Fasting is un-American.
I think that’s why the practice has largely been lost in our churches. We don’t do it, because it’s not us.
However, fasting has a long history in the Christian tradition, beginning with Jesus himself, who fasted forty days in the wilderness just before being tempted. He also told his disciples that they would fast after he left their presence.
Indeed, the early Christians practiced fasting, especially before observing Holy Communion and baptism. Over time, the forty days before Easter became a fasting season for the church. Though the discipline of fasting began to wane after the Reformation among Protestants, John Wesley revived the tradition during the Methodist revival. John himself fasted every Wednesday and Friday, from the night before until 3 pm, and encouraged his pastors to do the same.
Fasting is still a common Christian practice in many parts of the world. For example, while living in Cameroon, I observed that many of the pastors of the young United Methodist Church instituted times of fasting for their congregations. They did this on their own initiative, because I never challenged them to do it! As I watched Pastor Simeon Nomo practice a dry fast for several days, I began to wonder if I was missing something by not fasting myself.
My own attempts to fast up to this point have been rather pitiful and measly – half-hearted stabs at improving my prayer life. I haven’t had much mentoring in this subject, to be honest. But who is qualified to teach me how to fast in my United Methodist tradition?
When I look across the religious landscape, however, I see a faith tradition – Islam – which has managed to lift up, and value, the discipline of fasting. Over a billion Muslims fast during Ramadan every year – a fast which is certainly not easy.
I have to ask: why is it that American Christians have such a weak appetite for fasting? Why hasn’t this practice remained in our arsenal of spiritual disciplines?
As I said before, I think it’s because fasting is, fundamentally, un-American.
We Americans are used to responding quickly to our appetites. We have the means to eat and drink whatever we want, whenever we want. And we can have it super-sized. Culturally, we believe that bigger, more, and immediately are all positive values.
Earlier today, when I was reminded of my thirst for the 49th time, the thought crossed my mind, “You don’t have to do this, Wes. You’re not a Muslim. God won’t strike you down if you break this fast. It’s kind of stupid, after all. Why are you starving yourself with all this abundance around you?”
Earlier this evening, I had this discussion with Ceciliah and Jacob, the Kenyan pastors who serve with me at First Rowlett UMC. They confirmed that fasting was a common practice among the Methodists of Kenya. And they admitted that it had been a vital source of power and meaning for their spirituality.
But they both lamented that it was hard to fast in America.
Because they found themselves in an environment where most people don’t fast.
Ceciliah said, “When we fasted back home in Africa, we fasted as a community. We would get together and have prayer meetings. We would support one another. But here it’s difficult, because we don’t live in a community like that.”
In other words, fasting is truly a communal discipline. It’s not an individualistic practice for the Christian to tack onto her long list of spiritual disciplines which she has learned to master.
Which explains why so many Americans fail at fasting. We prefer the disciplines we can do alone. We prefer the Lone Ranger approach to spirituality. We don’t want other people to tell us what to do, nor how to do it.
And fasting is just too difficult to go it alone.
This also explains why the Muslim community is able to observe Ramadan. They observe it together. Fasting is not something that individuals do, alone, in their own homes. Instead, the entire month of Ramadan is one big family party.
Mosques are filled in the evenings as people gather to celebrate Iftar, the breaking of the fast, at which most Muslims eat dates and drink water. Note that they don’t break the fast alone, isolated by their private faith or piety; they break it together.
The Muslim refugees who live at the Indigo Apartments break their fast every evening in Ramadan with a feast in their apartment – everyone contributes by bringing a covered dish. They eat late into the night.
Indeed, the hardest thing about my Ramadan so far is the fact that I am fasting alone. I have to watch my wife and children eat all day long; tomorrow, I will have to watch the church staff enjoy their common lunch. My fast sets me apart; but I know that the best fast is done with others, for a common purpose and goal.
Next year, you’ll have to do it with me!