Monday, May 25, 2015

Fasting and Prayer

Recently I have been giving a lot of thought to the principle of "Fasting".  In the culture of the LDS church, the first Sunday of each month is declared "Fast Sunday".  This means we traditionally are asked to fast  (to go without food or water for at least two consecutive meals).   We approach this fast with prayer, focusing our spiritual nature on being open to special promptings or inspiration.  We also donate whatever we can manage for the poor - at least the value of the two meals we have skipped, but more if at all possible.  It was never intended that we would calculate how much a stack of pancakes or a bowl of oatmeal would cost or what the price of our lunch might have been.   Instead, we are to recognize that ALL blessings come from God and that as we share of what we have for those who have less, we will both meet a temporal need and increase our own compassion for others.

On those first Sundays we also have the the opportunity to "bear our testimony".   The Sacrament service of  Mormon congregations all over the world reserve those days to allow members of their faith (from very young children to the aged and anyone in-between who feels so inclined) to stand up and publicly declare their belief in the church.   Ideally a personal testimony will focus on witness about the Savior, the truth of the Book of Mormon, belief in the importance of temples, or other basic doctrines of the church. It is a time for sharing brief faith promoting experiences or expressing sincere gratitude for our blessings.  Granted, there are some folks who get up and ramble on about their latest family vacation or little kids who repeat verbatim whatever is being whispered into their ear by a prompting parent.   But the objective is for people to speak from the heart of spiritual things.

I've been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for over 30 years, so I have heard many talks about fasting.    I have also participated in a whole lot of "fast and testimony" meetings over the years.   Just as a rough estimate, if I were to guess I'd say I've probably attended on average ten such meetings per year (assuming I may have missed a couple here or there).  So I've been to over 300 testimony meetings and probably bore my testimony personally in about a third of those

However, the truth is, I have always struggled with fasting.

Even when I have approached a fast with sincere intent and prayer, too often rather than feeling spiritually strengthened I often just felt hungry, light headed and cranky.

Consequently, I have not fasted as often, or as purposefully as I might have.  Sure, I would generally skip breakfast on fast Sunday and then have a later dinner.   But I seldom went a full day without anything and I generally was not all that disciplined in my inner thought life during the fast.

The exception to that has been when I have been fasting outside of the ritual first Sunday protocol, when I had a compelling personal reason to do so. In addition to the structured first Sunday fasts, our faith teaches us that we also may fast any time we need answers to specific spiritual questions or struggles.  We can fast when seeking strength to endure personal trials, or if a family member or someone we care about has a particular need.  

When my oldest brother was out of work I fasted for him.  I have fasted whenever people I loved were hurting - whether it be from  physical illness, relationship struggles or other challenges.  I have fasted a number of times for my children when they were having problems.  I specifically fasted several times seeking direction as we contemplating leaving our home and family to serve a full time mission.   So I have had some deeply personal and significant experiences with fasting.

Nevertheless, I would not consider myself to have had a strong personal practice of fasting on an ongoing basis.  Too many times when I recognized a situation might merit a meaningful fast, I just said my regular prayers and hoped that would be enough.  I took the easy way out.

However, ever since hearing Henry B. Eyring's talk about fasting in last April's General Conference: "Is This Not The Fast That I Have Chosen"  I have been giving some thoughtful reflection to the role that fasting plays in my life.  I wanted more than an intellectual understanding of what it is or knowledge about what it is supposed to make possible.  I wanted to have a strong enough personal testimony of the law of the fast that I would be able to incorporate the practice more consistently in my own life.

Additionally, as Elder Bennett and I have been studying Ch.6 in Preach My Gospel with focuses on the attributes of Christ,  I had been recognizing that I wanted to develop a stronger personal testimony of the law of the fast as a means of developing some of those attributes more fully in my own life.   So I had been including this in my personal prayers, hoping I would gain some new insights.

Then we were sent to Tonga.  The nine days that we spent on the island of Tongatapu were a blur of meetings, travel, prayers, answers to prayers, and special spiritual experiences .  On the day before we were to leave, we attended church in the Liahona ward, which is an English speaking ward.  I looked forward to being able to hear the messages that were to be shared that day, but frankly, I was feeling tired, somewhat overwhelmed and distracted.   We had little rest throughout our time on the island and so much had happened.  So when I went into the Relief Society class for women, I was just quietly sitting there reflecting over it all, not actually paying full attention to what was being said.

And then it hit me....the lesson that day was specifically about fasting.   It was actually a re-telling of the same talk by Henry Eyring that I had just heard a few weeks before.  So it was not new information that I was receiving.   Still, as that lesson unfolded, I felt a strong personal witness of the truth of the word being said.   It was as if the Holy Spirit were tapping me on the shoulder and saying: "Hey, you said you wanted to understand more about fasting.  Listen up!  This is your answer.  This lesson is for YOU.   Pay very close attention.   This can change your life."

I felt goosebumps.   All through the lesson I kept getting the unmistakable feeling that the thoughts and experiences being shared by the women in that room were specifically for my benefit as a direct answer to my prayers.

The young woman who was the teacher / discussion leader for that day divided the group into sections of  3 to 5 women and gave each section a scripture or quote to talk about among themselves for 5 minutes and then at the end of the discussion period we were to report back to the whole class about what we had learned from it.  The section I was in got the following quote from President Eyring's talk:

" President Spencer W. Kimball called failing to follow that law a sin of omission with a heavy cost. He wrote: “Rich promises are made by the Lord to those who fast and assist the needy. … Inspiration and spiritual guidance will come with righteousness and closeness to our Heavenly Father. To omit to do this righteous act of fasting would deprive us of these blessings.”  (Referring to the book  Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 98).

Those words hit me like a ton of bricks.  I knew that I had been missing out on spiritual experiences when I shortchanged those opportunities for a meaningful fast.  I also felt an absolute certainty that by increasing my faithful willingness to participate in a full fast with purpose and prayer I could have more inspiration and spiritual guidance.  I knew this was meant for me.   There was no doubt.

I quietly pondered that in my heart as the meeting ended and then we went on through a Sunday School class that was very well presented.  When we moved on into Sacrament meeting I sat near the back with Larry and with Elder and Sister Beckstrand who also attend Liahona ward.  I was prepared to simply listen to whatever talks were to be given that day.   However, the Bishop asked Elder Bennett and I to come forward to bear our testimony.  So we did.

As I was speaking about my testimony of the gospel and my gratitude for my mission experiences I felt prompted to share the feelings I had in Relief Society about the lesson on fasting.  I explained how hearing that lesson was a direct answer to my personal prayers and had filled me with very special feelings of recognizing the truth of those words.

At the close of the meeting the bishop stood up and said something like this (loosely paraphrased):

    I was touched by Sister Bennett's words about how the lesson about fasting was an answer to her prayer.   You know, we plan out the topics of lessons for our meetings months in advance.  I remember praying to know what things would be of most importance in the meetings coming up.  I had a strong impression that on this particular Sunday we should have a lesson about the Law of the Fast.  I did not know Sister Bennett at that time.  I did not know she would be coming to our island.   I did not know she was seeking to have a better testimony about this.  But the Lord knew.   So the Lord directed me to choose that topic for this particular Sabbath.   I feel a witness that this is His church.  I was directed to plan this study topic because Heavenly Father knew it would bless the life of one of his daughters, and perhaps others.  Prayers are answered.  The Lord knows us personally.

Sister Lynda Bennett with Bishop Vatuniloka Fifita, Liahona Ward
I thought I had experienced a strong spiritual witness before when I was in the Relief Society class.  When I heard the Bishop speak these words, I came utterly undone.  All I could do was weep.  I KNEW with no doubt whatsoever that the Lord was very much aware of me, aware of my needs, aware of my feelings.  I felt an overwhelming sense of love from the Savior and from my Father in Heaven confirming that I was exactly where I needed to be and that they were mindful of my every step.  I felt a renewed confirmation of our mission to the Pacific, knowing that it was not random that we should come here.   I felt a renewed certainty of truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The reality of it all just came thundering through my mind and heart and spirit with a degree of conviction I could barely comprehend.

I hope I will never forget that feeling.

There are many scriptures about fasting and there have been some great talks by various church authorities on the topic.   Here are some links to just a few:

"Fasting With Power" - Shayne M. Bowen,  April 2009

"The Blessings of a Proper Fast" - Carl B. Pratt,  Oct 2004

"The Law of the Fast" - Joseph B. Wirthlin, April 2001

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