Last week, thousands of events were canceled in consideration of coronavirus, not sparing many church gatherings across the country. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a confusing time for many Christians, as we strive to be a voice of hope to a panicked world while reconciling the necessity to play our part in stopping the spread of severe sickness. As more time at home and less time spent engaging in life’s usual hustle and bustle confines us, one cannot help but think how well the isolation forced by COVID-19 fits into our observance of Lent.
Historically, many Christians have abstained from certain foods during the 40 days of Lent to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection by pursuing physical and spiritual purity. Nowadays, the definition of Lenten fasting has been broadened by some who instead choose to fast from certain hobbies, activities or pastimes in addition to or instead of abstaining from particular foods. The overall goal of Lent, however, is not to curb an addiction to any food or thing; instead, it’s a reminder to take rest for our bodies and our souls to focus on God. As cancelations caused by COVID-19 have revealed, asking Americans to rest can feel no more manageable than making a toddler sit through a Sunday service in silence.
Officials can try to force us to stay home, but receiving appreciation and cooperation in the effort is a much larger request because Americans are addicted to going and doing.
With social media and all kinds of virtual entertainment available to us remotely, we can still ignore the chance to really rest even when we are isolated in our homes. So many Americans are so accustomed to constant stimulation and entertainment that they are no longer practiced in being bored or alone with their thoughts. Christians are equally affected by this phenomenon, even though it goes against the Lord’s command to be still and know He is God. In fact, the Bible is full of advice about rest that often goes ignored by Jesus’ disciples.
Amid these trying times, let’s take more seriously the practices proposed by Lent and rest our bodies to protect others from harm, purifying our hearts and minds as worship to God.
Instead of surrounding ourselves with noise to keep us distracted, let’s allow our minds to wander, our heads to bow in prayer and our hearts to be affected by the needs within our world. In addition to fasting from food or activity, let’s be cleansed of the collective addiction to stay busy as we try to ignore the matters on which we would rather not focus.
And for those of us who haven’t been convinced by medical professionals to wash our hands frequently, take a tip from the Bible if nothing else: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:8, NRSV).
Whether we care to admit it or not, we are all sinners, which means we must all strive to keep our bodies cleansed, our hearts purified and our souls rested in order to glorify God.
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Scott J. Jones currently serves as the resident bishop of the Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.