Saturday, July 28, 2012

"Starving One's Body to Feed One's Soul"

I heard this said a while back and it has stayed with me…
 When serving a meal, the host with the fewest material resources will ask if her guests have had enough to eat…
That those who call themselves “middle class” will wonder about how the meal tasted…
And that those on the high end of the economic spectrum will be concerned about a meal’s presentation…
I count myself in the middle group and have to say, that most of the time, have not been all that concerned about a meal’s presentation.  At the same time, as you might expect, my cupboards have never been empty.  Hunger is not something I’m terribly acquainted with, unless you count those tiny twinges I sometimes feel when I’m coming up on mealtime --- but even with those, I’m never certain if they are prompted by actual hunger or simply the time on the clock.
I don’t know much of hunger.  For that matter, I can't say I have ever intentionally chosen to get to know it better.
And so we come now to week’s Gospel lesson where we hear Jesus speak of being the ‘bread of life’ and his promise that ‘whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’  And while it is true that given my lack of experience (and that of most of my listeners this Sunday) with actual physical hunger, I am tempted to extrapolate this to all those sorts of hunger which I have known: hunger for recognition, for acceptance, for healing, for hope… and yes, of course, that would also be true.  Jesus, no doubt, is speaking of those hungers as well.  Even so, I'm going to start where Jesus does where his first listeners understood him well. With physical hunger.
A couple of days ago I was running back and forth between various kinds of visits and had my radio tuned into the local NPR station.  The Olympics are upon us again and I have to say, while the competition itself is interesting, the stories that have shaped those athletes are what always capture my imagination.  I wondered then as I drove and listened --- Is this the first year that we have fully paid attention to the huge diversity of those who will put their skills to the test on the field of play this Olympic season, or did I just somehow miss it in previous years? For I have noted more than one story about Muslim athletes in this Olympic cycle. As I drove and listened I found this story, in particular, offers a parallel to what Jesus speaks of in this week’s Gospel.
For it seems that Ramadan and the Olympic Competition fall at the same time this year.  Ramadan, of course, is that holy season in which Muslim brothers and sisters will be called upon to fast from sunrise to sunset.
So here is how the story begins,

Mazen Aziz, representing Egypt in the 2012 Summer Olympics, has trained for the 10,000 meter, open water swim for years.  It’s a grueling race that can take upwards of 1 hour and 45 minutes, depending on the waves, current, or water temperature.  But Aziz is Muslim, and with the Olympics falling during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the 22-year-old athlete had to make a choice: be in top physical condition or maintain a primary tenet of his faith.
It turns out the authorities in Egypt have given Aziz a way out, that he can postpone his fast, just as Muslims who are sick or pregnant can.  This won’t be true for all Muslim athletes, however.  Others will have to make a much more difficult choice.

Indeed, for many the dilemma boils down to this. As Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, who serves at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Virginia, explains it, "Do I starve my body and feed my soul?  Or in this month, do I starve my soul to feed my body, and my appetite for Olympic gold?” (for the whole story click here.)

Now it seems to me that understanding is not so different from the one Jesus offers now when he says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life…”
(John 6:27)

So I'm thinking now of turning my attention to the whole ancient discipline of fasting.  To try it on and consider what it may teach me about hunger.  Maybe this will mean fasting in ways I have not yet.  Perhaps it will mean simply paying attention when I wake in the morning to the hunger I always feel before breaking that daily fast.  It could be that even that would help me go deeper in my understanding of what it is to hunger for the things that matter, the food that endures, the food that is Christ's love and power and forgiveness and hope.
  • What do you think Jesus is getting at when he speaks of 'working for the food that endures?'  Does the comparison to Muslim athletes needing to make a choice between feeding one's soul or one's body work?  Why or why not?
  • Have you ever known hunger?  If so, how do you think you hear Jesus' words today differently as a result of your experience?  If not, how do you hear Jesus' words in this week's Gospel?
  • What disciplines help you keep in touch with your hunger for the 'food that endures?'  Do you fast?  How do you pray? What role does regular worship play in this for you? (And for those of us who are regular leaders of worship, how does that work for you?)


  1. Hi Janet,
    Our text study leader used this as one of her resources this morning. What a special treat to know that an old seminary friend is able to share her insights with others. Keep up the good work!
    Tammy (Kloos) Keen

  2. Hi Tammy,
    How wonderful to hear from you! Please send me an email at and let me know where and how you are... If I might ask, how did your text study leader use this today? Just curious. Much peace to you! Janet

  3. Dear Dr. Hunt,
    I love your postings and I’m a regular follower. Many of us seem hungry for something. Trying to feed ourselves whole permits us to look in the wrong places, sometimes form bad relationships, and in up in crooked deals. I believe that we are hungry for the word, I know I am, and that hunger keeps me going back day in and day out for more. The bread Jesus provides keeps us from craving the other foods that wreak havoc in our lives. His bread releases us from emptiness and keeps us full what a blessing to know His mighty deeds.