Bishop’s Letter: Fasting or Famine
As I write this letter, the United Nations’ Under-Secretary- General, Stephen O’Brien has declared that the world is facing its largest humanitarian crisis in 72 years. Having just returned from a visit to the region, he warned that more than 20 million people are at risk of starvation and famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Kenya. The media has followed the story up with photos of emaciated people patiently queuing for food. The pictures and the stories, especially of children and babies, are heart breaking.
One of the tragic features of this particular crisis is that the famine is largely man-made and has been caused by conflict and war. This is likely to make the humanitarian response even harder as attempts are made to get food to the neediest people over the coming weeks.
This crisis is unfolding against the backdrop of our observance of Lent, a time when Christians undertake self examination, and when we fast and pray. These are good spiritual disciplines to undertake in their own right and they can break the power of our addictions and compulsions. However, in the Hebrew Scriptures, another important aspect of fasting is to focus our thoughts and our actions outwards to others. This is how the prophet Isaiah put it, speaking the words of God to his people:
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? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
(Isaiah 58. 6-8)
Having journeyed through Lent, we are brought to the most important feast in the Christian Year. Easter is, above all, a celebration rooted in the idea that God is the One who defeats death and suffering. He is the life-giver, the One who brings resurrection life.
One of the practical spiritual disciplines that we can undertake as we prepare for Easter is to practise generosity – generosity in our daily prayers for the those suffering; generosity in talking to others about the crisis and encourage them to do something positive; generosity by giving to those agencies which are working on the ground, bringing humanitarian relief to the suffering. These are the spiritual disciplines, rooted in daily life and action, which can declare that we are a life-giving, resurrection people. I hope every parish, school and chaplaincy in the diocese will have a special collection towards the relief of famine, as an expression of the generous love of God.
Bishop Alan, St Albans