Of the many practices of the church—
practices that can shape us as the people of God for the 21st century—
fasting is probably the most misunderstood,
and the most neglected.
I won’t ask for a raise of hands,
but I certainly wonder how many of us,
anytime in the last 12 months,
chose intentionally to fast.
And I don’t mean on doctor’s orders,
or to prepare for a blood test or medical procedure.
I mean for spiritual or religious reasons.
If I asked that question, with a raise of hands,
to all kinds of religious groups all over the world,
many groups would obviously have all hands raised,
and would be dumbfounded that I even asked—
Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus,
Catholics, Eastern Orthodox,
would all be in that category.
I have a pretty strong hunch,
that the group with the fewest hands raised,
would be North American Christians
who are not Catholic or Orthodox,
that is, Protestants, evangelicals, Anabaptists.
Why would that be?
One answer is that those groups give lesser importance
to the Christian calendar,
and its designated fast days and feast days.
is that the call to these historic practices of the church
has been drowned out by our cultural narrative—
a narrative that glorifies excess, accumulation, consumption,
individual freedom, and instant gratification.
We live in a larger culture that bombards us continually,
with overt messages, and hidden messages,
telling us happiness lies in filling up our lives,
with whatever we desire.
The notion that we can find fulfillment through emptiness,
is utter nonsense to the those outside our Christian narrative,
and outside the narrative of most other
great religions of the world.
But there’s another reason for our neglect of fasting, I think.
Even when we do think about the discipline of fasting,
or decide to engage in it, or experiment with it,
we often do it for the wrong reasons.
And when our expected results, don’t quite materialize,
we are less likely to repeat the experiment.
I’ve been reading a book on fasting by Scot McKnight,
part of the Ancient Practices series.
This book helped shake me out of my own apathy about fasting.
I have been just as influenced as the rest of us,
to think less seriously about fasting,
because it’s just not a deep part
of our regular rhythms in the Christian calendar,
and because it just doesn’t seem altogether necessary
to purposely deprive our body of its physical needs,
in order to get God to do something for us.
But then I hear McKnight say, “Hold on a minute.
Since when do we think fasting is primarily a means to an end?”
And I think to myself . . . well . . . isn’t it?
That’s sort of what I gathered in my Christian upbringing.
If I’m facing a major, life-changing decision,
I should pray, and fast, so God will give me a clear answer.
If I’m really desiring someone’s healing,
I should fast, as well as pray,
so God will be more likely to hear, and to heal.
If I’m burdened about the state of someone’s spiritual life,
I should fast, so God would listen, and intervene, and save.
Fasting has usually been, in my mind, kind of like a megaphone.
A prayer amplifier.
I take my ordinary prayer,
and speak it through the megaphone of fasting,
so my prayer will be louder, and clearer,
and so God will hear it better,
and bump it up a few spots on his daily to-do list.
Scot McKnight says fasting is not an initiative, but a response.
He calls fasting a person’s whole-body natural response
to life’s grievous, sacred moments.
The fact that it’s a natural response,
is why it shows up in virtually every world religion.
Choosing not to eat or drink is how a person naturally responds
to a grievous sacred moment.
I think we all have either experienced,
or walked with a loved one who experienced,
a prolonged loss of appetite in a time of deep grief and loss.
That’s our body talking.
It’s our body speaking what we feel in our spirits,
and know to be true in our minds.
There is a deep connection of body, mind, and spirit in our beings.
So when the mind and spirit are struck deeply,
with grief, or injury, or fear . . .
fasting brings our body’s experience
into alignment with our mind and spirit.
Fasting may be spontaneous. Done without thinking.
Fasting may also be a conscious choice.
But in either case,
we choose, with intention, to go without food or drink
as a response to whatever the grievous, sacred moment may be.
People fasted in the Bible
in response to death,
in response to the realization of sin,
in response to a serious threat,
in response to national tragedy.
McKnight asks, “Does [fasting] bring results?
Yes, but that’s not the point of fasting.
Those who fasted in response to grievous sacred moments
frequently—but not always!—received results,
like answered prayer.
But focusing on the results
causes us to misunderstand fasting entirely . . .
Fasting isn’t a manipulative tool that guarantees results . . .
The focus in the Christian tradition is not ‘if you fast you will get,’
but ‘when this happens, God’s people fast.’
Fasting is a response to a very serious situation,
not an act that gets us from a good level to a better level.”
McKnight says the trouble with thinking about fasting
as a means to an end,
is that it “becomes a manipulative device
instead of a genuine, Christian spiritual discipline.”
Fasting, when it becomes a device, or tool,
easily moves us toward self-righteousness and self-absorption.
That’s what the prophet Isaiah was upset about in today’s OT reading.
If fasting does not lead us toward compassion for others,
then it loses its meaning altogether.
If fasting is seen as a tool to get what we want,
while failing to grieve what God is grieved about,
our act becomes detestable to God.
Isaiah, speaking about Israel, in God’s voice, says,
“Day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
They say to me, ‘Why have we fasted, and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’
Israel is engaging in an instrumental fast, not a responsive fast.
They are fasting, to try to convince God to relieve their suffering,
to rescue them from whatever unfortunate state they were in.
they themselves were the cause of other’s suffering,
they were not feeding the poor,
they were exploiting the laborers,
they were quarreling among themselves.
They were self-absorbed in their fasting.
And they failed to grieve what God was grieving about—
their own injustice and callousness and infighting.
It was a sham of a fast.
The fast God desires,
is a fast that comes from an encounter with the truth,
an honest reckoning with the grievous, sacred event.
In Israel’s case, the grievous sacred event
was God on the move in the world,
with a hand of justice and judgement,
setting things right.
But they didn’t see God’s hand moving among them,
because they were fixated on what they wanted for themselves.
True fasting comes from an orientation toward the other.
Scot McKnight wrote,
“Every generation needs an Isaiah
to stand up in the middle of the action and say,
‘Hey, folks, this isn't about us!
What we give up when we fast should be given to others.’”
It makes me wonder.
What are the grievous, sacred events,
which ought to be driving us to fast?
If fasting is, in fact, a natural, whole-body response,
to life’s grievous, sacred events,
are we paying attention enough to notice, and respond?
Do we allow ourselves to deeply feel and reflect on
the grievous and sacred happenings around us, and in the world?
And if so, are we attentive to how our own body
may be calling us to respond,
so that the experience of our body,
is aligned with what we know in our mind,
and feel in our spirit?
I don’t know how you are responding
to the horrific events in Iraq and Syria,
and the brutal indiscriminate killings by ISIS.
Our news media, because it depends on advertisers’ dollars,
is programmed to deliver bad news in small digestible doses,
mini sound-bites, selected images,
appearing and disappearing in seconds.
It can’t afford—literally, it can’t financially afford—
to let us viewers become overwhelmed with grief and sorrow,
lest we are unable to mentally process
the advertisements for Lexus and L’Oréal and Miller-Lite.
We have to be able to laugh out loud at the Geico commercials,
or the networks will lose millions of dollars in ad revenue.
So more than likely,
the abject horror of the violence registers with us, barely,
and but for a moment,
so we can get on with our lives,
and have a nice dinner out tonight.
To consider that we might fast, for a day, or even one meal,
in response to the devastatingly grievous events in the world,
probably didn’t even occur to us.
How many of us, lately, have considered fasting, in response to the
Ebola outbreak in West Africa, or the
thousands of unaccompanied children detained near our border, or the
increasing threat of climate change, or the
racial tensions and violence here at home, or the
conflict happening across the Mennonite church
and other parts of Christ’s body, or the
topic we’re dealing with in the second hour,
child sexual abuse.
If we haven’t thought of fasting, as part of our response,
maybe we should.
It would be easy, and relatively painless,
to make all these things merely issues to be debated,
and fought over rationally.
Which is what we do, mostly.
What if we would allow ourselves to enter into God’s grief
over these areas of deep brokenness—
brokenness in ourselves, our families, our churches,
our larger systems in the world, in which we partake.
Perhaps, if we really felt God’s grief,
a response of fasting might naturally, almost spontaneously,
come to the fore.
And we might be changed by it.
And other results might happen because of it.
God might move among us in new ways.
Not because we pulled out one of the tricks in our book—
fasting, to manipulate God to act in our favor.
No, but because we opened ourselves anew to God’s grief,
and sought to have integrity in ourselves,
so that our mind and spirit and body would be aligned,
and oriented toward God, and toward God’s purposes,
in other words, oriented outward, rather than inward,
toward the other, rather than ourselves.
This kind of fasting—responsive fasting—
responding to a grievous sacred moment in time,
or to a situation of deep brokenness or emptiness,
is ultimately, a statement of our hope.
By fasting, we are not only lamenting,
but declaring our hope in the feast that is yet to come.
Fasting and feasting are closely related,
in the scriptures,
and in church tradition.
We enter the fast, in hope of the feast to come.
We embrace emptiness, in hope of the fullness God has prepared.
Jesus reminded us that those who are first, will be last.
Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.
Those who grasp life, will lose it.
Those who fill themselves, will find themselves hungry.
And all of those . . . vice-versa.
The hungry will be filled, etc.
Like today’s Gospel, about the praying Pharisee and tax collector.
the poor sinner left the temple justified,
the self-justified was left in his sin.
Fasting is the way of Jesus,
who emptied himself, even to the point of death on a cross,
in hope that God would fulfill his greater purposes,
in hope of the coming resurrection feast.
In the church calendar,
we have seasons of fasting,
as a way of declaring our hope in the feast to come.
We have an Advent fast coming up in December,
in hope of the Christmas feast;
and the Lenten fast next spring,
in hope of the Easter feast.
Many American Protestant Christians think of these seasonal fasts
at least as optional,
if not completely unnecessary for a Christian,
and maybe even as a useless and empty ritual.
I’m quite sure that would not be the mind of Jesus,
who regularly participated in the practices of his Jewish faith.
Yes, on occasion, he decided not to fast, or not obey Sabbath law,
as he listened to the Spirit,
and to teach a lesson to the self-righteous leaders.
But he was one who held together, without fail,
his human body, mind, and spirit,
in full alignment with the will of God.
He fasted for 40 days in the wilderness,
responding to the Spirit’s grievous, sacred act
of “driving him into the desert” as one gospel puts it,
and compelling a period of isolation and desolation.
I think that was a period of hard work for Jesus,
of deep aligning of his body, mind, spirit, and will.
not to get something good from God,
but because it was the only response that made any sense,
as he wrestled with God and Satan over his identity.
Would that we might enter more fully and deeply
into the woundedness of this world,
and feel physically compelled to fast, and pray,
not to manipulate God into doing something for us,
but to humbly empty ourselves,
so we become fully aligned with God,
and ready to then live out that alignment,
with bodies that are ready to get into God’s action,
to do God’s will, however costly.
Genuine fasting and prayer is never a spiritual escape,
it is preparation for deeper engagement.
May God give us courage to fast, often,
with a full and joyful anticipatory hope
in God’s abundant feast that is yet to come.
—Phil Kniss, September 28, 2014
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