The Good Goodbye

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May 18, 2014

The Good Goodbye

Passage: John 14:1-14

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” -John 14:2

This is the season for goodbyes. Commencement addresses. Saying goodbye to those leaving for summer homes. Saying goodbye for new jobs. It is not however; let me be clear, it is not time to say good-bye to Kenilworth Union until September. We will faithfully preach the gospel, in June, July and August and will rely upon your voice in worship and your presence in fellowship.

Since we have so many transitions in life, learning how to say goodbye is to be cultivated at an early age and continue for the rest of your life. One of the finest moments each week is when the youngsters file in from A Joyful Noise Preschool each morning and say “hi, Miss Julia” and repeat the same parade at the end of the day with “bye, Miss Julia” to Julia Smolucha, who sits at our front desk. You cannot witness this parade of little voices and big smiles without your heart melting.

With so many people, coming into our lives, as the cliché goes for a reason, a season or a lifetime, we need to develop the ability to begin and participate in healthy relationships by learning what makes for a good ending.

The movie industry has a field day with goodbyes. These liminal moments reveal a person’s character, the intensity and emotions between people and propel the story forward. Consider Rhett Butler saying, “Frankly, Scarlett I don’t give a damn,” as he storms out of Gone with the Wind. Recall the tragic farewell between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman with “here’s looking at you kid” in Casablanca. As my husband was tripping down memory lane with me, recalling good-bye scenes in the movies, he insisted I acknowledge the unforgettable Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back.”

The Sound of Music might be fresh in your mind from the production at the Lyric Opera or the familiar music sung in their promotions. It offers the common language for us to talk about good and bad goodbyes.

The story reaches a climax as Maria, played by Julie Andrews in the movie, finds herself attracted to the captain while dancing on a cool summer day. In an effort to deny her feelings, she takes the Baroness’ advice and flees back to the convent. No goodbye note. No kiss to the children. She leaves only an empty room.

The entire household, other than the Baroness, is deflated. Confused. Why? Had they done something wrong? Such an abrupt departure compelled the children and the Captain to question all of what had happened previously. Had she not cared for or loved them? Were they lies? What about the plans they had made? Who would fill her shoes?

At the convent, the Mother Superior knew Maria had no future without facing her feelings and sent her back. Remember the Mother Superior’s solo: Climb Every Mountain. Maria could not make a commitment to her religious order if still entangled elsewhere, goodbyes take courage sometimes.

When Maria is reunited with the family, their first question was – how could you leave? Maria and the Captain had to name the cause of the break before they could re-establish trust and move on. We need honest endings before new beginnings.

Good, goodbyes are needed professionally. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Ed Batista writes of his experience coaching young MBA’s and seasoned professionals. Batista’s life as a consultant and coach is filled with beginnings and endings and as a good consultant; he has framed this learning in a five-step process:
1. Understand your needs. We all have different needs when it comes to ending relationships, influenced by our formative experiences, cultural background, and professional training, and it’s important to understand not only the needs of the other people in the relationship, but also our personal needs.
2. Mark the occasion. Some kind of formal denotation is essential to an ending, even if it’s simply saying, “Well, this is it.” The absence of a denoted ending leaves a sense of uncertainty that can be highly problematic: Are we really saying goodbye? Just what does this transition signify? What will happen on the other side?
3. Share the work. Endings work best when everyone involved has a feeling of ownership and agency in the experience.
4. Manage the emotion. Endings are — and should be — emotional experiences. This is true in the workplace, filled with humans. The ability to express and share the emotions that are stirred up by an ending help ensure that an actual ending occurs. In the absence of overt expressions of emotion, we can feel that something important was left unsaid, contributing to a lack of closure and heightening feelings of loss or regret. Finally, he advises…
5. Accept — and prepare for — the letdown. Even when we handle an ending perfectly, it’s common, and healthy, to feel a sense of depletion when it’s truly over. As a minister, I will name this as grief. Our reluctance to acknowledge endings can stem from our resistance to these feelings.

Batista refers to William Bridges’s book Transitions that claims all our endings and beginnings are joined by an “empty or fallow time in between,” and this “neutral zone provides access to an angle of vision on life that one can get nowhere else. And it is a succession of such views over a lifetime that produces wisdom.” (Ed Batista. HBR Blog The Art of Saying a Professional Goodbye. May 7, 2014)

I admire Don Dempsey for many reasons and one of the most profound gifts he gave Kenilworth Union and me was a good, goodbye. It is said, healthy ministry is to begin in anticipation and end in thanksgiving. Don allowed us to acknowledge and anticipate the grief of losing Meg and him. He named the purpose of our relationship, our need for closure and the bright promise in our future. Don modeled courage and grace in saying and receiving heart-felt goodbyes. I think many of you know, he is already engaged in another interim assignment. Both Don and Kenilworth Union are doing well.

This is the time for commencement addresses. They begin at eighth grade and continue for the rest of our lives. Commencement addresses are to contain pearls of wisdom for graduates. Some speeches attempt to launch the graduates into the future, motivating achievement, counseling prudence, or confess the blunt honesty of the challenges awaiting them in the real world. Since graduates have had their fill of pearls of wisdom, I think the true audience for the better addresses includes those of us, long past graduation, who linger in memory of such endings and new beginnings, and welcome the pep talk to re-engage in our lives.

Consider Steve Jobs’ address to Stanford in 2011, which was delivered after he was diagnosed with cancer. He said:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. (BusinessInsider Oct 6, 2011)

Our gospel lesson for today is nestled in the middle of what scholars call Jesus’ farewell discourse. It is a genre commonly found in antiquity in which a final testament is placed on the lips of a hero approaching death, with rhetoric that follows a well-established literary form. (Frances Maloney. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John. 371)

These are the ultimate goodbyes and whoever offers a farewell discourse acknowledges his or her imminent departure from family or followers, consoles them, gives them directions for the future, and, often, promises to be with them again.

Examples of a great leader bidding a poignant farewell can be found in Greco-Roman literature – Plato’s account of Socrates’s farewell to his disciples. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob bids farewell on his deathbed. Moses’ farewell is in Deuteronomy. Paul said farewell to elders of Ephesus in the Book of Acts.

Jesus’ farewell prepares the disciples to consider not only his journey through death to life, but also their own.

This passage is often spoken at the edge of a freshly dug grave or in a memorial service: “Do not let your hearts be troubled…in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”….and “I go to prepare a place for you.” Jesus comforts his disciples by claiming his death is not the end, but rather the beginning of the way whose destination is a reunion of all within God.

Theologian Robert Jensen challenges us to consider the “roominess” Jesus is preparing in God is in relation; not just to space, but also in the time God has for us. We can imagine a mansion with many rooms, a cot for each of us, and a place to call home. Our sense of self is oriented around a body needing shelter, which leans on a spatial sense of reality. The comforting image of a mansion is for our frail bodies and for us to dwell with our loved ones. We want to be close to them and God. So, it requires a bit of reorientation to shift gears to consider Jesus will be making room within an aspect of time that is entirely foreign to our human experience.

God was and is the creator as told through the Book of Genesis. God created the means by which we experience temporal life, the sun, moon and earth, and therefore the days, nights, weeks and years.   When we wonder, “What is time,” Jensen posits, God creates time. “If creation is God’s making room in himself, then God must be roomy…this roominess of God should be thought of as his “time” and that God’s eternity is not immunity to time but God having all of time.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 2. Cynthia Jarvis. 469)

That is a heady thought for us and for the disciples. When Jesus offered his farewell, Thomas and Phillip interrupt him, gasping for clarity, just as we might amidst Jesus’ mind bending ideas. Thomas insists we do not know the way where Jesus is going and Phillip jumps over the need for directions by asking Jesus to make it easy – just show us God.

What troubles the disciple is their time with Jesus is coming to a close. We have the same relationship to time: its brevity robs us of those we love. We do not have forever in this life, but since Jesus came to bring us life, what is next since he too will die a mortal death?

The place Jesus is preparing in God’s own life is eternal life. As in the beginning of this gospel God has come to dwell with us in Jesus Christ, so the Christian hope is the promise that we will dwell through Jesus in God, and with all those others we love so dearly.

Jesus guides us in his farewell: “very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these.” Here is the great leap. We need to believe in Jesus and God and this requires us to say goodbye to a way of thinking which relies upon proofs and reason. It requires us to say goodbye to the pride which claims we can understand it all and we can make sense of everything. Jesus gave us many reasons to believe throughout his life with evidence of God’s power of God to restore life in ways far beyond mortal imagination.

To believe in Jesus and God often requires us to say goodbye to our egos and accomplishments. We end our limited perception of spatial life. The other gospels may be a bit more direct –“ in order to gain your life, you must lose your life…The first shall be last and the last shall be first…The master is not greater than the servant.”

As we say goodbye to the self we have which is shaped and informed by common culture, we will go through the grief and frightening liminal space. But, then we can open ourselves, slowly and sometimes falteringly, to see what God loves about us and others. We become more forgiving and giving, and more confident and direct. We move forward and pursue the work Jesus began to bring healing, inclusion and mercy to a world without. We can grow in confidence the time we have, however fleeting, is good, and more awaits us across a horizon we must only trust.

Think of your goodbyes. No doubt there are some loved ones to whom we never wanted to say goodbye. Perhaps there are some goodbyes you did not handle with the grace you now wish you had. Easter and the resurrection may be history, but these events endure in the fiber of our collective behavior for us to consider how Jesus’ goodbye points us forward to become what God intends.   Amen.