The hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ is a favourite of many. I love the calming sense of the hymn as it progresses from verse to verse. The third verse speaks of the Sabbath rest by Galilee, recalling Jesus taking himself off into the hills in prayer to enter into communion with his Father in “the silence of eternity interpreted by love”.
Within Judaism, as we see from many stories in the gospels, the Sabbath has a central place in the rhythm of the week and in the makeup of life. In fact, it has a central place in the Ten Commandments, as the commandment to keep the seventh day unlike all other days is found between those commandments that talk about people’s relationship with God and those that speak about relationships with other human beings. This Sabbath commandment, then, is the hinge point. It brings together God and the human world, the loving of God and loving of neighbour, in a unique way.
The Sabbath day is a place-marking gift. A day on which to stop toiling and to rest. It is also a day of joy to unwrap again all of the blessings we have been given and to be re-thankful for them. Rest and joy lead into freedom and we read of the sabbatical year when land is allowed to breathe, debts are cancelled, and slaves are released from that which binds them. In turn, this leads back to rest and joy.
In our own lives, there are various rhythms that are played out. We find we need to snatch periods of Sabbath time amidst pressing other responsibilities. Carers speak of the crucial need for rest, and whilst respite care often carries a sense of guilt, it allows the carer to go on caring. After a traumatic or difficult period, we begin to see small signs of joy again and count our blessings. Freedom comes in many forms and I recall talking to a prisoner in HMP Hewell about his sense of freedom when he sang hymns of praise.
During the autumn, with the agreement of Bishop John and the support of the Archdeacons, I will be on sabbatical. I hope this extended Sabbath time will offer some rest which, to my mind, isn’t loafing but is about doing things that bring me spiritual, intellectual and physical replenishment. I’m going to spend time writing which always brings me much joy. Freedom will come from having a break from some of the ministerial responsibilities which come with my role!
I am hoping to learn more about Orthodox Christianity which will resource my involvement with the International Commission for Anglican Orthodox Theological Dialogue. I will be spending time on pilgrimage to Mount Athos in Greece and taking part in a week-long painting retreat at the Bethlehem Icon School. In both places, as well as in the creativity of writing, I hope to encounter the silence of eternity interpreted by love.
I am delighted that sabbaticals are taken seriously in this Diocese and hope that the fact that I am taking one will encourage other clergy, who have not done so for seven years or more, to consider doing so. Do encourage them! My one previous experience of a sabbatical was personally very enriching and parishioners were kind enough to say that it was, in turn, beneficial for them – though they lacked clarity whether that was during or after the sabbatical!
I’m enormously grateful for this gift, and especially the generosity of colleagues in making it possible, so that I can go deeper into Sabbath life at the hinge point of serving God and my neighbour.
Rt Revd Graham Usher
The Bishop of Dudley