How do we talk to kids about fasting?
Recently I planned a children’s sermon around Isaiah 58, in which the people of Israel think that by fasting they’re pleasing God. Isaiah reminds them that God wants justice and a whole new way of life. Isaiah 58:6 tells us that simply refraining from eating is not enough: 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?
Fasting is a complicated topic for me, fraught with emotion. When I need to address it with my congregation, I imagine the women in the pews who’ve struggled with food for most of their lives and the men who learned various strategies for making weight in high school wrestling. I think of the countless dollars spent on diet plans and the hours wasted worrying about body shape and size. Spiritual fasting can morph quickly into food-shaming and be used to justify disordered eating. I wonder if fasting is a helpful practice anymore.
I knew what I didn’t want the kids to take away from my message: refraining from eating is good and is what God wants us to do, eating is not supposed to be joyful, eating is something to be controlled, reckless eating is a selfish act.
I was careful to begin my children’s message by telling the kids that they are never to fast from food because they have growing bodies that need lots of regular nutrition. I also told them that some adults choose to fast as part of their faith practice, but some choose not to fast, and that I’m firmly in the latter camp because it doesn’t feel like a healthy practice for me. I claimed the only time they need to fast is when it’s recommended by their doctor.
I wondered if I was passing on my anxieties about food and making it harder for everyone in the congregation to understand God’s call to justice and solidarity with those experiencing hunger.
Then I glanced over at a boy in the group of kids at my feet who understands about fasting far more deeply than me. He’s experienced daily pain, severe food allergies, endless doctor visits and difficult sleep, all related to food. For his family and for him, food is often the harbinger of terror and stress, pain and isolation. I will never begin to comprehend his experiences with hunger and how precious it is for him to experience food as a source of joy and fulfillment.
The kids gathered closer around me as I opened a children’s Bible. As I read about the people of Israel getting frustrated with Isaiah’s call to justice, the boy’s hand shot up and he stated confidently, “I think the people were crabby with God because they were hungry.”
What could I say about fasting, about justice, to a boy who has known for years how to restrict food and who would probably need to be vigilant around food for the rest of his life? What could I say about hunger and self-sacrifice to a boy who ponders every piece of food he puts into his mouth, who always knows where the epinephrine injector is located, who has never been able to sit at whatever lunch table he chooses, and who has watched his parents unleash incredible creativity as they seek to feed him?
I still don’t know how to address fasting as a spiritual practice in a healthy way, and maybe I never will be confident in my understanding of it. Yet maybe I can point out where it’s already happening. Spiritual practices include providing joyful eating experiences to children experiencing difficult food allergies and advocating for kids who know the panic of anaphylactic shock. I confess I’m only beginning to learn ways to support those with food sensitivities. If it’s not healthy for me to restrict my own food intake, perhaps I can listen and learn about others’ food struggles and to help create positive, communal experiences around food for everyone.
…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.