I had picked this last Sunday of the year to say goodbye because it is normally a very low attendance Sunday and I figured I could be in worship with my congregation and then quietly slip out. For several years now, we have set the worship space in tables this day, invited people to bring food, enjoyed brunch together, prayed the Wesleyan Covenant Service together and shared Holy Communion around the tables.
Since I feel strongly the life of the church needs to revolve around worship, I could not envision a better way to leave. Saturday evening, a couple of good friends and I lovingly set out table cloths and centerpieces and candles. We set up for a slightly larger crowd than usual, and the layout graciously filled the worship space. Sunday morning, we set out the bread and bowls for the fruit of the vine, as people sitting at the tables would lift the individual containers as I did the consecration.
It looked wonderful and inviting. My tears started falling a couple of times that morning as I recognized the hugeness of the change in my life and the loss of being the pastor to this community. But since I made the decision to retire nearly six months ago, I’ve known deep in my soul that this the right thing to do. It is time to write more and to catch up with my family. With the church undergoing good growth, I could not both pastor effectively and spend the time writing that I need to do, nor could I take the time away I wished to see my grandchildren and other special family members regularly.
So much for best laid plans . . . People began to pour through the door. All seats were quickly filled and people were hurriedly setting up extra tables in the greeting area. Food tables had to be moved to a hallway to provide more space in the worship center. Many gave up and just sat on chairs around the edges. The twenty minutes set aside for people to get their food extended to 45. I went ahead and started the worship service right after the last person sat down as my worship leader and I both noted, “Hope the Fire Marshall doesn’t decide to pay a visit today.” We were definitely 0ver capacity.
The full covenant service is essentially a long series of prayers and admonitions, a time of deep re-commitment to Christ and to living our own lives as those fully owned by Christ. Times of silence and contemplation are built into it; no rushing through this type of worship. It must be intentional and slow.
After those prayers, I had the privilege of baptizing two of the finest men I have ever met. The first came to the altar accompanied by his 2 1/2 year old son who has been in worship weekly since his birth. When the father knelt, the child knelt beside him, just a spontaneous act. I could hardly speak as I saw this. He and his wife model daily what it means to be Christian for their children.
I called the second man forward. He and I had engaged in many insomniac nights of FaceBook conversations on the nature of belief and doubt, physics and faith, what is essential to the gospel, what can be set aside. I had very much taken him and his family as my own, and he saw me as his spiritual mother. His baptism had been planned for the week before, but then his own mother died a few days before that, and they all had to be gone. I knew his deep grief. He had lost his physical mother, and was about to lose his spiritual mother with my retirement. His tears had been matching mine for a while.
And those tears mingled with the baptismal water and dripped all over him. He wrote me this later: “Several people have asked me what I felt during the baptism. I’ve mostly just said that you pressed down hard on my head in an effort to hold the Holy Spirit in just in case it tried to escape.”
When we then moved to Holy Communion, those at tables who had bread and cups of juice made sure that those who didn’t were served. The body of Christ at work–no one left out, no matter how far they had to sit on the margins. We’re all a part of this.
During the sharing of the bread and cup, my Lay Leader came to the microphone and sang a powerful song on the friendship between me and the congregation, friendships that will last forever, despite my physical absence. Complete surprise, and blew me away.
And then came the leave-taking. I used the liturgy from the Book of Worship, and both thanked them and asked their forgiveness for the things I had done wrong. I knew there were many. They responded with their words of forgiveness and their acknowledgment of the things they did wrong.
And then I began to place things on the altar, things that will be given to the new pastor next week. A Bible, a Book of Worship, the Book of Discipline, a Cup and Plate for Holy Communion, a set of stoles. The Baptismal water was already there.
At this point, I broke from the liturgy. I held up a really fancy set of allen wrenches I had bought several years ago, as those are needed to lock and unlock the exterior doors and also the worship center doors. I laughingly reminded them that much of my work among them was doing the unseen but absolutely necessary things: locking and unlocking doors, working alone or alongside the congregation when we needed to clean up or re-order or dig weeds or wash windows. So much of pastoral life consists of these quiet tasks, important and invisible–except when they are not done, and then they become glaringly obvious.
And then I picked up my keys. Most recognized them. They are on a yellow springy wristband key-ring that I never bothered to put on my wrist and so quiet regularly lost them–they would be left in one door or another, set down absent-mindedly on someone’s desk, or loaned out to others who needed to get in for some reason or another and were willing to come by the parsonage and get them rather than ask me to go to the church myself.
I asked The Rev. Jessica Wright to stand and get ready. At that point, I tossed her the keys and invited her to the pulpit. As I took my place in her seat, I reminded the congregation that I no longer had the right of free entry into the building, but would come only by invitation. Pastor Jessica went to the microphone and pronounced the benediction. And it was over.
Except for the hugs–oh yes, the hugs.
Arms reaching for me everywhere, tears blurring my eyes and theirs. Faces of those who had greeted me on my first day here, faces of those who had just joined the church a week ago.
One woman who was just emerging from a very destructive relationship grabbed me and said, “You saved my life. I would not be here today without you.”
Another, a World War II veteran who has seen enough tragedy to knock anyone else out but who had the strength to endure, sobbed, “I will miss you so much.”
The chair of the building committee whose unbelievably gentle, powerful and competent leadership made the complete relocation of this church five years ago possible could hardly speak his words of love through the streams of tears. We were an incredible team, both of us needing and appreciating the other in the kind of working harmony many others dream of but never experience.
And then the children. So many I have baptized, all of whom I have loved like my own. One set of three adorable little girls each gave me a set of earrings, since I will now be able to wear them on Sunday mornings again (I used an ear-mic because it was much better for my preaching style, but earrings would cause some interference or unexpected sounds, so never wore them on Sundays).
The church emptied out, and I went to my office to disrobe for the last time there. I handed the robe to my verger, and also good friend who has been letting me bunk with her for a while before I can get into my apartment, and then went to take my microphone back to the sound booth. The worship leader/church secretary/information technology person/general-fix-anything-person was there.
We just looked at each other.
We have worked together day and and day out for several years now, bantering our ways through the complex tasks we shared, fully confident in the other’s ability to do what needed to be done, picking up the slack for each other as necessary and engaging in Kingdom of Heaven life in our shared work and shared love of Jesus.
I have no idea how many worship services and funerals we have done together–hundreds at least. I started to speak and he stopped me–and he was right. There were no words here–and we both knew that this was not a goodbye. There are lots of undone tasks yet to be done for the transfer to the new pastor to be complete. And his wife and extended family had also become my family here–I’ve known for a long time that if I never needed a safe haven, this large clan would open their arms in a nano-second to me.
And then I left. And now I sit in a place of quietness in Galveston, watching the water and thinking about my life. What next?
I have long contended that there is an important third career awaiting many people born in the US or in other countries where the lifespan is expanded and where resources are adequate (unfortunately, that is becoming less true for many). Our first career is just the act of growing up, gaining life and job skills and education in order to adequately support ourselves in the second career, those years of pairing up, marrying, having children, working to provide for family and self.
The third career can be different. This is the time to engage in the most meaningful of work: not something for which we are remunerated, although that is always nice, but more importantly, in something we genuinely love.
This is the time when the habit of periodic self-examination proves its worth. Who am I at this point in my life? What can I offer the common good? In what ways will the satisfaction of work take shape?
We were created to work–to find labor that satisfies our souls. Unending leisure becomes a chore; work that suits us gives soul delight.
I found that soul-delight in serving as a pastor. And now, as I turn more to the writing life, I also know there will be places opening for me to continue to use those pastoral gifts, so carefully tuned and sharpened over the years. As I develop a new rhythm to the days, I trust that words will flow that may stimulate thought, dialogue and discussion, greater entrance into the world of God-infused living.
Thank you, my readers, for being a part of my life. I treasure your partnership in this next phase of living.