I will be moving to a tropical area of Florida bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River in 12 weeks. It is 1200 miles from my hometown of Detroit, and the state of Michigan where I lived for 38 years. It is roughly 15 hours from Columbus, the place I’ve called home since my 18 year old son went to preschool. Almost hourly it seems my perspective of this impending move shifts. I am thrilled, excited, panting with enthusiasm. I am frightened, taking cover under a blanket and a cat. I am industrious: packing, pitching, listing, calling, googling. I am exhausted. I want a drink. I exercise, old metal music screaming my anxieties into sweat. I pray into tears.
I told my current congregation that I’ve been called to serve in this new place three full months in advance because I wanted our transition to be a good one: honest, open, complete. I wanted not just to walk away from them but to give them over to a new pastor who could pick up the threads we had begun to weave into a tapestry and help the people see the new design that would emerge.
In pastoral circles, we call this attention to final things having a “good good-bye.”
I first learned about good goodbyes when I was still in seminary, working in a hospital in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). CPE was 12 weeks of being thrust into rooms filled with emotional emergencies and goodbyes that were anything but good. After each attempt to “be the pastor” to people in the harshest moments of their lives, my colleagues and I gathered as a group in a circle to “process” our experiences with the help of a skilled and relentless supervisor.
In the circle we learned just how often we humans use avoidance to cope. In the circle, we could do almost anything with our feelings except avoid them. We felt. We talked about how we felt. We examined how we felt. We traced the origins of our feelings.
And not unlike growth on a mid-evil stretch rack, we grew. We learned. We confronted. We figured out in some important but hard ways who we really were and quite often we began to prefer what happened in the hospital rooms to what we experienced in that circle. At least in the rooms, the harsh light of healing was not on US.
In the last week of CPE, we learned how to have a good goodbye. We were taught to visit our patients and tell them our training was coming to an end. We were to thank them, if appropriate, for the gift of sharing their lives with us. We were to pray, if that is what they wanted. We were to say, “My last day is Friday; I will not see you again.” Nothing more. RESIST the urge, our supervisor said, to say that you will write, that you will stop by, that they should contact you with updates, that they can come to your church, your graduation, the birthday of your child!
We tried. Sometimes, we even succeeded.
But these sort of things that we say when we are leaving are the shock absorbers of goodbyes. They make the bumps less jarring. They make it seem like we always have the second-half of a roundtrip ticket, just in case.
I am in the midst of trying to have a good goodbye with not just the people in my congregation, but with family and friends, mentors and colleagues, favorite markets and streets and seasonal rites.
And that doesn’t even include the goodbyes I will say to my two sons, who will be graduating in May and each heading into the direction of their adult lives, neither of which is Southeast to a tropical part of Florida. At least not anytime soon and not permanently.
Recently, in my weekly sermon preparation I came across an article entitled “A Good Goodbye.” Perfect! I opened it eagerly feeling the need for a refresher and hoping for some encouragement. It began, “every goodbye is a dress rehearsal for death.” I managed to avoid reading any more of the article.
I guess what surprises me in this time of preparation is the depth of my desire to avoid what I know is necessary. I know the value of a good goodbye. I am the one often who is called upon when the dusk of someone’s life draws near; doctors can do nothing more; they want someone to walk them to the edge of this world and bless them into the next.
In those situations, I try to be present. I help them find words of forgiveness and grace. I hear their confessions. I hear their stories one more time. We laugh, listen to the clock chime and watch the cat stretch in the sunbeam. We talk about their favorite hymns and imagine aloud the place they are going. And of course we cry.
And almost always, all of this heart-work gives way to a sense of peace. Almost always, when at last it is time to write a funeral sermon, the image in my mind is the way I have been blessed by knowing the person who has died. Almost always, family members speak in relieved hushed voices about things that were said at the end…at last.
Still. Every single time I tell another person that I am leaving. With every item I pack or pitch or give away. Every meal I share in which I look in the face of someone I have loved and lived with for years, it feels like my heart breaks a little more. Even though many of these people I really WILL see again, a goodbye, even a temporary one, is no small thing.
My hope is that all these goodbyes will give way to something I’ve learned from the goodbyes I’ve already endured: a heart-broken open can embrace the whole world.
Because that IS the gift of a broken heart: it means you have loved. And love IS the meaning of life. To love one another. Without end. Wherever we were. Wherever we are. Wherever we are called to be. To love and to love and to love until it’s time for us to go.