On Halloween, I said goodbye to a great friend, Mehmet [rhymes with Emmet]. He and I had grown close, sharing the life experience of parenting young children – in my case, two energetic [read: loud] boys and his situation one spirited girl.
As I said goodbye I realized how difficult goodbyes can be.
What was more difficult was watching my son, Silas, insist on giving Mehmet’s daughter a hug. He simply would not leave the playground until he had hugged Nur. It was as if he knew she was leaving, though I had avoided telling him about it.
Saying goodbye to Mehmet, I was reminded how I had just said goodbye to Alvaro, who moved with his young family to the East Bay. Because of the distance, he and his family will find a new church community. Our friendship had really grown, and I felt a bittersweet sadness when the news of his departure settled on my consciousness.
I also remembered staring into my friend Marco’s tear-filled eyes not long ago as we parted ways in Grand Rapids three years ago. He and his wife Kari left our little going-away party [we were headed to San Francisco] at our bungalow home in Garfield Park for a new life in Bay City, Michigan, where he is leading a burgeoning church plant.
Their tears led to tears of my own.
It was about seven years ago that a few of us helped my friend Kyle pack up his books and a few pieces of furniture into a U-Haul and head to northern Minnesota where we dropped him off at a St. John’s, a Catholic seminary, where he would invest himself in education. On our final day, preparing to say goodbye, we read from Common Prayer:
May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you : wherever he may send you; may he guide you through the wilderness : protect you through the storm; may he bring you home rejoicing : at the wonders he has shown you; May he bring you home rejoicing, once again into our doors.
When I looked up from the prayer, our whole group was in tears.
I also remembered another tearful goodbye that happened little over ten years ago. During a training trip in San Salvador, I had gotten close with a young Salvadoran man named Jaime. After nine days of ministry work, quite a few soccer games, and many hours of conversations in Spanish in the little apartment he shared with his hardworking mom, we came to our last day. By that point he had learned some of my English, even as he had taught me a wealth of Spanish. His group had to leave earlier than expected, so we didn’t get the final meal together. As it dawned on him, he looked at me and said clearly, “I have to.. I have to go now.”
The tears came. Immediately.
Long ago, when I was 16, my brother left for college. The thoughts of John moving out were difficult, but the reality was even more challenging. He brought his reflections to bear in a poem, written in both Spanish and English. He imaginatively depicted himself as a deer wandering to new meadows, drinking from new streams. But he also eloquently pointed to the delightful possibility of someday returning to his former pastures, his familiar places. The confluence of such rich Spanish and the rough English translation struck me deep in the deepest places of my soul.
As I heard my mom read the poem, the tears started so unexpectedly that she thought I was laughing. I retreated to my room, sobbing into my pillow. She softened, realizing I was in pain, struggling with the relational gravitas of this lasting fraternal goodbye.
The goodbye of death is all the more painful. I just found out one of my long-term heroes, Eugene Peterson, died. He was a faithful pastor and robust theologian, and his countless books, articles, and his Message translation of the Bible were all aimed at getting the strong hope of God worked into the fabric of human life.
Even reading about this on Twitter, the tears came.
Just a couple days ago I spoke with a long-time friend and mentor. Over two years ago, doctors told him he had just a few months of life left – he has cancer. He is now the first human being to undergo a new kind of drug-targeted treatment and his future is just as much in God’s hands as it was a few years ago.
Just hearing about his journey of hope and God-given confidence through the trials led to tears.
The question I now ask myself is this: What do these tears mean?
As with other existential questions, I turn to the biblical narrative.
A monumental theme stretching from the opening chapters of Genesis to the final apocalyptic images in Revelation that of exile and homecoming:
Adam and Eve say a say goodbye to their garden home, Eden, in Genesis three.
Abraham leaves his people, saying a permanent goodbye to the land of his fathers, and goes to the place where God directs him.
After the people of Israel finally arrive at the promised land, they’re exiled after only a few generations, left with the bittersweet hope of return.
But return they do! There is indeed homecoming. Nehemiah rebuilds the wall. Ezra revives the people. The Jewish people celebrate the construction of a Second temple.
And yet, alas, the Second Temple lasts only a few centuries before it is razed at the hands of a Roman warlord and his legions in 70CE.
It was, however, in and near this Second Temple that Jesus of Nazareth brought the fullness of his family and national legacy to its completion.
All the longings of meaningful impact on the world that had resonance in the people of Israel came to life in the life of Jesus. As Son of God, he was to be the true and ultimate King. He was the ultimate prophet, announcing the kingdom of God. And he was the ultimate high priest, interceding between the Father and all people.
Jesus makes his home in us. So, in a sense, we who find ourselves in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit are indeed *at home*.
But our story is still incomplete. Jesus promises a return – a permanent return. Jesus is with us, *even ’til the end of the age*, but he isn’t fully with us. Heaven and earth are not yet fully made one.
In Revelation 21 we learn the clearest details on what our ultimate homecoming looks like. Heaven comes down completely and convincingly in the New Jerusalem. The one seated on the throne [read: Jesus!] says,
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” [verses 3-5].
I’m glad John was faithful to actually write those words down. And I do believe them to be trustworthy and true. They are as true and real as the joy of new friendship, as real as the corresponding sorrow of a tear-filled goodbye.
Scripture is filled with goodbyes, with exile, with homecoming, with an unfinished longing that looks to what God is ultimately doing in and through Jesus and the Spirit.
Our human activities are best ordered when we look to the shape of the biblical story. Though it is filled with goodbyes, with sorrow, with missed opportunities, Scripture also points the way forward to the hope that lies ahead.
We cannot make sense of our human joy and struggle if we have not a context for it in a story that is larger than us, larger than our small empires and attempts at greatness or meaning or success.
The great African theologian, Saint Augustine, summed up our feelings in a simple statement that rang as true in the 300s as it does in 2018:
Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in you.
There are myriad paths set before us that promise to quell the restlessness of our human spirits, are there not? The gods of status, fame, power, sexual gratification, and monetary gain will always have their temporal allure. We bow down happily and unquestioningly.
But followers of the risen Christ are pilgrims, sojourners in a land that is not our own; we have our little outposts of the kingdom of God, our little signs that the fullness of heaven and earth will one day come together fully and we will no longer experience only the occasional overlap of the two.
And yet, our ultimate sense of what it will mean to truly belong in this world is the fact that God is working through us and in his own mysterious power to bring all things to their right order, of bringing heaven and earth together. It was created good, and is being restored to exactly that, though we have not yet fully seen this.
Hebrews 11 is a soaring explanation of faith, but it’s also a celebration thereof. The author brings the chapter to a close by emphasizing just how many faithful people strove to walk the path of allegiance to the true King:
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.
[…lots more examples of faithful people…]
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. [verses 24-26; 39-40]
The anticipation of what was and is to come, the hope of all things being made right and new, propelled these ancient people toward the tasks to which God called them. Orphanages, churches, hospitals, monasteries, wells in the desert – there seems to be no end to the ways human beings take the instructions of Jesus seriously, living their lives after his way.
And yet, we never seem to quite find what it is that we’re looking for. Within all the hope, tears stubbornly remain.
But tears are not pointless.
Tears shed over friends who move away do anchor us in the reality of present tense loss, of missing that elusive sense of home; but they also point the way forward to how God intends things to be.
I’m thankful for the risen Jesus who, two millennia ago, said goodbye to perfect communion with the Father and entered into humanity’s complicated narrative. He shed a great many tears over what he saw and experienced; he really felt for those in pain. And he went on to experience a great deal of pain himself, most especially in his torturous death.
Yes, Jesus gets it. He knows what saying goodbye means. In his identification with us humans, he gives us a glimpse of what the new humanity will look like: feeling, caring, loving.
The big difference in the new order of things that God is bringing about is there will be night, no death, no more goodbyes –
and no tears.