Gratitude, lament, and rest: 3 ways to engage God right now

Many of us heard the words “You are dust, and to dust you will return” about a month ago at the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. In four short weeks, weeks meant to lead up to the celebration of Easter and Christ’s resurrection, we instead are mourning loss at almost every turn.

Lent has taken on more meaning and significance for me this year. We are in the midst of a pandemic, which has changed life for everyone. New words and phrases are being introduced into our daily lexicon. We are being asked to “social distance” in order to “flatten the curve” and prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed. Many of us are “self-isolating” in order to prevent or delay the spread of COVID-19 to those who are most vulnerable. I have been thinking about what it means to be quarantined.

The English word “quarantine” comes from the Italian term for “forty-days.” During the plague years in Europe, trading ships coming into Italy would be held off the coast for 40 days. If during that time no one on the ship fell ill and died, the ship was allowed to dock and sell its wares.

The concept of quarantine has become real to many in the last few weeks. As I write, roughly one in four Americans are being required to “shelter in place,” staying home except for essential activities. Schools have been shuttered. Restaurants are closed except for take-out. Many businesses deemed “non-essential” have shut down. Unemployment claims rise daily across the country. Uncertainty marks the future.

And yet, most people are still working. Some are leaving home each day to engage in essential activities — we need health care providers, grocery store clerks, and delivery drivers now more than ever. Others work from home and are facing a new set of challenges.

Those who live alone have limited opportunities for interaction and may be lonely. Parents are trying to work from home while caring for small children and homeschooling. Many people are experiencing some measure of fear for their own health or the health of loved ones. And above everything there is a sense of anxiety and uncertainty. Whose health will be impacted? How will I pay my bills? What will normal life look like when this is over? When will this be over?

Our faith in God and a robust theology of work can provide guidance during such a time as this. What are practices that we can engage in to help us recognize God’s presence amid the interruption of our “regular” lives?

Recognizing God’s presence at work when work changes

Shannon Vandewarker and I recently co-authored a book entitled Working in the Presence of God: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Work. We encourage readers to be attentive to God’s presence in their places of work, and identify ways that this can be done in the middle of ordinary days.

But for many of us, the days are no longer ordinary. Our workplaces have changed dramatically in the past few weeks. I used to go into my university office where I interacted with my colleagues in the hallways. On my way to work, I would engage in a “liturgy of commute,” praying for how God would meet me in my labors. Now my commute consists of walking to the spare bedroom where a laptop is set up. Instead of my faculty colleagues, I now rub elbows with my husband who is working on the upstairs landing, or three of our children who are doing schoolwork in the kitchen or their bedrooms.

Because my workplace rhythm has changed, my spiritual practices are changing too. I am focusing on three practices in my work life right now: Gratitude, lament, and sabbath.

Gratitude

Each day I look for ways that God is meeting me, and I keep a file on my phone to document these daily gifts. I am grateful for the ways technology has allowed me to stay connected with colleagues. I am grateful that my college-age daughter brought seven rolls of toilet paper home when she returned home from campus last week! I’m grateful for the hummingbird nest in our yard with two new hatchlings. I doubt I would have noticed them if I hadn’t spent the past two weeks working from home.

Lament

Of course, I don’t always feel gratitude. This season has been one of loss as well, and the practice of lament has allowed me to bring these feelings before God. I’ve had to cancel several trips and activities that were personally meaningful. Our family time has been stressful with everyone transitioning into new realities and unfamiliar demands. My adolescent children are unhappy about being stuck at home and away from their friends.

The Psalms have been a helpful pattern for my prayers during this time, and a reminder that all my feelings can be brought before God. Lament opens me to hearing from God. Sometimes there is a sense that God is with me in my experience of heartbreak or sadness over circumstances in which I have no control. And other times there is correction — God pointing out my contributions to a negative interaction and encouraging reconciliation.

Sabbath

Finally, I have been trying to expand my imagination for positive outcomes that may occur during this period of quarantine. One of the ways I’ve been doing this is by considering this time at home as a sabbath of sorts. I am not traveling. I am not buying things. This is a season where rest and relationships — with God and with those around me — take priority over productivity. I’m challenged to think of it as a gift from God: An opportunity to spend extended time with people I love; a time where I recognize that my value does not lie in what I am doing, but in whose I am.

Other spiritual practices may need to change during this time as well. Perhaps the ones I am focusing on aren’t the ones you need to exercise. Is this a time where God is giving you solitude? If so, use this time away from other people to be with God and listen to God’s voice. Remember that Jesus experienced loneliness and even despair in times of isolation; God understands your circumstances.

Perhaps during this season, you have the opportunity to see where God is focusing your attention in your re-configured work space. Engaging in the prayer of examen at the end of your day might help you see God’s activity in new circumstances. Perhaps your job is “essential,” and you are being tasked beyond what you have ever known before. Ask God to speak his love and peace over you throughout the day as you are experiencing your calling in a new way. Whatever your situation, God wants to meet you in it.

In a pandemic, it is not hard to remember that we are made from dust, and to dust we will one day return. During this time — whether it lasts 40 days or more — may we find ourselves trusting God as the one who is and has always been in control.

Topics: Christian Life, Current Events, Spiritual Formation Practices

About the Author

Denise Daniels is professor of management and the executive producer of the Faith & Co film series at Seattle Pacific University. She recently coauthored Working in the Presence of God: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Work with Shannon Vandewarker.