Sabbatical Reflections Part 1

First of three sabbatical reflections by Simon

Sabbatical Reflections Part 1

I’m going to write three articles about my recent Sabbatical for our newsletter. For July’s edition, I’ll be offering a book review on a volume which was very significant for me while on study leave. And for August, I’ll offer a third reflection about what my learning and personal growth means for my own ministry and what it might mean for others.

The idea of Sabbath is a central one in both Judaism and Christianity. A short passage from the letter to the Hebrews (4:9-11), which has always stood out for me, is this: “So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; 10 for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labours as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest…” While the passage doesn’t minimize the significance of work (“labours”, “every effort”), the goal is always pictured as “rest”. Rest is an under-appreciated image of what a Christian understanding of salvation might mean. One of the things that Sabbath rest is meant to do, apart from the healthy, human need to recharge and enjoy recreation, is to be a preparation and an anticipation of such salvation. Time off has a divine dimension.

Lots of people asked me what I was planning to “do” on my sabbatical and most people got the surprising reply “nothing!” By this I didn’t mean I was going to immerse myself in an endless indulgence of daytime television or just lie around for three months! Rather, knowing myself to be such an activist, I wanted to get back in touch with who I am as a person and who I am as a Christian person, to have an experience of ‘rest’ and to see what happened in such a rest period.

Being a parish priest is, of course, a vocation. It’s the first question asked of us in our ordination services, “Do you believe God has called…?” Much ordination training and preparation is about forming that vocation so that the person who is called is prepared for the office she or he is called to fill. It is far more about forming Christian character than gaining skills. But there is a real danger that, over time, the pressures of the role (which is very public) can squash the very person who was called as themselves to priesthood in the first place. I was talking to a head teacher the other day who was reflecting that he was very glad that his wife didn’t let him get away with remaining ‘headteacher’ when he got home! But it isn’t always easy to do that. Perhaps this is why the TV comedy Rev seems so much more honest than previous TV vicar comedies: many of my colleagues find it very true to their experience.

For me, therefore, it has been very important to use this time to remember that God has called me in my “Simon-ness”, with all the strengths and weaknesses I possess. I’ve spent time thinking about what being “me” means for what I believe, what I teach, how I pray – and how I minister. I am returning with a degree of determination to live that out in daily ministry and living, both of which (if there is to be integrity) need to be authentically me.

I think these issues can be just as real for any Christian person and not just for those who are ordained. Many of us face pressures of time and long for rest; the danger is that our ‘rest’ time gets filled with activity so that it feels as much diary-driven and outcomes-focused as the 9 to 5. Of course there are seasons of life when external events require we give more of ourselves. The sacrifice of time, the giving of ourselves for the sake of others, is part of what discipleship means. But, over time I think, if we do not take adequate care of our own needs through genuine rest, there is the danger that something essential in our humanity is lost. I’ve come back thinking that our church life at St Mary’s needs to be a little more enabling of rest as well. More of that later.

And perhaps we could all reflect a little on the roles we play in life. How much are they authentically ‘you’? Do you present to the world yourself or are you simply playing a role? Playing a role isn’t necessarily bad: we all have to do that. But if that role becomes too divorced from reality, the dangers of insincerity, hypocrisy and hiding from the world become all too real. God has made us each ourselves; it is that person he calls – to roles and functions of course – but as yourself and not as others might want you to be.

Finding who we are and what we are called to is a central part of what it means to be human. The book I will review in July’s newsletter has helped me to realize that during my study leave.

To be continued…

Your brother and priest,