Lent started 10 days ago and I’m already complaining.
I spent the better part of the last month driving back and forth to doctor appointments, getting blood work and MRIs, hooked up to monitors and discussing conflicting results with healthcare professionals who are atop their fields.
I decided I need a helicopter (though I complain about the ones that fly over my house — I still need one) or a driver who will escort me door to door from the North Fork to Manhattan and anywhere in between.
At the beginning of last year, my insurance company drastically reduced our network coverage and I lost all of my doctors – again. We lost my daughter’s specialists, too. But thankfully her doctors could be consulted over the phone and email. When she needed surgery at the end of last year, the hospital negotiated with the insurance company.
I contemplated starting over with new doctors for me, but it was all too exhausting. So I waited and when the new year and new coverage began, I focused on getting all my baselines done and discussing some concerns I had for my health. The new insurance company could possibly be shocked by all the claims since January.
I’m okay with that.
In the midst of the conventional medicine diagnostics, I’m trying to learn the language of functional medicine and understand the ways our bodies use food to heal itself. To quote history’s most famous physician, Hippocrates, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
The information I’m learning about reducing inflammation in the body, and in particular, the brain, is not new. But finally, scientific studies are catching up with sound nutritional and lifestyle advice that has been ignored in mainstream medicine. And I’ve ignored it too, despite promptings from the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes in life, circumstances and situations converge in a timing that can only be looked at as a “perfect storm” scenario that garners our attention to take actions we have always known we needed to take. I believe God allows these storms so that He can move us from where we are to where we need to be.
My perfect storm is some concerning test results and Lent. It’s not life-threatening things, but rather warning signals that my body is inflamed and it’s causing a rise in autoimmune issues, including MS. I also have a close friend who is battling a stage-four cancer and despite life-long efforts to take good care of herself, the cancer is still a threat. Her battle is another reminder that my body and my soul are calling me to make more changes for my own health and well-being.
So, on Ash Wednesday, I heard the reading from the Book of Joel with new ears, attentive to the voice of God:
“Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy hill.
“Even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love
Blow the trumpet in Zion,
declare a holy fast.” (Joel 2:1, 12-13, 15)
Throughout the Old Testament, references to the blowing of the trumpet, or the shofar, signify a call to pay attention and be obedient to the voice of God. In this reading, the prophet Joel is sent by God to proclaim a fast. It’s one of the scriptures that helped form the tradition of giving up things for Lent.
For me, the clarion call of the trumpet came in the form of health issues that I couldn’t ignore and in the struggles of those around me. I began fasting before Lent started, for both the physical and spiritual needs in my life.
But this Lent, I’m taking fasting more seriously for my health and because everywhere I look, people are hurting and they need our prayers and support. Fasting is one way we can help ourselves and those we love. When I am struggling to fast, I can offer up that struggle as a prayer for someone who is hurting.
A quick read of this scripture from Joel can cause us to miss the deeper purpose of fasting. Focusing on giving up things for the sake of checking them off a list of “things I’m doing for Lent,” is like “rending our garments” (v. 13). It’s giving God the surface stuff, or the outer garment.
But what God really wants is our hearts.
“Rend your heart and return to the Lord
He is gracious, compassionate and
Abounding in love…” (v. 13).
God isn’t some distant authority figure in the sky who needs sacrifices to make us worthy to approach Him. God is “abounding in love.” When we struggle with fasting, in addition to offering it up for others, we can choose to turn and surrender our hearts to the Lord. Turning to the Lord is rending our hearts. Fasting can cause us to be more mindful of other people’s needs and turn our hearts to God in prayer.
On a purely physical level, fasting helps to clear the brain fog I live with every day. Feeding my body what it needs gives me the energy and focus I need to live a more purpose-filled life.
But some days, even in Lent, are just too hard. By the end of this long week, I needed a donut and a glass of wine. Well, I didn’t really need the donut or the glass of wine. But I chose to have the donut anyway. (I’ll save the wine for Sunday.) I would like to say that I chose to offer up my struggles for my friends and family. But as I drove through the Midtown Tunnel onto the Long Island Expressway during rush hour traffic, after pushing my daughter through New York City for a long day of diagnostic tests and appointments, it only took three bites to realize, I don’t really love donuts anymore.
What I do love is that God never gives up on me and my weak attempts at fasting during Lent and for life. Whenever I fall, I can “return to the Lord, who is gracious, compassionate and abounding in love.”
Try fasting. It’s great for the body, mind and soul. Even when you fail, God’s abundant love is there for us. Rend your heart and return to the Lord.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She is the author of Breathing Underwater: A Caregiver’s Journey of Hope.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children.
Eileen can be reached at CareforaCaregiver.com.