a reflection from Dr. Erin Raffety
A friend of mine scheduled a Google Hangout with a few of us the other night and then canceled, asking if the following night would work. When I asked my husband, he shrugged, chuckled and muttered, “Sure, it’s not like we’re doing anything.”
If you’re anything like us in just the course of a few weeks those jam-packed evenings with lectures, student events, church gatherings, and drinks with friends have faded to the default of nothing, another quiet night at home.
As so many of us have noted, it’s not been an easy transition. We’re so used to, dare I say, addicted, to finding our meaning in the doing. Being on the other hand, just being, where’s the payoff in that?
Two weeks ago my Princeton Seminary students led a weekend retreat on Sabbath with eighth grade confirmands from across the state at Camp Johnsonburg. As part of their programming, they led the entire group of over 60 youth in silent prayer practices on a Saturday evening, including a prayer walk in the bitter cold, praying with prayer beads in the gym under fluorescent lights, and a Lectio Divina and meditation session in the dimly lit amphitheater. I was certain that over 30 minutes of silent prayer programing with eight graders was at best misguided and at worst a recipe for mayhem and revolt, but you could have heard a pin drop. Granted the prayer walk had to be cut short due to the cold, and a few of the kids fell asleep during meditation, but for the most part, the silence was welcomed. It was almost like the kids were craving it.
Drawing on Nathan’s Stucky’s book Wrestling with Rest, the students had shaped the whole retreat around the reality that young people today feel anxious even when they’re resting alongside the beauty that as Christians, Sabbath is integral to our identity as people of God. The seminary retreat leaders repeated throughout the weekend, “We are human beings, not human doings.” And I began to realize how meaningful the Gospel truth that I grew up with, that “You don’t need to earn God’s love,” slightly tweaked to “You don’t need to earn God’s rest” ministered to these young people in their deepest need.
It’s hard to argue that what we have been craving has arrived by way of a global pandemic. If this is Sabbath, it’s certainly not the way we would have wanted it, or even the way God wants it, because people are literally dying, so many of us have little to no control, we feel more like hostages than pilgrims, contemplatives, let alone disciples—the world is crying out.
The waiting is too raw, too real.
This was not even the Lent that we Christians wanted!
But as I write that sentence, I realize how fundamentally we misunderstand this holy season, its wilderness, its wildness, its angst, its pain, its being out of control. I am struck by our misunderstanding, especially as Americans, that we believe we can beat Covid-19 by plowing through, buckling down, doing our social distancing better than anyone else, when if we wait well, we will actually wait longer. And that slowness of the flattening of the infectious disease curve will be the gift that we may not even recognize, the prolonging of manna in the desert, when we’ve decided we’re sick and tired of what God’s provisions look like.
Three times the tempter tested Jesus in the wilderness to rely on his own power, but each time, he put his faith in God. If we look closely at that scripture, we see that the tempter wasn’t just asking for Jesus’s allegiance, but asking him do things to save himself—to turn stones into bread, to throw himself off the highest point of the temple, and finally, to bow down. After fasting forty days and forty nights, the tempter was saying it was finally time for Jesus to do something, but instead Jesus pointed to how God had been with him all along.
In the gift of Sabbath, we rejoice that our identity in Christ is not based on our doing, but our being, our belonging, our beloved-ness. Even in the wilderness, that is true. Even in a pandemic, that is true. Perhaps especially in the absence of all control, assurance, and stability, that is always true.
Children often remind us that it’s not easy to wait. But as I blink back to that evening of silence in North Jersey, those stars in the quiet night sky, I remember that Lent, like Sabbath, is not our doing. We were never going to get resurrection as a reward for forty days of waiting or giving up or washing our hands or not going out. It sounds so crass to put it that way, but when we muscle Sabbath or Lent to our own doing, we leave God out of the very gifts that God desires to give.
It’s so easy to make our plans and leave God out. I know. I wasn’t convinced that God would meet 60 kids in the silence, but my students were willing to risk it. They were willing to dwell with God and wait on God. What if the only shot we have at reversing the tide of this pandemic relies on what we do not do? Are you willing to be still?
I can think of no better intention for this season and this world seemingly gone to hell than to let God do the resurrecting and ministering and for us to be the recipients of God’s ministry. We do not walk the road to Jerusalem, for we have a Jesus who has gone before us. We may suffer, but we will not, we do not ever suffer alone. We do not even need to be together in presence, we do not even need to utter a word, for we have a Spirit who unites us in prayer.
So what are you doing tonight? Is it nothing? Me too.