Sermon: Fasting Is Awesome: You Should Try It

2017 November 8
by DoMC

Fasting Is Awesome: You Should Try It

Ana Levy-Lyons

November 5, 2017

First Unitarian, Brooklyn

It used to be, in my early years of parenting, that if my kids did something even remotely functional, I would call it “awesome.” “You got your shirt on. Awesome!” “You finished your lunch. Awesome!” “You flushed the toilet. Awesome.” And then I realized how ridiculous that was and I had a conversation with them where I explained the real meaning of the word “awesome” – awe-inspiring; touched by the divine; almost frightening because of its power. The ocean with its crashing waves is awesome. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was awesome. When you put your shoes on to go to school, that’s what we call “good.” The kids liked this distinction and now they correct each other and – annoyingly – their parents whenever we slip. Inflation happens linguistically, just like it does financially. We overuse powerful words and pretty soon they lose their meaning.

And so it was with great intention that I chose the title of this sermon: Fasting Is Awesome, You Should Try It. Fasting really can be awesome in the full sense of the word. Religious communities have figured this out over the millennia and so most spiritual traditions include some form of fasting. Muslims fast during daylight hours for the month of Ramadan. Jews fast for 25 hours on Yom Kippur and several other fast days during the year. Hindus fast on certain days of the week to harmonize with specific spiritual forces. Christians will often undertake some kind of fast during Lent to imitate Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert.

Unitarian Universalists, however, do not have a tradition of fasting. Yet. It’s interesting to think about why. Unitarian Universalism developed out of Protestant Christianity, and the kernel at the heart of the original Protestant movement was what was called “Christian liberty” – the idea that Jesus freed us from the obligations to do physical practices with our body. Whether those obligations came from the Torah or from the Catholic church, embodied practices were now optional. We would be saved, not by what they called “works,” but by faith – an individual, internal experience and set of beliefs. Martin Luther, who nailed his 95 Theses to a church door and kicked off the German Reformation, believed that fasting should be individual and optional rather than communal and mandatory.

In Zurich, Switzerland in 1522 another pastor named Ulrich Zwingli really drove the point home: he held a sausage-eating festival during Lent. Lent was supposed to be a time for fasting and certainly not eating meat. He preached a sermon called, “Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods,” defending this as Christian liberty, although he reportedly did not eat any sausages himself. This event became known as the “Affair of the Sausages,” and it kicked off the Swiss Reformation.

Our theological heritage transmits to us a strong impulse: “Do not tell me what to do, especially what to eat or when to eat it or what not to eat or when not to eat it. That is my private business and I am free to decide for myself.” This sentiment sometimes comes up today when we talk about ethical eating practices just as it did for our ancestors when they talked about holiday and ritual eating practices. It’s deep in our DNA. We have continued down the road of liberalism that started with the 95 Theses and the Affair of the Sausages and we’ve taken it further. We are known as “the most protesting of Protestants.” Nobody tells me what to do. Liberal religion, of which Unitarian Universalism is the extreme example, tends to be internal and individual, rather than embodied and communal.

There’s a problem, however, with allowing this freedom – we’ll call it UU liberty – to comprise the entirety of our religious life. When it comes to spiritual practices like fasting, if we say, as Martin Luther did, that people should just fast if and when they feel like it, most of us are never going to feel like it. Who ever feels like fasting? Fasting is hard. Fasting is not fun. And eating, conversely, is one of the best things in the world. It connects us with friends and family. It is a comfort and a pleasure and it fills us not only physically but often emotionally. Now, some of us will voluntarily do various kinds of detox fasts, but few if any of us would decide just on our own on a random day to undertake a fast for spiritual reasons.

Religious traditions of communally doing something difficult, like fasting, help us to overcome our natural human resistance to it. They push us to get over that hump and give us the chance to actually experience it. We might never get there on our own. In my book on the Ten Commandments, which, I’m happy to say is coming out in March, I make this case that keeping commandments, meaning communal religious practices, can help us live the lives of meaning we want to live when we really think about them in the big picture. They help us live the life we Want, with a capital “W,” knowing that, because we are only human, the day-to-day choices that would add up that that kind of life will not always be what we “want” with a lower case “w.” Because it’s too hard or too inconvenient. In the case of fasting, we can always do it another day.

And what’s so bad about that? you might ask. If I’m lucky enough that I never have to miss a meal in my life, what’s wrong with that? Here is where I want to cultivate for you a little bit of FOMO – “fear of missing out.” Millions of people over thousands of years of many different religions have fasted and still do, year after year, to this day. Gandhi famously fasted as penance for his role in the violence of his time and also as political leverage. Jesus fasted before he began his public ministry. Religious people will describe fasting as a unique form of spiritual nourishment. They describe it as giving them a kind of clarity of mind and heart that they don’t otherwise have. They describe it as growing a deeper connection to God and lessening their attachment to things that are unimportant. They describe it as a means for seeing their own self-deceptions and so they use it as a tool for decision making. There must be something to it.

Most important, maybe, fasting takes you a little bit out of this world. Food is our connection to this life and the material reality that we’re in. Eating keeps us in the cycle of wanting and consuming and processing what we’ve consumed and wanting more. There’s nothing wrong with this – for the most part, our job here while we’re alive is to participate fully in the physical reality we live in. But there are other planes of existence – pick your metaphor: higher, deeper, inner, the subtle energies of the spirit. There is no way to really explain in words these other dimensions of reality, but they are awesome. Spiritual practices including meditation and serious yoga and fasting, are designed to give us a taste of them.

I fast every year on Yom Kippur and I can truthfully say that it is a highlight of my year. The fast begins at sundown and that first evening I don’t feel much different, except that I’m hungry. But by mid-morning the next day, I start to feel myself shift into a different state of consciousness. It’s like the Velcro that keeps me embedded in this world gets loosened a bit. I begin to drift away. And as I do, everything looks different. The relative sizes and importance of things shift. I realize how tenuous my hold is on this life. This is not a scary thought – it’s okay. I remember that I am embraced in a greater reality, one that I call God. It’s a little bit like a psychedelic high (not that I would know). I also feel greater clarity around whatever questions I have about my life and my journey. At the end of the 25 hours, my husband and I break the fast together at a vegan restaurant that we love and it is hands down the best meal of the year.

Fasting is awesome: you should try it. In fact, I am inviting all of us try a fast communally on November 19th, the Sunday of our Hunger Communion. That’s two weeks from today. I would love for this to become an annual tradition. Those of you who have been here a while know that in the Hunger Communion we share a single loaf of bread during the service, remembering people who are truly hungry in the world. We try to take little enough that there is enough bread for everyone, and there always is. This year, I want to suggest that this little piece of bread be the only thing we eat all day.

Here’s an FAQ about what the staff and I envisioning:

Q: How long should I fast for?

A: Try it from sunrise to sundown that day. If you’ve fasted before or are feeling more ambitious, start at sundown the previous evening to make it a full 24 hours.

Q: Can I drink water during the fast?

A: You can decide for yourself whether you will drink water during the fast. If you drink water, it’s more comfortable, if you don’t, the experience is significantly more intense.

Q: What about coffee? I’ll die!

A: Come talk to me. There are techniques.

Q: Should everyone fast?

A: There are some groups of people who I would ask to not fast on the 19th. Please don’t fast if you are very elderly, if you’re sick, needing to do physical work that day, pregnant, nursing, or if you have issues or a disorder related to eating.

Q: What about children?

A: Children should also not fast, but parents can talk with Meagan or me about ideas for kids maybe giving up something like sugar for the day.

Q: How are we going to end the fast?

A: We are partnering on this fast day with Original Blessing. Original Blessing is a fledgling UU congregation that worships once a month in our chapel. They are inviting everyone here to their 5pm service that evening, followed by a break fast meal at sunset. It should be a lovely way to finish the day if you want to. Otherwise, please make a different but specific plan for how you’ll break your fast.

Q: What about in the middle of the day?

A: During the day, in between our service and the Original Blessing service, you are welcome to hang out here in the building, find a quiet corner to meditate or pray or nap or talk quietly. We’re also going to try to have some guided meditation and if anyone wants to offer some kind of gentle movement class, please come talk to me. You’re also welcome to just leave and go for a walk, go home, or spend time with your family or friends. My only advice around that is to try to be with people who are also fasting.

Q. Sounds awesome. I’m in!

As you prepare for this fast, I want to suggest two possible approaches:

The first is, you could see this in the spirit of the Hunger Communion, as a way to express solidarity with people who are truly hungry in the world, to get a taste (so to speak) of feeling a little tiny bit hungry and get in touch with gratitude for all that you have. You could plan to give the money you would have spent on food that day (and maybe a lot more) to an organization working to end world hunger. So that’s one approach.

The second approach is the spiritual journey approach. Spend some time in advance formulating a question you want to pose to yourself during the fast. Think of a really clear question about your own life journey. Here are some examples of the kind of questions: How can I begin to heal my relationship with my son? What should be my next direction in my career? How can I love myself as I am aging? What am I really hungry for? In my own experience, the process of zeroing in on this key question can be healing or enlightening in itself. So, take it seriously, take it slow if you can. If you want to talk through it with one of us on the ministry team, to get some help finding just the right question, Meagan, Kevin, Shari, and I are all happy to talk with you in person or by phone.

During the fast, let your question be the thread that runs through the day for you. Ask yourself the question and open yourself to whatever kinds of insights might come from God or your own inner wisdom. You might not like the insights, or you might, but just try to be open to whatever comes.

This openness is really the heart of fasting anyway. We loosen our grip on trying to control our lives for a day. We let go of the need to get what we “want” with a lower case “w” in favor of allowing the flow of what we “Want” with an upper case “W.” We surrender a little bit of our certainty about what’s good for us and let ourselves be guided by this ancient practice. We acknowledge that religious life is not just mental, it’s physical; and it’s not just individual, it’s communal. And in that letting go, in that allowing, in that surrender to greater mysteries, we might just discover something awesome.

One Response
  1. David permalink
    November 17, 2017

    Looking forward to Hunger Communion this Sunday. This sermon is what motivated me.

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