Saying goodbye

And now come the farewells. Yesterday, we took our Australian friends to the airport where they boarded a plane for a short visit in California before they fly back to Australia. Today our daughter and our grandson board their plane to go back home to South Carolina. Of course we are not left alone. Our son and his family live just down the road from us.

The process of saying good bye, even with dear friends with whom we’ve said it many, many times before, is a challenge. There is an uncertainty in a good bye. We intend to get together again. We hope to get together again. But in this life there are no guarantees. The joy of being face-to-face, of being able to hug and watch eyes when we converse, of experiencing the presence of those we love - these are sublime and wonderful experiences. As much as we can write letters and make phone calls, as good as the technology of video conferencing is, none of these are a substitute for the joy of being together.

So the mood today is of being tired. It was fun to have our house alive with so many people. It was a joy to have the dining room table full for meals. It was a delight to have our grandson remind every one to “say thanks” before we begin to eat. Entertaining takes energy. It is a good kind of energy, however, and today’s feeling tired is a good kind of tired. Saying goodbye takes a lot of energy as well. So we’ll probably take it easy after we get back from delivering our grandson and daughter to the airport.

Tomorrow it is back to work. One of the things about our profession is that when we take time off from our work, the work continues. Some of the things for which we are responsible are done by our colleagues. Some things can be done before we take time off. Other things need to be done when we return to work. It is a rhythm to which we became accustomed over years of living our call to the ministry.

One of the conversations I had with our friends from Australia, who are both ministers, is about how I find some of the new language and new ways of thinking in the church to be challenging. Younger pastors, who are leading the church in new ways and new directions often use the phrase “self-care.” It isn’t quite the way i thought of things during my career. I feel that it is very important for ministers to be faithful to the observance of sabbath and getting sufficient rest. It is important to exercise for endurance. It is critical to support a life of active ministry with a careful discipline of prayer. But I don’t think of ministry as something that requires self care. During my career, I received a lot of care from being immersed in a loving community. I received a lot of care from a loving marriage and a supportive family. I did not, however, think of myself as needing a “break” from being a minister. Even when we took sabbatical, I saw it as an opportunity to improve my skills and energy as a minister. It was bout strengthening the church - and becoming better at the tasks of being a minister.

I don’t think that there is a very big difference of substance. Today’s ministers, like us, have been ordained. They understand that ministry is a matter of identity, not a role that can be put on and taken off. It is who we are and it is who we are all the time. Mostly it is a shift in language, and I have been through other shifts in language. I know that I can learn new phrases and new words. I can also learn new ways of thinking when I am careful to listen and understand. I trust that my younger colleagues will display grace when I forget and use the old words. I trust that they will be patient with me as I struggle to be patient with them.

The prophet Isaiah declared, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and dreams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19) I am convinced that part of my call at this phase of my ministry is to look for the new things that God is doing. I’ve hd plenty of conversations with tired elders who have plenty of energy for complaining that things are not the way they used to be. I don’t have any interest in becoming one of them. I know that things are not the way they used to be. God is doing a new thing. I have been given health and longevity in part so that I can witness to the newness that is emerging.

And part of that process is saying good bye. Since we are all mortal, we all will come to a point of saying goodbye in this life many times. Gaining proficiency at saying goodbye requires practice. And yesterday and today are days to practice saying good bye. It is hard. It is a challenge even after all of these years - or maybe because of the passage of all of these years.

In our little church in Reeder North Dakota we used to close every service by singing the same song:

God be with you till we meet again.
May his counsel guide, uphold you.
May his loving arms enfold you;
God be with you till we meet again.

Till we meet, till we meet,
tile meet at Jesus’ feet.
Till we meet, till we meet,
God be with you till we meet again.

Those are the words we sang. The language has been updated several times since then to express a more complete vision of God and to make the language more accessible to modern listeners. But when we sing this hymn, the words we sang many years ago still ring in my head and my heart. Some of those with whom I sang the song have died. Some live far away from my home. Some I will not meet again in this life.

I’ll keep practicing the art of saying goodbye, knowing that I’ll never perfect the skill. It will never become easy. It is a discipline of trusting God - a discipline that is worth the energy to nurture.

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