my change for Lent and give it to Episcopal Relief and Development.  Or I’d write letters to my representatives on behalf of programs for the poor.  Or I’d go to an additional weekly service.

And there are places in the Bible where it talks about providing for widows and orphans as a fast acceptable to the Lord.  And the Order of St. Helena notes this morning that the fast that God requires is to loose the fetters of injustice and to set free those who have been crushed.  But, once again, on the level I practiced these disciplines, they were clearly not life changing.  Doing something for forty days might be a start.  But it didn’t feel like it was taking me very far, spiritually.

About a year ago, with a little nudge from a friend, I started to look at things a little differently.  The question I’ve started to ask myself is this:  what behaviors of mine – whether we’re talking omission or commission – what behaviors of mine get in the way of my relationship with God?  (And, in fact, since part of my relationship with God is my relationship with other people, what behaviors of mine get in the way of my relationships with other people?)  What pattern of life do I need to change to improve my relationship with God?  What do I do that I need to stop doing?  What am I not doing that I need to start doing?

And that, for me at least, is where things start to get a bit uncomfortable.

Because if I’m doing something, or not doing something, that is getting in the way of my relationship with God, then I probably need to change the way I’m living.

And not just for Lent.

Because if my behavior is hurting my relationship with God and with other people, why would I want to revert to my old behavior at the end of Lent?  Wouldn’t I want to make a permanent change in how I behave?  Would I really want to go back to hurtful behaviors for eleven months out of the year?

So there is a sense, now, for me, that whatever Lenten fast I take on, however small it might be, probably needs to be something that I’m looking at as a permanent life change.

I know I can’t change everything about myself all at once.  And I know it would probably be worse than useless if I tried to do so.  I’d feel overwhelmed, and guilty, and powerless and probably end up not only feeling worse but making no change in my life at all.

So I find myself asking myself what changes am I already aware might be helpful?  What changes am I already thinking about making?  Can I find one place, or maybe two places, where I can make small but permanent changes in my life that will improve my relationship with God?

And if I don’t have the answer to those questions today, then perhaps Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are the right time for self examination, that will lead me to answers to these questions, and truly begin to move my life in a more Godly direction.

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