As I sit here in Carlucccio’s Italian restaurant, sipping my smooth, soya latte, my mind wanders back to post-Christmases past, particularly those when I was a signed-up, zealous member of a Charismatic Christian fellowship. Now, I’ve written all about my adventures there in my wee book, ‘The Prodigal Prophet’, but this morning I want to talk about our annual post-Christmas fast. I’d better fill you in with a wee bit of background first to set the starving scene.
Our church, or fellowship, as we preferred toc all it, was heavily into intercessory prayer. The founding pastors, as young students at Belfast’s Queen’s University, had felt such a concern for the Ulster Troubles that they prayed day and night for God to do something about the situation – for mercy I guess, realising that the dark tragedy was a symptom of a religious malaise that locked everyone into their cultural tribes and traditions. A lot of false gods were getting worshipped in acts of savagery and butchery that blighted the towns and countryside of God’s own wee country.
Anyway, as the years rolled by and we got more and more into a striving dualistic mindset, we adopted some weird teaching doing the rounds at the time. A teaching by Charismatic preacher, Derek Prince, which insinuated that God took our prayers more seriously if we prayed and fasted as a community. To dislodge the ancient darkness over the land would take lots of cries and supplications and more importantly less food.
I guess the premise was based on some mystical verses in the Book of Daniel, that suggested that dark angelic forces would only yield to the angels of God if we did our bit on earth by fasting.
Now of course fasting has been a spiritual discipline within many religious traditions for millennia. I suppose starving the ego was taken literally, in societies where food was already scarce. Of course, the practice has many beneficial health benefits for both psyche and body, no doubt about it. But, like most things that are good in theory, our leaders turned our week-long January fast into a legalistic practice that any committed member was expected to do. Of course the pregnant wives, yes wives, among us were exempt as they were doing their bit by growing the size of the fellowship! But apart from them, we all were shepherded into giving up our daily bread for the first week in January.
I guess it never occurred to our leaders that it was usually the coldest time of the year. Second thoughts, maybe it had, for to fast in the frost and snow was surely more holy than desisting from food in the warmth of summer. Anyway, we’d all sheepishly comply and dedicate ourselves to God anew, in the hope of hearing what lay ahead for us in the year ahead and how we could bring closer the ever-promised, carrot on a stick revival.
Prayer meetings were held every night, as ashen faced souls gathered together with a mixture of optimism and religious fervour. Oh how we’d pray, and cry and sing and dance. An ancient African tribe would have been proud of the amount of holy sweat we put into our nightly rituals. And in the centre of it all was Jake, our lead pastor, a Moses-like figure that we’d all followed out of status-quo religion. Everything was always just over the hill, around the next bend, and we’d follow like lemmings keen to fall into the Promised Land of revival.
Now, when I say fast, I really mean that we gave up solid food for the week. Yet, the good news was that someone had made a pronouncement on soup! We were allowed soup or broth to give it a more holy sounding name. I’m sure the soup sales in our local supermarkets skyrocketed during the first week in January. Of course, we had soup eaters and soup eaters! The really devout only had a purely liquified version of soup, whereas those of us who cheated allowed ourselves the odd pea or lentil. What a bizarre game we played out on the stage of Charismatic religion.
After a week of fasting we’d all turn up at a local Methodist church, kindly lent to us by a sympathetic pastor, for the grand finale. Often, over a thousand folk packed into the little sanctuary for the big event. We’d dedicated ourselves in all sincerity to our God and we expected a return. Penny in the slot religious belief always expects the Divine to come through. So, we’s sing and sing and sing, listening for any prophetic words that would reinforce our take on the Divine Mind. And then of course, would follow the sermon by Jake, the man closest to God who’d given up more food than the rest of us combined. Delivered with charismatic authority, Jake would outline what he felt God had in store for us all in the coming twelve months.We sat intently, nodding our heads and taking our notes in case we missed anything in the Divine plan. We were getting our marching orders for the next year and beyond. And of course, orders they were, if not Divine in nature. Jake was telling us what he wanted us to do to promote his religious dream in the year ahead.
The gathering would go on for three or four hours before the last man stumbled out onto the streets of downtown Ballybrigg, renewed in spirit and raring to go. Funnily though, while Jake would return home exhausted by his labours, most of us young men headed straight for the local burger bar, for our days of fasting were well and truly over for another year. So much for denying the flesh!
So, sitting here with my now cold latte, may I concur with the scriptures that suggest we eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!