I was standing on the Queen Street bridge watching the flood waters of the Neuse rise around Mills International when I received a phone call.
“Dr. Neely, I got your name and number from our presbytery executive. She told me to see if you would talk with us about being our interim pastor.”
I do not remember exactly what I said to him. It was a jumbled mix of words about the river cresting and sand bags and members’ homes and businesses flooding.
“I’ll call you back,” the voice in the phone said. And he did, more than once. And now as we prepare for our seventh Advent season together, l find myself preparing to leave.
It is not what I expected; it is not what I had planned. I had told that presbytery executive that next year, 2017, when my husband got ready to retire, then I might be looking for an interim pastorate in her area to get me to retirement. Not now, a year earlier.
So this week I found the plaque my mother-in-law gave me years ago that says, “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.”
And now here we are with a mixture of emotions, sadness around an ending, perhaps anger or at least irritation about impending change and disruption of the way things have been, maybe some anxiety and concern about the way things are going to be. And maybe anticipation or excitement for what is next. Maybe someone who will use the pulpit more. Maybe someone not so hyperactive. Maybe someone who will not forget the passing of the peace at the end of the service.
I have learned that the manner in which we close out a relationship with each other in ministry is very similar to the way in which we say good-bye in any relationship. It is also very similar to the way in which we face the ultimate good-bye, our death. George Eliot was right when he said, “in every parting there is an image of death.”
And the way we do the work of termination establishes the way things will go in the relationships that follow. Things left unresolved are often carried over into the next relationship. So it is important to take the time to talk, to get affairs in order, to let go of old grudges, to celebrate successes
John Hughes contends that saying hello and saying good-bye are the two major learning tasks all humans need to accomplish. In church we have good resources for welcoming, installing and charging a new pastor; not so many for saying good-bye. Yet the bible is full of good-byes.
I think of Moss, who led his people out of slavery and wandered with them in the wilderness for forty years, getting them ready for the Promised Land. When he finally reached the verge of the land, so close he could see it, he realized he would be leaving. So he gathered them to say good-bye.
He took quite a while to do it, several chapters in the book of Deuteronomy, saying something to the heads of each tribe. He talked directly about his leaving, without a hint of avoidance, reminding the people that the eternal presence and promises of God would go with them, that they had learned no matter where they were, the eternal God would be their dwelling place.
Then, too, I think of Jesus, who did not avoid the pain of parting by merely slipping away. In fact, the final third of John’s gospel is a recording of Jesus’ final words to his disciples. They did not like all he had to say, so he added, “I will not leave you orphaned. I will send to you an advocate, a comforter, Holy Spirit.” And he added, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives . . . Let not your hearts be troubled and neither let them be afraid.”
Jesus knew that parting is the time to turn to the assurance of God’s continued presence and the promise that even in parting we are gathered up together into the peace of God.
And then I think of the apostle Paul, who through all of his travels from church to church, had much practice in saying good-bye. His parting words were always offered with a sense of urgency, and yet he took time to share the breadth of his thoughts and the depth of his feelings. When he closed his final letter to the church in Corinth, this difficult and recalcitrant church he had loved into being through blood, sweat, toil and tears, he left them with some final instructions: “mend your ways, heed my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace, and peace be with you.”
Paul could bring himself to say good-bye only by recognizing that he was not leaving the believers alone, but leaving them in the fellowship, grace, and love of God, the same God who went with Paul, uniting them, even in parting, the same God who drew them together even as they said good-bye, the same God who would complete the work that they had begun while they were together.
What then is permanent? What does not end or change? What do we have that is ours forever, that will not be lost or taken away? The promise of God to be with us always. That is the one thing which the brevity and impermanence of life will not take away.
Over and over in scripture we read of people who in parting remind one another of that promise. How else can we leave those we care about, unless we entrust them to the care of God?
How else can we leave the things we did not have a chance to say or do unless we can ask God to gather them up and complete what we were unable to complete and heal what we were unable to heal?
Transition brings us face to face with the termination, the death, of something. But with that death comes the promise of resurrection.
It was a long while ago that the words “God be with you” disappeared into the word “good-bye.” But every now and then some trace of that meaning glimmers through. My prayer is that this Advent season God will be you and me as we do the work of goodbye.
And God will. That is the one promise that cannot be taken away. Even in the unexpected.