Almost twenty years ago, pastor John Piper delivered a sermon that “swept over a generation.” Indeed, it was my generation. I matriculated at Auburn University the autumn after Piper preached his famous “seashells” message at Passion’s One Day conference in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 20, 2000. My classmates who had attended the conference were still buzzing about that one sermon. Piper’s message to the 40,000 college students gathered that day was simple but explosive: Don’t waste your life. Don’t buy the American dream of a nice career and a nice retirement, collecting seashells. Instead, give your life away for one thing: boasting only the cross of Jesus Christ that all the nations might glorify him. “Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.”
It ended up being an earth-shattering—and career-changing, vocation-defining—message for many of us. Such a pithy but profound imperative: don’t waste your life. None of us older Millennials and younger Gen-Xers could have predicted the challenges that would attend the next 20 years of our lives: 9/11, the global war on terrorism, and the Great Recession, not to mention our own personal tragedies and professional challenges as we emerged into adulthood and eventually to midlife. But the singularity of the focus that we fostered, not only through Piper’s sermons and writings but also through the world of serious-minded, warm-hearted theology that it opened up to us (Piper, Packer, Stott, and Sproul eventually led us to Edwards, Owen, Calvin, and Augustine), helped to sustain our faith through these challenges.
And now we face a new challenge in coronavirus. And we face it shoulder-to-shoulder with every generation, remembering especially the elderly who are most at risk. We are tempted to be anxious. How could we not be? There is no time-stamp on this virus. We don’t know what the next day or week or month or year will bring. How long will we be in social isolation? Will more places begin enforcing the lockdown? How many more will get sick? How many more will die? Will the healthcare system hold up under the strain? Will the world descend into another Great Depression? How long can we stay cooped up? What strains will the lockdown place on our mental and spiritual health?
It is this last question that I want to address in this post (and to invite others in to offer their own reflections). My counsel for us during this time deliberately echoes Piper’s sermon: don’t waste your lockdown.
The very same big vision of God that has sustained us through the last twenty years can be our fortress during this time as well. A time of crisis can serve as an opportunity to renew our commitment to God’s mysterious and horrible (Latin, horribilis, “making one shudder or tremble”) but wise and benevolent sovereign control over everything, “whatsoever comes to pass” (Westminster Confession). “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). None of these passages mean that we will be spared calamity or even death: “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). But we know that nothing in all creation—not even a virus or a financial collapse— “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).
So what can we do to leverage our lockdown for maximal spiritual benefit? Here are some things to consider.
- Reset your personal and family devotional life. The virus is forcing us all into a kind of monastic lifestyle. Use it well. Try reading the daily and weekly Scripture lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary. Pray the daily offices from the Book of Common Prayer. Commemorate the saints. Regardless of your plan: read Scripture, pray, be silent.
- Read good books. Don’t feel guilty about watching movies or starting a new show on Netflix, but don’t miss the opportunity to read either. Try reading theology, poetry, and fiction every day.
- Learn to love again. For many families, one or both parents will have to adjust to being home with the kids all day long. After just a week at home, I have a renewed respect for my wife, who stays home with our children all the time! Work through the inevitable tensions and conflicts of cloistered life at home. Make the adjustment as quickly as possible and be gracious to each other.
- Find a proper balance between work and rest, structure and flexibility. Some will be tempted to be lazy and unproductive during an extended time without structure. Others will be tempted to force a rigid schedule on themselves and their families. Try to strike the right balance.
- Stay connected and engaged with your local church. It is perhaps not an accident that during this Lenten season, we are all being forced into a kind of “fast” or abstinence from the benefits of corporate worship. Many churches are finding industrious ways to stay connected through recorded or streaming services or through teleconferencing. But even if you just pick up the phone to call or text your fellow church members, you can continue to fulfill your covenantal commitments to the local body of Christ. This time away should make us long to renew our bonds of embodied, corporate worship through Word and Sacrament.
- Serve your neighbors. Find an appropriate circle of influence, based on the recommended guidelines (even if it’s one neighboring family) and find ways to love and serve them.
- Be selective in what news you read and how much. If you are like me, you may be tempted to stay glued to the news through Twitter, news websites, cable news, etc. But not all information is equally reliable, responsible, and quite frankly good for your mental health. So be selective both in content and in time spent scouring the news.
- Get outside. Go for a walk. Sit on the porch or patio. Lie in the grass. Listen to the birds. Slowing our frenetic pace and our daily commutes may just open our eyes to the glory around us, to the “love smiling through all things.”
- Develop healthy habits. Related to the last point, use this time to refocus on healthy habits. Eat well, sleep well, and do some kind of physical activity every day. The gyms are likely closed. So try a bodyweight routine or just a walk through the neighborhood. Think about your health in comprehensive terms: “a sound mind in a sound body and a spirit that is not afraid.”
- Give yourself grace. In all likelihood, you will waste this lockdown to one degree or another. So, focus on moving in the right direction, not merely arriving at the right destination. Focus on process, not goals.
One of the things that was so striking about Piper’s call not to waste your life was just how sober-minded it was. For many of us in college at the time, it was like a punch in the gut, a wakeup call. This was no kitschy, sentimental youth group rally. It was a blood-earnest, prophetic plea to think and act in light of eternity, life and death, heaven and hell. This virus affords us another opportunity for sober thinking. The point of these reflections on how to leverage the lockdown for maximal spiritual benefit is not to belittle the crisis by turning it into just another opportunity for self-help and self-improvement. People are dying. It’s not just about us. The point is to order our lives as if they will end. Because they will. If not during this pandemic, then soon enough. Sooner than we realize. So, don’t waste your lockdown. Don’t waste it.