Dealing with Grief: How can I Say Goodbye?
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1 Peter 2:2-10
This morning I’m talking about saying hello and saying goodbye. Now, don’t worry, I’m not saying “adios.” The rapture passed me by. I see it passed you by, too. To be honest, I had this hello/goodbye sermon in mind ‘way before I thought about the “rapture”. Yes, we are the unchosen. We are the left behind—maybe because we’re too left.
Do you think that’s right? My wife had an idea. She said, “Pete, you know what we ought to do is call everybody in Plymouth Church and say, ‘Now, on the 22nd of May, nobody come to church.’ Nobody comes, and then when the media comes, they will see Plymouth completely empty. Wow, won’t they be surprised!”
To be honest, I had this hello/goodbye sermon in mind ‘way before I thought about this May 21st “beam me up, Scottie” rapture thing, whatever it is. I really had some more down to earth thoughts. Come on, after all, today is Commencement and right now there are lots of people walking down the hill at KU and all kinds of commencements.
In addition to that, the story read from the Gospel lesson this morning is the story of Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples. It seems entirely appropriate to speak a few words about what is involved in saying hello and goodbye. What I want to suggest this morning is that there are times in our lives when we need to pause and ponder the meaning of goodbye as well as hello.
Goodbyes are hard. A young mother takes her six-year-old son to the school bus and helps him get him get onto the first step of the bus as she says goodbye.
A girl at the airport hears the announcement that her plane is about to depart. A young man is seeing her off at the airport and onto the plane. She turns to the young man and says, “I guess this is goodbye.”
A young man dressed in military fatigues with a duffle bag strapped around his shoulders is about ready to be deployed to Afghanistan. He gathers his family into his arms and whispers into their ears “Goodbye. I love you.”
It’s been a long time since the term “God be with you” has disappeared into the word “goodbye,” but there are times still that we catch a glimmer of that truth in the word “goodbye.” George Elliot says, “The agony of parting is when we look and see how deep is the love.”
It is not always easy to say goodbye. Hellos and goodbyes, arrivals and departures, entrances and exits, they are all part and parcel of our lives.
There’s the glass window at the hospital nursery where family members look and wave at the newborn infant and ooh and ah—their way of saying, “welcome, hello to the world.”
Maybe it’s like the glass window at Kansas City International Airport—you know the window they installed after they put in all the security systems—and you are sitting there waiting at the plane. I can’t help but notice how many people are looking through that glass at their beloved or at their child, and they stand there staring at their beloved until they disappear into the cabin of the airplane.
Hellos and goodbyes are part of our lives.
Yet I want to suggest, this morning, that we sometimes do everything we can to avoid them. We so blankly say: “Oh, we’ll see you again.” “I’ll text you.” “I’ll e-mail you.” “Oh, we’ll get together again. It won’t be that long.” It seems we are always in such a hurry that we don’t give ourselves permission to be in the moment of departure. It seems always that the phone is buzzing or a text is calling for our reply, keeping us from just being in the moment.
The world rushes by so fast; it will not wait or pause for us. I found myself, however, wanting to linger for a moments a few weeks ago when my son married a wonderful woman named Anna. We were high up on a mountain above the Napa Valley. It was a lovely day, a lovely moment, a lovely bride named Anna. This newborn I held in my hands is now held in the hands of his new wife, his new life. It’s all good, but there is a part of you that wants to linger in this moment, this bittersweet, joyful moment. Yes, there is a tinge of sadness as well.
We all have moments of goodbyes in our lives, some more painful than others. Goodbye to a child, goodbye to a young man going off to war.
One of the bittersweet joys of ministry is being part of a congregation where people come into the community and we say hello and embrace them, and then they move on. We bid them God’s speed and farewell. There are so many people coming and going in our lives. That’s what ministry is: hellos and goodbyes again and again and again.
Take a look at the lesson this morning, this 14th Chapter of the Gospel of John. It is as if the world is trying to rush us all the time, rushing us through our goodbyes. Jesus is saying, “No. Wait. Take time to pause and remember.”
The Gospel of John is made up of 21 chapters; how is it that five of those 21 chapters consist of Jesus saying goodbye to his friends, the disciples? All the way from the 13th chapter to the 17th chapter, Jesus is there with his friends at the Last Supper in this special sacred moment. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Stop, pay attention.”
Jesus, in the gospel of Luke in the 22nd Chapter, 15th verse, says: “I have earnestly desired to share this Passover meal with you before I suffer.” He is saying to his friends, I earnestly desire that we have this time together.
What a time it was. The words at the very beginning of the 14th chapter of John: “Let not your hearts be troubled.” That follows the 13th chapter where Jesus is washing the feet of the disciples and he tells them that he is going to suffer and is going to be killed. He tells them that one among them will betray him. He tells them that Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows.
There is a lot of power behind those words: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house, there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you. When I come again, I will take you to myself that where I am you may be also.” It’s a moment of profound intimacy and connection. It’s both a moment of command and promise. A moment when Jesus is saying go out into the world and carry my love and the promise that my love will be with you and will be in you. It’s a moment of going out into the world and yet saying that my spirit will be with you always. Abide in my love. It’s a powerful moment of intimacy and connection; a moment of goodbye. Death is looming, betrayal is waiting, anxiety is churning, and yet Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”
As Jesus invites us to linger in the moments of goodbyes and hellos in our lives, I invite you to linger for just a few moments. Three thoughts come to my mind that I think are so critical in terms of the hellos and goodbyes in our lives. The first one is this: every hello and goodbye is tinged with sadness and joy. Hello and goodbye are in many ways connected very intimately to each other. In every hello there is the seed of goodbye. In a way, if our goodbyes are not painful, then our hellos cannot be joyful. Joy and sadness are always inextricably intertwined very much like trees in the fall that are one day leafed in brilliant colors and the next week they are barren trees.
Joy and sadness connected to each other.
C.S. Lewis, the writer and author, was going through the grief of his dying wife, Joy. He has a conversation with his wife when she is dying and he is expressing to her the depth of his grief and his sadness. Joy says to C.S. Lewis, “Look, we had all this joy, we had all this happiness, you don’t get one without the other. That’s the way it is.”
Second: In every goodbye there is something that needs to be let go. There’s also something that needs to be remembered and retrieved. We move forward by looking back; the past is never dead. In the words of Faulkner, “In fact, the past is not even past.” Think about how many movies and films we have seen where people go to the graveside of a loved one to reconnect, to remember.
Society in so many ways hurries us along thinking we shouldn’t have time to go back and remember that it goes so quickly. It invites us to have a stoic attitude about goodbye. Just chin up and be tough. How obscene it is, in a way, when the world says you need to have closure here, you need to move on. In some deep way we don’t want to have closure. We don’t want to move on.
A man named, Nicholas Wolsterstorf lost his son, Eric in a tragic mountain climbing accident in the Matterhorn at the age of 21. Wolsterstorf said he refuses to escapes from grief and death. He says, “I will not look away from Eric dead. Why? Because that’s a part of who he is. That’s a part of who we are, those people who have gone on before us, and still we reach out to them. I will not look away from Eric dead.”
Friends, the Christian faith doesn’t glorify suffering. It doesn’t wallow in painful separations. It simply admits they are part of life. It also says: Do not deny them or run from them because that is also where the love is and we are created for love, we are made out of love. That is how we have been made by God.
Finally, and perhaps this is the most important one of all, in every goodbye no matter how painful or how difficult, God speaks a saving word and that word is different in as many ways as there are different people, but always the word is the word that is found in the Gospel, and that is that love abides. Love abides.
Many of you know Laura Canelos. I asked her permission to share this story and she joyfully granted it to me. Laura runs our ESL program. She runs the Spanish classes, she runs workers, she is a tireless fighter on behalf of a cause for justice in the world. If you have been around Laura, you know her energy is relentless. The other thing about Laura is that she has this smile of joy on her face and sometimes you wonder, “Laura, where do you get that?”
Laura shared with me that she had a younger brother, two years younger than she. Her younger brother was killed in a motorcycle accident in Texas several years ago but her younger brother’s memory lives on in her and it is the source of her spirit and of her life.
She emailed me this week and wrote: “My brother taught me more than I ever taught him; especially, about working hard, taking care of oneself, smiling, laughing, and finding joy in everything no matter how hard the circumstance. That is why I knew since the beginning that my best way of honoring him and coping with his death was to fight, work hard, and do it always with a smile. I feel him with me at all times, especially when I accomplish things but even more in difficult times.”
In every goodbye, there is a word that comes to us, a saving word from God. In every way, shape, or form it’s always different, but it is always the same. It is that love abides.
I share this with you, not as a proof to be tested, but as the deepest hope and aspiration of who we are as human beings. The word that love abides in what remains in the midst of our separation is the most powerful source of our hope. If you have been fortunate in your life, you know from a child the assurance of that which never dies.
So, for good theology, I turn to The House at Pooh Corner, written by A.A. Milne, and the world of Eeyore, and Tigger, and Piglet, and Owl, and the Heffalump trap, and Winnie the Pooh. My mother would read this to us when we were children. She could never get through the end. You know what I am talking about. The point where Christopher Robin leaves Winnie the Pooh behind because he is six years old and he going to have to get on that bus and he is going to have to grow up and leave his childhood behind.
There is a wonderful scene at the end of that book as Winnie the Pooh is saying goodbye to Christopher Robin and vice versa. You’ve got to hear this with the ears of a child, so be in a child frame of mind.
“Pooh, promise you won’t forget me, ever. Not even when I am 100.”
Pooh thought for a little, “How old shall I be then?”
“I promise,” he said.
Still with his eyes on the world, Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh’s paw.
“ Pooh,” said Christopher Robin earnestly, “ If I — if I’m not quite —“ he
stopped and tried it again. “ Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand,
“Oh, nothing.” He laughed and jumped to his feet. “Come on!”
“Where?” said Pooh.
“Anywhere,” said Christopher Robin.
So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the forest, a little boy and his bear will always be playing.
“Love abides” is that which is eternal, which never dies, and is the basis of our greatest hope.
My friends, take time for those moments of goodbye in your lives and know that in the sorrow there is a promise of deeper joy. Know that in remembering and retrieving are the seeds of letting go. Know always that God’s saving word speaks to us in such a moment, love abides. Amen.