The term "relief cut" comes from carpentry. It's a little trick woodworkers employ when using a band saw to make a curved cut in a piece of wood. (Not that I'm a carpenter, but I'll take a good metaphor anywhere I can.)
Relief cuts are preliminary cuts made in a piece of wood to keep a saw from binding. If you're really curious, here's a You-Tube video from the Woodworkers Guild of America. but all you really need to know is that "a relief cut is a great pre-emptive move to make if you're not quite sure your blade can make the radius."
So in the world of work, a relief cut is called for when you feel you've been pushing hard and are about to push harder but are not quite sure you have the energy or good humor to make it far without "binding" -- getting overheated, stuck, jammed. A relief cut isn't as big or as long as a vacation. But it's not as small or as short as a day off. It's a few days off, in a row, of empty time. It's time to disengage from the ordinariness or routine of work so you can think thoughts. Re-discover your passion. To read. To purge files. To journal. To de-clutter one's spaces and one's mind.
Or maybe the other metaphor works better for you: in the world of ministry, at least, we tend to over-fish our spiritual ponds. We're constantly casting our nets for sermon ideas, pulling in every possible one we're lucky enough to catch. We hook and reel in every inspiration or compassion-impluse we can find. This works for a while. Perhaps even a long while. But then we start noticing the nets are coming up empty more often, the nibbles less frequent, the reeling-in more work. (Or worse, we find ourselves in waters where the Evil One, like a Barracuda, is robbing our bait or catch.)
In such times -- ironically -- instead of fishing longer or trying harder, we need to stop. Take a few days off. Allow Holy Spirit to restock our over-fished pond. When we return, we find a miraculous, overflowing, can't-pull-the-nets-in abundance. (See Luke 5, John 21)
Here's what "relief cuts" and time to "restock the over-fished pond" have in common: they fill us with gumption.
Robert M. Pirsig writes that "gumption" is a modern-day term for what the Greeks called enthousiasmos, which is the root of our word "enthusiasm," which means literally "filled with theos," or God.
He writes that "The gumption-filling process occurs when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one's own stale opinions about it. But it's nothing exotic. That's why I like the word."
"You see it in people who return from long, quiet fishing trips," Pirsig writes, "and often they are defensive about having put so much time to 'no account' because there's no intellectual justification for what they've been doing. But the returned fisherman usually has a peculiar abundance of gumption, usually for the very same things he was sick to death of a few weeks before. He hasn't been wasting time. It's only our limited cultural viewpoint that makes it so."
Our limited cultural viewpoint has all but obliterated the value of slowing down, of resting. In the world of marketing and advertising, "faster" is practically a synonym for "better."
And so every once in a while we need -- I certainly need -- to be reminded what the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith had to say (Mark 6:30-32) when he saw his original followers working hard:
"The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest."