In 2011 and 2012, more than 10,000 people participated in the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast, sponsored by the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. Each day, participants [including me] received an email with one concrete suggestion for the day, an action that would lessen their carbon footprint. Leadership of this effort interviewed a number of individuals who had participated in the Carbon Fast to explore the impact of this fasting experience on people’s environmental awareness, spiritual practice, and stewardship. These interviews were part of a study about climate change from a psychological and spiritual perspective, trying to gain insight on how people could be inspired to make concrete changes in their lives that would affect the environment and the world.
What they found was that simple actions mattered. Small actions make people more aware. People who participated in the Carbon Fast were more aware of how their day-to-day actions actually made a difference—either positively or negatively. This awareness led to action; the action then led to a greater, longer-term commitment.
Taking action, then, can result in a transformation of the people who take them. People who act start to see themselves as agents rather than passive observers. This shift in self-perception is extremely important. After all, most of us feel like there so many problems in the world, and in this case, so much work to be done about the environment—that we start to feel despair and apathy about it. And we do nothing. But that is a vicious cycle. The hopeful reality is that even a small change can lead to a greater commitment and an improved overall awareness.
Some of the participants who were interviewed said: [The Carbon Fast] was a whole lot more meaningful than giving up something, like chocolate; another participant said: Lent is a time to be reminded of sacrifice and the unification that can come through that process. Changing from being in my car to riding my bike brought me the joy of moving my body, of seeing my neighbors, of having contact with the world around me.
All too often, Lent is merely a religious holiday of sorts—a time when we participate in rituals and traditions, but not much change happens. But religion that is not practiced is worthless.
Lent is about being aware of yourself and the world around you; that awareness leads you to actions, to small changes; those actions then lead you to a greater, longer-term commitment.
Yes, the world is an overwhelming place. Yes, the issues are huge and you are one person. But you have to start somewhere or you won’t start at all. The God of Isaiah chooses a fast that tears down walls of prejudice; a fast that shares with others; a fast that feeds the hungry; a fast that invites the stranger into our lives; a fast that is action performed in daily life. So consider what small changes you can make in your life; choose one or two positive changes that affect your neighbors and your lifestyle; be more aware of the world around you and of yourself; make the change. Commit to it. And see what happens.
Praying with the Body
In this passage, attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, we find three things that connect to each other: giving, praying, and fasting.
Giving [what we sometimes call charity] should be done without any notoriety. In other words, if you write that check or make the online donation to a just and worthy cause, don’t put your name on it. Hmmmm. I think that for sure there are times when our left hands have NO idea what our right hands are doing, but not usually in this case. In the Western world, if we give money, we have to know about it [and we make sure to get a receipt or a tax credit] and most of the time, we want others to know about it. Most churches have plaques with people’s names on them. So-and-so donated this pew; or this hymnal; or gave money to fix this roof. Even this doorknob is dedicated to Mr. Smith!
Now in all fairness to the people who gave those things, often they were never asked if they wanted a plaque to be noticed, but the church leadership keeps coming up with these things. Why? Why do we do this? Because we are disconnected from giving as a concept.
When we give, that’s supposed to be it. We don’t get. We give. There is no reward or even a thank you note that we should expect.
Prayer is the same, says Jesus. We don’t pray to get, we pray to give ourselves to relationship. That’s why we shouldn’t stand up in front and eloquently show people how much we think we know about God. We shouldn’t point to how many times we attended worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings, or ministry conferences. In fact, says Jesus, don’t say much at all when you pray. Keep it simple. For if God is really God, don’t you think God is pretty much aware of what’s up inside our minds and hearts? Notice the “style” of prayer promoted here.
God, you are good. Start with this.
May your good work happen here on earth—not just up in the clouds. And I will do it.
Just give us what we need and that’s it.
Forgive us, because wow—we have trouble forgiving others. Especially that dude who…!$#?!*
Don’t give us too much to handle and keep us from doing evil things. Yeah.
Back to that forgiveness thing, God, cuz man! It’s hard.
We accept that if we don’t forgive someone, we ourselves won’t be forgiven.
And…may it be so.
From prayer to fasting Jesus goes. Don’t be sad when you fast, he says, like hypocrites who want others to say:
“Hey look at her; look at him! They must be fasting! Good for them…”
Instead, oil and water–symbols of cleansing and anointing–are to be used. But not in public; in private. Fasting is also about giving, but giving oneself to an awareness of the physical. Try this simple thing. Cut out meat for a couple of days if you are a meat eater. If not, cut out some food that you eat almost daily. This physical decision to change what you put into your body will make you aware.
All these three: giving, praying, and fasting—are intertwined. They are about humility and awareness.
We give because there is a need and we joyfully give, otherwise we shouldn’t at all.
We pray because it makes us aware and connects us to God, but less is more.
We fast because fasting connects our mental and spiritual selves to our physical selves, making us more aware of our bodies and how they connect to our minds and our hearts.