Escaping for a few days to the wilderness–an annual October event to close everything up before winter–I took some time to sit by the river and look at the October sky. I began rereading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. I’ve read it several times, so I know how it ends. But like Eugene Peterson’s books, I read Taylor for the sheer joy of soaking in good writing.
I had forgotten how she begins her book. She starts by describing the night she and her husband decided to leave Atlanta–and it got me thinking. They were out for an evening walk, when the calm was disrupted by a fire engine that “tore by” with lights flashing and siren howling. She likened it to a tremor that shook their bodies. But there was something more unnerving that was shaking them up–they were both used to this. And that’s when they knew it was time.
Up to that moment, they had found the benefits of living in a big city to be worth the traffic; great restaurants were worth the smog; and old friends were worth the strip malls. But that night, the balance shifted. Once the fire engine went by, her husband looked straight ahead and said, “If we don’t leave the city, I’m going to die sooner than I have to.”
For just about every one of us, there come these moments when the balance shifts. I began thinking about some of mine, and one particular one came to mind. Heather and I were living in Europe, and there was a season the benefits of living abroad outweighed the costs. Experiencing new cultural experiences were worth the penetrating dampness of long Dutch winters. Meeting fascinating people from all over the world was worth the small village store and its same boring (boring!!) choices. Meeting new expats was worth the loss of seeing friends reassigned. But one day, the balance shifted. I remember clearly.
The years of saying hello and good-by all caught up with me. Heather and I grew close to so many people. You do when you live abroad. New arrivals become closer than family after only a few weeks. But when they are transferred, they take that same relational energy to their next post. And often, you never hear from them again. There was one American family we grew especially close to. We had things in common, and we were having so much fun exploring, eating, and doing ministry together. But after about eighteen months, it happened. His corporation notified him that he and his family were to move to Seattle. I came home one day to find some things at the door, odds and ends they were passing on to us. It became a sort of ritual. Expats drop off discards they cannot take with them Over the nearly seven years, our family inherited lots of things including a gecko, a cat, alarms clocks, and countless maps of Wassenaar.
But this moment was different. In some unexplainable way, the balance shifted. That afternoon, I found myself sitting on our doorstep sobbing. And I remember saying to myself, “If we don’t leave this church, I’m going to become relationally numb.” I knew it was time, just like Barbara Brown Taylor knew it was time for her to leave. She realized her mind had begun to “coast like a car out of gas.” Her daily contact with creation had “shrunk to the distance between her front door and the driveway.” Shepherding two thousand people in urban Atlanta, she assumed God would keep depositing funds into her spiritual account, keeping her “in business.” But she found her shoulders were coming down around her ears, and she could not reach for the greenness for which her soul longed. It was time to move on.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book describes these moments as “tipping points,” when an idea, a trend, a behavior (or an experience) crosses a threshold, and things change. You know at this curve things have to be different. The challenge is to discern when they are of God and when they are not. Retiring from pastoral ministry recently, I had to work through this. Somewhere about a year ago, the balance shifted.
Tipping points and breaking points are not necessarily the same. There was a defining moment when Moses struck the rock and a moment when Saul decided to take the role of priest. These were breaking points that turned God against them. On the other hand, Jacob woke up one morning and knew this was the day to pack up and leave Laban. It helped that the Lord spoke to him and said it is time to go (Gen. 31:3).
But it’s not always so clear for us. It can be sparked by a siren, or a package left at a door, or… These can be the Spirit speaking. One can’t help but ask–when and where will the balance again shift? It almost always does.