Saying Goodbye

The other day, a wise older sister commented to me that people in our world don’t know how to say goodbye. I’ve been thinking about that, as I am getting ready to move myself and the kids across the country. We are leaving a house, a pastoral call, hundreds of faces and stories we have come to know and love. I have been grappling with the idea of goodbye.

When we moved here five years ago, I was thirty. I had been a pastor but had never lead a church before. I was inexperienced in many ways. My oldest was five years old, my youngest barely one. I still had a lot of idealistic notions. I still had a wife.

I have walked through some incredibly hard things in this place. Some of them are the typical hard things of growing up: learning my limits, struggling to parent, taking the body blows we all receive as we move through a fallen world. Some are unique to our story. Cancer. Grief. Death. Singleness and single parenting. Sometimes my house feels haunted. I am certainly a different man.

Yet these five years haven’t felt like a dark season. They are shot through with lights. Nights spent laughing with new friends and old. Eating good food together. Serving a church that was kind and encouraging and appreciative of the gospel ministry. Walks and bike rides through the country. Reading. Writing. Making music. Painting. Playing games. The presence of the Holy Spirit. And most of all, the many, many people who blessed me in ways relational and physical and who have grown dear to my heart.

What does it mean to say goodbye to all of that?

There are two mistakes we must navigate between. One is to use Christian banalities as if they remove the sting of parting. To substitute for the hard word a “we’ll meet again” or a “we are still together in Spirit” or even the less-spiritual “I’m sure our paths will cross again.” All might be true, but they are incomplete. There is a loss in parting, a little death. (After all, in Christ all deaths are but temporary partings, yet He teaches us to weep deeply over them.) It reflects how much we value something that we struggle when we must let it go. This is true of places, and even more of fellow human beings.

As Elizabeth was dying, we made a habit of forcing people to actually say goodbye. It was incredibly hard, but we were always glad we did. In her final weeks, as her consciousness was slipping away, I crawled into bed with her and held her hand. I whispered the word in her ear, and she squeezed my fingers in answer, and it was one of the cruelest and most beautiful and most necessary things I have ever done.

So we should say goodbye. We shouldn’t avoid the hard word. It names a reality of our experience and honors what we have had and the sadness of seeing the seasons change.

Yet of course in Christ the goodbyes are not final. That is the other mistake. We will meet again, in the resurrection if not in this age. Nothing good is ever truly lost in God’s economy. Far from trivializing our farewells, that sense of ultimate restoration is what ultimately enables them. I will miss many things about this place, even as I look toward other good things ahead.

Last night my older son was weeping in my bed for friends he wouldn’t grow up beside. He heaved with sadness. As we grow older, we sometimes try to avoid those tears. The enormity of diverging paths seems like a loss too great to bear, and so we start to minimize it. We don’t let ourselves fully feel it. As a result, we also don’t feel the closeness that causes the pain. Maturing in our sinful world often amounts to learning to keep everything at arm’s length. Never let it truly touch you and it can never truly hurt you. We build up an armor of scar tissue and confuse true growth with a closed heart and a stiff upper lip.

This is all an understandable defense mechanism, but it is not the best way to live. True humanity strides through the world with an open soul, able to receive life’s blessedness and therefore weeping for its loss. The only way this posture can be maintained is with an eye toward the age to come. Without the resurrection, “goodbye” is a shattering word. We must avoid it. But in Jesus’s story is becomes painful but endurable because it is not final word; after it comes “hello” once more, even if millennia lie between.

So I am sad to leave this place, and these people, and this chapter of my story. Sad that it feels in some ways too soon. Sad because of all the goodness it contained. Hear that sadness when I say it, as a way of honoring it all: “Goodbye.”

But hear the hopefulness there too. Nothing lost will not be found again, made new and yet in its most essential goodness still the same. So hear that anticipation, and the cry of “Come Lord Jesus” that it entails as well in the word: “Goodbye.”

I am sad that we are parting. I am glad that it is not the end.