An invitation to the fasting buffet
On preparing a holy Lent, with book recommendations, because that's how I prepare for everything
Truly, if I’m getting ready for something, my go-to-move is to buy a book. Or three or four. But, before we get there, let me tell you about the fasting buffet.
Several years back, I got to travel with my friend and colleague Amy Peeler to visit a student doing an internship in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I could go on about the trip, but I’ll keep it brief. I want to give you one flavor of the thing, which is about the disconcerting and blessed coincidence of gift and loss.
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This trip was a gift, in all kinds of ways, but it came with losses. One very minor example: we had hoped to visit one of Ethiopia’s astounding rock-hewn churches: not Lalibela, which would have required another flight, but one closer to the city. But there was political unrest, tourists were told not to leave Addis, and so we visited local cathedrals instead. Loss: I imagine I’ll die still longing to see one of those ancient churches, carved stories deep in stone.
Gift: Everything about what we did instead. Ethiopia is home to an ancient tradition of Christianity, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. What a gift to see the round cathedrals and the holy art, to learn a little of this utterly unfamiliar instantiation of that which is most familiar and dear to me.
Author’s personal photo, Entoto Maryam Church, 2016
What a gift to drink a Pineapple Fanta outside the cathedral with Amy and our student, to talk about the things of God, to process some of the ways we all reel with the coincidence of gift and loss. The student was working a challenging internship, at an organization helping women to earn a living wage outside of prostitution. There was plenty to process and plenty that was beyond the realm of what human beings can process, except to yearn for the Spirit to “help us in our weakness” and to intercede for us “with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26 NRSVUE).
What a gift to go to Sunday worship at an evangelical church with our student and her host family and to join in more than an hour of spoken-out-loud, everybody talking at once, prayer. “At first,” said our student, “I couldn’t tell who was speaking in tongues and who was praying in Amharic.” I certainly couldn’t tell, but that didn’t keep me from feeling the depth of hope and need in the prayers. Men, women, children: pleading loudly with God, tears on some faces, hands pressed against the concrete walls at each compass point, bringing their city before their LORD.
Lent, for me, is a time of heightened consciousness of the coincidence of gift and loss. It’s a season of difficult blessing, one I don’t particularly want to prepare for and one in which whatever I’ve tried to prepare usually fails. I’m bad at fasting and clumsy with repentance.
How’s this for gift and loss? We visited Ethiopia during a fasting season. (The Ethiopian Orthodox church does a lot of fasting). We took our student and her host family out for dinner. When we arrived at Totot Traditional Restaurant, we were told we must have the fasting buffet.
Sounds bleak, yes?
The fasting buffet was so long, it took up two walls of the restaurant. Food prepared in silver trays. Dish after dish after dish after dish. Noodles. Vegetables. Stews. Eggs. Fish. Curries. Greens. Endless spices. Everything ready to roll in injera, the country’s bread. (Never been to an Ethiopian restaurant? Here’s a guide to eating and ordering).
Author’s personal photo, “the fasting buffet,” 2016
What made this a “fasting” buffet? Well, there was no meat. And, ok, yes, sure, that’s a loss.
But, oh, the gifts that came.
This coming Lenten season, feel free to give something up, if it will help you to draw closer to God’s gifts, in your loss.
But, if giving something up will be, for you,
or a temptation to works righteousness
or a self-improvement program
or a bit of self-flagellation
or a trigger for the ways you fight disordered eating and a disordered view of your good, blessed, beloved body?
Well then, please don’t give something up.
In either case, I invite you to bring your deepest hunger to the fasting buffet, where losses come with gifts. All you can eat. Heap your plate full. Try something unfamiliar and delight in something near and dear. Come back for seconds and thirds.
Receive the ashes. Pay attention to God and the beauties of God’s world. Worship. Slow down. Devour some scripture. Take a walk. Re-create. Pray and breathe. Give and receive love. Forgive. Wonder. Read.
I promise that partaking in all these delicious dishes won’t come without loss. To make space for them, you’ll have to give things up. But the accompanying gifts will take up so much room, they could fill thousands of restaurants in every country of the globe.
Author’s personal photo, Entoto Maryam Church, 2016
One way to lay a buffet table is to fill it with books. Here are my Lenten reading recommendations, all stuffed full of the coincidence of gift and loss.
(Links are Amazon associate links, through which, if you click through to buy, I receive a small payment.)
Aundi Kolber’s Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode--and into a Life of Connection and Joy. Trauma theory + good theology + gentleness with loss. I’ve been recommending this healing book all over the place. Also see The Try Softer Guided Journey: A Soulful Companion to Healing.
“Mostly, I try to listen to it now—to pour kindness all over those parts of me that have been plagued by my own criticisms and self-doubt. I am trying to live out what I already know—my body is me.”
Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering. A gifted Christian artist takes us into Endo’s novel Silence, his own journey of faith, and the mysteries of suffering.
“One might say that Japanese faith developed as negative space around the forbidden faith of Christianity. So while the Tokugawa era successfully purged Christians from Japan, an unanticipated outcome was that in banning Christianity they created an imprint of it, a negative space within culture. In a culture that honors the hidden, the weak and the unspoken, Christianity became a hidden reality of Japanese culture.”
Kathleen Norris’s Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life. Lots of gifts and losses wrapped up together from a guiding light in spiritual writing. Plus, a special perspective on women’s work.
“For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn't know we needed and take us places where we didn't know we didn't want to go. As we stumble through the crazily altered landscape of our lives, we find that God is enjoying our attention as never before.”
How to Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton. One of America’s great poets, wise to the ways of gifts and losses coinciding. If you’re not a poetry person, I hope you might try this anyway. The poems are friendly, which is not to say that they won’t change you.
If you don’t know Clifton (or if you do!) see this fabulous essay by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers: Go Back and Fetch It: To understand Lucille Clifton's power, you must start with her command of Black kinships and histories.
Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. One of the best novels in the English Language, so rife with gift and loss, it will cut and heal your soul.
“I have never understood why people who can swallow the enormous improbability of a personal God boggle at a personal Devil. I have known so intimately the way that demon works in my imagination.”
Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. A beautiful mediation on the intersection of gift and loss, paying close attention to nature. Also, an invitation to attend to the world of your backyard. If you’re like me, there will be tears in your eyes.
“Human beings are storytelling creatures, craning to see the crumpled metal in the closed-off highway lane, working from the moment the traffic slows to construct a narrative from what’s left behind. But our tales, even the most tragic ones, hinge on specificity. The story of one drowned Syrian boy washed up in the surf keeps us awake at night with grief. The story of four million refugees streaming out of Syria seems more like a math problem.”
Sigrid Undset’s trilogy of novels, Kristin Lavransdatter. You probably won’t finish this during Lent, but it’s an exquisite story of one ordinary life, so much loss and gift together.
“It seemed to her a mystery that she could not comprehend, but she was certain that God had held her firmly in a pact which had been made for her, without her knowing it, from a love that had been poured over her—and in spite of her willfulness, in spite of her melancholy, earthbound heart, some of that love had stayed inside her, had worked on her like sun on the earth, had driven forth a crop that neither the fiercest fire of passion nor its stormiest anger could completely destroy.”
I haven’t yet read these that follow, but if you’d like to join me in my own Lenten reading, I’ll be piling my plate full with:
Esau McCaulley’s Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal. The first in a new series of short introductions to liturgical seasons.
Sister Wendy Beckett’s The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter. I could use some art on my buffet table.
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The Tolstoy approved Maude translation is just .99 cents on kindle. I won’t finish this during Lent, but I read one long, slow classic a year, and I’ve been assured Tolstoy won’t disappoint in terms of gift and loss.
My mom baked her king cake early this year. Normally, the plastic baby hidden inside is meant to signal prosperity for his lucky finder, but in this particular cake, baby Jesus has popped himself out into the daylight and the icing; he’s unhidden; he’s right there for everybody. I think he’s a sign of love and a fan of the fasting buffet.
Dear ones, may you eat and be fed, in the gift and loss of it all, and may you remember that you’re beloved of the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit.
Grace and Peace,
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A big welcome to new readers! Next week on Monday, I’ll post celebrating my first month on substack, and on Thursday, I’ll be posting Analogy School Part III. Feel free to go back and read Analogy School Part I and Part II.
P.S. For more Lent, here’s a piece, “The Gospel in the Dirt,” that I wrote several years back, for Ash Wednesday, at Faith and Leadership:
“With the imposition of ashes, the secrets of dust are dragged into public light. Ash Wednesday forbids our cheerful fictions. It’s an uncomfortable thing, after all, for us upstanding folk, normally neatly groomed, to walk out of the church and into the sunlight with dirt smudged on our brows. For many churchgoers, Ash Wednesday is one of the only things about our faith that makes public demands on us.”
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