I tried out fasting for a hot minute. Not the trendy, intermittent kind that Chris Hemsworth does, the Jesus-y kind. Let me preface by saying that I love food. I love the experience of eating, whether eating with friends, alone, in a restaurant, or hunched over my coffee table. Doesn’t matter; I’m about it. But I was on this eleven-month mission trip and many of my fellow missionaries would periodically go without food for a whole day. Like, by choice.
Around month 8, I started to get curious. I read up on it, talked to my friends, and eventually decided to give it a whirl. For the last two months of the trip, I fasted one day each week. I expected the physical hunger. I even expected a closeness with God, as one spends the time previously allocated for eating in prayer. What I did not expect, and what ultimately proved the most difficult to deal with, were the other feelings and desires that bubbled up in the absence of physical fullness. Fasting became a time to feel what I normally avoid.
I haven’t fasted in that way since I returned to the States six and a half years ago, but the topic came up recently. In a podcast interview that will release early next year, my guest mentioned a time when she fasted in anticipation of a big business decision. It got me thinking about you and the specific kind of hunger you might be experiencing this Advent (the forty days before Christmas). Singleness might be an experience you’ve chosen, like a fast. Or it might feel more like a famine… maybe you wake up every day longing for a partner or missing one that you’ve lost through divorce or death. Advent is an opportunity to consider where we are hungry and what that hunger might be communicating.
Personally, I love Advent. I grew up in the Episcopal church, where we take Advent extremely seriously. As in we don’t sing any Christmas hymns until the services on Christmas Eve. Advent is a time to reflect and consider the implications of Jesus’ birth. It’s a time of preparation during which we pause and ponder the darkness, the reason Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection were necessary in the first place. We have particular Advent hymns that connect us to that purpose, the most well known of which is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Something about the haunting melody and the longing in the words guided by the old pipe organ floating through the rafters resonated with me. It’s melancholy and rich in tradition and I’m about it.
Perhaps, like me, you feel pressure to be content or even exuberant, “on” at all times. In her recent op-ed for The New York Times, Tish Harrison Warren writes,
American culture insists that we run at breathless pace from sugar-laced celebration to celebration — three months of Christmas to the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Fourth of July, and on and on. We suffer from a collective consumerist mania that demands we remain optimistic, shiny, happy and having fun, fun, fun. But life isn’t a Disney Cruise. The tyranny of relentless mandatory celebration leaves us exhausted and often, ironically, feeling emptier.
Advent invites us to honestly consider our longing, our hunger, our dissatisfaction. But it seems that nobody likes a wet blanket. We might hear things like, "Can’t you be more positive?", or "Singleness is a gift," or "Maybe if you prayed harder you would have [insert desire], because the Bible says, 'Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart' (Psalm 37:4)." Perhaps you’ve started to wonder if something is wrong with you. Perhaps you feel guilty about or even afraid of your own hunger. But in pondering what Advent means for singles, I started to wonder, What if the hunger doesn’t indicate something bad within us, but rather communicates a human need that remains unmet?
This time of year, I feel a very particular hunger. Watching my friends who are married or in long-term relationships, I see a team. And yes, being on that team would mean having to check in with someone all the time and not being able to starfish on my queen-sized bed any more. Most days the idea of having someone who is just there all the time seems unfathomable. But as I watch my friends support each other with such tenderness and compassion, when I see them being a constant and committed presence for each other through the challenges that Christmas can bring, that’s what breaks me open. It can feel like admitting that I want that and I don’t have it, and that I might never get it in that way, a result of some failure on my part. There must be something I'm doing wrong and I just can't see it. Someone who chooses to be single is strong and independent, and we like that. Someone who is single but expresses any sort of unmet desire becomes a problem to solve, a failure, or a tension we don’t know what to do with.
We live in a culture that says that if you want something, you can get it. You just have to be willing to put in the work. And if you can’t get that thing, then it’s your fault. And perhaps there are some things that operate that way. But when we’re talking about human beings, the variables multiply exponentially. Suddenly it’s not a straightforward matter of cause and effect based on a series of neatly graphed data. There are a myriad of motives and factors over which we have no control. Feeling and expressing that hunger is our way to reconnect with the reality of living in a broken world, a world where there are problems beyond our capacity to understand, let alone solve. And when it comes to relating to other human beings, perhaps fixing and solving aren’t even the point.
The Old Testament is filled with promises of a coming salvation, and a kingdom, a restoration and redemption of this weary world. In that story, we see God working, moving, and remaining silent sometimes. We see God’s people move with God and away from God. We hear them grumble and curse and praise and rejoice. And with the hope and longing and hunger of generations, the light finally comes. Not because Israel was behaving especially well at that moment. Not because they had finally “learned their lesson,” and were ready to receive God in their midst. The light came because it was time.
Advent reminds us that God is not a genie or a vending machine that dispenses health and wealth on demand if we just put in the right combination of good deeds and prayer. We remember that God entered into the darkness willingly, that God came to us not because of our goodness or our right answers or our five point solutions to life’s biggest problems. God incarnated, that is “became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood,” because we can’t set things right on our own (John 1:14a, MSG).
Whether our singleness is more like a fast or a famine, Advent is a time to honestly admit that our hunger is there, even if we’re not sure why or what might ultimately satisfy it. And listening to the nudging of the Holy Spirit embedded in that hunger moves us from a place of fear and defensiveness to a place of compassion and curiosity. We can honestly sit with it and ask God to show us what we might be reaching for to fill ourselves. It connects us to each other and to God in our midst. The call of Advent is to remember and listen to both our personal longing and the ways the universally human longing for wholeness manifests itself in our neighbors, our friends and our world. It is a call to trust and hope in the God who promises to “...satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong” (Isaiah 58:11a). And it is a reminder that God doesn’t always show up in the way we expect, but he always shows up.
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