The Coronavirus Sabbath: 9 Things to Do When Everything Is Canceled
Everything is shutting down. Not just major league sports, but swim practices, rec centers, local libraries, and office buildings. And public schools. In my home state of Colorado, even public schools are shutting down for at least two weeks.
This causes lots of problems. For instance, how are workers like barbers, mechanics, and home health care workers – those who can’t work from home – supposed to not only stay safe, but also care for kids who are home from school? Also, how long should employers hang on to employees in the midst of drastic short term revenue cuts? These are big questions that need answers.
However, for a brief window, the Coronavirus also presents an opportunity. As I write this, my office building has shut down, all of my kid’s soccer and swimming practices are canceled, and my calendar is opening pretty fast for the next two weeks. The cancelations have caused both anxiety and sadness in our home (we really enjoy seeing people in our community!) but I wonder: could we also see this unique time as an opportunity to deeply rest and restore our souls?
On the dusty sands of the Sinai desert, Moses descended from the mountain with a message from God. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8-9).
God gives the command to take a day of rest for three reasons. The first is trust. Sabbath is a chance to reorient our hearts toward trusting that God is the ultimate provider. It is an invitation to lay down ultimate trust in our money or our work as the source of security, and to release the chains of anxiety and restore us to our proper place as created beings, dependent on God the Father for every good gift (James 1:17).
The second is identity. Why not work every day of the week? Only slaves do that, suggests the Bible (Deuteronomy 5:15). God is the one who has redeemed his people from slavery, and Sabbath was to be a continual reminder of their liberty and identity as God’s people. Forced slow-downs like this current pandemic make me ask myself: have I submitted myself to a yoke of self-imposed slavery?
The third is justice. The Sabbath law includes a command to allow those with the least cultural power (children, servants, foreigners) to rest so that they “may be refreshed” (Exodus 23:12). In the midst of Coronavirus, this word is particularly poignant, as many tech workers will “work from home,” yet many with the least power will have far less ability to choose their hours and work location. Issues of justice and power will quickly rise to the surface as the global economy begins to hemorrhage.
If you are one of those who finds yourself with more time on your hands in the next two weeks, what would it look like to take this time and use it intentionally as a Sabbath rest?
Here are nine Sabbath practices to consider as the world begins to shut down for the coming weeks:
The Jewish “Day of Preparation” was a weekly rhythm of preparing to rest well – and it required extra work. Jews would store food and goods so they wouldn’t need to purchase them on the Sabbath day. They informed Gentiles (non-Jews) of their intention to take Sabbath rest.
Consider taking just an hour or two and consider how you might restructure time in the coming weeks. Many people waste Sabbath with entertainment or “vacation,” trying to vacate their daily lives. Instead, pause, find a friend or family member, and sit down together to consider how you might use this time to quiet your heart and life. Be intentional with this time.
The idea of Sabbath as dour law-keeping is from the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, not from God. In Jewish tradition, Sabbath was a time for richly eating and drinking. It was one of the “festivals of the Lord” which prohibited fasting and outward expressions of mourning (Leviticus 23). Sabbath was to be a “delight and joy,” recounting God’s grace toward his people (Isaiah 58:13).
In these next few weeks, you may consider having old friends over, or even neighbors who may feel particularly isolated. Yes, keep your physical distance, wash your hands, and be safe. However, nearly all state and local governments think that small gatherings with basic precautions are okay.
Consider having a lavish feast with co-workers, family members, or low-income neighbors as a way to express gratitude to God.
In Lauren Winner’s short, accessible book Mudhouse Sabbath, she notes the difference between contemporary visions of a day or rest and the biblical vision of Sabbath. “Whom is the contemporary Sabbath designed to honor?” she asks, tongue in cheek. “Whom does it benefit? Why, the bubble-bath taker herself, of course!” In contrast, Winner says, in the Bible the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. The difference between “indulge, you deserve it” (the popular vision for vacation) and “drink in the joy of God” could not be starker.
As you plan your Coronavirus Sabbath, leave time for communal worship (especially in smaller groups under 100), for long and short periods of silence, for prayer walks, and for studying Scripture. Worship is the center of Sabbath.
And worshipping Christians in this cultural moment have a unique opportunity to show the world that not fear or disease is at the center of our world, but the Triune God.
Sports, hobbies, music – these all can play an important role in a Sabbath period. Jewish culture was built around its festivals and celebrations. Recreation as “re-creation,” rather than leisure or vacation, can be an ingredient in renewal.
The Benedictine monks practiced ora et labora (work and pray.) They endeavored to be aware of God’s presence while farming, working, or even doing dishes. Can you do house chores or math lessons with kids during this time, yet quietly listen to God’s voice? Or internally are you “cranking work out,” nervous about all you’ll need to do when life returns to normal? The difference between the two heart attitudes is the difference between work and rest, Sabbath keeping and Sabbath breaking.
Yes, rec centers, stadiums, and theaters are closing. But the world outside your door is open for slow walks, long breaths, and deep smiles.
Remembering was a core Sabbath practice for the Israelites. Even amidst the pain of unfaithful kings, the breach of covenant, and eventual exile, they found new life in remembering the Exodus and their nation’s birth out of slavery.
Take time to write down the good gifts God has given in your working life. Get out picture albums, call old friends or co-workers, or ask your parents about their first memories as children.
All is gift, said the Ignatius of Loyola. It often takes loss and forced silence to see this liberating truth.
6. Love your neighbor.
“It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath,” Jesus said as the crippled man “stretched [his hand] out, and it was restored” (Matthew 12:9-12). The Pharisees saw this and conspired to kill him, calling him a law breaker. But Jesus saw that Sabbath was for the restoration of all his people, especially the poor, widow, orphan and foreigner.
During this next two weeks, consider visiting shut-ins (while, of course, taking proper precautions), visiting the grocery store for a neighbor without transportation, or caring for the kids of those who still have to work even though their kids are home from school. My friend Dr. Bob Cutillo, a physician at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, once told me, “Don’t serve the poor. See through the eyes of the poor.”
As the Coronavirus transforms American life, take some time to think: how is the affecting the lower wage workers I know? Or the elderly? Or even my own neighbors?
Christians have the unique opportunity to demonstrate hope over fear in the time of Coronavirus.
7. Practice simplicity.
“Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free.” The classic Quaker song offers a counter-cultural freedom from the entertainment and accumulation-complex of our culture: to possess less and intentionally simplify your life is to experience deep freedom.
Could you take some time in the next two weeks to develop the habit of giving things away? What is causing anxiety in you? What could you use without owning? What could you just as easily share as possess?
8. Renew your mind.
During Sabbath, consider taking time to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2). Read not only religious books, but anything from neuroscience to wildlife biology to the history of water rights in the West. Our careers have a way of making us technicians – we know everything about one topic, but remain in the dark about most of the world. Reignite your curiosity and sense of wonder.
Shut off the technology, and find paper books that you can sit with, engage, and genuinely enjoy.
9. Make plans to continue Sabbath rhythms after your “Coronavirus Sabbath” ends.
We’re created to work (Gen. 2:15) and Sabbath days are meant to end. This awkward Coronavirus scare too, will end, and soon enough, we’ll be headed back to normalcy.
But what about the rhythms of the next few weeks could you take with you in the responsibilities of “normal life?” What practices do you want to take up? And which do you want to lay down?
And with whom do you want to practice more sustainable rhythms of work and rest in the future? Judith Shulevitz’s The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time notes that Sabbath is a communal, not individualistic, activity. Could a spirit of Sabbath rest come to permeate even your working life, your family, your friendships and your community?
In our culture, most are engaging the Coronavirus with a spirit of fear and anxiety. Yet God says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand,” (Is 41:10).
Sabbath rest allows us to pause and see the great, colorful symphony that is God’s world. Even a “forced sabbatical” like this, when offered to God, can help us develop the spiritual muscles to hear the voice of God, see the beauty of creation, and embrace our place in it.
Everything may be shutting down right now. But, even as we take proper precautions, as Churchill once said, let’s “never waste a good crisis.”
This article was adapted from a chapter on Sabbath in my book An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life