Wednesday, February 13, 2013

It’s Not About Losing Weight: Lent, Food, and Five Countercultural Ways to Fast

 As Lent begins, many of us “give something up” for the forty days (forty-six, actually, if you count the Sundays, which the Church traditionally does not) between Ash Wednesday and Easter. For long centuries, Christians have practiced Lenten fasts, abstaining from certain foods, and abstaining from food altogether on certain days. Contemporary Christians often give up sweets, chocolate, coffee, fried foods, and so on. 

But our culture is rife with harmful messages about body image; it tends to define our worth by our weight and attractiveness. In the midst of such a culture, Lent’s call to simplicity and austerity can sound an awful lot like one more message that we would be better people if we could just lose five pounds.  But the purpose of Lenten practices has nothing to do with our culture's claim that our worth comes from our physical appearance.

So I offer to you a few things I hope you will remember this Lent, and five ways you might choose to fast from our materialistic, body-obsessed, consumer-driven culture. 

  • You – including your body exactly as it is right now – are made in the image of God. All of humanity, in our many colors and ages and shapes and sizes, our beautiful diversity, reflects the Creator. Any cultural claim or critical comment that tells you to be ashamed of your body is not from God. 
  • Your body is a good gift from God. Don’t hate it. Give thanks for it. Make friends with it. Steward it well. Give it exercise and water and nourishing food and enough sleep. Take good care of it because it's healthy and feels good, not to try to conform to impossible cultural beauty standards. 
  • Food is a good gift from God. As the Psalmist says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” There are no inherently evil or inherently virtuous foods. God will not love you more if you eat more kale and less cheeseburgers. God gave us food – all food – for our nourishment. Besides, God already loves you. 
  • Lenten practices should draw us closer to God. So go ahead and give up chocolate, if you normally turn to it for emotional comfort you could draw from prayer or meditation. Give up coffee, if you fear you’ve made it a false idol. Give up fast food in solidarity with fast food workers. Take up exercise, if you feel called to better stewardship of the body God gave you. But remember, no matter what: you are made in the image of God. And you are loved beyond words, just as you are. 

The Fast I Choose” – Five Countercultural Ways to Fast 

  1. Fast from body-negative media: Mute the television during commercials.  Fast from websites and tv shows that focus on weight and image.  Stop reading body-negative magazines. 
  2. Fast from artificial sweeteners: Eat fruit. (Or real dessert with sugar in it!) Drink water. Sweet things are supposed to have calories. Our desire to satiate our sweet tooth without sacrificing our waistlines might come at great cost to our health. 
  3. Fast from unjust foods: This is basically impossible. But you might choose not to patronize restaurants that don’t pay a living wage. Or you might choose to abstain from factory-farmed meat. Or switch to some fair-trade products (even if paying more means consuming less). 
  4. Fast from mirrors: Again, basically impossible. But what better way to resist cultural messages that our worth is external? One account of a “mirror fast” is here
  5. Fast from disposables: Give up the paper cups, pizza boxes, and plastic take-out containers that deplete our earth’s resources and clog our landfills. Bring lunch from home. Take a reusable cup to the coffee shop.
For more about Lent, food justice, and body image, check out this sermon I gave a few years ago.

Holy One, we give you thanks for the many good gifts in our lives, and most of all for the gift of your love made known in Christ.  Bless us this Lent, that whatever fast we choose, it might draw us closer to you.  Amen.

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