Driving down the interstate cruise on 75 and Springsteen on shuffle my imagination takes the wheel. I push the throttle in, gently pulling back on the steering wheel with two left fingers as the wheels below me come off the ground. I push the nose over hard and trim it out, flying just off the ground. Watching the highway stripes fly by below my window and the airspeed indicator climb I keep my eye on the power line crossing the highway just ahead. The yoke is pushing back. These wings want to fly. Too soon and I might stall, too late and the wheels may clip the line. Hold it… hold it. As soon as I clear the line, all that speed is going to shoot this plane up like a rocket. I’ll let her climb fast and steep trimming it out just before I stall, bank left and head into the sunset.
I have no idea how many times I’ve caught myself daydreaming about flying over the years on the road. I haven’t flown since December 20, 2004. Fuel prices shot up, work slowed down, “I just won’t fly as often, but I’ll still go,” I told myself. Before I knew it a year went by and I was due for my physical and check ride to stay airborne. “Whenever I get the time, I’ll go get that physical done and schedule my check ride. Maybe in a month or two,” I thought. Life happened, work didn’t, and neither did flying.
I’ve met a few older guys who told me they had their pilot’s license but hadn’t flown in decades. I used to think there’s no way I could go that long without flying. You sit and listen to them. It’s in their blood. They talk about it with a romantic glare in their eyes, like they’re somewhere else outside the conversation. “How did you become a pilot who doesn’t fly?” I ask. “How did you become a preacher who doesn’t preach?” They ask.
I don’t think I planned on it anymore than I decided to stop flying. I was going to work for a living. I had a family to support, and the longer I stayed in full time pastoral ministry the more I became convinced that something about the whole way we do church just isn’t right. I took a few months off, then began pastoring part-time while building a business. There was only so much of me to go around. I wasn’t doing the pastorate justice. The church deserved more attention than I could or wanted to give. I left. Within a few weeks I was getting phone calls to fill in for a Sunday or two. That turned into an interim position with no end in sight. A few months later they found a pastor. I was relieved in every sense of the word. Another church called. I went and for the first time in a long time really enjoyed going. A few months later they wanted me to stay for good. I knew it wasn’t meant to be and slipped out gracefully, opening the door for restoration between the church and its founding pastor who had desperately needed a sabbatical to take care of himself and his family.
The phone gradually stopped ringing, perhaps, because I always had “other obligations” that kept me from filling in. I had changed. A lot. I never felt compelled to drag people with me. I took no pleasure in telling people they were wrong and I was right. I always felt it most polite to avoid confrontation and let them believe whatever gave them peace. It just wasn’t for me any longer. It’s been a couple years since the last interim pastorate, but I don’t daydream about pastoring.
Although I don’t fly anymore and I don’t preach anymore, I still consider myself a pilot and a preacher. I haven’t vowed to never do it again. I just don’t know when I will again or how. I saw a book title yesterday, “Be Yourself Because Everybody Else is Already Taken.” I’m trying real hard just to be me. I really like it. It suits me. For a long time I was somebody else, anyone else. Everything and everyone shaped me into who they wanted me to be. No longer.
I never craved the spotlight. I ran from it when I could. Let me do what I need to do, say what I must say, then I’m out the door. Preaching was never about being center stage for me. I was the lens and the conduit through which the message was delivered, but I never wanted to make it about me. I started reading the Bible when I was 15. I mean really reading it, studying it, contemplating it. For some reason I understood it and could explain it simply. People began recognizing this and starting giving me opportunities to speak and teach. I just wanted people to see what I saw, hear what I heard. It was up to them what they wanted to do with it.
I still don’t miss the pulpit, but I do miss sharing things with people, showing them what I’ve found. I get excited over ideas and possibilities, like a new rock or a new bug I found in the yard as a toddler. Everyone must see it and be amazed like me. A lot of people aren’t amazed though. Most people, it seems, want someone to tell them what they already believe. They don’t want to be challenged. They’re not comfortable with having their imaginations stretched or their assumptions second guessed. No, sir. No, thank you. I’ve never been confrontational and would rather people go on in their delusions if that’s what makes them happy, but what do I do? What about this amazing, shiny, colorful rock I found? Doesn’t anyone want to see it?
I have to rethink community and what it means to me. I’ve had to rethink friendships and wonder who they really are to me. I think about sages and mystics from long ago. They didn’t climb a box in the middle of town and shout to the world. They were alone in their thoughts and those who craved to know more and to be more sought them out like moths to a flame. Like minds, like spirits attract one another. So, I’ve learned to find kindred spirits in unlikely places.
I don’t regret my time as a pastor. It’s part of who I am. It was another step on the journey. I don’t see my task as a pastor any different than my passion today. I have an innate desire to know and be known. I am working out my salvation and my humanity with fear and trembling. I am participating in my own evolution. That is the highest calling I believe we have.