taking a moment

Visited a pleasant town with nice coffee shops. Took the car. Drove slowly.  Read my book at a window seat facing a sunny street, not wearing my dog collar, not looking at my phone. Ignoring deadly viruses and failed impeachment trials I perused a new painting on the cafe wall. Smelled my flat white. Noticed my back ache was gone.

It’s been my Sabbath (day of rest) and I can already feel my soul returning.

Having recently changed from ‘part time’ to ‘full time’ ministry (not current Church of England terms, but they work for me) I’ve come to value my Sabbath even more than before.

Before, I had bits of extra Sabbath through the week, in addition to a whole day. It sounds lovely but eventually it made me feel restless. In my ‘only-really-have-one-full-day off-now’ new post, I can feel the rhythm of the week (6+1) kicking in and giving shape to everything I do. Generally it works.

The evening before my Sabbath, when I feel like I’m sliding down a deliciously snowy hill towards something soft and cushiony at the bottom, I’m probably at my most full-to-capacity, mentally (not to mention physically and spiritually). I feel spent, but in a good way – like when you spent your childhood pocket money on the glockenspiel you’d saved up for. That spent (yes, I was an odd child).

In that moment of being spent, I need Sabbath so I can stop doing. But more than that, I need it so I can stop thinking.

Weirdly, initially it feels like a loss.

Turns out I love full time ministry and I often end the week (that’s Thursday night) feeling tremendously thankful, amazed at the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been to. Even potential pitfalls are an opportunity to draw on grace. I feel I’ve achieved a lot in 6 days. Most days I pretty much work at full throttle for 6 hours in a row; stop a little, breathe a little, occasionally nap, and then do some more. Sometimes evenings.

By the time I get to the end of Thursday I’m looking at answered emails (1000+ in 4 months) meetings held, worship prepared, sermons planned, church people visited, school children hopefully influenced, relationships grown, and I’m thinking ‘that is good’. So it feels counter-intuitive to stop, lay it down, turn off the computer and social media and thoughts and dreams and do, essentially, nothing for one whole day.

Articles about having nothing to do are rare. I remember a journalist writing a piece roughly 12 years ago about a conversation she’d had with her best friend about all the things they were getting up to in their lives. Most of their acquaintances were flat out, no time to breathe and so she asked her friend (as one does) the innocent question: “so what are you up to next week?” Her friend took a moment and then gave the answer: “oh, nothing much”.

The journalist was stopped dead in her tracks. Nothing much. Nothing much? What kind of self respecting human has nothing much in the week? Most of us are rushing through life from one deadline to the next, eating on the hoof and filling up our Google calendars like there’s no tomorrow. I was parenting tweens and teens 12 years ago and that article obviously stuck in my memory as highly significant.

Here was a fully functioning adult person, well into the 21st Century (okay, Twitter was only a year old then but still) who had ‘nothing much on’. For the whole week. As before, having nothing much on for days can get tedious, but that problem isn’t the normal one for most people I come across, and I work in the Church.

I’ve long given up looking to anyone working in the Church for a healthy model of rest (sad to say). We suffer acutely from competitive busyness and feelings of indispensability, exacerbated by a pressingly pastoral model of priesthood (always available, always caring).

The last time I argued on Twitter with a fellow clergy person it was to question why he felt the need to advertise that he was available for pastoral help any time of the day and night if anyone needed him. And he was not single.

And then we clergy all have different days off, so your day of rest (whether a Friday, Tuesday, Saturday or Monday – whatever) is potentially at risk of all sorts of invasions that other people, including clergy, assume will work fine for you.

I suppose you can say no, but this may not go down well, especially if the meeting on your day off has been called by a senior clergy person, who has a different day off. ‘Take a day off in lieu’, you are told, but this is inordinately harder than it sounds; you are going to have to get cover for the things that other people rely on you to provide during the week, and that’ll just be more work. In my experience it normally defeats most priests. Cue resentment.

How much healthier when the whole community took the same day off (great for Old Testament Israelites, not so great for 21st Century bishops, priests, doctors, delivery drivers, chefs, cafe workers, parents, carers, shop-keepers; you name it).

A day off is not the same as a day of rest, of course. A day off = you’re off work. A day of rest is something much more restorative though. It actually takes planning; the Israelites were intentional about the Sabbath; it began the evening before with thanksgiving and the lighting of candles; I guess so that when they awoke on the new day, they were already in the right frame of mind.

Because it actually takes time (which you don’t have when you’re working) to prepare for the restorative rest you really need to keep going. Say you had a long meeting till 9.45pm the evening before your day of rest. You’ll sleep less well, wake up tired, need half a day to recover; then you’ll just be getting into rest mode when you have to think about going back to work.

We’re still waiting for the first Diocese to break ranks and properly advise clergy to take two days off weekly (like a vast swathe of the normal population do). Because that’d give you the time you need to do your life admin – visit Doctor’s, take cat to vet; complete tax return, take adult child back to University (5 hours on the M1) AND THEN HAVE YOUR DAY OF REST.

I heard of a Diocese that magnanimously advised their clergy to have two consecutive days off. EVERY FOUR MONTHS. Gee, thanks.

Generosity/lack of apart, why is it so hard to lay down work? Laying down work reminds me I am contingent; that I have limits; that I’m not indispensable. Most things in the Church carry on quite well without me (remember the 2 year vacancy?) So it’s a mini blow to the pride, for starters. Sabbath protects me from an inflated sense of my own importance. It helps my soul to breathe and brings joy in just being. It’s God saying to me, your life matters as much as all the people whose souls you share the cure of.

When Sabbath ‘works’, it feels like abundance. It feels like grace.

Okay, a considerable downside of the clergy ‘day of’ (aka day of rest) is that many of us spend them alone, or at least without the partner who is often having a normal working Monday/Thursday/Friday, etc. This is an issue. But single clergy have this every time.

It can have an upside though. Once I get over the solitude thing, it’s good sometimes to ask ‘what specifically makes me feel alive?’ and just do it, without asking anyone else what it is they’d prefer to do. And there just might be other clergy with the same day off as you, if they haven’t been nabbed for an extra meeting on their day off (tip: don’t talk shop on your shared day off – that’s going to feel like work).

So I am grateful for a God who didn’t go flat out 24/7. Although everything he’d worked on over the six days was declared good, he still stopped. It was probably too soon for a flat white to have been invented, but if God needed ‘a moment’, we could probably do with one too.






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