Today is “Ash Friday”. No, this is not a recognized day on the church calendar; it’s just our shorthand for a day in that brief period of Lent that is a little unidentifiable. Next week we say “Friday in Lent I”, but on the three days following Ash Wednesday, what does one say? Well, “Ash Friday”, of course.
All right, that was a diversion. The concept of fasting is a troubling one for many people—especially for those who live in the segment of culture that has enough money and position to obtain most anything they want, and at any time they wish. I’ve lived in that culture most of my life, and I’m not that far away from it even now. Here on the “farm” we have food growing right in our backyard, even in winter. Yes, the pickin’s are slim in this season, but we could make it through the winter if we had to. Yet we don’t; we can still buy food, and we all have enough to wear, comfortable beds, and heat. Most of the world’s people can’t say that.
It has been a tradition in many churches to give up food in some form for a Lenten practice. I remember my Catholic friends (we Presbyterians gave up nothing, at least not in my house) longing for a candy bar, ice cream or other treat they had forsaken during Lent. I don’t think they learned much by doing this; a fair amount of energy was given to ways to consume the forbidden and still stay “right” with God during Lent. What we learned together was how to work the church system, not how to move closer to God.
I never knew if the adults’ Lenten practice drew them closer to God. Surely, however, the practice of denial has some value worth exploring; church history is rife with examples and discussion on the subject. As as history has also shown us, a practice can itself become the goal, while the practitioner loses sight of the point.
How can we change that? My favorite tool (not because it’s easy, but because it’s productive) is to let go of something I particularly like, and when the going gets rough, look behind the yearning to see what’s lurking there. I think this is only fruitful when what one surrenders is something near and dear to the heart. It might be food … and it might not.
I’m all for taking on a new, prayerful practice for Lent, but I think we of the western consumer culture miss out on a sure road to God’s heart when we give up something we think we “need”, and watch what happens in our own heart when that need is unveiled as a want, and the want is not met.
Try it this year.