Desperation, Cold Pizza, and Fasting

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Aaron, Henry, and I came back to our house in Grand Rapids at the end of August. Sometime during the summer, in a process so gradual it could almost be considered imperceptible, we decided to move back to Chicago.

We didn’t actually decide all in one moment. We sort of wandered closer and closer to the option until it became real, like squatter’s rights or a common-law marriage. We got used to it, and realized that it felt like our future, with all the familiarity of favorite shoes. It wasn’t an epiphany or a glamorous moment, even though we’d been longing for both for over a year. It just developed like a photograph, slowly and incrementally, after a full year of wondering and waiting.

Aaron had been invited to interview for a job at the church where I grew up, the church where we met and worked together until we moved to Grand Rapids. The decisions weren’t yet made, on their end or on our end, and part of the way I dealt with the waiting, apparently, is by throwing our home into total, complete chaos.

Just after we came back to our house, construction began on our kitchen and basement, repairs from a flood earlier in the summer. For several weeks we washed sippy cups and coffee cups in the upstairs bathroom every night, or, if I was feeling really lazy, on the front lawn with the garden hose. Our coffee pot was precariously balanced on a chair in the dining room, and the refrigerator, displaced next to the couch, was full of pizza boxes and bottled water.

For reasons I truly cannot comprehend now, in the midst of the work, we had an absolutely massive garage sale. We needed to do it before putting our house on the market, and I was so antsy to move on, literally and figuratively, that I failed to think through how the construction and the garage sale would actually work, right at the same time.

I’m a really bad candidate for a garage sale, because I like giving things away more than I like selling them, and because I lose interest in the whole enterprise rather quickly. I like tagging things for a while, and then I wander away. I sit at the cash table for a while, and then I get really hungry and order pizza for all of us at ten in the morning, spending all our morning’s proceeds.

At this particular sale, I got a little carried away and gave our only TV to my sister-in-law, because we planned on getting a new one when we moved. Aaron asked me later why I didn’t just say we’d give it to her when we actually moved, why I practically put it in her car for her. I don’t really know why, except that something came over me during the sale. I would have sold my feet for a good offer. I was drunk on the prospect of clean closets and psychic freedom and that smooth little stack of bills in the cashbox, and it made me give away our TV. And a fair amount of other things we actually should have kept. I also sold a table but, inexplicably, kept the chairs, sold an antique bed frame but forgot to include most of the pieces, and sneaked odd little extra items into people’s bags every so often, just so I’d have a little less cleanup later.

Every night after Henry went to sleep, Aaron and I collapsed onto the couch and watched bad movies and overate comfort foods. We’d settle into the brown chair, the one that fits us just perfectly, and I’d drink red wine and eat superhuman amounts of hummus or goat cheese or cold pizza. We stared at the TV, until, of course, I gave it away.

We ate mindlessly, trying to avoid everything: the move, the mess of remodeling, the good parts and the hard parts of leaving a place we’d grown to love, the anxiety that the next place would not make all our dreams come true, and the sinking realization that we still believed in the concept of all our dreams coming true, despite current observable reality.

We said, abstractly, that we wanted to arrive in Chicago sharp and healthy and focused, ready to connect and build a new way of living. At the rate we were going, however, we’d arrive in Chicago totally off our rockers, cranky and more caffeine-addicted than ever, wild-eyed and bloated. And since that’s just about the way we arrived in Grand Rapids six years ago, we realized we were in great danger, that our past was becoming our future, and that something had to change.

It felt like all of life was in someone else’s hands — the church in Chicago had a final decision to make about Aaron’s pending job, an imaginary buyer had a house to fall in love with, but there was so little we could do. And so we did nothing. We ate and watched reruns on our laptops and developed an addiction to the news coverage of the presidential election, scouring cnn.com for article after article as a way of distracting ourselves.

And then all at once, Aaron said he wanted — or rather needed — to fast, the spiritual discipline of going without food for a specific amount of time as a way of trusting God’s provision and creating silence and space for prayer. He said he needed to do something to honor God’s role in all this and to prepare himself as best he could for a new future.

I said I’d join him, as did our friends Steve and Sarah, whose lives were disturbingly similar to ours during that season — baby boy, house for sale, waiting for decisions that would change everything but that hadn’t yet been made. We decided together to have nothing but juice or broth for one week, and to pray in the morning and the evening, all at the same time, wherever we were, whatever we were doing.

It felt significant to me that one year earlier I was fasting in preparation for the release of my first book. I fasted then for twenty days, not because the number was significant, but because the number of days between the day on which I was desperate enough to begin the fast and the day of the first release party happened to be twenty. Lest you think that I am a frequent faster, and kind of a show-off, these are the only two fasts of any length I’ve ever done.

And lest you think I’m showing a new, entirely surprising super-spiritual side, fasting, the way I understand it, is more about desperation than anything else.

Some people are connected enough with God on a day-to-day basis to go without fasting. Some people weather major life changes with aplomb and Pilates and vegetables, just like how they live the rest of their orderly, lovely lives. I, however, was feeling totally untethered to God or anything else and wanted to find a way to connect once again to the things that matter to me. Fasting was a move of desperation.

And so on a Saturday morning we began, and by about 10 a.m., we were cranky. We went to the Eastown street fair, crowded with popcorn and elephant ears and coffee and pastries. Possibly a poor choice. The fast was embarrassingly hard for the first few days. We were vaguely angry about everything and tried to alternately blame each other and find loopholes. But at the same time we were also surprisingly clearheaded. I felt like I could see things I didn’t usually see, like my mind and spirit were wiped clean and working well for the first time in what seemed like forever. I felt able and bright-minded, and both those things were very unusual for me in that season. I slept like a rock and woke up easily. And when I prayed, I found my prayers to be full of peace, expectation, confidence. I didn’t feel the same panic and anxiety that had been marking my days previously. I felt hungry but clean and strong.

During the fast, we found a house in Chicago. I immediately had a feeling about it. This is the one, I thought. It felt significant and right that after so many months of wondering, we would find our new home during the fast, and it has proven to be just the right home for us in this season.

I made progress on many of the things I’d been dragging my feet on for weeks. At night, with no option to eat and no TV to watch, Aaron and I settled into opposite sides of the couch, alternately reading and talking, and then went to bed early and slept well.

I found the rhythm of set prayer times to be kind of an undergirding to my day. In some ways it was a week of complaining and hunger and silence, but in other ways, it was a grounding, exciting week, opening us to a better way of living.

As always, when I do something that people have been doing for thousands of years, like reading the Bible or fasting or set prayer times, at first I think I’ve stumbled upon something very significant, and that I should try to tell a lot of people about this new, wonderful thing. And then just a second later, I realize that there’s nothing new about it, and that the reason people have been doing it for thousands of years is because it matters, because it does something inside of the people who do it.

It’s not a new practice or the next big idea. It’s an enduring way of living that has been shaping and reshaping people for years. When I fasted and prayed on a set rhythm, I felt like I was a part of something old and durable. I felt humble, one more set of footprints on a dusty well-worn path, discovering something new that’s not new at all, and I was thankful.

Watch the Bittersweet Video

Excerpted with permission from Bittersweet: Thoughts On Change, Grace, And Learning The Hard Way by Shauna Niequist, copyright Zondervan, 2013.

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Your Turn

Have you ever fasted for a significant period of time? How did it affect your prayers, trust in God, emotions, family life, decision-making, sense of peace, physical health, etc? What did you discover during that time? If you’ve never fasted before, maybe this is a good time to start! You have to get beyond the embarrassingly hard, vaguely angering, blaming, loophole-searching, just plain hungry part which is unpleasant at best. (I’m fasting right now and have yet to push through the hangry — hungry and angry — stage. Lord, pour out Your sweet mercy on my children.) After that, pay attention to what God is doing in you, notice what changes, and be sure to let us know! We’d love to hear from you about messy seasons, desperation, food stupidity, and fasting and prayer so please leave a comment on our blog! ~ Laurie McClure, FaithGateway Women

Shauna Niequist grew up in Barrington, Illinois, and then studied English and French literature at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. As an author and blogger, Shauna writes about the beautiful and broken moments of everyday life - friendship, family, faith, food, marriage, love, babies, books, celebration, heartache, and all the other things that shape us, delight us, and reveal to us the heart of God. Shauna is married to Aaron, who is a pianist and songwriter. Aaron is a worship leader at Willow Creek. Aaron and Shauna live outside Chicago with their sons, Henry and Mac.

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