Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.A portion of this scripture was read at the baccalaureate service at Andover Newton Theological School this past weekend, and a smaller portion also appears on the ordination announcement that I just received from a Unitarian Universalist friend. Such synchronicity I believe is God's way of calling my attention to something. But what?
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
I happen to have been "sort of" fasting the past 36 hours—drinking only fluids in preparation for a colonoscopy appointment. For those of you who have done this, you know that the liquid diet follows several days of giving up seeds, nuts, fruits, raw vegetables, peas, beans, corn … foods that form the core of my usual high fiber diet. A day of only clear liquids also precedes taking some vile concoction designed to clean out your colon. Fasting is not a part of my low-church Protestant heritage or early farm upbringing. Celebrating the abundance of the harvest and of God's love and extending hospitality to others to share in that abundance forms one of the bases of my own theology. Thus, I had considered that this modified fasting would be just a rather curious and unpleasant medical preparatory procedure until being confronted by the prophet Isaiah. "Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?" Certainly, colonoscopy prep is humbling, giving up control over food and over bodily elimination processes.
But when I do this kind of fast, however unwilling, I am claiming my privilege of being able to have preventative medicine, food, and water. I am particularly conscious of this in the wake of the cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China. In those countries there are people who are fasting, without food and potable water, not by choice, not out of privilege, not with access to excellent medical care, with food waiting in the refrigerator and cupboard, and with water on tap and all sorts of beverages available. Particularly in Myanmar, they are fasting because they have been struck by disaster and that has been compounded by the kind of self-serving interests and oppression that Isaiah condemns.
What Isaiah is calling for is not really about fasting or any other show of piety, but rather the prophet calls us to look around at where we are, to understand the gifts we have, and to do something about the brokenness in the world. Perhaps we must break things to make things whole: breaking yokes of bondage may help repair and restore the buildings and streets in Myanmar. We are called to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked. We are even to repair relationships with our kin.
I wrote a check for relief funds to go to Myanmar because my church and denomination both have long standing ties there. We had a visiting professor from the Myanmar Institute of Theology who came to my church and to school this week and I was able to ask him personally how his family was. The Institute's buildings and books were destroyed in the cyclone. There will be much work to be done. What else can we do to repair the breaches in those walls? But … we all have heard some variation of this before. How do we stretch ourselves beyond writing a check?
Is that all of the fast that I choose? There may be other things that will occur to me, but probably not that I can do before going to the doctor's for this exam. Short of travel to Asia immediately, however, there is one other thing that Isaiah reminds us to do: to pray: "you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am." Pray for the people of Myanmar and of China, for the fast that they did not chose, that they will get the help that is trying to get to them, that the money we can give can turn into food, shelter and clothes that the people can use. They have been and will be daily in my prayers.
So, I commend Isaiah 58 to you the next time you have a colonoscopy, and a fast that you don't really choose. It offers an opportunity to refresh one's own compassion for those in need, and reminds us to do something that is the kind of spiritual practice that really matters. Blessings on your fasting, and blessings on your knowledge of God's abundant love that we are called to share.