A Pastor’s Goodbye Letter

Dear Abiding Hope Family:

If you’ve been by my office lately, I understand your amazement. You’ve taken in the clutter and generally said boy or wow. The pastor’s study can be like my late mother’s junk drawer. Any object without a clear, immediate destination goes in the junk drawer (a lonely C battery, a half-used packet of mini Kleenex, a ceramic hippopotamus from a box of teabags) or the pastor’s study (a floppy sunhat, an old bag of Swedish fish, an unopened pack of small Depends–someone might be able to use them). One of you winked and mentioned that a huddle formed recently over the need for an intervention.

And you see only part of the squalor. Yesterday I filled five trash bags by emptying out a filing cabinet hidden behind my closet door. Notes from seminary might be interesting as artifacts, but if their contents haven’t already been put in my heart and written on my mind, then I’m in trouble, as is anybody who would call me Pastor.

I’ve gone through hundreds of books and filled two boxes with keepers. Over the years a formidable theological library has happened my way, one collection from a studious pastor ready to retire and another from one who left behind an apartment groaning with bound ideas and counsel. The titles displayed on bookcases look learned, but as gray overcomes the final evidence of brown on my chin, the day has come to admit I’m much more writer than scholar (or theologian in residence, as parish pastors are supposed to be) and more fellow pilgrim than wise guide.

My mess and excess have let these realizations sink in and sharpen my awareness that most of what I’m moving out of the pastor’s study will be stored in my chest along with all I own in bliss and sadness, in the space that holds rants, laughter, and sighs.

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Baby Jesus, bless it all: the old candy canes, the banner, books I’ve never read, the mirror Elena looked into as she put on her wedding gown before I walked her down the aisle, then turned around and did the wedding.

Herbie was a bricklayer disabled young by heart disease. The whole time I knew him he had oxygen slung over this shoulder. Doctors tried everything, even a procedure that included poking holes in his heart. Weary, often in pain, he and his wife Loretta thought and prayed. We were visiting in their living room when she said that Herbie had decided to stop taking medication. The enough moment had arrived.

I sat beside him on his hospital bed, put my arm around his shoulder, and he let go. I’ll never forget the feeling. He cried and sagged against me, and I knew that his soul beheld a journey that starts with surrender. Surrender, that’s what we shared, the final human consent.

I held Herbie around a dozen years ago. When I leave my keys on the desk and walk out of Abiding Hope this coming Sunday, my arm will still be around his shoulder.

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The little key is for the thermostat.

On Sundays during Holy Communion, children come forward for a piece of bread and a blessing. I cheat. Some argue that little ones don’t understand the Sacrament, which may or may not be true, but I’m certain they know what it means not to share what everybody else receives with such reverence and devotion. So I break off a little piece, a foretaste.

I get down in their faces and say, “Now you need to remember, Jesus loves you exactly the way you are.” I don’t pretend to know the mind of God, but if this isn’t true, my ship is going down in boiling water. Anyway, the world devotes much time and effort convincing us to improve, so I figure hearing a word of unconditional love over and over can’t hurt.

When I stand back up from each blessing my knees crack, but I don’t feel a thing. The sacred space in my chest can’t forget the expectant eyes, the whispers of yeah or okay when I tell them to remember.

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“Go in peace! Serve the Lord!” I’ve had this photograph taped on my office door. These kiddos go with me.

Your life is coming in for a hot landing. There might be debris, flames and black smoke. Nothing to do but hang on, so you show up at my messy office, where you predict the devastation, anticipate the casualties. You need Kleenex.

Cancer. Betrayal. Death. Joy, too, babies and victories. But whether you’re in a free fall or glad flight, the pastor’s study is mainly a place to search through the box of answers you bring with you and to remember, always remember: In messes or atop mountains, we’re never alone. Our Unseen Guest, as my Grandpa Miller called Him in table grace, is with us, but when you and I hold hands and pray, we’re way beyond caring whether God is a boy or girl. We believe in the One in whom we live and move and have our being: God. Those three letters are plenty. The wreck may end up worse than you fear. We look at the cross and recall that Jesus crashed hard. With uncertainty scattered everywhere, we breathe in God’s old promise: “I will not leave you or forsake you.”

A promise and each other, that’s what we’ve got. When you walk out of my office, you leave me a gift that I’ll always hang on to: the image of your face as we crossed the valley of shadows and how it brightened when you felt the Unseen One traveling with us.

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Your chair, holding a box of keepers. It will still be waiting for you when the next pastor arrives.

Your face. Abiding Hope faces. I keep them all in a safe place. And I want you to know, I have the faces of those you love and have gone on to glory.

At the funeral home, after everybody passes by the body, I stay behind. The funeral directors close the doors, then lower your loved one into the coffin and fold in the fabric. I watch. I want to be the last person to see that face because love should consume the moment. I see to that. Before the lid clicks shut, I say inside, “I’m still here. You matter.”

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Beloved Abiding Hope faces, the quick and the dead. Old brother Earl (front row) has gone on to blessed rest.

Of course, I will carry with me some objects that bear weight. The two most important are t-shirts that have a story behind them. They came from you, though you may know nothing about them.

During my first few years at Abiding Hope we had a fair number of teenagers, my daughter Elena and son Micah among them. Our youth group was lively, and two adult advisors made t-shirts for everyone. The trouble was, Micah wasn’t much interested in participating, heading as he was down a dark path that involved black clothes and a volcanic temper.

One evening when I showed up for an activity, Karri handed me a white shirt with “Pastor John” embroidered under “Abiding Hope.” White was our color. But then she handed me a black one with “Micah” and “Abiding Hope” in a barely visible dark purple: “If he won’t wear white, maybe he’ll wear black.” Mary did the stitching, I believe, but I don’t know who came up with the idea.

Over the years I’ve grown to understand that all of Abiding Hope handed me those t-shirts. You have always said, each in your own way, “Show up in your own color. You might find love here, maybe grace and hope, too. And an arm around your shoulder.”

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All are welcome at the Table of the Lord! This is Abiding Hope.

My soul can no more leave you behind than my body can bury its own shadow. We belong to each other.

But now I’m off to another church family, where I’ll come to love more faces. I’ve got a couple days to finish boxing up the pastor’s mess. Thank God you and all we’ve shared are already packed in my safe place–no rust or moth there. For a while I’ll be putting some tears next to you, then sighs, and eventually, joy and gratitude.

Love, peace, thanks, and so long,

Pastor John

My Parental Gland

One morning in mid March, my parental gland sounded its mysterious longing in my chest. Of course, there’s no evidence such a gland exists, but I’ve got one. Made visible it would resemble a translucent almond situated behind my sternum, right where you get the wind knocked out of you.

I was pray-meditating at 7:30 a.m., propped up in bed, wife Kathy sleeping next to me. The only sound in the house was twenty-two-year-old son Micah whirling around downstairs like Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil. (He could slow down his routine and still get to his painting job on time, but he makes coffee, finds clothes, throws a nutritionally hollow lunch into his knapsack, and puts on his coat in a barely-managed frenzy.) I listened and breathed. The front door creaked open and banged shut, and thud thud thud he went down the front steps; car door; engine; drove away, at a reasonable pace, thank God.

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Micah smoking his e-cig after a hard day’s work. How can you not love a twenty-two year-old who lounges in onesie jam-jams and tiger slippers?

That’s when my parental gland fired, as the car’s whir became a sigh that became silence. Kathy slept. The neighborhood was reverent. Deep breaths embraced the longing in my chest. Longing. Or call it whatever. That contradiction, that lush tundra parents inhabit as we watch our children move into the distance. Pride blossoms against apprehension’s frost.

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Frost on an orange flower–a father’s spirit watching his child drive away. (Credit: Image Source / Corbis)

Daughter walks from the car to the school building. Please. After you kiss your son’s forehead, he gets wheeled away for an appendectomy. Please. Daughter and son speed off with friends for some destination you’ll never find out about. Please. Each departure turns me, at least, into a beggar: God on high, hear my prayer.

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“God on high, hear my prayer.” Jean Valjean rescues Marius–“like the son he might have known.” (Les Miserables, Credit: Mead Schaeffer / Wikimedia Commons)

If only my parental gland had dissolved once daughter Elena and Micah reached legal drinking age. When they were teenagers I peeked between my fingers like a child as they stumbled out of sight into their respective barbed wire and razor blades: flirting with death, dancing with heroin. I’d figured on landing in a deep blue expanse of peace if they grew up and straightened out.

Both of my children are healthy and sane at the moment, but sadly, no blue expanse. Turns out my heart worries even when my head can’t name the threat. It’s that shimmering parental gland. Mine is more active than ever, gaining potency as the years call me to honesty. I love Elena and Micah so much it hurts sometimes, especially when they’re traveling alone, fading from view.

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Someone’s daughter disappears. Someone’s parental gland sounds. (Credit: Hans Berggren / Johner Images / Corbis)

My conclusion: a father’s and a mother’s hurt and sorrow reside in the same dwelling with a love that makes us want to take off after our adult children, pick them up in our arms, and rock them to sleep. That’s what my gland does, anyway. I’m not kidding. I would gladly put Elena or Micah in my lap, rest their head against my shoulder, and listen for sleep’s slow, even breathing. Ah well. Pain and longing are in love’s fine print. Deal accepted.

Now Elena is married to Matt, and they’ve given us all Cole. Judging from what a mush bucket I am already, I’m thinking the parental gland working so abundantly these days will be promoted and given grandparental duties as well. The raise in compensation so far has more than covered the increased workload. Each time my grandson cries, I’m in that lush tundra. Please.

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I pray from this place each time my children leave. (Credit: John and Karen Hollingsworth / Wikimedia Commons)

That’s what happened today when Elena, Cole, and I met at Presque Isle for a walk. The wind was chilled by snow and icy Lake Erie, and Cole was plenty warm, but in no mood for the stroller. Half a mile in, we pulled off the path for a drink. The kid’s amazing. He managed to nurse and make those calming-down snivels infants do after a crying jag. His tank full, we headed back to the car, taking turns carrying him. For a couple minutes, as I faced him forward and held him close, I whispered Grandpa foolishness against his bald head and listed in a chant everybody who loves him. But then he started blubbering again, which told me that his appetite for affection is bottomless. No problem. My grandparental gland, unlike my pancreas, is invincible.

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“Take me out of this stroller and tell me you love me! Right now!

When we got back to the parking lot, Elena changed Cole’s diaper, got him in his car seat, and we all kissed goodbye. I started my truck, but waited as they drove off. Please.

I thought about my favorite passage from Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha. The main character is in anguish as his son walks away into the bliss and suffering life holds for him. A sage speaks to the father:

Do you then really think that you have committed your follies in order to spare your son them? Can you then protect your son from Samsara? How? Through instruction, through prayers, through exhortation? My dear friend, have you forgotten that instructive story about Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, which you once told me here? Who protected Siddhartha the Samana from Samsara, from sin, greed and folly? Could his father’s piety, his teacher’s exhortations, his own knowledge, his own seeking, protect him? Which father, which teacher, could prevent him from living his own life, from soiling himself with life, from loading himself with sin, from swallowing the bitter drink himself, from finding his own path? Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared this path? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.

This is the hardest part of possessing my peculiar gland: as Elena, Micah, and Cole walk away from me, “finding their own path,” I wonder when my chest will finally crack open from wanting to spare them. But there is no sparing them—or forcing them.

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They could toddle, sprint, or “walker” away from me. No matter. Joy and longing kiss.

Now, in my fifty-third year, I understand the covenant: a father’s and grandfather’s love breathes, honors the silence when the beloved is out of sight, and prays from a lush tundra.

Note: “My Parental Gland” originally appeared as a guest post this past March on a great blog, Kerry’s Winding Road.