A walk in Park Woods, a nap on the floor, time alone with a Bible or journal, coloring and meditating… these were some of the Sabbath practices that students in grade six to 12 tried out as part of Spiritual Renewal Week, Sept. 16 to 20, at Eastern Mennonite School.
Each fall and spring the school sets aside a week for “spiritual renewal,” a tradition dating back decades that involves extended chapel times, focus on a theme and, often, an outside resource speaker.
With this year’s K-12 theme of Sabbath for chapel and gathering (elementary), it made sense to spend the fall Spiritual Renewal Week actually experiencing some common Sabbath practices.
“Students on the planning committee got enthused about the idea of figuring out how we could actually DO some of the things we’ve already been talking about this year as ways to make time to rest and restore ourselves in busy times,” said Shannon Roth, government teacher and Chapel Planning Committee chair.
The logistics of dividing up the 260 students in grades six to 12 to move around was a bit daunting. But, by using the Neighbor Groups already established, having grace for each other on the first day of movement between options, and making sure instructions were clear, the process went relatively smoothly.
“The reality is, we’ve got insightful students who make wise choices,” said Justin King, high school principal, about the unconventional week. “They mingled by age groups, followed instructions, and made the most of this unique opportunity.”
On Monday, everyone gathered in the auditorium in their usual chapel seats for a worship service planned by students and faculty that incorporated music and a slide show of school-related photos that accompanied the Genesis creation story. Faculty members then introduced the three themes the students would explore the rest of the week: Time in Nature; Time in Rest and Renewal; Time with Scripture through Lectio Divina.
Students in the “Time in Nature” group walked across Park Road to Park Woods, a 13-acre wooded property owned and maintained by Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). Options there included walking silently and individually on the paths, sitting in one space to journal or reflect, or — for those who find renewal in talking with friends — to walk the adjacent EMU track and talk.
Students in the “Time in Rest and Reflect” group divided into classrooms to color silently, lie down to nap or just lie quietly in a darkened room, or to read the Bible.
During Monday’s chapel, Curt Stutzman pointed out to students — after a moment of silence — that we are often uncomfortable with silence. “Jesus withdrew from others and spent time in silence before he made big decisions,” said Stutzman, Bible, English and social sciences teacher. “My hope this week is that you can grow more comfortable with silence. Remember the words of Psalm 46:10. ‘Be still and know that I am God.'”
The Lectio Divina group gathered in the auditorium where Shannon Roth led them through a time of reflecting on Matthew 11:25-30. Lectio Divina is practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer that encourages quiet reflection on a passage.
Friday, students met in their regular Neighbor Groups to talk about the week. A majority of students reported appreciating the week and feeling more rested and focused after taking part in the Sabbath practices.
“It’s the best Spiritual Renewal Week I can remember” said a sophomore, who has been at the school since sixth grade. “I hope we do more things like this. It’s hard to sit and listen to speakers. It was great to actually do things that helped us learn new ideas for taking care of ourselves when we are so busy.”