Asking for what one wants is a precarious business, because our wants are not always connected to our needs. Asking for what we need, however, is essential to our survival. Figuring out the difference between a want and a need becomes, then, appears to be a matter of life and death.
Which all sounds melodramatic and perhaps unnecessarily so. I only know that in those moments when I can find the nugget of true need under the mountain of expressed and unexpressed desired, I have found treasure which is comparable only to water after the thirst of the desert.
After announcing my pending retirement, the drama that is life in a community escalated in perhaps expectable ways. Unfortunately my spirit, already tender and weary, had no reserves with which to navigate the heightened emotions. Biology is quick in situations like this and silently delivers a whopping dose of adrenalin which presents the stark divide of fight or flight. Clearly lacking the energy for the fight, the only option is flight.
For 23 years I have been a pastor. It is an identity even more than a career. It is who I am and what I do. But the mantle weighs so heavy I cannot lift it.
Culturally, the role and meaning of pastor has changed so dramatically in the past two decades that a profession once respectable is now at best considered interesting fringe. Never one to mind the margins, my own struggle in the profession has perhaps more to do with my own spiritual awakening. The more I have discovered the sacred beyond the confines of institutional language and practice, the more skeptical I become of their value. While I have cherished what our specific community of faith has offered to one another and the wider community in terms of witness and encouragement, I am aware that we are also by our very existence propping up an institution which is at best value neutral. For many years I have preached both with and against the sacred texts, now I find myself spiritually compelled to move beyond the structure of religion itself. Essentially, I have prayed myself out of my career.
Holding this truth in the context of church drama, my exit is inevitable and my instinct is to jump ship with or without a lifeboat.
Because it is all that I have known, because I have so many years of my life (basically all of my adult professional life) invested, because I am in a community that I have truly loved, the desire to jump overboard has been balanced by a caution woven with respect, familiarity, and genuine grief. Accepting the need to close the chapter, I had negotiated a gradual exit over a period of months.
With the added stress post-announcement, however, the scales were tipped and I was ready to jump. I wanted to jump, believed I needed to jump, today. I called the church leaders and said those words. And then I received an incredible gift: they listened both to my words and to the truth that lie beneath them.
What you need, they responded with respect and love, is a break. What you need is to get out of here for a while. What you need is a vacation, post haste. Then, and only then, will the next right step become clear.
When I spoke what I wanted, a speedy end to the drama of departure, I was given what I need, encouragement to take a long vacation with no strings on the other side. What I wanted was the removal of the challenge, what I needed was the strength for the journey. What I wanted was escape, what I needed was courage to move with grace through this transition.
In finding the authenticity to speak my wants in the context of respectful colleagues, the kernel of need becomes clear and is safely tended. In Jesus’ teaching there is a koan about “ask, seek, knock” with the promise that we will receive that for which we reach. Rationally speaking, I know this is not true. But as I moved through a difficult week, I am struck by the profound truth that is mine: I asked and it was given in ways most unexpected but altogether satisfying.
And for this day, I am grateful.