The Lenten Birthday: What a Little Girl Taught Me about Fasting

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This is the third reflection in the Missio Lent series. Read the rest here.

Raised an agnostic, my first exposure to the Bible was when it was sung in the rock-opera Godspell. Fascinated, I was, by the notion that there was a God and that He had an opinion about things. I bought the album and memorized the lyrics, and then discovered that there was more to it than just the book of Matthew. I acquired my own Bible, and at twelve, announced to my parents that I was going to go to church. I had been drawn to the white dresses and candles of my Catholic classmates. But since that was a bit too religious for my folks, they steered me to the perceived safety of the Episcopal Church down the hill from our house. As much as I loved the liturgy, I learned more about transcendental meditation than God there. I saw Him more in the summer stars and the wind on the water. Disappointed, I gave up my search and dove into the hedonistic world that beckoned me.

Eight chaotic years later, Jesus Christ ‘found’ me, and I Him, in a Jesus Movement church – the perfect fit for the kind of messy life I had lived. Unlike many evangelical churches, situation-based fasting and prayer was something both taught and practiced, and I adopted the discipline for specific dilemmas that seemed to need an extra underlining in prayer. (Well, most of the time, anyway; I recall one that was more motivated by weight than self-mortification. And then there was that three-day water fast that was really more of a foodless temper tantrum at God for not giving me what I wanted.) In spite of my immaturity, each fast drew me closer to Him. In His mercy, He works with what meager offerings we lay on that altar.

Meager, indeed, were my initial sacrifices. I was a product of American commercialism, the Me Generation, where indulgence and luxury were expectations to eagerly pursue, not something to deny.  Through fasting, I learned about counter-cultural living, and discovered quite a few of the things I had fasted for, I was now fasting from. I discovered Isaiah 58, God’s opinion of true fasting, and Isaiah 61. Both came to reveal my vocation and calling to bring healing to the broken-hearted and captive. All this I learned in the United States, when Christianity was considered a majority religion, and where being a Christian essentially meant being rich and powerful.

Lent was not on my radar. As a pagan-turned-evangelical, I missed the concept of rituals and church calendars. That all changed when I married into a devout Catholic family. From them I learned about holy days of obligation, catfish Fridays, Ash Wednesdays, and the penitential season of Lent. The feasting and fasting of the liturgical calendar was a whole new part of faith for me. Although the Catholic Church is large, there was a sense of being a member of a minority group, which I hadn’t experienced before as an evangelical, especially in the heyday of faith-based political swagger.

Soon thereafter, my husband and I moved to Amman, Jordan. Our landlords helped us navigate Arab culture, in the eastern, less wealthy part of the city. They were also devout Catholics, as evidenced by their nine children. Through those nine, who enjoyed hanging out with us and laughing at our stilted, emerging Arabic, we learned much about the culture and practices of our neighbors, both Christian and Muslim. We came face-to-face with real poverty in a second-generation Palestinian refugee camp and dozens of Iraqi refugees. All the ‘necessities’ I had packed a few months before I now saw as embarrassing excesses, and distributed a good part of that largesse to those neighbors. These neighbors seemed to be quite content with their lack of worldly goods and would literally give you the shirt they wore if you admired it – even if it was their only shirt. They helped me redefine ‘need,’ and honed my ability to live with less than I thought I needed — even chocolate. What I would have considered ‘fasting’ in the US became our daily diet.

I also learned what it was like to be a tiny minority. Christians are free to practice their faith, as long as it is done quietly and not shared.  The girls went to public schools where they were the only Christians in their classes, and their teachers often pressured them to convert to Islam. There were considered ‘less’ somehow, and often treated so. I often felt a good deal of ‘righteous’ indignation for them, until I saw the grace and humility these young girls displayed. Being a minority taught them to keep the main thing about Christianity the main thing – no false sense of entitlement for being the majority.

Our first spring rolled around, and all nine kids came down to show us the ashes on their foreheads marking the beginning of Lent. They began chattering away in rapid-fire Arabic about their 40-day fast from butter, dairy, eggs, and meat, a pretty serious fast for an adult, much more so for a child. Yet, from the youngest to the oldest, they happily engaged in the deprivation – for Jesus.

I said to one of the middle daughters, “Your birthday is next week. Will you still have a cake?”

Smiling, she shook her head, “No. I don’t have a birthday cake as my birthday always comes during Lent.” She was fine with it. Even though all of her other siblings got a cake every year, she had never had a cake. She made it sound like an honor, to go without that childhood tradition as a love offering of self-induced sacrifice for her savior. Feasting at Easter was a greater joy for her as a result.

Being in a culture where fasting for Ramadan was the highlight of the year prepared them for this. The display of a month of daily fasting set an example for Catholic and Orthodox Christians that is not often matched in the West. Even as Christians, they have to practice the fast of Ramadan in public, or be in violation of the law of the land. But being more connected to an ancient, agrarian culture, times of famine and lack are still within living memory.

As an American, I often think of famine as something that happens in Africa, but it’s something Christians around the world have experienced. I remember hearing an Iraqi believer talk about how before the war, they would throw out the uneaten rice daily, but now, having to count every grain, they repented of the waste they had once practiced. My Arab friends who have suffered like this are much better equipped for the possibility of lack, both financially and spiritually, than I am. Their mutual fasting also draws them closer as a community, something we also lack in the West.

We think modernity and our faith makes us secure from famine. In reality, if the transport-based supply chain was interrupted, most Americans are only a week away from feeling famine-like effects. If God in his wise judgment, decided it was time to take the toys and desserts from His American children in order to help them obey, would we call it the Tribulation instead of an extension of His mercy? I keep pondering this question while I’ve been meditating on First Peter lately.

We still need these spiritual disciplines in the West. We are fat in more ways than one, and our gluttony is a sin we don’t like to talk about. We are literally captives to our own self-induced self-indulgence, and the shame of it keeps us bound. Many who are not people of faith regularly ‘fast’ for health reasons: from sugar, from meat, from gluten or from lactose, or even cooking seasonally. Seasons of fasting prepare us to endure seasons of less plenty. What if God means to use fasting to prepare his people to be strong in faith while experiencing lack, being in a place of readiness for what the future may hold? A little Jordanian girl of great faith taught me this lesson. She knew the power of giving up something others expected as their right, and she did it out of love.

Wendy Merdian has lived with her husband and four children in Amman, Jordan, for the last two decades. She journeys with victims of child sexual abuse, has written for nearly every magazine in Jordan, contributed to WORLD magazine’s 9/11 anniversary issue, and works on her book on Thursdays.

Photo: Coffy | Motiondesign

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  • Richard Stienstra

    Wendy,

    Thank you for your insight to a lost discipline for many Evangelical Christians. We often only see “more” as a blessing from God and not “less” as a blessing as well. The evangelical world often seems to be engaged in individualism rather than the call to conformity into the image of Christ. I often miss the “church calendar” and it’s reminders to call us to faith, obedience and remembering of God’s faithfulness to His people in generations past. Too often we attach value to only that what is new and trendy. It is a view that often has no time for stillness, reflection and a sense of appreciation of the journey of faith taken by ourselves and collectively in the body of believers. Thank you for reminding us of a discipline of the past that gives a richer meaning to the present and what we experience in our daily lives.

  • David Wardle

    Thank you Wendy for these good thoughts – so well put! I appreciated also reading a little more about your earlier days. God had His hand on you. Debbie

  • Rick Rosetto

    Thank you Wendy for sharing the heart warming and encouraging stories of the Lord’s work in your life.

  • Wendy Anne

    Rich, Rick and Debbie, thank you all for your encouragement, and for being special people in the chapters of my life story. I thank God for the fellowship He has given us.

  • Loren Baird

    Thank you Wendy for your convicting words. What a powerful word to us in the West.

  • Angie Halaby Schupp

    Loved hearing this and imagining all that you talked about in my “home away from home” Amman. You are a gifted writer…