Well this was quite the weekend! Two days, two completely different speaking engagements. Saturday I drove up to Lynchburg to encourage Disciples of Christ men at Regional Assembly (read Being Disciples to make Disciples to be Disciples) – then Sunday afternoon I enjoyed the singular privilege of speaking at The Institute of Islamic and Turkish Studies in Cary.
I’m interested in interfaith dialog as a child of God, as a student of life, and as an advocate for world peace. Our unwillingness to listen to one another, along with our fear of those who are different are key factors in human conflict; we owe it to the world, and we owe it to the God who created and loves every human being, to at least get to know one another and to share our common stories.
THE PANEL DISCUSSION: Yesterday’s topic was fasting. I shared the podium with IITS member Fatma Kaya (who has a masters degree in Christian-Muslim relations and dialogue, plus a graduate certificate in Islamic chaplaincy) and David Reed from Beth El Synagogue in Durham (Synagogue President, Hebrew scholar, and active participant in Jewish Adult Education).
Both David and Fatma gave insightful and scholarly talks about fasting in their traditions.
According to my bio on the IITS website, I am not a scholar. “Derek does not consider himself an expert in the field, but a pilgrim, continually making progress along the road less often traveled by.”
So when it was my turn to speak, this is an outline of what I shared with the audience – small in number but well balanced between the three faiths. My content is a little long for my usual blog, but I do believe what I shared makes for a good read:
A FOODIE TALKS ABOUT FASTING!
First, while I am representing the Christian tradition in this seminar, I typically prefer to refer to myself as a “disciple,” or a “follower of the way of Jesus.” As a religion, Christianity is contentious, and fragmented, and can be deeply flawed; But Jesus – as a Savior, one who has effectively restored my relationship with God – Jesus is just perfect. He is all I need.
The Christian church where I attend, and where my wife Rebekah Maul serves as senior pastor and head of staff, is a great example of a faith community where people are constantly examining and reexamining what it means to be faithful disciples, engaging God’s word as honest strugglers, and constantly viewing our journey in the context of Micah 6: 8:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
It is my belief that Christianity is being consistently and very publicly misrepresented via the “I’m right – you’re wrong” movement, the penchant so many have for exclusivity and judgment, and the idea that the louder you say something and the more obnoxious you are, the more convincing your argument.
To me, however, following Jesus is not so much about being right as it is about being faithful.
I have to start our conversation about fasting by talking about how Jesus launched his ministry. The story comes from Matthew chapter 4:1-4:
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry. During that time the devil[a] came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)
THE FOODIE THING: So last Sunday morning I told the discipleship class I teach about today’s seminar on fasting, and one of the guys said this:
- “You can be done in about two minutes. Tell them you’re a Presbyterian. Presbyterians love to eat. So as for fasting – just say we’re against it!”
Seriously, however, fasting is like any of the spiritual disciplines in Christianity. It can be a very useful practice when it comes to helping followers of Jesus draw closer to God.
Fasting (and this applies to every spiritual discipline) is not drawing closer to God in terms of “trying hard to find favor with God, or to impress God with our religious zeal.” You see, because of Jesus, because of Grace, we are already 100% acceptable, there’s not even the shadow of a doubt that I am completely forgiven and redeemed….
… But spiritual discipline is about drawing closer to God in terms of what I like to call, “Living into our salvation.” It’s the difference between salvation and sanctification; it’s about enjoying an active experience of living as a beloved child of God now, and fine-tuning that relationship because life with God is a beautiful thing, to be enjoyed and celebrated with an ever-deepening spiritual life!
DO SOMETHING! For me, personally, the experiences I have had with fasting have mostly been classic examples of taking my words and applying some serious intention – some self-discipline – to go along with my tendency, as a writer, to be all talk and no action.
It’s like when my dog taught me a lesson about good health habits…. Being a member of a gym won’t necessarily cause you to exercise; but when a seventy-five pound labradoodle puts two paws on your chest at 6:00 in the morning, shoves a wet nose in your face, and says “let’s go for a walk…” Well, you do. We can talk all we like about deliberate spiritual practice, but we have to actually do something for the benefits to begin to take hold!
Fasting is not a required activity in the Christian tradition… but there is more of a sense that “If we understand how such a discipline can help our relationship with God… then why avoid such an opportunity?”
One problem with any spiritual discipline – or “rule” (prayer, meditation, fasting, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, celebration…. etc….) is the tendency Christians have to use the outward form to mask inward spiritual emptiness. Strict legalism can often be a manifestation – or symptom – of a spiritual life that is missing God.
JESUS and MORE: While Jesus did not command fasting, he did practice it himself, and he did assume that it was something his followers would do. He didn’t say “if” you fast, but “when” you fast
Matthew 6:16-18 – “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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Throughout history, Christian “heroes of the faith” have all practiced fasting. John Wesley believe it was so important he refused to ordain a preacher who did not fast twice a week.
My personal experiences have been limited to fasting up to 36 hours on a spiritual retreat – I thought I was going to die! – and then moderate changes during Lent designed to help my attention to and focus on God.
Author and spiritual disciplines expert Richard Foster writes that fasting – more than any other discipline – reveals the things that control us. If there is anything that is difficult for us to do without, then we know that whatever it is has too much influence on our lives.
That’s why in my personal spiritual life, sometimes I extend the definition of fasting to cover fasting from anything that has the potential to come between me and my relationship with God.
CONCLUSION with JESUS: So I’ll end my brief talk by referencing Jesus once again, and the central idea for Christians which is that fasting reminds us that we are sustained not by food, but by God. I love the story about Jesus where he talks to the Samaritan women at the well while his disciples go into town for food… I’ll let John pick up the narrative in chapter four of his gospel. Listen to this:
Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked to find him talking to a woman, but none of them had the nerve to ask, “What do you want with her?” or “Why are you talking to her?” The woman left her water jar beside the well and ran back to the village, telling everyone, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” So the people came streaming from the village to see him. Meanwhile, the disciples were urging Jesus, “Rabbi, eat something.” But Jesus replied, “I have a kind of food you know nothing about.” “Did someone bring him food while we were gone?” (Or, Who gave Jesus lunch?) the disciples asked each other. Then Jesus explained: “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work.” (John 4:27-34)
This is the bottom line: Our nourishment – our food – is all about living in faith. As Jesus said when he quoted Deuteronomy 8, “People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Peace – and friendship between all peoples – DEREK