Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Keeping a Holy Lent: Fasting

Isaiah 58:6-9

Why fast? Why is fasting the most neglected means of grace?

Jesus expected his disciples to fast regularly (Matthew 6:16-18). John Wesley believed the practice to be so important that he fasted at least one day a week (Friday) all his adult life. During Advent and Lent he fasted two days (adding Wednesday) a week. He abstained from food from sun-down Thursday until sun-down Friday. His fast was broken with a light meal of toast and tea.

Why did he do this? There are at several reasons.

The first is obedience to the teachings of his Lord. Fasting leads to prayer and giving alms to the poor. The purpose of a fast is to focus, heart, soul, mind, and strength (body), upon prayer. It engages the whole person, just as Christ saves the whole person. The pangs of hunger during a fast are the signal to pray. Fasting focuses attention upon our need for God and God’s grace. It reminds us that we are dependant creatures. Our life depends upon the goodness and abundance of God’s grace. The food that sustains and gives pleasure is a ultimately gifts from God. It’s also important to remember that, for most of us, the food on our tables is pure gift that comes to us through the hands and labor of hundreds of God’s daughters and sons; farmers, migrant laborers, truck drivers, grocers, grocery store workers, etc.

Fasting reminds us that God is God and we are not. Our lives are given and sustained by God and God’s goodness. We must take into bodies God’s good gifts of food, water, and air. These gifts sustain our life. We tend to forget this important truth when we neglect fasting. We delude ourselves into believing that we can live by our own strength, wit, and initiative. Regular fasting, however, is a powerful and effective corrective to such self-delusion.

Fasting is also a way God has given us to imitate God’s self-emptying love (kenosis) given to the world in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This self-emptying is most explicitly described by Paul in Philippians 2:7-8, “but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Fasting is a way we can connect to and experience God’s self-giving, self-emptying love. It is a form of self-denial that is required of Jesus’ followers (Luke 9:23). Jesus teaches us that the loving requires denial of self. The self must be set aside in favor of the beloved. When we deny ourselves we make room for the beloved other. When we fast, therefore, we deny ourselves food in order to make room for Christ. When we make room for him Christ will come in and fill our emptiness. Fasting is a gift from God that enables us to more fully open ourselves to grace.

The other reason Wesley practiced a weekly one-day fast from food is to share in the hunger experienced daily by the world’s people who live under the oppression and degradation of poverty. Wesley fasted as an expression of solidarity with the millions of people in the world for whom fasting is not a choice; it is a daily reality. It equipped him to be faithful to the call of Jesus to “bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).

When we, who live in the richest nation on planet earth, neglect fasting it makes it all the more easy to neglect the vast numbers of hungry people in the world. Fasting is a simple way we can share in their struggle to live in a world that produces more than enough food to feed everyone but chooses to neglect the poor in favor of the rich. Fasting one day a week and giving the money we would have spent to feed ourselves to Bread for the World or UMCOR or a local food bank is a simple act of compassion all North American Christians can do. It is a simple act of obedience to Christ who tells us, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus also makes clear that when we neglect the hungry and suffering people of the world we make ourselves subject to “go away into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46).

The bottom line is that John Wesley fasted one day a week and encouraged his followers to do the same (see the General Rules) because he took discipleship seriously. For him discipleship is all about obedience to the teachings and commandments of Jesus Christ, summarized by him in Mark 12:30-31, “’… you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Fasting is physical and spiritual act of love for God, neighbor and self.

Of course not everyone can fast the way Wesley fasted. If you are diabetic or have another metabolic disorder, abstaining from food for 24 hours is not a good idea. Fasting should not harm your health. In these cases, you can substitute abstinence from a favorite food. Or “fast” from a habit or behavior (like spending time every day surfing the internet) that takes time out of your day. Devote the time you would have given to the habit to prayer and reading Scripture. Fast from buying CDs, DVDs, iTunes songs and videos, books, etc. and give the money you would have spent to organizations that work to alleviate hunger.

“Is not this the fast that I choose;
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hid yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am."


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