Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Leaving Church

"I've never met someone in whom wisdom and gentleness are so perfectly combined."

"At a time when many people fear or exploit the Middle East, you are going there to serve orphans."

"In your presence, I feel no pressure to make small talk. Thank you for welcoming silence."

"I admire that you don't have to agree with someone to respect the strength his or her convictions."

"People hang on your words. They know you don't speak without weighing and crafting your words."

"I think it is beautiful that you are going on a pilgrimage in Spain this summer. I play with pilgrimage as a metaphor all the time, but you're actually going to walk 500 miles for the sake of holiness."  

"Your notes and hugs have been a light during a dark time. Thank you for the faithfulness of your friendship."

"You live out your singleness in a way that is holy. No one would think that your life is a time of waiting simply because you're not married."

On Sunday, members of my Sunday School class spoke these words of affirmation to those who are leaving this summer. Andy, Stephanie, Sara and Jeremy, Christopher and Tiffany are all moving on to new jobs, new states, new countries. They have been among us in deep and dear ways, and Sunday was a time to send them off. I know each of these men and women, and I contributed to the mantle of words woven around them.  I could speak to their kindness, their loyalty, their hunger for righteousness, their humor, and their wit, thankful for a chance to praise their virtues publicly. At the same time, I loved hearing how they had touched and strengthened others. Hearing Kelsey's words to Andy, or Sam's words to Christopher, or Alexis's words to Tiffany, I was reminded that even the people we know well have strengths and skills I have never seen.  Not even my wide eyes can catch all that is true of my friends.
We laughed and cried together, but even in our sorrow, the refrain was "And now it is time."  "We can hardly imagine life without you, but we know it is time for you to begin your work in Lebanon." "It hurts to watch you go, but you will bring so much joy when you serve in the church that calls you." "It is time. Time to go."
Gathering, welcoming, inviting, establishing: these home-making acts can be unequivocally joyful. When old friends return or new ones arrive, there is a feeling of should-ness and gladness that makes our happiness solid.  We know that a home is doing its job when people want to come inside.

Bidding farewell is more complex.  Even when the reason for a departure is timely and joyful, something in us revolts against sundering. The Ephesians wept when Paul left them (Acts 20.36-38). So much of what we know about the early church, in fact, comes from its accounts of departures, deaths, missionary journeys, arrests. The beautiful sorrow of being joined in heart but distant in body is inscribed into the Bible itself.  It can be hard to remember that a home is not meant to be a fortress, but a haven or harbor, a place that fits us for going out.
What we did on Sunday prepared those who are leaving in a strange and mysterious way. Along with Stephanie, Andy, and the others, my time in Waco, at Calvary, is also ending. As my friends and mentors spoke, my heart was pounding; I was overwhelmed.  This person they described amazed me, even as some voice in my mind sneered, "You are not this woman. You are not the strong, whole, loving person they describe." And it is true that sometimes I diminish myself: when I allow fatigue, or hunger, or anger, or loneliness to direct my thoughts and actions. But false humility belies the truth: I am she because God made me beautifully and wonderfully. My friends see this--see more of me than I have known or named.

It is a strange and glorious thing to glimpse yourself in the mirror of Christ's Church. All those eyes, seeing us in so many ways, become God's eyes. Perhaps it would not be good to see ourselves so shining and strong each day -- perhaps we are not wise enough to bear the weight of our own beauty until we are fully redeemed.

But what an amazing glimpse to strengthen us for our journey. Just as we are about to go to new places, settle among new people, begin new work -- when all the outward signals of our identity and homes will change -- how precious to be assured of our unchanging home in the heart of our Creator.
Every person who leaves a church should receive such a blessing -- an annointing -- to carry onto the road. Over six years I have learned that a good church welcomes and receives.  Today I understand that the Body of Christ also makes leaving a mighty joy.

How do you bid farewell to friends? Have you ever been sent out from a church, group, or relationship in a way that was especially meaningful?

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