Discipleship is always difficult for us not only because in many ways it is countercultural, it is also counterintuitive. To be a disciple means that we have to risk and we have to suffer, but in our suffering we must be aware that our suffering is not used to further our own benefit. That is hard, but there is a lot to it.
Early on in my ministry, about twenty years ago, when I was working as a youth pastor, the church that I worked for had a tradition of the thirty-hour famine. As someone keen to issues of hunger I went along with the event. I did my research, studied the issues and had a great retreat planned. We had water and emergency rations, but the kids were to refrain from food.
I watched as the event unfolded and I started to become a little frustrated. Growing up with hunger, granted from medical issues, not a lack of food, I know the effects of hunger on the body. For the thirty-hour famine, one of the greatest aspects of hunger they engage in is knowing that you are not eating and cannot eat. You know where there is food, but you restrain yourself. After the first few hours or so people begin to have a pain in the stomach. By the time the event ended there was the dramatic “Food, now we can eat!” I could describe the drama, but your imagination probably would do a better job.
The unfortunate thing is that Hunger has very little to do with pain. What hunger does to the body and brain is more sinister than any temporary pain in the stomach. When one is deprived of food for long periods of time, their cognitive ability is slowed. Physically, even the most menial of tasks are difficult. Hunger is more than the pain felt, but unfortunately what I witnessed was that the kids who participated focused on that part, since that is what they were experiencing.
The first of the four passages that we are going to look at this week concerns fasting. Fasting is a ritual that was integral to the faithful life. The fast would start with the sunrise and end at sundown. But going 12 hours without food would take a certain toll on the individual and the pain and suffering would start.
A choice would come in the late day, as the hunger pains set in; do you show your pain, or do you just keep going? Interestingly, what Christ states is that no matter what the pain or struggle might be, not only do you not show it, but you do your best to make it seem as if nothing at all was different.
Within that lesson there are a couple things that translate to the remaining lesson this week. The first is a definition of strength. In order for one to have the strength to overcome, they must have the ability to continue on their path, no matter what deficit they may be dealing with, joyfully moving along with their lives.
The second lesson that we learn is not as obvious, but can be seen in the subtext, is something that we struggle with often and is the intersection of our pain and the pain of others. Fasting is a luxury. I say that because one can only fast if they have something to fast from. If you fast and make a spectacle of yourself you act the fool, especially when you come to find that there are others who are more hungry than you who take it in stride.
It was interesting when we finished the Famine that year and the kids mobbed the dinner their parents put out. One young boy just politely sat filling his plate. Looking back to the event, I realized that he did not make one complaint or say one thing. As he finished he went back and ate more than anyone else. As we waited for his mom to pick him up, I asked him how he like the event. He went through everything, he liked the games we played, the talks, but most of all he like the meal we had at the end; it was the first real meal he had in a week. No one knew; I almost cried. In my mind I listened to the complaints from all the teens, except for the one that probably had the most to complain about, and I thought, “the problem when we boast of our suffering is that we forget that there is always someone who suffers more.”
For the record, the boy and his family did get help from the church once we knew they needed it.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen