Friday, March 20, 2009

Prayer 7: a primer on fasting

Our Session has determined that we will have a congregational day of fasting for all who feel led to participate, on March 28th. I wanted to take an opportunity to answer some questions and offer some guidance about this.

Why do we fast? This basic question occurs to all of us at some point. A writer named Scot McKnight defines fasting as, “a whole-body response to a grievous sacred moment.” This definition helps us understand why we fast: we are responding to something that is spiritual enough, and grievous enough, to merit such a response. We are spiritual beings, and often respond to grievous occasions in a spiritual way (prayer, for example); but we are also physical, body-dwelling creatures, and we can and should respond with our bodies as well.

On this occasion, the Session has recognized that there have been many “grievous sacred moments” over the past several years, some of which still linger in the hearts and minds of our members. We want to respond appropriately, with fasting and prayers for repentance (both personal repentance and congregation-wide repentance) and forgiveness.

Some may ask, “Should I participate?” The answer is, yes— if you believe that you should. Fasting is something that some people incorporate into their spiritual lives on a regular basis— even weekly for some. Others seldom, if ever, fast. If you have never fasted— or if it has been a long time since you did so— you might try it, keeping an open mind. You may find that it is a practice you would like to continue.

There are some people who should NOT fast because of health or medical reasons; if you aren’t sure about this, it might be worthwhile to call your doctor before you decide to fast. Some will find that fasting can become something they approach in a legalistic way, and these people should be careful about whether they should fast, and what their motives are for fasting. No one should feel compelled to fast if they don’t feel led to, nor should they feel judged by others if they choose not to fast.

What is involved in a fast? Strictly speaking, a fast is giving up all food for a period of time. Some people do what is called a “liquid fast” which means that they do not eat solid foods, but they still allow themselves liquids such as juices and other drinks. Another type of fast is called an “absolute fast” which is when the one fasting gives up all food and drink for the duration of the fast. In most cases, a fast involves no solid foods and no drinks but water.

Sometimes people will speak of giving up certain foods for a time— during Lent, for example. This is not technically a fast, but an “abstention,” as they are simply abstaining from certain foods. This can be a good exercise, too, in a similar way to fasting. Some who are not able to fast due to medical need might find that they can participate in a group or congregational fast by abstention.

A natural question is, “How long will we fast?” In this case, the Session has called for a “half-day” fast to start on the 28th. What that means is that we ask those who participate to fast from after lunchtime on Saturday until a congregation-wide breakfast on Sunday. We aren’t asking you to give up ALL meals on Saturday! Eat breakfast and lunch, then eat nothing more until breakfast the next morning, at the church, at 10:00am (instead of Sunday School).

Someone asked me, “What do I do during the fast?” This, like fasting itself, is largely up to your conscience. However, I am glad to offer some suggestions. You might spend the time you would normally take for meals in prayer, reading the Bible, or singing hymns. You may decide to calculate what you would normally spend on those meals and snacks and give that amount of money to the Deacons’ Fund at HWPC, or to a charitable cause.

In this case, because the Session has called for both fasting AND prayer about a specific topic— repentance for our personal and corporate sins— you should spend some extra time in prayer. One “cue” that I have used in the past is that, whenever my stomach growls or I feel a hunger pang, I take that as a prompting to pray. You should pray in your own way, and as you feel led to do so.

Jesus tells of how we should NOT spend our times of fasting: flaunting it before the world. When we fast, he says, we should not do it like the hypocrites, making a big deal about it and drawing attention to ourselves (Matt. 6). Thus, if you choose to participate in this fast (and/or to fast at other times), you should be cautious that you don’t do so hypocritically or in a manner that draws attention to your fasting.

Finally, we understandably ask, “What does fasting DO?” Sometimes we feel we must “get something out of” an exercise like fasting. And truthfully, God does, at times, bless our fasting with a response of granting us something— He will answer our prayers in the manner that we asked for, or will begin (or continue) a work in our midst that represents a blessing. But (like prayer and so many other spiritual activities) we must be careful not to approach fasting with wrong motives, or to view it as some sort of special tool that will help us to get our way with God. Fasting is not a spiritual crow-bar for leveraging our desires into the will of God.

Going back to McKnight’s definition of fasting: what fasting does is to serve as an appropriate response. We don’t fast to get something; we fast to be something— or someone: specifically, a child of God. When we are grieved by our sin, by the lack of repentance in our hearts, by our neglect of the poor, by a tragedy or loss, or by any of a number of other reasons why we might be grieved, fasting is a natural and proper response for the children of God. If we get anything from it— if fasting DOES anything in these moments— then the most important thing it does is to help us to draw closer to the God who we call Father.

I hope you will search your hearts and pray about whether you would participate in the day of fasting that we have scheduled. May the Lord be with you as you do.

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