Work and Sabbath at the Dawn of Covid-19

In preparation for helping my congregation both think about and live into new ways of being the church, I have been re-reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. It is a lovely text—accessible yet profound, grounded in deep knowledge of the Christian tradition and also of the earth. Many chapters have spoken to me, but especially timely is “The Practice of Saying No.” It meditates on the gift of Sabbath practice and how difficult it is to choose to engage in such a practice when our world is calling us constantly to either produce or consume. How radical it is just to stop, to sit, to observe, to breathe… to say no to the cycles of production and consumption that dominate our society.

Now that many of us have been forced by the Covid-19 pandemic into a withdrawal from our usual activities, the chapter reads differently than it has in the past. On the one hand, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have slowed our participation in commerce and literally called us home. On the other, most of us have moved our jobs from our offices into our homes, in some cases right next to family members and their work. How do we manage the contradictions and blurred boundaries brought about by this collective upheaval? There are some striking reflections making the social media rounds about the silver linings of this crisis, specifically how it might bring us back to some simpler ways of living and sharpen our eyes for what is truly important. Especially notable is Lynn Unger’s poem Pandemic, which explicitly names the calls for social distancing and sheltering in place as opportunities to reconsider the practice of Sabbath.

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Character and calling in a time of crisis

No doubt you have seen the advice, attributed to Mister Rogers’ mother, that we should look to the helpers in those times when the news is scary. As the frightening realities about the spread of the Covid-19 virus have unfolded over the last few weeks, there are also plenty of stories of heroes and heroines on the national and local level. Paying attention to their stories and especially to the virtues that they embody in this harrowing situation can be an opportunity for students to consider how the virtues intersect with calling. Here, I’ll mention two examples, but there are many others now just as there will be in the weeks and months ahead.

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“For Such a Time as This” – with Apologies to Esther

1945 Purim greeting (postcard) from the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art, University of California, Berkeley; reproduced at https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/9-things-you-didnt-know-about-purim/

Purim is coming soon, beginning on the evening of March 20th this year. That’s the Jewish holiday when we read the Scroll (aka Book) of Esther, which itself describes some of the traditions—days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor (9:22). But most Purim customs come from the tone of the book, a kind of burlesque with reversals, exaggerations, bawdy humor and caricatures. So we dress up in costumes, spin satires, and (as adults) drink a bit too much. When reading the Scroll of Esther in the congregation, we drown out the name of the villainous Haman with noisemakers (groggers)—as if we can silence the force of evil.

Purim is one of my favorite holidays, mostly because it weaves profound messages into all the silliness. One of them is that, even with all our discerning and planning and preparing, sometimes our vocation finds us rather than the other way around. It happens to Esther. 

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The Massacre Generation

The annual “Mindset” list is an attempt to capture the milieu of the incoming class, offered to faculty and staff as a tool for understanding the new students arriving on campus. The class of 2022, we are told in this year’s list, have always been able to refer to Wikipedia and have lived in a world where same-sex marriage is legal somewhere. The world they know does not include Enron but has always included a vehicle known as a Prius and a television show called Survivor. Most of the 60 factoids on the list are light-hearted, referring to popular culture and some to political events.

But there, at number 4, is an item one could easily miss if breezing through the list. Nestled between the observation about Wikipedia and an image of people appearing to “talk to themselves” in public, is this statement: “They have grown up afraid that a shooting could happen at their school, too.”

A vigil in Parkland, Fla., after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

The class of 2022 has lived in a world where mass shootings are recurring events. They have lived with a fear that it could happen to them at any time. Continue reading

Vocation in a Time of Crisis: Reflections from Pepperdine, November 2018

Flames above the Pepperdine campus (photo by the author).

It has been a very difficult week at Pepperdine University.

Just a few days ago, on Wednesday November 7th, the shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill occurred, and there were a number of Pepperdine students there. While all were severely traumatized, one precious first-year student, Alaina Housley, was killed. As many other campuses, schools, faith and social communities know all too well, the ripple effects of such violence reach far into a community. Thursday, we gathered for what was to be an initial prayer service on campus where pain, sadness, and anger were palpable. The grieving process for our campus community, not to mention that of other communities, will be slow and long. I can only imagine what it will be for the affected families. What can we do but hold each other and start to lift our feeble voices in prayer? Continue reading