Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Celebration of Discipline: An Experiment in Fasting

This was originally supposed to be part of a series at Soul Munchies.  Due to SM being on hiatus, it's been moved here.

Last month I told you about how I felt as if I failed at the spiritual discipline of prayer.  If I thought I failed then, I failed even worse this past month, with the spiritual discipline of fasting.  I did not fast even once.

The thing is, I don't eat a lot to begin with, so it actually should have been pretty easy.  My husband joked that I pretty much fast on a regular basis anyway.  (Please note:  I do not have any eating disorders or anything like that, I am just generally a very small person with a small appetite.  Except when it comes to certain foods, like a good steak.  Then I just want to keep eating and eating and eating).

When I first read Celebration of Discipline in seminary a number of years ago, I wrote this at the end of the fasting chapter:

"Fasting sounds interesting, but if I try it out of curiosity, am I really doing it for God or for myself?"  I worried about doing it and someone asking me why I wasn't eating, and proudly explaining to them that I was fasting, and then hearing "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward." (Matthew 6:16).  

That is something that I wondered again as I read the chapter.  Foster makes a good case for fasting as a discipline.  He writes that Jesus' "teaching on fasting is directly in the context of his teaching on giving and praying.  It is as if there is an almost unconscious assumption that giving, praying, and fasting are all part of Christian devotion.  We have no more reason to exclude fasting from the teaching than we do giving or praying" (52).

He is clear throughout the chapter that fasting is about God.  It is to center on God and spiritual purposes, that it is a reminder that "we are sustained 'by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God'" and that through fasting, we are "not so much abstaining from food as we are feasting on the word of God" (55).

When I read the chapter a month ago and started thinking about when to fast, I didn't know what to do.  I didn't know if it would be from food, as is traditional, or something else that consumes me, like Facebook or Twitter.  I asked a Jewish friend of mine if there were any fast days coming up within the month, thinking that if there was, I would pick that day, because at least I'd know other people were also fasting then.  There were not any days, unfortunately.

And then I read something else that struck me.  In The Good and Beautiful Community by James Bryan Smith, in the chapter on "The Christ-Centered Community", he wrote about Richard Foster and this very book and said,  "Not long after its initial success, Richard was troubled by something: individuals, not groups, were using the book in isolation, with the aim of personal spiritual growth."

That's exactly what I have been doing.  I've been going through it by myself , not with any kind of community.  It made me see the importance of doing things as a community, as my Jewish friends do on their fast days.  They know that no matter where they are, everyone else is fasting too.  There's a subtle support in that, I think.  They know they are not the only one feeling it when their stomachs are rumbling and hurting.  Thousands of others are, too.

We Christians are great at feasting.  I've eaten countless meals at church: catered meals, potlucks, cookouts, weekly meals, semi-annual meals, etc.  But I have never been in a church that has said, "hey, let's fast today."  It's just not a part of what we do, unless we count giving up something for Lent, which is still very optional and very individualistic.  

What would it look like, then, for a group of Christians to take on a fast day, together?  What would we learn from it?  How would we do it?  I think that it would be a difficult endeavor for a couple of reasons:  we are unfamiliar with the practice, and we love food.  I'd like to see how it would work, though.  Have you ever done some kind of fast with your church or small group?  Please tell me about it!

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