Lent is the time of year when many Christians seek the truth behind the paradox of subtraction equals addition.
Fasting, practiced faithfully by biblical figures, is coming back into vogue. More and more Christians find the spiritual discipline brings enlightenment and enrichment to their lives.
"I'm not skipping a meal because in place of that meal I'm actually dining with God," says the Rev. Jacqui King, pastor of Nu Faith Community United Methodist Church in Houston.
Fasting has long roots in many Christian traditions, including Methodism. John Wesley fasted twice a week when he was young and called fasting one of the "acts of piety," along with praying and studying the Bible.
Wesley's example inspired the Rev. Holly Boardman, a retired United Methodist minister now living in Orlando, Fla. In the traditional vows taken at her ordination, she promised to practice fasting and to recommend it to others.
"There have been times I'd be wrestling with some issue in a church," Boardman said, "and when I fasted and prayed about it, I felt like I heard an answer from God," Boardman said.
"God speaks sometimes when you're open, when you're listening. Fasting sets the stage for hearing God."
King says preparation is all-important to conducting a fast. She prepares her house "by removing those things from which I'm fasting"
She also prepares her family. Her children are grown now, but when they were young the Kings had a family meeting to talk about what each would give up for a fast. The children were athletes and could not eliminate meals, but they had other options, she said, such as removing certain foods from their diet.
Registered dietitian Jamie Pope, who teaches nutrition at Vanderbilt University's School of Nursing in Nashville, Tenn., warns people to consult their physicians when contemplating a fast of more than 24 hours. The body begins to dip into its reserves after that time, she said. A fast could be particularly dangerous for a person with an eating disorder, she said.
King understands. "Some people can't fast from food, because of medical conditions. I encourage them to think about other things that distract their attention and may keep them from praying. Turn the TV off; turn the stereo equipment off. I even encourage people to fast from their cell phones."
King further prepares by putting notepads in places where "I read my Bible. When God begins to speak to me, I'm not having to look for a piece of paper. It's there, along with a pen,"
King said. "I'm a journaler. I look at prayer, fasting and journaling alike." She also suggests accompanying a fast with devotional literature to guide prayer and reflection. One might use the long-familiar words of a hymn and see them in a new way. The Internet has an array of devotional materials.
In October, the Rev. Clint Ware, associate pastor of First United Methodist Church in Clinton, Miss., challenged his congregation to fast once a week.
"I was surprised to see the emphasis Jesus put on it. He talked about three things in the Sermon on the Mount, and he put them all under the heading of acts of righteousness. He said, 'When you give to the poor..., when you pray..., when you fast....'
"When you read this, you see that Jesus put all three of these on the same level. He expected that they would be done. We place emphasis on prayer and giving to the poor, but we haven't put the same emphasis on fasting as Jesus did."
Bret Walker in Pitman, N.J., also noticed Christ's emphasis on fasting in Matthew's recounting of the Sermon on the Mount.
He first fasted as an individual, and then he invited other members at Pitman United Methodist Church to join him once a month in a 24-hour fast. Eight people became a core group as the Wesleyan Fasting Society. They time their fasts to coincide with the church's celebration of Holy Communion on the first Sunday of each month.
"Every mealtime or any time I feel hunger pangs, I use that time to pray," Walker said. He has felt more "committed to God. I bring my physical hunger, put it out of the way, and find my spiritual hunger."
July 2009 was difficult as the fasting day fell on July 4. Walker told the society members they "weren't going to lose their place in heaven," if they skipped the practice that month.
Boardman, too, believes fasting should not be too legalistic.
"Fasting doesn't have to be so black and white and all or nothing," she said. "It's a gracious thing, not an imposition. It's a gracious devotion rather than a rigorous one."
*Kathrin Chavez is freelance writer in Franklin, Tenn.
This article originally ran in the Jan-Feb. 2010 edition of Interpreter magazine.