ON SUNDAY THE CHURCH ASKED US TO FAST THE coming Tuesday, which I forgot to do, and so I decided to do it Wednesday, hoping it would count towards the collective effort all the same, and that there was not some mystical necessity breached by the 24-hour lag.
We moderns seem to be clueless about fasting, all of us standing around looking at each other to see if the other guy knows what to do. I remember that in seminary years ago when a day of fast was declared, you would see those guys around 6 p.m. fairly salivating and queuing up at the supper bell like drooping huskies after the Iditarod, which to me was a very wimpy fast, for I was fresh out of a tradition where fasting was fasting, and meant the entire day, not this business of skipping breakfast and lunch. I went the whole three meals back then in Bible school-and was mighty proud of it too.
On the other hand, the Arabs, who are much tougher than I am, fast only till sundown, which is getting me thinking again; maybe the seminary boys had the right idea.
As far as I can tell, the purpose of fasting is that every time your stomach growls, when you would naturally raid the fridge, it reminds you to pray, which is not something that comes naturally otherwise. Plus, fasting makes you thankful for food in general-if you can get over your initial ill will towards the ingrates around you who are stuffing themselves like it's their inalienable right. By evening you are feeling amazed and grateful to be living in America, and you can hardly believe your good fortune that tomorrow morning you will walk down to the kitchen and have pancakes with real Vermont syrup.
About 10 a.m. I decide to make tea. I never drink the stuff, always finding it a waste of time when there's orange juice or chocolate milk or other more substantial beverage around. But I remember this "Celestial Seasonings" I saved in the cupboard for company; and tea is just water, I figure, and you're allowed to have water on a fast, right? But now I start wondering if that's cheating, and if Satanic thinking is taking hold, in my vulnerability, to mess up my fast. Is it a sin to get a little peach flavor in my water when I'm supposed to be denying myself?
The behaviorist benefit of the fast is working at least. Like Pavlov's dog with religion, I get in the habit of praying at every unpleasant surge of gastric juices. A string around the finger would do the same, though, so there must be some spiritual dimension about which I'm uneducated.
The materialist in me rears its head around noon, after having been presumed long dead. Is anything really accomplished, any peg moved an inch in the universe, by my not putting toast in my mouth today? And am I not in fact merely trying to manipulate the Almighty with this glorified hunger strike?
Come early afternoon I detect the mutinous thought that I won't be any good to my kids if I'm near fainting, and that it's more important to get my work done than not to eat something; and in any case my attitude has been so mixed that I have surely already blown whatever spiritual benefit would have accrued to my self-affliction.... Also, I pray for the church.
The terrible thing about being a Christian is that you don't have to do anything for salvation. You don't have to sell your possessions and give to the poor. You don't have to be a missionary. You don't have to live in a house below your means so that you'll have more money to invest in the poor. You don't have to seek the Lord wholeheartledly like Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:3). You can seek him but not wholeheartedly, like Amaziah (2 Kings 14:3). And you don't have to fast.
Thursday, 4 a.m. now, and I know this: I am dust. There are only a few meals between me and death. I am utterly dependent on God's good pleasure for my very existence.
David fasted when he was in trouble (Psalm 69). Jehoshaphat called a fast when the Moabites came up against him (2 Chronicles 20). Ezra fasted to ask for safe passage (Ezra 8:21). Esther would not go to the king unless a few fasted with her (Esther 4:16). Joel proclaimed a fast for backslidden Israel to repent and ward off disaster. And 'til I understand a lot of things better-like how prayer affects eternal decrees, how suffering produces character, and why it is we fast-that will be good enough for me.