Written for Third Presbyterian Church on October 16th as part of a spiritual discipline sermon series based on Richard Forester’s book, “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth”, which a small group from the church is currently studying. So, for blog readers, this may feel a little disconnected, because this is the only piece of the sermon series I preached. For those who heard the sermon live, I definitely strayed from my script, so this might not be as you remember it.

Matthew 6:16-18

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look somber, like the hypocrites, for they mark their faces to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 9: 14-17

14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “The wedding attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are ruined, but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

In his book, “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth”, Richard Foster says that these two verses are the most important sayings of Jesus concerning fasting.  He notes that Jesus assumes that his followers will fast (even if they aren’t now) and that they won’t make a big show of it when they do fast.  Foster says that Jesus was giving instructions on the proper way to fast.  (pp. 64-65) Today, I’m going to try to summarize his suggestions on fasting and give examples of how it works and doesn’t work in my own life.  I can only talk about me, but I bet in sharing my stories, you can hear something of your own life too.  And maybe the spirit of God will guide your thoughts about fasting. 

I have no idea what the proper way to fast is.  Sometimes I say that I accidentally fast when I forgot to pack my lunch and I’m too busy to stop to get something to eat.  I really didn’t need Foster’s section on how long we can survive without eating three full meals and several snacks because I can’t imagine when I’ve ever had time to eat that much.  But what did resonate with me was that the purpose of fasting is to focus on God, the secondary reason to fast is to reveal the things that control us.  When we fast, anger, bitterness, pride or whatever it is we are covering up will be brought to the surface.  (p. 67) Fasting will also reveal the nonessentials that are taking up space in our lives.  (p. 68) 

When I think about what I eat, when I eat it, and how I source food, I can see that there are nonessentials taking up space in my life that would be better used for grocery shopping and meal prep.  And I can see that filling my schedule, overworking, and staying busy is a way for me to avoid feelings and issues I don’t want to deal with that will come right to the surface if I stop to sit and eat for more than a few minutes.  By avoiding meals, I’m avoiding rest, quiet time, and even mealtime conversations.  I’m not covering these unpleasant things with food; I’m covering them with being busy.  I would need to overhaul my schedule, my food purchasing habits, and my meal prep habits so that I have a place to start fasting from.  But, if I did those things, I would end up fasting from other nonessentials and putting in place better practices.  So, for now, I’m skipping the how-to section in the book and looking at the other things he suggests that we can fast from.  If fasting from food is something you are interested in, there are lots of guides for how to start and end the fast in a way that is spiritually and physically healthy. But I don’t want to offer advice on that here since I don’t have experience with it. Today, I would like to talk about some of the other types of fasting and how that plays out in my life.

Summary of pp.74 -75:

Foster suggests we fast from other people.  His book was written pre-pandemic, but just because we were cut off from people doesn’t mean we intentionally fasted, just like when I forget my lunch its’s not fasting.  Spending time alone can allow for critical thinking about self and how one lives.  Without the distraction of other people, we can choose to do a self-evaluation.  This may reveal some of ways in which we relate to others that may not be healthy.  Fasting from others, or doing a solo retreat, can allow us to focus on how it is that we love others.  In this time apart, we can ask, am I loving my friends, family, and neighbors the way God has called me to love them?  Am I causing injury or using people for my own benefit?  Even though the pandemic stopped relationships from being the same as they were, unless we were thoughtful about it, these relationships may have gone back to old patterns of hurt.  Choosing to fast from other people means that we are choosing instead to spend that time with God allowing her to lead us in healthy relationships when we do choose to spend time with others.  I think it’s also possible that fasting from certain people will give clarity as to whether or not it is a relationship that should continue after the fast.  Even in our unintentional people fasting during the pandemic we were probably able to identify the ways in which we need to change our relationships with God and others.  

Foster suggests we fast from media.  The book was written before social media had really erupted but he still pointed out that newspapers, radio, magazines, and television tend to break into our day interrupting and fragmenting our time.  He points out that kids come home from summer camp saying God spoke to them, and adults come back from weekend retreats the same way.  It is because at camp and conference centers we are removed from the television and newspapers that capture our attention and interrupt our focus.  When we fast from these things, we can listen to God without interruption.  I noticed that in Ecuador none of our rooms had television and the wifi was unreliable.  And if I’m being honest that was one of the best things.  I used my limited wifi to post one or two pictures, send a couple of texts to my family, but I did not have the ability to watch videos, read articles, or scroll endlessly.  I found that without the distraction of TV and social media, I was more focused on why I was there and who I was there with, and I was looking for the places God was showing up too, even though this wasn’t a pilgrimage or spiritual retreat, there were moments that felt that way, because I was disconnected from distractions.  

The telephone is a device that we can fast from.  Foster is quick to point out that the phone often interrupts what we are doing in the moment and that there are moments in which we should ignore the phone and remember that we can call someone back later.  The phone shouldn’t interrupt prayer, reading, meals with family and friends, and other moments that we should be completely present for.  When I was young, my dad worked shifts, so we would often take the phone off the hook so that we didn’t get calls during the day while he was trying to sleep.  My families’ motives for unplugging the phone were practical, I’ve noticed that I have a different relationship with my phone because of it.  I haven’t had a land line phone in 20 years.  I feel no guilt in turning the sound off on my cell phone either.  This allows me to be present for the person or task in front of me and when there is a natural break, I can check messages and return calls and texts.  I’ve noticed that if I forget to turn the sound off, I am tempted to (and sometimes I do) answer the phone and allow it to interrupt my day.  I always regret it.  And the call or text is usually something that the person on the other end of the phone doesn’t need from me immediately and they didn’t mean to interrupt me either.  Most times, they are glad when I call back and they get my full attention too.  Fasting from my phone and all its noise and messages is something that is a regular practice in my life and one I highly recommend. 

 Fasting from consumer culture includes fasting from advertisements and from shopping itself.  At first, I thought, I don’t shop that much, but if I only consider shopping in brick-and-mortar stores that might be true, but this one is a little trickier for me when I include online shopping and even online window-shopping, because when I think through all the ways I shop and even window shop, it’s a lot of my time.  I stopped using Pinterest a while ago because I noticed it was having a negative effect on me.  Pinterest and the scrolling through items and pinning to boards isn’t technically shopping, but I am consuming items, deciding that they belong to me, and organizing them by category and worth in a digital world.  By doing this I’m training my brain to look for things and collect them, I’m shopping, I’m consuming, and worse, I feel like I deserve to have the life I’ve pinned.  

Facebook is another place I shop without realizing it. The ads I get on Facebook often include lists of 50 household items on amazon to make your home more efficient or 10 affordable must haves for your fall wardrobe.  I know it’s click bait, but I’m clicking anyway, and I’m adding items I don’t really need to my amazon wish list, and sometimes buying them.  And if I don’t buy, I get emails that make suggestions on what I should buy based on my browsing.  I’m constantly shopping without meaning to, and I’m consuming advertisements that are telling me that living my best life includes buying things I don’t need.  Even the ads and articles encouraging simple living often include selling a certain aesthetic and clear organizational bins with printed labels, mason jars with chalk board labels, and woven baskets for hiding clutter.  Yep, under the banner of living simply, we are selling more stuff to hide the stuff we shouldn’t have accumulated in the first place.  Decluttering stuff is hard. Decluttering the messaging that we need stuff is harder.  Fasting from consumer culture is tough.  It’s worth doing if you want to declutter, but when done as a spiritual discipline, with focus on God, it can change your heart and the way you interact with the world.  Just like fasting from food isn’t about losing weight, fasting from stuff isn’t about achieving an aesthetic.  The focus should be spending the time and energy with God and not with stuff.  The goal is relationship with God that can lead to transformation.  

My hope is that summarizing the fasting chapter in a sermon is that we have expanded our thinking about what fasting is to include not only food, but people, media, phones, and consumer culture in general.  And maybe these ideas have led you to examine other things that are taking up space in your life, that it might be time to take a break from.  Figure out your fast.  But more importantly remember that fasting is a spiritual discipline, a way to become closer to God for the purpose of transforming your heart.  

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