The Rev'd Robin Sims-Williams
There was an article in The Times this week about studies into the use of technology the studies showed that having things like smart phones does result in us being less competent at doing certain things. The ability to search things online at any moment leads to less effective memories, or to us having less skills.
I remember learning drafting, designing a deck chair in what was called design and technology at my secondary school.. We had computers able to draw the components in 3D but we were working with pencil and paper trying to draw these basic components precisely on a piece of paper. It seemed crazy but it was a skill which made using the computer packages later much easier and was one of those skills I can see having been useful again and again since.
But the Times article goes on to say that while the technology is reducing our memory and our ability perform certain functions ourselves. The gain by freeing up our cognitive ability to be creative effectively eclipses this loss.
A friend of mine did a diploma in management studies. Part of the programme was designed to encourage reflective practice. They drove this home by taking the students up to the lake district, removing their phones and giving them only a pen, a pad of paper, a jumper and a waterproof and leaving them on the side of a hill in isolation for 24 hours. It was a dramatic way of making a point, but reflective practice is so important in business… Reflective practice the ability to step back and say ‘why are we doing this?’ It’s the sort of question that when you are in the middle of doing something can be so annoying. It’s difficult to get something done if you stop to nazle gaze rather than getting on with the job. But it’s so important to take that step back rather than wasting time doing something which has no benefit. It’s also when you take that step back that you can see the real nature of the issues and come up with a far more creative solution to the problem.
When I was applying for jobs as a Graduate Engineer I used to love going to assessment centres. Sure they were intense, but you were given these tasks which usually had lovely little solutions. There was one I remember doing for a couple of different companies, where you had to go through the inbox of an imaginary colleague who was off sick. You had thirty minutes and needed to organise and plan tasks and present what you planned to do at the end. It was big picture stuff, you weren’t trying to get things done, you were trying to organise, prioritise and spot opportunities. Some things would come up as issues, but as you worked through would discover had already been dealt with. Some things you simply had to write a one line response. Some things you had to have an idea what you would do about the next day. They almost inevitably had a case where there was something that desperately needed doing and a young member of the colleague’s team that was desperate for an opportunity to prove himself - you got extra marks for doing the dots and getting the guy desperate for a challenge to do the job that needed doing. But it was a false scenario, in that this was my only focus, and it was taking a step out of reality to do it.
In today’s Gospel Jesus gets in trouble with the leader of the Synagogue for not respecting the Sabbath, for healing somebody who is suffering on the Sabbath. Jesus questions this puritanical reading of the Sabbath, challenging them - you wouldn’t let your animals starve because taking them to water would be a form of work. When I was a child I heard these passages where Jesus is criticised for doing things on the Sabbath and got the wrong idea, that Jesus didn’t see any point in the Sabbath. After all the idea of nobody working on a Sunday seems pretty ridiculous idea even in a country where Sunday trading laws are still in place. But Jesus’ point is that this act of creative compassion in caring for the suffering woman is exactly the point of having the Sabbath. The smart phones which free up our cognitive functions to be creative in one way, take away those moments of quiet so easily - according to a radio 4 programme this week, we check our phones 200 times a day!
So where does the Sabbath really fit in today? But it’s not that simple. Sabbath, taking rest, taking a step back from work to enjoy the benefits of your labours, to consider the future, to rest, is something Jesus tries to do again and again. Sometimes with limited success, he’s chased across the lake by the crowds or up the mountain and ends up having to feed the multitudes who won’t leave him away. It’s the first century equivalent of being in an unwanted group discussion on Whats app or Snapchat.
But having that cognitive space, that ability to see the bigger picture, the opportunity to recuperate. It enables us to be more creative and more patient and more compassionate. It’s great when you can take a week or two off and get away, though with travel and family that can consume our cognitive function as well. But we can’t just rely on these times away to achieve our Sabbath. I don’t believe Sabbath needs to be a strict - no work on Sundays - after all it’s the only day a clergyman works isn’t it? But finding those times to slow down is so important. Be it here on a Sunday morning, or doing Yoga, or going for a run or to the gym, or even sitting on the tube. But intentionally resting the mind to allow it better to reflect.
There is good reason ‘mindfulness’ meditation courses have become so popular in secular as well as religious parts of our society, as people search for that time for their mind to be still. St John’s is always open during the week, and people often come and sit in here to find a moment of Sabbath - sometimes that’s all we can manage, our minds so used to working at 100 mph.
But that little break can release us to be more creative, more caring, more compassionate, it's what we need to be more human.