When the ox can’t escape the mire

Not actually the Uintahs but still niceSam Brown is a friend of Times & Seasons and teaches pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

When I became a God-believer three decades ago, I think I understood something about the sacred stillness of the sabbath from my time camping beside the alpine lakes of the high Uintahs. One feels embarrassed to think of those cool blue worlds as oases when they are surrounded by glistening verdure and flickering stands of aspens, but spiritually I couldn’t turn my eyes away from them. Those lakes and their sheltering mountains were key components of my movement out of atheism. Not because they proved God, but because they carried God.

So when I heeded a call to life in God, the notion of the sabbath felt like the deep and lifegiving quiet of those pellucid lakes. I saw why I would want to spend time in awe-filled imitation of divine love reliving that first great sabbath when God said Good to the world. In college the sabbath became an emblem of my belief and commitment, a cosmic counterweight to the incessant work of the competitive college environment where I spent the rest of my time. I wouldn’t study on Sunday, and I volunteered in a homeless shelter, donating my wages from the shelter to charity. There was in my Sabbatarianism a too-human mix of sacred yearning and self-satisfaction. I occasionally told God that God had to do my bidding in exchange for my righteousness. I sometimes thought myself better than my competitors at school because I only worked six day a week whereas I perceived them as working seven. But I was also spending time in the presence of God and finding that in the sabbath I was being reworked, slowly transformed. Something was right about the universe when I was honoring that day set apart.

I went through a phase of restless lessening in my commitment to community worship after my mission, trying to spend most Sundays in the mountains of New Hampshire so that I wouldn’t have to struggle with church and could still feel devout. I felt that returning to the fount of my personal belief in the wild places could keep me grounded even while I wasn’t especially eager to be seen in a church building on Sunday. (I suspect that this phase was not so complete as I remember it now; it was the first testing of the waters for an anticipated waning of commitment.) But I got a little older, and I spent more time listening to God and the needs of others and found myself instead drawn back to more regular attendance and participation in those sweet communities we call, with good reasons, ward families.

In the last few years, I feel like in general I’ve found my rhythm. I honor Sundays by refusing where possible to labor professionally (I do have to work some weekends in the ICU and see that as honoring my baptismal covenants to be with the sufferer, admitting the complexities of the legal and societal contexts for medicine in our current day). I read and write on religious and spiritual themes. I try to welcome people into our home to break bread with us. I attend church and work to reach out to the members of our ward family. I don’t participate in the dulling churn of commerce on Sunday.

Then came the mutation event that allowed a new betacoronavirus to escape its host among the Chiroptera (the “hand-winged” mammals dancing in the air of our nightmares) and find its way through the human family, floating on currents of cough and spittle to poison the nourishing physical proximities of our shared lives. COVID-19, the disease and pandemic and pandemonium, has become the order of the day these past months. As a physician-scientist, I have found my life consumed both day and night by a combination of preparations, work on research to identify and test promising therapies, and occasional work directly in the ICU (I am grateful for all those who are continuously on the clinical front lines and think constantly of them as I work to find solutions for this terrible plague). Some evenings I find myself still in pajamas in the same basement rocking chair where I began the day at dawn, having typed and talked my way through twenty urgent projects without time to pause for a shower. I am the modern caricature of the harried professional, absorbed entirely into meritocratic bustle. There is in this frantic and frenetic work nothing of the sacred stillness of the sabbath.

This work flows over the banks of the secular week, flooding my sabbath with its urgency bordering on panic. We are sprinting to prepare, to care, and to discover ways to conquer this awful virus. This new coronavirus is impatient and does not care that I yearn for the presence of God and the nourishing quiet. The virus seems not to care that God declared the world Good, that God paused on that one day to say that Goodness forever.

And yet.

This Good world has always contained terror and suffering and pain. They have lived alongside what is gracious and loving and life-giving. And throughout the cycles of our world’s history, of our shared human history, there has been time and space for divine stillness. And as we are called to bring God’s loving righteousness into this troubled world, the sabbath is our time to gather strength, to see clearly, to feel the essence of love that most tightly binds us to God. Isn’t this what we heaven-and-earth people are called to? Isn’t this the sacred message of Easter?

So on these Sundays in the heat of battle with a terrible, unconscionable foe striking out with the indifferent brutality of Darwinian evolution, I take my time. I do the work that needs to be done, answer the questions that must be settled on the virus’s timetable. But I also do the work that places me in proximity to God’s eternity. I teach Sunday school for my family and our friends, I read scripture and other holy books. I talk about the things that matter. I reach out to friends and family. And I rest where I can.

I find myself sometimes, in fear and fatigue, wanting to stay in God’s eternity, to forget that we are doing battle here and now. But the same self-emptying love that has taught me of God’s reality over these many years calls me to rise up with renewed strength and return to the fray. When this damn thing is over, there will be much more of the nourishing sabbath and much less of this hectic toil. The sabbath has told me that; I carry that promise and my part in its realization with me each day.

5 comments for “When the ox can’t escape the mire

  1. Sam, You can relax fox news, and the donald have the solution.

    It is interesting that different countries are having very different results. Perhaps the quality of the leadership of the country.

    Australia is doing fairly well https://www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert/coronavirus-covid-19-current-situation-and-case-numbers
    Our population is about 30million. We are having reductions in the number of new cases each day so the lockdown we had imposed 2 weeks ago seems to be working.

    With your national leadership, and your health system, you are in for a tough time. I have heard a number of people here say “God help America”

  2. Thanks, Geoff. Many factors play a role. It’s possible that Australia has the benefit of it being early in their traditional respiratory virus season, but also possible that political factors also play a role. God help us all.

  3. God help us all, indeed. And thank you for this beautiful post, Sam. I really appreciated it and the thoughts you shared.

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