I’ve just finished my seventh year of teaching. Over these last seven years, I have taught hundreds of students, dozens of classes, and worked on a couple of degrees. They have been full years of challenge and growth. This summer, I’ve thought more about my time off after this seventh year as a Sabbatical. In his book, Enduring Ministry, Jack Hester (my pastor) talks about the importance of taking a Sabbatical in ministry, yet he also points out that this practice is difficult. At first learning this, I didn’t really believe him, but a few weeks into this summer has shown his words to be true.

For me, summers as a teacher are challenging yet life-giving. Perhaps it isn’t just me who struggles to simply stop, since it was something God commanded Israel to do with the Sabbath. I am indebted to Jack Hester, the Bible Project, and Sacred Ordinary Days for helping me learn more about Sabbath rest. They have helped me see the following ways that resting over the summer challenges me, which sheds light onto why I avoid rest, even throughout the year. Likewise, these sources have helped me understand why rest is so life-giving, and they have helped me identify ways I can rest over the summer.

Summer challenges me because I must…

  • address areas of neglect.

My laundry basket, my refrigerator, my kitchen floors, my yard, my dogs, my family—my very soul: these have all suffered neglect from my hyper focus on work during the school year. You see, my work during the school year helps me feel like I am accomplishing something, like I am effective at executing tasks and influencing others. However, stopping makes me see what I have not attended to in the previous months. I must face the fact that I am finite. I cannot do everything perfectly. Even if everything were to look perfect on the outside, I would be dying on the inside, a white-washed tomb. I have found that I sometimes avoid rest because it leads to me see all that I have not done well.

I am reminded, though, that when God ceased (Genesis 1), he delighted. “But his work was perfect. Mine is not, so I cannot rest,” my rebellious spirit argues. I must silence that inner critic with this truth: “yet he invites me into that same rest so that I can experience His perfection, not my own.” While the summer break challenges me to see the areas of neglect, the gospel reminds me that my sense of peace and enjoyment can be found in God and his good work, not my works.

  • not fall into numbing.

I could sit on my phone and scroll for hours. I could eat all this ice cream. I could binge-watch all the shows I have not been able to watch for months. These are the urgings of my soul in the quiet, lonely hours of the morning. I succumb to these temptations more than I would like to admit.

What is it that I really want, when I want to numb myself through food, media, or anything else? I want comfort. There is a new flavor of discomfort for every minute of the day: discomfort with my house, relationships, appearance, work, past, future, failings, and accomplishments. Wouldn’t it be nice to basically forget all of this discomfort and simply lose myself in something else? This question reminds me of a few different works.

First, I always think of Brave New World and the soma pills. Instead of dealing with anything slightly uncomfortable, people in this dystopia choose to numb their pain with a drug. Yet John the Savage is struck by how much beauty and authenticity of the human experience they are missing. They are not human without pain; they are not able to appreciate nuance and beauty and love.

I also think about Tolkien’s words when questioned about his secondary world being “escapist” literature. His response was, if a prisoner wants to escape, then would we blame him? Any sane person would want to avoid discomfort or pain.

Essentially, the two truths are: pain is necessary and part of life, but pain is also horrible and should be avoided rather than sought out. How do we strike a balance between these two seemingly opposed views of pain? Even more so, how do we apply this view when faced with quotidian discomforts?

When we have this natural longing for no pain, for ease and goodness and beauty instead, we must know where to fulfill that longing: God. In His story we find fullness, comfort, rest, so we seek it in other stories, in other mediums. In His story, we even find pain and the necessity of it to accomplish something beautiful. I believe God helps us to see discomfort as something necessary to fulfill his purposes, yet he also helps us find comfort by hoping in the right things.

So, how do I take this view and apply it? Well, first, I think I must acknowledge what makes me uncomfortable or even causes me pain. Diagnosing the discomfort is difficult. Identifying the source helps me find a remedy, though. Certain things (food, media, habits) must be removed; others may be enjoyed with a modified perspective and limit. I find Every Moment Holy’s Liturgy Before Consuming Media to be helpful. Those words direct my mind to find comfort in what is true, to rest in that, rather than to run away from discomfort with no end in sight. That is the problem with numbing after all—it doesn’t last forever. The night comes, the carton empties, the show ends, and I am still left with the discomfort, only now it is compounded with shame and disappointment. Better to find my comfort in the infinite rather than the finite. As Julian of Norwich said: “For this is the reason why we are not fully at ease in heart and soul: because here we seek rest in these things that are so little, in which there is no rest, and we recognize not our God who is all powerful, all wise, all good, for He is the true rest.”

  • be alone without regular interactions.

To be alone but not lonely—this is something I am normally nailing. I enjoy being by myself, but strangely, in the summer, I find I am lonelier. I think it is because I go from being around 20+ people for eight hours a day, five days a week, to suddenly being around no one. It is a shock to the system, like jumping in ice cold water on a 90 degree day—at first, it is a relief, until suddenly you realize cannot move. Being alone like this makes it difficult for me to get started with even fun projects.

To some extent, I think we are all socially motivated, regardless of being introverted or extroverted. I sometimes struggle to work on my passion projects when I am alone. I have found the solitude of the summer break certainly comes with its benefits (see the list below). However, recognizing this challenge for what it is has helped me get creative and take initiative. Some days I plan to go work in a coffee shop just to be around other people’s energy. Some days I schedule time to be with other people and build relationships that I would otherwise not have as much time for during the school year.

  • be still and quiet.

An open schedule. A quiet house. You can tell I don’t have kids by those two statements. For those of you who have children, this is probably one you cannot relate to as much, but for those with no kids at home, you understand that the quiet can be eerie. I am rather introverted, yet still, I miss conversations during the day. I find it weird to have nothing on my calendar and no one to talk to. Yet God speaks in the stillness and the quiet. While my tendency would be to turn on the TV in the background, fill my schedule up, or numb the discomfort away (see above), I find that going outside helps me most to enjoy stillness and quiet. Outside, sitting still and taking it all in is good. Being quiet and listening to the birds or the wind or the waves is peaceful. While the stillness and quiet are challenging, they leave room for the life-giving list below.   

  • start all over in the fall.

I feel like every year, at the beginning of the summer, I hate the new-found freedom and lack of a schedule. Yet without fail, by the end of July, I have adjusted, and I am dreading the beginning of the school year. Why are we the way that we are? Can we not just be content? Can we not remember that this is how it always goes?

While I will probably experience normal levels of back-to-school anxiety again in August, I think the finite nature of the summer break puts all of the challenges listed above into perspective. As hard as it is to be still, to be alone, to learn self-control, and to attend to certain issues, I only have about eight to ten weeks of it. Consequently, I should make the most of my time. I should find ways to choose life and give life. Which leads me to the following list.

Summer is life-giving because it allows me to…

  • reflect.

The summer free time allows me to reflect on how God has worked in my life through the past year. I can look back at journals and notes from church and trace the development of my thoughts and the resolution of my questions. No matter how untethered irregularity can make me feel, the times when I am alone, still, and quiet are prime opportunities for me to realize God’s nearness. He gives peace, wisdom, and steadiness when I am lacking.

Likewise, I always like to reflect on the previous school year at the beginning of the summer. What were my experiences this year—both good and bad? How do those experiences align with previous years? Where am I seeing a pattern? Where am I seeing growth (or atrophy)? Sometimes it takes a while to answer these questions. Still, reflecting on my year as a teacher is life-giving because it promotes growth.

  • get inspired.

Freedom and boredom facilitate inspiration. I find that even a week of inactivity leads to me coming up with new ideas or goals. It’s not like I go into those times thinking, “Ok, by the end of this week of vacation, I want to come up with five goals for the summer.” Really, it’s more like, “I don’t want to think about any obligations, goals, or projects please. I just want to sit on the beach and stare at the ocean.” By the end of the week, I genuinely have not thought about or accomplished anything, yet when I get to work the next week, I often experience a sudden inspiration. I come up with new ideas for the next school year or for my passion projects. It’s like when you work on a puzzle for hours, then step away for a day. In that time, you are not thinking about the puzzle. However, the next time you come back, the pieces suddenly seem to come together in a new way. Just so, freedom and even mental boredom can help your mind make new connections.

Sometimes freedom and boredom help me come up with new ways to do something that has grown tedious. Take for example working out. Physical fitness is key to holistic thriving throughout the school year; even though I do work out regularly during the school year, my time for and type of exercise is limited. In the summer, I can take longer walks outside, go kayaking, or try more challenging workouts. The tedium of the mundane is, for a few months, shaken up, which stimulates growth.

  • explore.

Have you ever come back from a trip energized from what you saw and experienced? Have you ever read a new book that made you eager to share what you discovered? Whether its new places or new ideas, we are often exploring. The more we explore, the more we flourish. How exactly does exploration lead to flourishing, though?

I think of stagnation being an opposite to exploration. In order to not contradict my previous point, let me clarify how stagnation is distinct from boredom. Boredom is a rather temporary experience that has more to do with a temporary lack of activity; stagnation, however, is a result of long-time, ineffective activity. While algae are the product of biological activity, no one wants to drink out of a stagnant pond. Exploration, on the other hand, is work without feeling like work. The grueling difficulty of discovery is often masked by the thrill of newness. Finding an applicable quote or wondrous vista makes the effort worthwhile.

The school year can make exploration difficult because we get caught up in tending to our little plot of land, mulling over the same ideas—and we become stagnant. However, when we have time to discover new books, podcasts, movies, shows, restaurants, or hikes, we broaden our view of life and grow as a result. We often make our lives so small, hedging our thoughts and feet into one confined place. While knowing our place is good, we can get too comfortable with our own narrow understanding.

  • have space.

The space in time and in literal distance helps me in two ways. First, the time away helps me to gain perspective on the issues from the school year. Sometimes I can see the problem from a different point of view, either through hindsight or empathy. Sometimes I find nuance when before my rage had me only seeing red. Regardless, having space from upsetting circumstances helps me see them for what they often are: insignificant. I have recently found, though, that I tend to shove my emotions down, and it starts to feel like packing far too many items into a little box. The summers give me space to unpack the box—to take all the emotions out, to examine them, and then to find a new place for them. I need this time to process the emotions that I too often suppress.

Secondly, the space of the summer vacation also allows me time to miss my students. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? While I do love all of my students, I find that burnout leads to me depersonalize them at times (Maslach et al., 2001). In my exhaustion, I can tend to view the students as less than me, inhuman, or as the source of all my problems as a teacher. How unfair to them. Was I not once just like them? When I am away from them, all of the frustrations that accompany dealing with teenagers seem so small compared to the great joy of being around them. The conversations, the antics, their mere presence—I look forward to all of it again.

Perhaps all of what I just described makes me seem too neurotic and unstable to be trusted to teach. Perhaps I just helped you see your own experience a bit more clearly. How can I know as I write this now? Yet these are my reflections in my summer sabbatical. I pray that as I share the challenges and the life-giving practices I’ve discovered, I might help someone else process and rest.

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