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The case for taking a weekly Sabbath

One of my Christmas reads was a book called ‘the Ruthless Elimination of Hurry’ by an American pastor called John Mark Comer. It’s not for everyone - it is explicitly Christian, very American and the style is quirky - but there was much wisdom and a couple of the central ideas really stuck with me.

In it Comer relates an oft told and probably apocryphal story of an English traveller in 19th century Africa. Having hired local guides, he make excellent progress through the wilderness. The Englishman is keen to press on a little further but the guides refuse to move. They are done for the day. No offers of money or pleading will get them to budge. They explain it to the Englishman ‘we have travelled far and quickly; we need to allow time for our souls to catch up with our bodies.’

Perhaps that quote resonates with us. Maybe you agree with the author that one of the unique human problems in the 21st century is hurry and busyness. We try to get more and more done and we never seem to properly rest. Hurry and distraction – constantly scrolling through our phones and this adding to our busyness and stress – mean that we are not fully present in the moment. But we are teachers we protest; we have got far too much to do to rest. But there’s a false economy here - the busier we are, the tireder we get, the more we become inefficient, the longer it all takes…

Whilst there are some useful thoughts in the book on single tasking, solitude and slowing down, the principle of a Sabbath, a day each week where we intentionally rest and recharge, struck home. Like the author this is an aspect of Jewish practice that I admire. I have already tried to do this to some degree over the years – I wrote about it in the ‘Elephant in the Staffroom’ – but I was conscious of needing to make more of an effort to implement it properly. So how can we manage this? A few thoughts from me

1. Plan in advance – taking a day to rest and recharge each week won’t just happen unless we put things in place to ensure it happens. Is Saturday or Sunday best for you? What could you do all day that would re-energise you or relax you? What brings you joy? The answer may be different for different people. So it could be a box set with your significant other, it might be seeing old friends for a meal, or a book and a long bubble bath, a nice outing with the kids. Whatever it is – it needs to be planned in advance. Often as teachers we are able to plan our working lives down to the last minute but we struggle to know what to do with our time off. What can you arrange now for your next weekend?

2. Going Offline – one of the challenges Comer sets is that the Sabbath is, for him at least, a digital one. Our screens eat up time – our weekly screen time report if you have a device from the fruity logo company is quite sobering. My first couple of Sabbaths this year have been digital Sabbaths – no social media or Internet – and once I got over the strangeness of it, I found it quite liberating, why not give it a go?

3. No, do it properly – of course one of the issues we have as teachers is that the weekend can be spent doing the household stuff we didn’t do during the week – washing, groceries, paying bills, mending the fence etc. We’re not working (the school laptop is closed) but we’re not resting either. We are having what the theologian Eugene Peterson calls a ‘Bastard Sabbath’ – a Sabbath in name only. We have two days each weekend so aim to fit jobs into the same day you do any school work – unless of course you are one of those strange people who give ‘doing DIY’ as the answer to the question ‘what energises you?’

4. Transition – one of the things I have talked about quite a bit over the years is the idea of having a clocking off ritual each day and in this case each week. As teachers our brains are always on and we find it difficult even at a weekend to snap out of work mode. In a Jewish household at sunset a candle might be lit and a prayer said. It marks the start of Shabbat. What is the ritual that will signal to your brain that the transition from work to rest has occurred? It could be the powering down of the laptop, an after work drink on a Friday, a walk to get the newspaper on Saturday morning, a morning or evening run. Whatever it is, it is important to find the ritual that puts your mind into another place.

One of Comer’s ideas about Sabbath that stuck was the Biblical context that this was a commandment to a people who had been slaves. Sabbath – a day of rest was an act of resistance and protest. Well, we are not slaves and yet in some sense we can enslave ourselves as we constantly refresh work emails and fail to set boundaries between work and the rest of life. Enough! Let’s reject the 24/7 work culture of some institutions and resist it by doing… absolutely nothing. The theologian Walter Brueggeman notes that ‘people who keep Sabbath live all seven days differently.’ Perhaps we will start to see the difference at other points during the week

If you are a teacher, most weeks will be fast paced and full on. You travel fast and far as you transform the lives of the young people in your care. But at least once a week, we need to pause and let our souls catch up with our bodies.

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