Tuesday, March 19, 2013

some thoughts on fasting and the giants

I've been telling the story of David and Goliath a lot recently in the buildup to our time of prayer and fasting about the giants that oppress people in this part of Mozambique.  There are two characters in the narrative that I had mostly ignored, but who have now attracted my attention.  I had long assumed that this story (1 Samuel 17) was just about a boy and a giant (like some spiritualized version of Jack and the beanstalk!), but now I'm seeing the other important characters at the margins of the story more clearly.

The older brother: When David arrives on the scene and starts talking about the wild idea of killing the giant himself, his older brother, Eliab, is quick to shoot him down.  In the way that only older brothers can, he tells David, "You can't do it, you're too small... don't you have something better to do, what about that handful of sheep you are in charge of, who did you pawn them off on?"  David ignores his older brother's comment and continues on, confident in God's power.  Essentially, the older brother's message was "Who are you to think you can do anything about this giant?"

The king: Hearing of David's confidence that he would be able to slay the giant, King Saul calls him in for a meeting.  Saul decides that David just might be able to pull this off, if he only had access to the right equipment.  The King convinces the shepherd boy to try on his royal armor, but David quickly realizes it is way too heavy for him.  David returns the armor and tells the King that he'll stick with the tools that have brought him this far.  Saul's message was, "Well, sure you can do it... If only you'll use my methods (never mind that they haven't worked for me)."

If David had listened to either of these 'helpful' people in his life, it is safe to say that he would not have defeated the giant. His older brother would have talked him out of trying in the first place, and the king would have sent him into battle with the wrong kind of equipment.

Even today we can hear the older brother mocking us: "Who are you to think you can do anything about these giants?"  And the king's council may even sound like wisdom: "Sure you can do it...if you use the latest technologies and strategies."  It is crazy to think that we could bring down the giants in Cabo Delgado.  And, it is easy to think that the tools we have at hand are surely not sufficient.

Fasting is one of those low-tech weapons available to us.  It is an essential practice of the body of Christ that is unfortunately, in large part, 'out of practice'.

I don't remember hearing much about fasting growing up in church.  My first personal experience with it happened in college as part of a small group.  While my experience with fasting has been limited, I can testify that over the past 15 years or so it has blessed and shaped my life.

We, as humans, really have very little that we can control.  We can't make the sun come up.  We can't make water flow or plants grow.  Really, one of the few things that we can actually control is what we will put in our mouths.

Fasting is a valuable spiritual practice because it takes seriously the fact that we are embodied creatures - yes, we literally have bodies.  In fasting, both body and spirit work together in petitioning the King.

So, here are a few thoughts about the practice of fasting.

1. Fasting is not about amassing credit, it is about harnessing cravings.  There is a common misconception that by fasting one is able to put some black ink on a heavenly ledger.  Instead, though, the point in fasting is that when hunger pains hit us we turn that craving into a cry for help.  These weeks specifically, we are focused on turning those growls in our bellies into stones to sling at giants.

2. The form of fasting is not as important as the function.  The base culture here is Islamic so when people think about fasting they do it shaped by Muslim practices.  The Makua-Metto word for fasting is 'ottuka ramadani'. So, fasting for Muslims or Christians uses the period of Ramadan as a reference.  Islamic fasts are typically from sunup to sundown as adherents refrain from eating foods and drinking any liquids.  My experience is that when westerners fast we tend to refrain from food, but not water.  Jesus said almost nothing about the form of fasting - if, by form, we mean when and what kinds of food and liquids we drink.  Jesus assumed we would fast but emphasized the reasons behind it more than the methods used to do it.

3. Christ, the Bread of Life, sustains us.  I got a call from a church leader a few days ago.  He mentioned that a number of people in his church would be fasting about the giants, but they weren't sure about whether to still take communion those Sundays. I told him that I think taking the body and blood of Christ while fasting is good and important because it reminds us of what really sustains us.  In that way, the weakness that comes from hunger can remind us of our dependence on God.

I have been surprised to see which of our friends are joining in the fast against the giants.  Some leaders I assumed would participate have not, and others who I expected to ignore it have joined in the fast.  One thing I was reminded of, though, is that it only took one David to take down Goliath.  So, even if only a few of us are joining in this fast, it just takes one David... and a single well-placed stone!

May God defeat the giants in Cabo Delgado, and set the Makua-Metto people free.

Grace and peace,

P.S. While there are some good resources out there (Fasting by Scot McKnight and Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline), the most helpful book on fasting for me was one I found in a 'give-away' box. So, if you ever come across Arthur Wallis' God's Chosen Fast, pick it up.  Its a quick read, and loaded full of practical information about practicing fasting well.

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