A number of my friends are facing a crossroads at the moment asking the same immortal question as The Clash did in 1982: Should I stay or should I go? The pattern, I observe, goes something like this:
Move to a new place
Settle into new place
Enjoy the new place
When I first became a Christian minister to university students in Oxford, England, I was beside myself with joy.
“This is my dream job,” I would tell anyone who would listen. “People normally do this job for a maximum of five years, but not me. I’m never going to leave.”
I meant it, too. I couldn’t imagine ever doing anything as fulfilling, anything that fit me so well. I knew myself, and I knew my gifts, and this job, in this place was the very pinnacle of my ideal.
Fast forward to three and a half years later, and I was sitting with a slightly older, very much wiser, female minister, sobbing my eyes out, confessing how wearied I was, and for the first time I was wondering whether I should leave, after all.
Are you a settler, or an explorer? I am a settler. For the first eighteen years of my life I lived in the same place, same house, attending one primary school and one secondary school. If my life were a rail station it would be Stability Central. This feeling of restlessness was a new one to me.
I felt guilty for even suggesting the possibility. Stability is one of the Benedictine principles, and monks commit to being part of an ongoing community on a long-term basis, even when it gets tough. Other people would kill (not literally—that wouldn’t be very Christian) for that job—and I was considering stopping just because I was finding it a bit hard? I had to find a way through.
It was autumn, and the room we were in was surrounded by big trees—I’m not sure of my foliage, but they looked like they should be oak or beech trees. That is what I should be like, I thought. The solid trunk, holding steady. I would just have to find a new strength from somewhere and figure out how to carry on.
That wise woman took my hand and met me with deep sympathy.
“Student ministry is exhausting,” she said. “You can’t do it forever.”
But that was the point—I had thought I really would do it forever.
“It’s my dream job!” I wailed. “I love it.”
“Quit while you still love it,” she said.
That encounter stays in my mind, because it was some of the best advice I’ve ever received—quit while you still love it. I had felt the restlessness and I had tried to press it down. But God was in the restlessness.
Today I look out of the window. Autumn is coming late here, and there are a mixture of green and brown leaves on the trees. The day is still, but occasionally, there is just the smallest gust of wind, and I see the fallen leaves lift and shuffle with the breeze.
One of the metaphors for the Holy Spirit is the wind. You can’t see it, but you can feel it. When I look back to that crucial conversation with my minister friend, I can see that it opened the way for me to make the right decision, to quit while I still loved the job. I quit just in time, because my health took a turn for the worse the following year, and there is no way I would have been able to sustain the pace of work I’d been doing.
I have always associated God with stability, contentment, peace. These things are justifiable associations, and this generation needs to hear the challenge of stability as much as the challenge of the pioneer. But the Holy Spirit is not only a dove, but a rushing wind.
Today I look out of the window and watch the leaves looping in a spiral with the wind, dancing along the road. Could it be that God is in the restlessness as well as the contentment? Perhaps that feeling of discomfort is a nudge from the Almighty that things need to change. Sometimes you need to quit while you still love it.
I think of all my friends facing a big move, and trying to decide whether to stay or go, whether God is speaking as wind or dove.
For those who know in your gut that you need to leave, but it was your dream job, in your dream place—let me be that wise woman to look in your eyes and hold your hand. There are new places, and fresh dreams, and God is to be found in them all.