As I wandered around campus chatting with students who were preparing their lunches to the perfect delight of the senses, I noted one student sitting alone in the hall. Now this is not uncommon when you spend three days a week with your cohort, there will be times that everyone chooses space and solitude. But I thought, just to be sure, I would mosey over and see how she was going.
It wasn’t long into our conversation that she revealed the reason she had self-located away from the kitchen. Fasting can be difficult at the best of times, but when 20 of your peers are revving up to eat… well, that would be understandably more difficult. It is (at least at the time of writing), the month of Ramadan, a time for Muslims to engage in contemplation, community, charity, and fasting. This young woman was one such believer, and this was her first time engaging in the practice. She asked me if I had ever fasted. Never to this extent, I responded, but we Christian’s have Lent – a season of giving up, and I have done “Live Below the Line” – a challenge where one raises money by living under the $2 a day poverty line. We began to talk about our mutual experiences of giving up. First, the focus was on the physical trials and tribulations – the stomach grumblings, how normally welcomed and pleasant aromas suddenly become a source of frustration, the lack of energy, etc. This lead us to share and swap strategies for getting by, whether that be prayer, distraction via YouTube, or reminding ourselves that we are in the fortunate position to be able to choose to fast.
Eventually, our conversation moved into deeper territory, to the process of foregoing as a spiritual practice – to the intent of fasting or giving up rather than its consequences. We spoke of the way it reveals to us those worldly things which can interfere with our fidelity to God. Those things we allow ourselves to believe we rely upon. I shared of how the awareness brought on by hunger (or whatever Lenten deprivation I have previously chosen) causes one’s thoughts to turn to God (as the reason why) more times than I would normally across a day. She shared of the way it brings together family and community in shared purpose and obedience. I extended, reflecting on my experience with Live Below the Line, and how it cultivated a sense of solidarity and compassion with those who are far more familiar with hunger than I. We both talked about how, despite the difficulties, we were glad to try, at least try, to keep God first in the process of foregoing.
After our discussion, I began to think about the talk from Walter Brueggemann I had listened to on the drive into work that day; a talk centring on the fidelity of God. Brueggemann explored the way the Biblical witness recorded the relationship of God to humanity as marked chiefly by fidelity (exemplified in God’s relationship with Israel). God is not best understood or articulated as abstract universal principles, but as one who continues to show fidelity, to draw alongside humanity in all its struggles (exemplified par excellence through Jesus). Our response to this fidelity is not intellectual assent or lip service, but mutual fidelity marked by following. Foregoing then, whether it is through the season of Lent, or otherwise, is about addressing that which would affect our fidelity. It is about reflecting on what in our lives promises fidelity to another – whether that is to our consumer culture, our western privilege, etc, etc.
As I reflected on the way this talk danced with my “lunchtime” conversation, I became aware of a third dance partner waiting to step in (we’re getting deep into that perichoresis Trinitarian language now). Again that very morning, in our devotions, we heard about ethical fashion from a guest speaker from Baptist World Aid Australia. We were challenged to consider who makes our clothes and thus, what kind of working and living conditions our consumer choices support. After this talk, some of the staff and I were looking through the Ethical Fashion Guide bemoaning the fact that a number of our favourite brands scored rather poorly. We talked about how we would have to go elsewhere, shop differently in light of this knowledge. Again, it came back to foregoing. This time, I saw its relation to our fidelity. God is a God who chooses sides with the poor – to adopt a famous adage, God has a preferential option for the poor. How are we showing fidelity to God if we shop in a way that mistreats and does harm to those who God loves and cares for? By showing fidelity to the least of these, those underpaid and often exploited garment factory workers, those children in Uzbekistan cotton fields, through our choice of ethical fashion providers, we are showing fidelity to Christ who taught that whatever we do for the least we do unto him.
So, I am left to reflect on how I might continue to show fidelity to God through that which I chose to forego. Foregoing that which would call for my allegiance, my priority, my embrace. Foregoing that which would denigrate and disrespect the least of these, God’s beloved poor and vulnerable. And perhaps, forgoing any food analogies or illustrations in the next month of devotion, to make someone else’s fidelity a little easier.