Fasting is Un-American: Day 4 of Ramadan

 

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.

Why?

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!

 

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28 comments

  1. Nora Ortiz Fredrick

    As I work towards recapturing a sense of Wesleyan spirituality, fasting certainly should be an important part. I keep wondering if an “American” way of fasting might be to abstain from some of the other things we really love: car, computer, smart phone. It is not the same kind of physical deprivation, but certainly a way to clear the clutter of our mind to give attentiveness to God.

    I lived in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic country, for many years. I remember Ramadan as a time of both strangeness and having a kind of spiritual envy. Imagine if the faith community could gather for Advent with the same commitment to faith and spiritual practice as our Muslim brothers and sisters do during Ramadan.

    I look forward to reading more of your observations. Peace be with you.

    • hollyboardman

      Nora, I suggest you try such alternative fasts. I suggest you add television and radio (and recorded music) to your list. Actually anything to which you are addicted is worth thinking about giving up. That could be different things to different people.

  2. hollyboardman

    I have engaged in fasting off and on for many years because of my ordination vows. However, it has almost always been a solitary and secret devotion. However on one occasion as a newly appointed pastor to a church, I invited people to join a voluntary fasting team. It was a small congregation with an average worship attendance of about 85. Still 5 people volunteered. We usually did not fast together at the same time. Instead, as the pastor, I would ask one or two members of the team to fast and pray about specific intentions. Sometimes I would not identify the intention; I would simply say that there was a concern that needed the intervention of fasting and prayer. This group became my back-up prayer team. I realized that having a praying pastor was not enough for a church. Although it is difficult to say there is a cause and effect relationship between this spiritual practice and events that happened in that congregation; I will say that God DID some extraordinary things while I served that church. There were conversions to Christ, some healing miracles (one was truly astounding), and children from poor families who were not connected with our congregation were drawn to participate in our confirmation class.

    I never really thought of fasting as a communal experience; but you have convinced me through this post that it might also be a faithful way to develop a sense of community. We are pretty good at developing community around food centered activities–Eucharist, and covered-dish dinners. Perhaps it is time to look at this alternative too.

  3. Rayhan

    You are not alone, Wes. All Muslim community is fasting with you and we are bless to have such a great person with us who shares common values of this religion. It is honor to read your blogs and your respect is going higher every day in the eyes of readers no matter what faith they belong to. Another aspect of fasting that It reminds me what people in Somalia and east Africa are going through on daily basis having nothing to eat or drink. A friend of mine having background of Ethiopia shared once that they had to walk 8 miles to get some water every day. Imagine, how blessed we are and we don’t even think about it!

  4. Gazza

    Wes
    A few more days and you will be over the foothills. Your body will become accustomed to your new routine and fasting will become easier. At this time Muslims usually increase their other acts of worship such as reading the Qur’an, paying more attention to non-compulsory prayers and remembrance of God, (dzikhr). True you won’t be struck down by God if you take your sip of water but Muslims begin their fast with a declaration to God that they intend to fast and seek his help in doing so. They also break their fast with a similar declaration and thank Him for the food and blessings He has provided. If you intentionally break your fast then you have broken your contract with God. If you are forgetful or accidentally eat or drink during the day that is a different matter. It is considered a mercy from God.

    Something you may be missing in all of this is the communal aspect of the fast. Muslims typically break the fast in company either in a gathering at someone’s home or at the mosque. I suggest you talk to your friend Sheik Yaseen about doing this. Being in the company of other fasters and breaking fast with them is uplifting. It charges your batteries for the ritual of evening prayer, (Tarawih).

    A word of advice though. There is a temptation to stuff yourself at these functions which in my view defeats the object of fasting. I generally eat lightly just some dates and fruit or maybe a savoury snack to break the fast. I do top up on water though. Avoid carbonated drinks for this. For the meal after the Maghrib prayer I also eat a lighter portion than normal. This makes the long evening prayer easier. After that is done I will have another light meal and read for an hour or so before bed.

  5. Aakifah

    First, I want to commend you on your willingness to fast the month of Ramadan. 🙂 I remember, long ago, before I became Muslim, I used to think it was crazy and that there was “no way I could do that!” *smiles* Ah, but here I am, this is my 4th Ramadan, alhamdulilah (Praise be to Allah). It is difficult fasting alone; as a Muslim convert, I don’t have other Muslim family members to fast with or break fast with. The masjid (mosque) where I currently live is small and have community iftars only on Fri, Sat, and Sundays. (I just moved here, the one back home only had community iftars once a week). I would recommend attending an iftar at the masjid, if you can….guests are always welcome there. 🙂 Even if you go just once, it’ll give you that experience of being with others as they fast. I wish you well throughout the remainder of this month, and I look forward to your updates. 🙂 Ramadan mubarak! (Blessed Ramadan)

  6. Shawna

    Wes: I’m in the same boat as Aakifah: an American Muslim convert with no Muslim family… and my mosque only has community iftars on Saturday. Many of us walk this path alone, as you do. When you’re feeling all alone and that it’s futile… just remember your friends that are fasting. You’re not alone. And those of us reading your blog are cheering you on 🙂 Peace and blessings to you.

  7. Osman

    Thank you for taking out some time and writing about your experience. I would love to invite you to break fast with me one evening when you’re free. I live in both, McKinney and Lewisville. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, we break fast as a community in Mckinney. Please join us. http://mckinneyia.org/contact.php

  8. jami

    This post is spot on. As an American Muslim who lived in the mideast for some years, the fasting experience is much different here than it is in places where the entire country is observing. Ramadhan is easier, more enjoyable, and more fulfilling when done in community. But going at it alone also has benefits and can provide insight. In particular, I think it helps us identify with minorities and what it is like to be the odd one, with different customs and habits, out of sync with the rest of society — and that can, hopefully, make us more empathetic to that situation. In any event, I wish you all the best for the rest of the month and look forward to reading future posts! Hang in there, the first week is just about over — that was easy!

  9. Naureen

    Salaam (peace) 🙂 I wanted to thank you for not only fasting but for blogging about it. I find it interesting that you have been able to explain Ramadan at it’s true pure essence better than 99% of the Muslims I know including Imams! Perhaps you and the Imam’s may be saying the same thing… but it is somehow much powerful and meaningful when someone who does not have to do it, was not raised to it, and is not a Muslim says it, feels it, and practices it. I also appreciate you drawing on the similarities of faith traditions in a world where most people seem to focus on our differences.

    Most importantly I wanted to let you know you are not alone. You do not know me, my husband, my friends or my family but you and your family are always welcome to our home, to our mosques, and to our iftaars. Ramadan or not. Fasting or not. So long as you know peace and “grace” and respect… you have a place. Also, at work people wave donuts and mnms in my face so I totally feel you on that! )

    PS. High Protein diet helps in these long summer days, with lots of water and water based fruits… try keeping most of your carbs in the morning, and be sure you take in your daily caloric intake. 🙂

  10. Mannal

    Wes- Salam ( Peace ) to you ,
    Your blog is so beautiful and I look forward to reading more. I am an Egyptian American Muslim. Lived in the US 33 yrs, So I’ve had manyyyy Ramadan’s in America. At My last Ramadan I was working in an Evangelic Church in NYC, Im a Bookkeeper = ) Unfortunatley I had to leave this past month because I moved to GA. But Whatever faiths we cherish in our hearts we can all respect eachother and learn from eachother and uplift eachother. So THANK YOU again for sharing one of our most favourite Pillars in Islam.Fasting is something we all look forward to. We frown sometimes and think Ohh can I do this, but then when you do it you feel proud of your accomplishment. and by the 22nd day you feel sad its almost over.

    First the thought seems un-american because of all the luxury’s you have around you.. so Why Fast? But we are people (you and I , and everyone interested in this blog ) who acquire satisfaction through our faith and not just worldly stuff. I commend you on your efforts and like everyone said you are not alone, if you are fasting during Ramadan, Break your fast at a local mosque. You are more then welcome to join the communities. I would tell you go to Egypt where they have streets lined up with tables and chairs in Cairo and Alexandria with full Meals lined up waiting for the empty chairs to be filled at the break of fast during Maghrib Prayer. These meals are free to whomever needs to break their fast. The well off usually provide this. It is recommended that everyone goes, poor or not to these “Maadit il Rahman” So that the needy and poor who have no food to eat , no home can be seated besides another person who might have everything. The poor should not feel like they are lesser then any of us who are blessed with more. This is a month to reflect on our lives and how we should be doing more for others on a regular basis. To be woken up from our over indulgent life of being spoiled to have it all, all the time. Dont concentrate on the people around you with a cool drink or sandwich and feel left out. Concentrate on the blessing that you are being given.. being made aware of how privledged you are on the other 11 months of the year while the local or abroad homeless person struggles yearly with occasional help during the national holidays. This Ramadan you are actually being blessed with the most challenging Ramadan yet. Its in the summer & the days are longer . But remember IF IT DOESNT CHALLENGE YOU, IT DOESNT CHANGE YOU. = )

  11. Lamia Kadir

    Lovely. Was a pleasure to be reminded by a fellow human being how lucky I am to have Ramadan. Your cousin (through Abraham), Lamia Kadir, Austin, TX

    • Dan

      Lamia, Your comment, “Your cousin (through Abraham)” has triggered many thoughts in me. I know have lots to think about as I ponder this phrase. Thank you.

  12. Anbar

    This is soooo true! As a Muslim, there are times I have had to miss a day of fasting because of health reasons and it is the most dificult thing to make it up outside of Ramadan when fasting by yourself.

  13. qatheworld

    Fasting is a solitary experience for many American muslims too, and it can be challenging to be surrounded by people eating not only out in the world but in your own family! Any family with children, you still have to prepare and give them food during the day 🙂 there are also several other exemptions from fasting which may cause people around you in the family to be unable to fast, either part or all of the time! I have heard from people who have lived in muslim majority countries that it is “harder” to fast here, not surrounded by a muslim family and supporting community all the time, including in some cases reduced community expectations and work hours, but for many American muslims it is all we know! But I do not think it is too difficult 🙂 Islam is not just the community it is each person’s direct connection to God with no one in between.

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  15. rhodonna

    I’m a divorced Muslim convert pastor, and I’m fasting alone. I’m the only practicing Muslim in my family, and I don’t live close enough or know any other Muslims close by my home……..But just knowing there are others out there helps! In that sense it’s communal too. God willing, I’ll not be “alone” next year. btw, you have my deepest respect.

  16. Umm Abdullah

    The Qur’an says: “Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you.” (2:183), but I never thought of fasting as a Christian practice, I grew up as a Catholic, so we ate fish instead of meat on Fridays, and we gave up something for Lent, but that’s not really the same. So I’m interested to read your posts and also the comments about Methodists fasting…

  17. Ayse

    I agree with you Mr. Pastor. I have an American new Muslim friend she says she likes to leave her biological mother’s home and go to one of her Muslim family’s home to fast during ramadan , because everybody is eating whenever they like to eat and in front of her in her own house which makes her fasting so difficult. But in Muslim family’s home, everybody is fasting so it is more bearable to fast.

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  20. Allison

    Let me start by saying, I think this is a wonderful thing that you are doing. You have inspired me to do this next year. I have not read all of the comments, so I do not know if this has already been mentioned, but I wanted to point out, as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), we, too, fast. Each month, the first Sunday of the month, we are encouraged to fast for 24-hours on Saturday-Sunday. We start our individual fast with a prayer, then refrain from food and water. So if it begins following Saturday’s lunch it would end at Sunday’s lunch. We close the fast with a prayer. During church on Sunday, it is a very spiritual experience knowing that so many people are together fasting for different purposes. This Sunday is called Fast & Testimony meeting, and during our first meeting of the day, congregants get up and share their testimonies of Jesus and of other spiritually uplifting things.

    It is difficult to do at times, but like you said, much easier when done as a community. Sometimes we fast at individual times in secret or as families/friends for a specific need, but for me, it always increases the spirituality and closeness I fell with my Father in heaven. Thank you for sharing your experiences and for showing the Islamic community that we love and appreciate them.

  21. Sarah

    I may have misread this post, but I feel like I have to say that yes fasting during Ramadhan is not alone and it is easier to do it when others are doing the same…but many Muslims fast days out of the holy month. Examples include when a person wants to improve themselves and when someone commits a sin and fasting is part of the ritual in asking for forgiveness. There are many other examples but the point is, during this time the person is “alone” entirely (with the exception of Allah). Even from the Muslim community. I feel like the strength and will to fast at any time comes from the faith the person has in God.

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