Over recent years many in the Evangelical Charismatic traditions have been drawn to the ancient spiritual practices. Practises that many of us had abandoned as we broke free from the chains of legalism and discovered the freedom of grace; as we left traditional churches to form new expressions of church. But 30 years on many were worn out and burnt out with constant activity and the ever present hope of ‘breakthrough’ that never seemed to materialise. Stories of many, not just a few, leaving church disillusioned, disappointed, angry and frustrated – often not with God but with the high ideals and unrealistic expectations of what it was to be a follower of Jesus.
I came across Walter Brueggemann’s book, Sabbath as Resistance, a few years ago. My experience of Sabbath as a child was a strictly enforced one where everything enjoyable was banned – no sport, no comics, no TV. Brueggemann brought a whole new perspective on the powerful nature of Sabbath and how counter cultural it was for the people of Israel at the time the law was given. They had been recently freed as slaves, oppressed for generations, expected to produce more and more with fewer and fewer resources. This way of living and working was so ingrained that for them it was ‘normal’. So, for God to say ‘Six days you shall labour and do your work but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God’ was mind-blowing. They could leave their work and it would still be there when they returned. The success of their work was not dependent on them having to be constantly, 24-7, ‘at work’. It showed them that God was God. He was the one overseeing their work [and the work of creation].
So, observing a Sabbath helped them to remember those things.
Not only was a weekly Sabbath commanded but every seven years the land was to be given rest. Creation needed sabbath too.
Scroll forward a few hundred years. The people of Israel had spectacularly failed to follow God’s ways. They adopted the customs and practices of the nations around them turning away from God. They failed to put their trust in God. They refused to observe his commands, including observing Sabbath. Prophets arose calling people back to follow the one true God. But still they refused to listen and turn back to God. Eventually Nebuchadnezzar invaded their land, took control of Jerusalem, and carried many into exile. And then we read these words:
“The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfilment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.” 2 Chronicles 36:21
The people did not observe sabbath rest so it was enforced. Creation demanded it.
Back to the present.
Two strands have emerged in recent years. The first I mentioned above, the rediscovery of ancient practises of silence, solitude, pilgrimage, sabbath, etc. and the popularity of books on the subject. Many of my friends have been reading John Mark Comer’s book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. There is a cry for something more. We don’t want to be carried along by the strong currents of our culture that demands more and more with fewer and fewer resources. We have many ‘things’ but are time-poor, relationship-poor, mental health-poor. We recognise something needs to change but we don’t know how to get off the merry-go-round.
The second strand is the climate change movement. This has gathered huge momentum in recent years and there is a growing recognition by world governments that we can’t keep doing what we have been doing in the pursuit of advancement and ‘prosperity’.
And then along comes the coronavirus pandemic affecting every nation on earth. It’s been interesting to observe people’s responses, particularly those of Christian leaders. For some there is denial, for others the enemy is clearly at work and the focus has been on standing firm, praying against the virus. For others it’s a call to repentance that God would heal our lands. Then I came across this, published by a pastor in the USA:
What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now, on trying to make the world different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still, reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
Know that our lives are in one another’s hands.
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love – for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, so long as we all shall live.
Lynn Ungar 11th March 2020
Maybe we are experiencing ‘enforced sabbath’? Maybe it is God’s way to enable us to press ‘hard reset’?
Maybe it’s a gift?
A gift of time. A gift of space.
We may never have this time and space again in our lifetimes.
My temptation in the first few weeks of this crisis [and it’s what I’m seeing most others in my position doing] was to take responsibility for my family, church, wider community, the city and nation! I saw it is an opportunity for the church to shine. So, we were planning community groups, live streaming, daily devotionals online, serving those in our immediate community and trying to keep everyone connected.
After four days I was exhausted.
I was trying to hold on to everything that I knew and was afraid to embrace the uncertainty of what lay ahead. I had to let go, pull back and embrace this new season.
It’s wonderful to see so many in our wider communities stepping up and taking the initiative. Community groups are springing up all around us. I don’t need to organise it all. I just signed up. I realised I just needed to be involved, to be salt and yeast.
If creation is groaning and screaming ‘enough’ and if we see this time as a gift what could this season look like for us?
I posted this earlier from a Cistercian monastery in Ireland.
“We Cistercians have been self isolating for centuries. For those of you who are self-isolating, here are four concrete tips that have served our Order well for nearly a thousand years”
1) Write down a weekly schedule. It needn’t be too complex or specific. In fact, it’s important that you don’t regiment yourself so much that you become like a soldier. But having a basic schedule will structure your week and give you the time and freedom to live a productive life. You may want to colour-code the entries according to whether they are daily, weekly or monthly occurrences.
2) Add at least two structured daily prayer sessions to this. They needn’t be for more than ten minutes. Set aside a quiet place, and a good time, and make this your chosen meeting place with God.
3) Read! We may have a wonderful library at the Abbey but everyone can have access to books if they want. Many online stores are still operating.
4) Try to live in the present moment. One of the thoughts that short-circuits self isolation is the ‘What-to-do-next’ thought. It makes you restless, unable to engage with staying in one place. Your weekly schedule is a good start, here. And books will give you a mental ‘space’ to lose yourself in.
Maybe it looks like that?
Maybe we need to embrace this time and stop trying to fix the world? God is God. We are not.
Maybe we need some space to allow God to fix us? To reset us? To refocus us? To enable us to become more human?
Maybe we need to embrace this enforced Sabbath?