By Jessica McDougald
I have always found myself fascinated by Sabbath.
Not just your average Sunday kind of Sabbath. When I was little I thought Sabbath was just another name for Sunday, when church-going folk went to church and came home to cut the grass, and not-church-going folk slept in and then cut the grass.
I mean real Sabbath, that Holy guest. The Sabbath you light your candles for. The Sabbath that makes you want to cook a meal even though you are an awful cook. The Sabbath that finds you in your bathroom with dinner’s frozen chicken shut tightly in the biggest tupperware you could find, running warm bathwater and hoping that your chicken will thaw under the spigot in time for sunset. The Sabbath that whispers to your busy schedule and weary soul breathe, slow down, rest.
Sabbath that seems like a gift way too Holy to be given to someone who compulsively yells at drivers on I-40 and has to consciously put forth effort not to roll her eyes basically all the time, but by the very grace of God is given just the same.
But let me be honest, despite my fascination with the Sabbath, I know that I have not been so great at actually observing the Sabbath. Believe me, I have tried—that chicken-in-the-bathtub situation is one with which I am painfully familiar.
But sometimes it seems as if I am a prisoner, behind the bars of my weekly-planner, and I cannot for the life of me figure out what freedom looks like.
That’s where the whole idea of Sabbath began. Sabbath was God’s way of making sure his people remembered that, no matter their social or economic situation, they were not slaves—they were God’s own beloved children and they were worthy of rest. Sabbath was the day the ancient Israelites reserved to remember that God had provided for them in the past, and that God would continue to do so.
The thing about the Sabbath is that, sometimes it sneaks up on me. I remember one Wednesday a few January’s ago, it snowed more than was forecast and everything was cancelled. Matt and I ran around like children in the snow, throwing snowballs at each other as Camille, who could have only just learned to walk, toddled along in our wake, her giggles trailing along behind her like tin-cans behind the car of a newlywed couple. That Wednesday, the Sabbath caught us off guard, and fell in fat flakes six inches deep.
This week has been one for the books, has it not? With the arrival of COVID-19 in our own backyards, Raleigh has gone from 100 mph to 0 mph in a matter of days. Schools have closed, businesses are closing one-by-one, even churches are closed, painting Sunday mornings an eerie shade of blue-gray. Our routines have been disrupted, our schedules rendered useless, as if the world’s pause button has been accidentally elbowed.
This pandemic is unlike anything that I have seen before, certainly in my lifetime, and uncharted territory for most everyone today. It is reasonable – responsible, even – to be concerned. It is understandable that we feel uneasy as we wade through these days.
But in my own life, I cannot help but see this “Great Pause,” as I have heard it referred to, as the Sabbath tapping me on my restless shoulder once more. I cannot help but see this time as a gift, one I don’t want to waste on mindless nonsense that won’t nourish my already raisin-ed soul. Perhaps this is a Divine calling to dig-deep, to buckle-down, and replenish, to create, to re-prioritize, to take stock of what is around me that is of actual value and throw myself into the appreciation of it. Perhaps this is the time for me to remember my identity, not as a slave, but as a beloved child of a God who has been providing for God’s children for generations and will continue to do so.
However, this time of Sabbath is not a vacation from being the very hands and feet of Christ. It is right for us to want to gather each other closely, to be concerned for those children who rely on school-lunches, to be concerned for those who will struggle to pay bills, to be concerned for those already under-privileged and overlooked people in our own community. As beloved children of the God who gives good gifts, this is exactly the kind of work we should do during a period of Sabbath rest. In fact, perhaps now we can give this kind of love for our neighbors the attention it deserves all the time.
Could I pray for us?
In this time of unusual Sabbath, my prayer for us is, of course, that we remain safe and healthy, but also that we become increasingly aware of the presence of God in our lives, and that we find our love for one another renewed.
I pray that we will rest, that we will allow our souls to drink from the Living Waters. I pray that we will recognize this “Great Pause” as a time to live the faith that we’ve spent so long proclaiming, that we will be open to being the church, even when we cannot attend church.
And, most fervently, I pray that you, reader, will remember that no matter what, you are not a slave—you are a dearly loved child of the Living God who walks with us through the desert, through flame, through deep waters, all the way to the cross.
Thanks be to God.
Jessica McDougald works as the Minister to Youth at Millbrook Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. She is a current M.Div. student at Campbell University Divinity School and a CBF Leadership Scholar.