I spoke yesterday on the topic "What is fasting?"
Between two talks that lasted longer than anticipated and an intermediate hymn that took a while to start, I had five minutes left. Afterward, I realized that was a good thing, since it allowed me to focus on the heart of the message I wanted to give.
I started by mentioning how important it is to understand what something means in order to live it properly. I used reverence as an example by saying that I could be sitting silently in church and be totally irreverent. Reverence means "deep respect, worship, adoration, etc." - and I could be thinking about sports or my job or any other topic that did not make me reverent. I also pointed out that some of our hymns are supposed to be sung "confidently", "with vigor", "enthusiastically" - and many of them are sung best when sung loudly. Those songs, when done appropriately, are sung reverently - since they convey deep respect, adoration, worship, etc.
(If I'd had more time, I would have used modesty as another example. We largely have taken an important concept, when viewed in its entirety as "moderation", and narrowed it so restrictively to the way we [and, mostly, women] dress that it has lost much of its transformative power - and, in many cases, we have begun to term conservative immodesty [over-dressing for an occasion or activity] incorrectly as modesty.)
I told everyone that I had planned on reading Isaiah 58, which I highly recommend and see as the best explanation of what fasting is and is not, but that, given the time constraints, I would summarize the central message, instead. I first said that I don't think God cares one bit about us not eating when we can choose to eat, in and of itself, and that fasting is not supposed to equal not eating - just like reverence does not equal being quiet or silent.
With that, I focused on Isaiah 58.
The first few verses explain why Israel was condemned for the way it fasted. They abstained from food but simultaneously continued to oppress the poor - and performed their normal labors - etc. Fasting changed nothing about their practices and their lives. They also fasted for their own benefit, including making it an obvious sign of their righteousness. In fact, by wearing sackcloth and using ashes, they put on disguises that made them appear to be poor - a rank form of hypocrisy.
The rest of the verses focus on the pure intent of fasting: helping the poor, the afflicted, the imprisoned, etc. In other words, fasting is supposed to help people who generally don't understand poverty and hunger in a powerful way forge a link with people who don't have the luxury of choosing to fast - who go without food regularly and without end in sight - who would never dream of making a show of their poverty - etc. In a way, it is similar to temple work, which is supposed to connect our hearts with our ancestors in a unique and eternally-binding way and help us respect, understand and love them differently than we could without that concept.
I emphasized that if we are not feeling connected to the most poor and needy - the truly destitute among us and throughout the world, in some way and to some degree, we are not fasting as it is meant to be. If we are not becoming more Christ-like in how we interact with those who are hungry and marginalized and outcast and demeaned and ridiculed and "stand in need of comfort" in some way, we are missing entirely the foundational reason why we are supposed to fast. If we are not receiving the suffering of the poor, we are not fulfilling a pure fast.
I said there are legitimate reasons why we should fast at times for certain blessings in our own lives, but that if we make ourselves the center of most of our fasts we are, in a real way, no different than the Israelites in Isaiah 58.
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