Friday, March 9, 2012


One of the primary spiritual practices of Lent is FASTING, along with prayer and almsgiving (giving to the poor). I have practiced fasting during Lent for about 30 years. I started in high school, fasting on Good Friday, and enjoyed a day off from school, make-up, hairstyling, and food--until one of my college profs called me on that, reminding me that we are not to display our fasting to others (Matthew 6:16-18). [disclaimer: I truly regarded that practice as a fast from vanity and peer pressure to look my best at all times, not as a flaunting of my piety. And the prof noticed it because I skipped his class, per my usual practice of not having school on Good Friday, and had to make up an exam.]

My fasting has expanded in recent years, first to add Ash Wednesday to the Good Friday practice; and now to include one day a week during Lent. What I "give up" in Lent is one day of eating, one 24-hour day each week. Over the years I have come to associate the feeling of hunger, during this fasting time, as a spiritual nudge from God, as a grumbly tummy reminds me that I am fasting, and that fasting is for not being distracted from God. In my current practice, I fast 40 hours each on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and 24 hours once a week in between.

So why do I fast? I had this conversation with my spiritual director a few years ago, asking her that very question: why do I fast? Well, there are several reasons, any one of which might be the reason any given week: I am a cradle Lutheran, from a tradition that has for centuries included fasting as part of spiritual discipline during Lent. Not eating reminds me that the sense that I have complete control over my life (I can buy food and eat whenever I want to) is only an illusion--truly my life is in God's hands. Fasting reminds me that some people feel that empty grumble almost every moment of almost every day, and challenges me to examine how my habits around food contribute to this inequality. Not taking time out to eat gives me a little more time for other things (ideally, prayer), and not spending money on food frees up that bit of cash to be given to the poor. Being hungry for awhile is a bit of a test--am I willing to take up that cross and follow Jesus to communities that live hungry all the time?

This Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22) I felt the fasting not so much physically as spiritually. I felt deeply connected to the Divine, through my gut. I prayed several times throughout the day, sometimes driven there by light-headedness that required I sit still for awhile. I prayed formal prayers, and I prayed for others, both for their needs and praying their prayers for them when they were not able to join us for worship.

Fasting draws me in to myself, which is not a common or comfortable place for me, an extreme extrovert who practices spirituality by focusing on others--praying for them, serving them, walking with them. But the depth to which fasting allows me to go is the place I find God on these holy days, a personal and intimate meeting that my soul needs, even if my extroverted mind won't admit it.

I commend this spiritual practice to you, precisely because it is not normal or expected, and it is not easy. In such jolts from our routines, God often gets our attention.

You Count

Not too long ago I read an article about keeping track of worship attendance. It's something I do for statistical purposes, and the congregation is small enough that I can keep track of who's been absent for a few weeks in a row. Of course worship attendance is not the only measure of commitment or faithfulness, which I'm learning in real ways as I observe and interview lifestyles and time patterns of very busy families. The number of families who go to worship on Sunday morning more often than not because it's "the right thing to do" is decreasing, but I continue to find passion and commitment for [ministry, God, Jesus, spirituality] running strong among those who do not or are not able to attend worship every Sunday.

That understood, I will continue to count worship attendance, in addition to attendance at other events and ministries, including book club, Sunday school, home Bible studies, women's events, senior events, confirmation, and summer camp. I will still visit people in the hospital, call them at home, visit them at work, find them on Facebook, pray for them, and send birthday cards--personal contacts that are not related to worship. I do this not to boost my stats (they only count once a year for ELCA reports) but because that aforementioned article reminded me of the importance of counting. We count not to induce guilt or to pad reports. We count because people count--YOU MATTER. In Luke 15 we hear the parable of a shepherd who leaves his 99 obedient sheep to find the one who strayed. Not being a shepherd myself, I may miss how ridiculous this is; a shepherd would probably not risk 99 for the sake of 1, but rather take the loss. But the Good Shepherd reminds us that every single one counts, and when the count is taken and one is missing, nothing is more important than finding that one.

Sometimes YOU, dear reader, are that ONE--the one who has not come to worship today, the one we are missing, the one whose absence changes the constitution of "WE". Being part of a congregation is not about obligation to attend so you (and your offering) can be counted. It's about the relationships you make with others through which the love of God is conducted, practiced, shared, grown. It's about the way your presence has changed our life together, and your absence changes it again. It's about what we know about God and faithfulness because of what you have brought along and taught us.

You do not need to feel guilty; but please feel missed. Know that your presence, or your absence, makes a difference in a community of faith, and if the primary form of togetherness in that community is worship, well, then...this "shepherd" is counting, because YOU COUNT.