I only ate two pieces of bread and drank water yesterday. But it wasn’t a fast. If it was I wouldn’t be telling you about it.
A small number of Jews in the first century fasted twice a week (See Luke 18:12 and the Talmud) Some pharisees were in this group choosing to fast on the 2nd and 5th days of the week. According to legend, they believed Moses climbed Mount Sinai to meet with God on the 5th day and came down from the mountain with the ten commandments on the 2nd. Their fast was a commemoration of this meeting.
At least that’s what some of them told folks.
There could be another reason they chose the 2nd and 5th days though. Those were market days. Throngs of people crammed into the marketplace to do business, to buy produce and meet and cloth. In Jerusalem the country folks came into town and shopped, and the city’s population doubled.
These two-day fasters moped through the crowds of visitors and vendors. Their heads were covered in the filth of ashes. Their skin was paled by white chalk. Their clothes were purposefully shabby. They drug themselves through the sea of consumers buying their daily bread looking as pitiful as possible to broadcast the message “I’m fasting! Look how spiritual I am!”
The first fast mentioned in scripture was undertaken by Moses. He fasted “for the sins of the people.” Jesus fasted. Paul and Peter fasted. So fasting is not a bad thing. It’s a ritual that Christians believe starves the body to feed the soul, increases spiritual focus, reminds us of our dependence upon God, and affirms that our desire to obey God is greater than our desire for anything else. And it always accompanies prayer in the scriptures. It’s good thing. It’s emptying the body to fill the mind with thoughts of God.
But it’s private. Jesus tells these two-day fasters so. It’s not something we broadcast or else our motives could become tainted and we, like the pharisees, could find ourselves attracting attention from the crowd…and liking it. Our focus, instead of being drawn to the nourishment of God by our time of hunger, could be drawn even more to ourselves.
Yesterday I ate bread and water but it was not a fast. It was a micro-famine. Though I do think my focus on God and my dependence upon God was increased, that was not my motivation for missing meals. Instead, I wanted to experience, to a very small degree, what poverty is like.
One symptom of poverty is hunger. What does it feel like to eat very little for an entire day? When my sponsor child ate only bread (her mother is a baker and brought home leftovers) what did she experience? What happens to the mind and body of a hungry person? What does that do to the way they live? How they pray? If I lived this way every day how would I spend my time differently? What would I desire? What would I fear? What would I do to save my children? IS there anything I wouldn’t do to make the hunger stop?
That’s what I wanted to think through. I wanted compassion.
“Compassion” is “com,” which means “with”, and “passion,” which means “suffer.” I wanted to suffer with the poor for only a day. And I did to a very small degree.
I have very little body fat. No extra calories hanging around the mid-secton to feed off of when food stops coming in. Very quickly, before lunch even, I got a headache and lost the drive to do anything but sit in a chair and watch my kids play. I was irritable. By the afternoon I felt sick. My stomach cramped slightly and I was a little dizzy after pushing Penelope on her tricycle for a few minutes. My mouth watered and my stomach screamed “FEED ME!” while my family ate yummy chicken wraps, juicy orange slices, chips and salsa. After dinner, we went to the cult-de-sac. I sat in my lawn chair trying to follow along and contribute but I wasn’t quick enough to be witty, not focussed enough to connect all the dots in the conversations. During bath time my head pounded. My eyes wanted to close. I was short with my kids. My hands trembled the tiniest bit and I marveled at how quickly weakness had flooded me, after missing only three meals.
Mission accomplished. I understand better now why a mother hands her child to a stranger and begs him to give her a better life in America. I understand better why a mother weeps when her child is last in line to enter the new Compassion International project that’s just come to town. I understand better why theft and murder are easier crimes to commit for a father of four in Bangladesh than for me here in the suburbs.
This wasn’t a fast. This was a micro-famine. An exercise in compassion. The motivation wasn’t increased awareness of God, but increased understanding of the poor God wants me to be aware of.