The horizon—the color of ashes—promises a storm. The muddled snow, which had been melting, is arrested by the returning cold.
Lent, a somber season, seems the practice even of my leafless gray and brown northern landscape. Not a hint of indulgence, celebration, or color can be seen.
"What are you giving up for Lent?" can be heard in even casual conversations, between people who normally give religion wide topical berth, as if picking up again last month's chatter about New Year's resolutions. We give up things we really never needed anyway, but like those resolutions, our Lenten disciplines may fall aside before Good Friday arrives.
As leaders, we often pray for those we lead. But do we ever fast for them? Do we consider fasting (giving up something for a spiritual purpose) to be similar to a New Year's resolution, or could it be something more?
Fasting during this 40-day season was originally practiced to help us remember the suffering and temptations of Christ. It is a time to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Jesus. But often, the temptation is not to indulge in what we have given up, but to become legalistic on one hand—or flippant and trite on the other.
When Jesus taught on fasting, he seemed to assume that it was a part of his audience's regular spiritual practice, not just something to attempt for a few weeks of the year.
"When you fast…" he said. Not, if you fast. When.
"When you fast," he said, "don't call attention to yourself." In other words, engage in the discipline of secrecy, of not bragging about our spiritual efforts or accomplishments.
What if we were, this month, to combine the disciplines of fasting and secrecy, as Jesus recommends? To let go of something that holds us in its grip, but not tell anyone?
In her book Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson writes, "In the early church, Lent was viewed as a spiritual spring, a time of light and joy in the renewal of the soul's life."
A sort of spring-cleaning for the soul, which sounds lovely. But how can we embrace this intimidating practice, or even dabble in it? Fasting brings us face-to-face with our fears. At the root of it, we are afraid that if we don't continually consume, if we don't grab all we need and then some, we will probably die.
It is not just food that we consume. What do we feel that we "must" have or do regularly? What if we could fast from say, television? Or gossip?
What if you were to fast from electronics? Here's a fast to try: no electronics after 5 p.m. Turn off the computer, television, iPod, cell phone. Don't turn any of it on again until the next morning. Do this from now until Easter and see if you don't suddenly find yourself with time to read, pray, or even have conversations with friends, family, even strangers.
And then, as Jesus said, when you fast, don't call attention to it. What if, when facing the overwhelming needs of ministry, we were to fast and pray? For the children we lead, for their schools, their families, their friends?
What should we fast from? Well, what holds you in its grip? What regular unhealthy habits are currently a part of your routine—this could be anything from too much soda pop to excess negativity.
What if you were to fast from merely saying the words, "hurry up"? When you're stuck in traffic, don't say those words (or even think those words) to the driver in front of you. When you are getting ready to go somewhere with your children, don't tell them to hurry. When you are listening to the kids you minister to, actually listen, rather than finishing their sentences or interrupting (both ways we tell people, without saying it directly, to hurry). How many times a day do you say "hurry up"? What is that doing to your soul?