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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"What I did on my summer vacation"

When was still a school-boy, returning to the classroom in autumn almost always meant that we'd be asked to write about what we got up to while we were away from school. The topic was thought by teachers to be highly motivating, even to kids who did not especially like to write. It was a crafty way to ease us back into a work routine and give the teachers a glimpse of how our minds had developed over the break.

The assumption was that our summers were always going to be eventful, exciting, and that the time out of school would give our brains the space to construct epiphanies out of all the previous year's schooling.

And this much is true: our heads do need breaks in routine for the new neural pathways to settle and gel, just as our bodies cannot do without sleep for very long. Psychologist Rollo May in his book "The Courage to Create" points out that just such a balance between hard, focussed work and mental 'drift' is essential for creativity.

How often I have seen this scenario work: you are working with intense mental concentration on a particular task. You take a break, and do something mindless, repetitive and physical (like sweeping the path or doing the dishes), and presto! an insight or new idea comes to you, and what you were working on comes together like a dovetail join. What May says is that part of your mind, to which you do not have conscious access, is still working away, making connections, synthesizing, and solving, without the conscious mind's hall-of-mirrors and ego-drive. You get the rewards of the work only by letting go of them for a while.

Most ministers will tell you that ministry is hard NOT to think about all the time, and I have certainly found it so too. It's more like a lens that you can't remove-- everything is seen in spiritual, religious, ethical, pastoral terms. The danger is, of course, that this is actually a loss of perspective, for the world is far bigger than the framework of your role.

So, in the interests of better pastoring, I drifted as much as I could manage: I did DIY that needed doing. I read novels and short stories for pleasure rather than research. I went to every baseball game at Norwood Oval I could. I cooked and entertained. I got into a gym routine. And for complete distraction, we got a whippet pup. His name's Louis.

Exciting and eventful? Not really. But that's what I did on my summer vacation. And how much refreshment and renewal it has wrought, I will soon discover. The multi-tasking nature of ministry can pull you in all sorts of directions, but sitting here now, typing this, with Louis at my feet, on a warm morning, I feel pretty 'together' and ready for whatever the new year holds.

Bob Marley said it best: I'll let him take us out.