Fasting During Advent: A Spiritual Practice

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Crying in the Toilet Paper Aisle

Last year during advent I went to the grocery store to get toilet paper. Doesn’t seem like something I’d remember a year later, except for the fact that I know began to cry, right there in front of the toilet paper. I can’t remember what the underlying sadness was about, but I do remember the tears began to flow when “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” started playing really, really loud. It was late at night, probably 10 p.m., and there was nobody else around. It was me, the absurd number of toilet paper choices and Mr. Holly Jolly, on full blast.  Instant tears.

I don’t know exactly how many people for whom this story might resonate, but I suspect I’m not the only one. The holidays are challenging for a lot of people, and for a lot of different reasons. For some there are feelings of loss and grief as we remember loved ones who aren’t around. Some are far from family and wish to be near. Some are near to family that is constantly fighting. Sometimes there are additional work or social obligations that pile up and pile on. For some it’s a time of financial strain. Whatever the reason, I don’t think we talk about it enough. I think we do what I did last year when I was crying in front of the toilet paper. We take a deep breath, buy the toilet paper, and muddle through.

But what if there’s a better way?

For Christians, advent is the time leading up to Christmas. It starts this Sunday, November 29th and ends on Christmas Day. Theologically, it’s a time of waiting and preparing for the Christ child to be born anew in our hearts.

Though the culture wants advent to bright and loud, we can make it dark and quiet if we need to.

We can look at advent just like we look at lent: a time to get serious about what these seasons mean theologically.  

To do this, we need to be critical thinkers and questioners. This is different than being cynical or saying “bah humbug!” One question we might ask is is that true?  I saw an ad for diamonds that said something like “Give her the best Christmas ever.” For a fleeting moment I thought “What if I lived the type of life where my husband gave me diamonds for Christmas? I would love that!” And then I thought is that true?

All that glitters isn’t gold. All that sparkles isn’t love.

I’m starting to wonder if Christians need to think seriously about fasting during advent, just as we do during lent. If this appeals to you, I’m going to give some suggestions for types of fasts that might be useful. Let’s give them a try and report back. Let’s see if we can make advent a meaningful time of waiting for the light of the world without resorting to crying in front of the toilet paper. Here are some ideas. Do you have more?

Fast from Buying Gifts You Don’t Want to Buy

Instead of gadgets and plastic and trinkets, thoughtful notes and cards. Homemade artwork. A poem. I’ve never given or received a gift like this and felt bad about it. What if you said to your friends, “Let’s share a cup of tea (glass of wine, bottle of beer, bowl of soup) and laugh for an hour? It will be our gift to one another.” I imagine it would be one of the best gifts you could hope to receive. Gift giving isn’t bad or wrong. It’s a great way to teach children about empathy don’t think about what you want, think about what grandma would like. I’m not suggesting that everyone say no gifts ever to anyone. I am suggesting, though, that we fast from the obligatory gift giving, the giving that doesn’t bring joy, the giving that feels like work. Let it go.

Fast from Social Media (In part or altogether)

There’s a wide range on thoughts about social media and I’m definitely not in the “eww, it’s evil” camp. I love social media. I feel connected to friends far away, I have conversations with clergy colleagues around the world. I get great ideas for artwork and sermon preparation. I’ve also experienced a calm and quiet when I’ve turned it off, only used it between certain hours or taken “social media free” days. Give it a try, maybe?

Fast from your Phone

iPhone users: “Do Not Disturb” is your friend. It’s a setting on your phone where you can set it to not ring, or buzz, or beep, or ding or anything. You can even set certain “favorites” who can get through in case of emergency. Every night at 9:30 I go through a process of setting my phone to “Do Not Disturb” and also setting each app that has banner notifications (in my case text, phone and gmail) to “no notifications.” That means if I check the time on my phone in the middle of the night, there are no texts waiting to be read, no emails staring at me, no missed calls. I turn it all on in the morning and figure out what I’ve missed. It was really hard the first week or two. Now it’s become a place of peace and rest. I know people can get me in an emergency. Freedom.

Another type of mini-fast for heavy phone users (like me). Put your phone far, far away for short periods of time when you’re doing something important, like talking with a friend or playing with your children. I put mine in another room or turn it off for 15 minutes, a 1/2 hour, an hour, four hours. (Four hours sometimes sends me in to cold sweats, but I’m working on it.) I can’t control nuclear launch codes from my cell phone, nobody needs me that badly. I’m redefining urgent. Maybe you are, too.

Maybe an advent fast would mean trying one of these two disciplines every day from the first of December until Christmas Day. Turn your phone off every night at a specified time, all month. Commit to one hour of no cell phone use every day so that you can replace it with something important: being with family, reading a novel, creating art.

Fast from TV

I’ll never forget a sermon I heard from John Ortberg where he said “Nobody sits down for a couple of hours of mindless TV watching and then gets up and says ‘Man, I feel great!‘ Everyone laughed, because we knew it’s true. TV is like a drug, sometimes. We zone out, we just sit there and pass the time. It’s not that we can’t ever watch TV, but we know when it’s getting unhealthy. After I had Clayton I went through this period of TV watching that I think was truly like some sort of addiction. I would get up to nurse him, flip on the TV and just sit there, zoned out and looking at nothing, for hours. The cure for me was the radio.

Fast from Unhealthy Habits 

Maybe advent is a time, just like lent, to think about what we’d like to give up or limit in order to gain something new. Maybe the person who most needs a gift this advent is you. I started to list off some of the unhealthy habits, but it looked judgmental. don’t know what’s unhealthy for you and what you need to limit or eliminate, but I know you do. Give yourself a gift.

Other Fasting 

Maybe some of these will spark your imagination as well:

  • Fast from putting yourself down (“I’m not doing enough at work or home or relationships”)
  • Fast from driving everywhere — Can you walk or bike or take a bus?
  • Fast from paper products or excess trash
  • Fast from eating out or driving through

The point of fasting during advent is not on what you’re giving up, it’s on what you’re gaining.

So, the time with the phone in the other room is time to focus on something else. The money not spent on a gift can be given to a worthy cause, the smoothie instead of the donut helps show respect for your body. All of these things aren’t easy, they’re hard. They’re disciplines. Just like with lenten disciplines, they’re easier practiced in a community. Find a friend or partner and share what you’re giving up this advent. What do you have to lose? What do you have to gain? How will Christmas Day take on new meaning?

 

 

 

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