I do strange things for Lent. The first time I observed Lent I was 24 and an earnest seminarian. I decided to fast from exaggeration and sarcasm. Yes, you read that correctly. If you know me, you realize the irony – I speak fluent Sarcasm. Hyperbole is part of my charm. My friend Courtney, a Presbyterian minister and a veteran practitioner of Lent, questioned if this would be too much for my first time. I thought and prayed about it but I was resolved. I’d always liked a challenge. Plus I’d recently been convicted by a sermon on Matthew 5:33-37. I was all in.
My first Lent was a sometimes funny, always challenging experiment. I found myself offering the world more pauses, lots of apologies and much shorter stories. All of the new empty moments in my life created space for more introspection. I thought a lot about truth, chaffed against a deep-seated insecurity to be heard, learned about the risks white lies and half-truths pose to my soul and my relationships, and through it all I grew closer to Jesus, which for me, is the whole point.
It’s uncommon for Evangelicals to anchor themselves to the church calendar. I imagine there is a modest group of us who do extra devotional reading between Ash Wednesday and Easter but only a small subset who participate in Lent by fasting. Few of my fellow Evangelicals seem to understand why I observe Lent by fasting. Even my formerly Catholic sister-in-law is curious and confused by my practice. Sometimes I’m not even quite sure why I do this. Maybe it’s the artist in me craving sacred time when I can imaginatively enter into the life of Christ.
Every year I get to choose whether I observe Lent. I don’t have to do this. No one expects me to fast and certainly no one is judging me if I don’t. This is something I do for myself, for freedom. My attitude going in is always a strange blend of eagerness, seriousness and curiosity, with a shot of playfulness. Lent is a truly mystical choice in our get-the-next-best-thing-because-you-can culture. For me it’s 40 days when I willingly sacrifice something of my life, something I love or need, or think I need, because Jesus spent some time in the desert without a survival pack and without attempting to escape what was surely desolate.
The most unleashed thing about a Lenten fast is that there is no clear goal. There’s not a single anticipated outcome that I can project with any certainty. It’s just me creating space with the hope that this sacrifice will make me more attentive to Jesus. I think of it like a sugar detox. Once your body is stripped of artificial and added sugars, the flavors in natural foods begin to zip and zing along your taste buds like Pop Rocks. So I guess I could call Lent my “Quest for the Organic Jesus.”
This year I fasted from fiction. Before you roll your eyes and think this lacked bite, know that I read several hours a day – probably the equivalent of time you spend watching TV– often finishing several books a week. Stories are like food to me; they feed my spirit and soak my always-thirsty imagination. I confess – non-fiction puts me to sleep faster than Ambien would crushed in warm milk. I’ll take David Baldacci over C.S. Lewis any day. (I know, I know. Please don’t judge.) Fiction captures me. It takes me on adventures, welcomes me into foreign cultures and families and then confronts me with new questions and challenges. In some ways, reading fiction has better prepared me to be a thoughtful pastor than most theology books and seminary classes ever did. Fiction lets me engage deeply in others’ stories without worrying about myself – what to do with my hands, what my face should conceal or reveal, and when to speak or keep quiet. Each book is someone else’s world, a life unlike my own. The more foreign the story, the more I can learn, particularly how to have compassion for a life so different from my own and how to welcome a stranger. I owe so much of my ability to love the world’s outcasts and the suffering because books have opened my eyes to complexities in the human experience that I didn’t know existed.
So now you see that my fiction fast of 2014 wasn’t just a trifle. It opened up hours of time in each day, some of which I intentionally replaced with gospel reading. Like those magnifying vanity mirrors that allow us to zero in on wrinkles and stray hairs, my fast revealed some major flaws in my spiritual life. For most of the 40 days, my yearning to read fiction dwarfed my yearning to read the Bible. That was intensely humbling, especially as a pastor. Many prayers spun out from there. I also grappled with the fact that too often my reading becomes a buffer from allowing myself to feel, to process my feelings and to pour out my day before God.
Ministry, like life, is not something we pastors can control. Because our work centers around people and their connection to God and to others, what is a smoking ember on Monday can cause a blazing firestorm on Tuesday – all it takes is a little wind. During Lent this year life gusted and ministry blazed. Miscarriages, crumbling marriages, career disappointments, painful perseverance, major life changes: all of this was swirling around me and within me. And each night as I retreated to the quiet of my bedroom, when I would normally pick up a book and dive into a fictional life, the silence and my empty hands stripped away my buffer. I catalogued my cares and fears before God and I cried enough tears to turn any book into slimy paper mache. And every time, I felt better. More connected to God. Heard and loved. Companioned by a Savior who endured much more than 40 days in a desert. A Savior who knew solitude and hunger, and who understood the need to stay connected to the Creator of all good things. Those tears and those prayers cleansed me and prepared me for another day.
This is what I learned by fasting from fiction – even the things we enjoy, things that are not inherently harmful, can become liabilities to our spiritual lives. We can lose ourselves in the things we love. If mismanaged, our hobbies can diminish our vital connection to God. Even healthy habits can become a buffer, an escape, a way to hide from God, ourselves and the world. I suspect that we are all masters at twisting good, happy, fun and fruitful things into barriers, numbing agents and knots. I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to love myself better than this. I want my relationship with God to thrive in and for itself, but also so compassion and mercy can continue to flow in my ministry.
Lent 2014 – I gave up fiction. I wept with Jesus. God restored me. I’m ready for more. More life and more ministry. And yes, more fiction. I’m reading again, but I hope with greater maturity, using fiction as a tool for fun and relaxation and not a buffer against my life, my feelings and my God.