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Sadly, I haven’t been able to write for a while. Between my work and travel schedule, there has been no time to just sit, read, and reflect. But in the end, I think it has all worked out for the good, since before the events of the last few days, I didn’t have a whole lot to say on the subject of fasting. Growing up in an atheist household, this wasn’t a spiritual discipline that I had meaningful exposure to, and even in my adult Christian life it hasn’t held any special relevance or significance.
Part of what has kept me so busy is that our household has been gearing up for Taekwondo Nationals where my daughter just competed over the holiday. Athletes spend all year preparing for this event in which thousands come together to battle it out on the mats. Competition is fierce, emotions run high, and out of the chaos emerge plenty of heros and villains–stories of noble acts and good sportsmanship contrast to other stories of cheating, athletes purposely trying to injure each other, corrupt politics, and blatantly bad scoring and refereeing. Those times when wins and losses have more to do with a combination of luck and the quality (or lack thereof) of the judging than athletic skill are pretty disillusioning. Nationals in particular makes for an emotionally draining experience, however the results come out for the people you have come to support.
This was not a Christian event by any means, but there was quite a bit of fasting going on. When divisions are broken up by weight, those at the very bottom of their weight division are often put under pressure…by themselves, parents, or even coaches…to shed last minute pounds in order to “make weight.” Athletes were purposely starving and dehydrating themselves. Some were older teens and adults, and one can only hope they were being careful with their bodies and using good judgment.
But there were young children fasting too, walking around pale, listless, and out of sorts, their growth and health sacrificed for what would eventually end up being a 1-3 minute match…all to take the advantage in a division where they don’t naturally belong. I heard stories of some kids being pressured to drop ten or twenty pounds in preparation for Nationals, which they gain back quickly by gorging themselves and drinking lots of fluids once they’ve weighed in the day before the match. What a horrible, horrible idea. Way to stunt your child’s growth, and risk serious dehydration, for what really?
I will admit that if my daughter had been a few pounds lighter, she would have dominated the weight class below her. Instead she ended up facing much taller girls who were 20 pounds heavier. But she is only 8 years old and she’s not overweight. My husband and I agree that we will never try to manipulate her weight for taekwondo.
She didn’t win this year–the first time that has ever happened–but she gave her opponent a tough match and held her own without having to fast, without using stall tactics, or trying to get away with cheap moves. There are no sour grapes here. All of us, including her team and coach, were extremely proud of what she accomplished on the mat despite the many odds stacked against her. She will learn from the experience. She will keep growing, training hard, and come back next year better for it. The integrity of the fight is always more important than the win, and we’re so grateful she has a coach who understands that. My grandmother always used to say, “cheaters never win, and winners never cheat” and she was totally right. The matches of some of my daughter’s older teammates were riddled with bad judging and obvious cheating. But even when the cheaters ultimately win, you can see in their faces that they’ve lost something more precious than they’ve gained. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of damaged and discarded integrity in relation to taekwondo, and we’re fighting to make sure our daughter keeps hers intact no matter what.
I think this passage in Matthew speaks to the same issue. Jesus was watching those who were supposedly representing the best of the Jewish faith, and what He saw was the ugly side of fasting and damaged integrity. These “hypocrites” had lost the spirit of what fasting was really all about. It had become an act, a way to show off to others how pious they were, a way to get attention. They weren’t doing it with a Godly purpose, nor did they receive a Godly reward in return. They had gained their desire, the accolades of men, yet lost something far more important.
Jesus gives us a better example to follow in this passage–to anoint our heads, and wash our faces–to fast with integrity and for the right reasons. If when we fast we’re making a point of showing our pale, listless faces so that others will think we’re spiritual superstars, we’ve lost the whole point and gained nothing. I know there are different reasons why people fast, and some are pretty personal. Fasting during desperate times can give us focus. We can also use fasting as a spiritual discipline, to remind us of our dependence on God. At the least, fasting should make us grateful for our daily bread, and instill in us a compassion for those who aren’t fasting by choice.
There was another thing I saw on my trip to Nationals this year that has stuck with me. An old man on the streets of Chicago digging in a garbage can for food. Quite a contrast to both the extravagant abundance available at our hotel, and the deliberate hunger athletes were imposing on themselves as a way to manipulate their weight divisions. In some ways, I think that fleeting glimpse I got into the old man’s stark reality was the most important moment of the entire trip. It grounded me, reminded me of what is really important, helped me to not get caught up and overwhelmed in the frenzy of Nationals.
Even when we aren’t fasting physically, it is good to periodically fast from our current mentality, shaped so much by the worldly culture around us, and center ourselves in God’s truth. Ultimately, I think that is what fasting forces us to do, and that makes the pain of it all worthwhile.
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