Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Fast I DON'T Choose

Since last October, I have been engaged in one of the most interesting and transformative ministries I have yet to encounter. For almost a year now, I have been corresponding regularly with William Barnes ("Tim"), prisoner #0020590 at Central Prison in Raleigh, NC. Tim is on Death Row for the 1990 murder of two people.

As I have gotten to know Tim through his letters, he has continuously challenged me in countless ways, but right now I'd like to focus on an issue he brought up in his most recent communication to me. Tim converted to Islam while in prison and we converse regularly about religion and spirituality. His conversion was not well-received by his family, with whom he has not been in contact since 1998. Tim regularly asks me about aspects of Christianity that he does not understand, but he also asks me about my own spiritual practices.

Most recently, Tim asked me how many times I fast in a year. On one level, I found the timing of his question exceedingly ironic, seeing as I had just started a blog called "The Fast I Choose" and have grown quite fond of quoting the passage in Isaiah to which that phrase alludes. On another level, I felt a little ashamed, because I had to admit to Tim that although I have tried fasting once or twice, I've never been able to go through with that particular spiritual discipline. True, I was told back in middle school that I was hypoglycemic, and I do get an awful headache if I don't eat for a period of time—but Tim's question came close on the heels with a conversation I had with a friend on the very subject. She and her husband are both hypoglycemic, but they fast regularly. After talking to her, I realized that my excuse, which was feeble from the beginning, probably sounded like every other reason people use not to fast.

The truth is, fasting isn't something that very many Christians do these days. The rate of obesity in America is embarrassingly high, and you can be sure that among those statistics are a large number of Christians, both lay and clergy. Clearly, fasting is not at the top of the average Christian's list of priorities; it only makes mine in the same way "a pony" made my Christmas wish list throughout my childhood. It would be nice if fasting were something we could do, and we take our hats off to those who practice that spiritual discipline, but it's not something we think we can—or would even want—to do ourselves.

I did a little poking around on the internet to see what information I might come up with on fasting. I know Wikipedia is taboo in academic circles, but it really is terribly useful on a surface level, and their article on fasting even had, in addition to explanations of the use of fasting in various religions, a list of Biblical references to fasting (not an exhaustive one, but a list nonetheless). Among those were passages from Exodus 34 (Moses fasts for 40 days while on the mountain with God), 2 Samuel 12 (David fasts when his son becomes ill as punishment for David's adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah), 2 Chronicles 20 (King Jehosaphat proclaims a fast to celebrate a military victory), Isaiah 58 (my favorite, of course), Jonah 3 (the people of Ninevah fast in order to stay God's hand in punishment), Esther 4 (the Jews fast in response to Haman's genocidal decree), Matthew 6 (Jesus warns that one should fast in private and not seek attention or approval through fasting), Matthew 4 and Luke 2 (Jesus fasts for 40 days in the wilderness before being tempted), among others.

What struck me upon reading this list was the variety of circumstances in which fasting was practiced. The general sense that I have always had is that a person fasts in repentance, and although this is certainly the case, it is not the only occasion on which people of the Old and New Testaments fast. Just in that list, fasting is used while in the presence of God, as a form of penitence and a prayer for healing, in celebration (and I thought feasts were the usual way to consummate a military victory?), in response to injustice, as a private exercise, and as a form of preparation for testing.

I and many others have boldly and often proclaimed the words of Isaiah 58:6-7, saying that the fast we choose shall be "to loose the bonds of injustice...[and] to share your bread with the hungry." This is indeed a call to justice, and Amos declares that even if we practice personal piety and fast faithfully, if we oppress others, God counts those acts for naught. It seems that I may have made the error of choosing a worthy fast while forgetting that the discipline of fasting was practiced by the Israelites, the prophets, Jesus himself, and the early church for a reason. Although some strains of Protestantism, as early as at the time of the Reformation, sought to abolish fasting because they believed that Catholics used the practice as a tool to earn salvation (I am thinking of Zwingli, who made a show of eating sausages during Lent), especially in the holiness movements, that particular discipline (among others) was often revived. In the early days of Methodism, my own denomination, John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield were known to fast regularly.

Fasting can express repentance; it can be a means of seeking holiness; it can be a cry for justice; it can even be a form of celebration, the kind that recognizes and gives thanks to God as the sole provider of good things. When I wrote Tim back trying to answer his question, one thing I mentioned that makes fasting difficult is a lack of support, or at least a perceived lack of support, since I don't know many people who fast regularly. I wonder if it wouldn't behoove us all to give fasting a shot sometime, and although that is not something to be shouted from the rooftops, it wouldn't hurt (and would probably help!) to seek out a few fellow Christians for encouragement and even solidarity. If a question posed by a Muslim on Death Row can challenge me to work harder at this particular spiritual discipline, a community of Christians practicing it together might even be able to make fasting a celebration.

1 comments:

Joseph said...

Unfortunately, most Christian I have talked to from the United States do not practice any spiritual disciplines. I was talking to an anglican priest a couple of months ago who was friends with Richard Foster when he wrote his book on spiritual disciplines ("Celebration of Discipline"). They were going for a walk one day (before the book was published) and Richard Foster was excitedly telling him all about the things that he was learning about spiritual disciplines. The priest was happy that Mr. Foster had discovered these time-honoured traditions- but at the same time, he kind of felt bad that he had had to discover them at all. There are places in the world (thankfully) where Christians are taught spiritual disciplines from the time they are children. The priest was right to feel bad for him. And I feel bad for my own nation as well. Shout it from the rooftops indeed. Good post.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Fast I DON'T Choose

Since last October, I have been engaged in one of the most interesting and transformative ministries I have yet to encounter. For almost a year now, I have been corresponding regularly with William Barnes ("Tim"), prisoner #0020590 at Central Prison in Raleigh, NC. Tim is on Death Row for the 1990 murder of two people.

As I have gotten to know Tim through his letters, he has continuously challenged me in countless ways, but right now I'd like to focus on an issue he brought up in his most recent communication to me. Tim converted to Islam while in prison and we converse regularly about religion and spirituality. His conversion was not well-received by his family, with whom he has not been in contact since 1998. Tim regularly asks me about aspects of Christianity that he does not understand, but he also asks me about my own spiritual practices.

Most recently, Tim asked me how many times I fast in a year. On one level, I found the timing of his question exceedingly ironic, seeing as I had just started a blog called "The Fast I Choose" and have grown quite fond of quoting the passage in Isaiah to which that phrase alludes. On another level, I felt a little ashamed, because I had to admit to Tim that although I have tried fasting once or twice, I've never been able to go through with that particular spiritual discipline. True, I was told back in middle school that I was hypoglycemic, and I do get an awful headache if I don't eat for a period of time—but Tim's question came close on the heels with a conversation I had with a friend on the very subject. She and her husband are both hypoglycemic, but they fast regularly. After talking to her, I realized that my excuse, which was feeble from the beginning, probably sounded like every other reason people use not to fast.

The truth is, fasting isn't something that very many Christians do these days. The rate of obesity in America is embarrassingly high, and you can be sure that among those statistics are a large number of Christians, both lay and clergy. Clearly, fasting is not at the top of the average Christian's list of priorities; it only makes mine in the same way "a pony" made my Christmas wish list throughout my childhood. It would be nice if fasting were something we could do, and we take our hats off to those who practice that spiritual discipline, but it's not something we think we can—or would even want—to do ourselves.

I did a little poking around on the internet to see what information I might come up with on fasting. I know Wikipedia is taboo in academic circles, but it really is terribly useful on a surface level, and their article on fasting even had, in addition to explanations of the use of fasting in various religions, a list of Biblical references to fasting (not an exhaustive one, but a list nonetheless). Among those were passages from Exodus 34 (Moses fasts for 40 days while on the mountain with God), 2 Samuel 12 (David fasts when his son becomes ill as punishment for David's adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah), 2 Chronicles 20 (King Jehosaphat proclaims a fast to celebrate a military victory), Isaiah 58 (my favorite, of course), Jonah 3 (the people of Ninevah fast in order to stay God's hand in punishment), Esther 4 (the Jews fast in response to Haman's genocidal decree), Matthew 6 (Jesus warns that one should fast in private and not seek attention or approval through fasting), Matthew 4 and Luke 2 (Jesus fasts for 40 days in the wilderness before being tempted), among others.

What struck me upon reading this list was the variety of circumstances in which fasting was practiced. The general sense that I have always had is that a person fasts in repentance, and although this is certainly the case, it is not the only occasion on which people of the Old and New Testaments fast. Just in that list, fasting is used while in the presence of God, as a form of penitence and a prayer for healing, in celebration (and I thought feasts were the usual way to consummate a military victory?), in response to injustice, as a private exercise, and as a form of preparation for testing.

I and many others have boldly and often proclaimed the words of Isaiah 58:6-7, saying that the fast we choose shall be "to loose the bonds of injustice...[and] to share your bread with the hungry." This is indeed a call to justice, and Amos declares that even if we practice personal piety and fast faithfully, if we oppress others, God counts those acts for naught. It seems that I may have made the error of choosing a worthy fast while forgetting that the discipline of fasting was practiced by the Israelites, the prophets, Jesus himself, and the early church for a reason. Although some strains of Protestantism, as early as at the time of the Reformation, sought to abolish fasting because they believed that Catholics used the practice as a tool to earn salvation (I am thinking of Zwingli, who made a show of eating sausages during Lent), especially in the holiness movements, that particular discipline (among others) was often revived. In the early days of Methodism, my own denomination, John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield were known to fast regularly.

Fasting can express repentance; it can be a means of seeking holiness; it can be a cry for justice; it can even be a form of celebration, the kind that recognizes and gives thanks to God as the sole provider of good things. When I wrote Tim back trying to answer his question, one thing I mentioned that makes fasting difficult is a lack of support, or at least a perceived lack of support, since I don't know many people who fast regularly. I wonder if it wouldn't behoove us all to give fasting a shot sometime, and although that is not something to be shouted from the rooftops, it wouldn't hurt (and would probably help!) to seek out a few fellow Christians for encouragement and even solidarity. If a question posed by a Muslim on Death Row can challenge me to work harder at this particular spiritual discipline, a community of Christians practicing it together might even be able to make fasting a celebration.

1 comments:

Joseph said...

Unfortunately, most Christian I have talked to from the United States do not practice any spiritual disciplines. I was talking to an anglican priest a couple of months ago who was friends with Richard Foster when he wrote his book on spiritual disciplines ("Celebration of Discipline"). They were going for a walk one day (before the book was published) and Richard Foster was excitedly telling him all about the things that he was learning about spiritual disciplines. The priest was happy that Mr. Foster had discovered these time-honoured traditions- but at the same time, he kind of felt bad that he had had to discover them at all. There are places in the world (thankfully) where Christians are taught spiritual disciplines from the time they are children. The priest was right to feel bad for him. And I feel bad for my own nation as well. Shout it from the rooftops indeed. Good post.

 

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