There are different pieces to the art of living well. There are different pieces to the mystery of being a pastor.
One of those is the art of saying "goodbye." When I talk with pastors and lay people I say I am really good at leaving. Saying "goodbye." We're not even close to saying that in this current chapter of life. It'll be a long while, I hunch, before I pack my boxes and leave Trinity. Move on.
But I'm good at leaving. Good at saying "goodbye." I never slip out a side door. I do my best to look people straight in the eyes, tell them I am leaving, tell them what they have meant to me, and tell them why it is time to go. I do my very best to bless the ones who have been walking with me during the current chapter. And I leave. I don't hover. I don't keep ducking back to check up on everyone. To see how my successor is doing. Like the nervous parent of a pre-schooler who isn't sure their child is going to be okay after being left at nursery school. I face people, I linger, I bless people, I say "goodbye," and I head out the door.
We do a pretty good job of welcoming people into the community of the church. We have new member classes. We have a formal ceremony in worship as people take the vows of membership. We hand people a certificate. Shake their hands.
Leaving? That is a different story. Too often people just slip out a side door. I spoke with a friend the other day. Said we had missed them in worship. He kindly explained we hadn't seen them because they were worshipping elsewhere. Okay.
I think people duck out the side door because they feel guilty about leaving a church. Not always. But often. They worry about how people will react. They may have seen other people loaded down with a "guilt trip" when they decided it was time to move on. So they slip out the side door.
Saying "goodbye" is important. When we don't have the chance to say "goodbye" I feel like we have all been cheated. Because we've shared some pretty important moments together.
A friend who serves an area church says, "Just tell me goodbye as you leave. Don't just disappear. I prayed with you through that job search eight years ago. When your daughter was arrested I went to court with you. We went on a mission trip to New Orleans together, and stood side by side rebuilding houses. So don't slip out of my life...our lives...without saying goodbye. It's okay. I'll still love you. We can be friends. If you need to leave then go ahead and leave. But say goodbye."
The summer after his senior year at Elkhart Central, our youngest song would play his favorite CD's after getting home from Creation Windows. One of the songs I heard coming from his room was Andrea Bocelli's "Time to Say Goodbye." It wasn't rock and roll. Seemed like an odd choice.
Tonight, as I wait for Michael to drive down from Chicago O'Hare for Christmas, I am wondering if he played that song as a way of saying goodbye. Sometimes the heart stuff is too much. Words can't hold everything we're saying or feeling. So he played the song. Day after day. Through that summer. Preparing us all for a chapter that was ending, and helping us prepare for the chapter ahead.
The Gospel of John is unique, among the four gospels, for the number of chapters used to describe the last few days Jesus spent with his friends in Jerusalem prior to his arrest. We're told about the last supper, the washing of the disciples' feet, and John reports -in great detail- the "high priestly prayer" Jesus offers on behalf of his friends. God shows us all sorts of truth in the account of those last few days, but one lesson is how much energy Jesus invested in saying goodbye. He didn't slip out a side door. He told his friends what was happening. He told them why it was happening. And he blessed them.
Part of living well is learning the importance of the "G" word.
Don't slip out the side door. Of church. Or of any other significant relationships in your life. Take the time to say goodbye. Heart work can be tough but we'll all survive. The people who love you just want a chance to bless you.
When it's "Time to Say Goodbye" do just that.