My Dear Shepherds,
In these virus-corrupted, socially-distanced months several pastors I’ve known have concluded their ministries without proper farewells. Dave Ward’s last Sunday was Easter, his last sermon to an empty auditorium. But he said he got an unexpected surprise parade of dozens of cars with church families. Another pastor friend, Susan Moody, grieved, “It feels like I am being robbed of some needed closure and celebration of what God has done through me. Celebrating that is really celebrating God and it strengthens me for the next task.”
I thought of these colleagues when I came to the concluding description of Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders:
When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship. (Acts 20:36-38)
In June, Pastor Jim Keena’s last sermon, on this very text, was livestreamed to his church but with only a dozen folks in the auditorium. He told me, “I missed doing what Paul and the elders did in Acts 20:37. I missed weeping, embracing, and worshiping with the flock that God had entrusted to my care. I missed raising an Ebenezer and recalling God’s past faithfulness and resting in God’s future faithfulness.”
In the early days of the shutdown, when our congregations could no longer meet, I thought a lot about the doctrine of the communion of the saints. I read Jesus’ prayer in John 17, assuring our union with the Father through the Lord Jesus. Thus each of us, united with the triune God, are deeply and divinely united with one another. We often sense that the first time we meet a fellow Christian. So it stands to reason that partings would be more poignant and painful also.
Amidst all the noise and commotion of a commercial wharf, Paul “knelt down with all of them and prayed.” What could be more natural than including God in a last huddle of Christian brothers? When I anticipated saying goodbye to my congregation of 22 years, I invited households to meet with me for prayer. Over the course of my last three weeks 55 of them came. Those were precious times.
I prayed with one couple for healing for a terrible family secret dumped upon them long ago. One brother brought me faded black-and-white pictures of his childhood home that he’d always meant to show me. One couple talked about God’s healing of his cancer. One, a prayer warrior, asked me to pray for her wayward son. (More people asked me to pray about prodigal children than any other concern.) After I prayed with one of my elders and his wife we embraced and wept just as Paul had. I prayed with Connie, who died two months later of Covid-19. When I embraced and wept with one former leader he whispered, “We did some good work together,” and I felt a great satisfaction. So it was for Paul and his elders there on that wharf.
It was Juliet who told Romeo, “Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till be morrow.” The prospect for Paul’s elders of never seeing his face again came with the unspoken addition, “… never again here.” That’s the thing about Christian goodbyes. They sustain us till the morrow. Jim Keena said of his truncated farewell, “It makes me look forward to that Day when we’ll give each other an eternal hello with never a bad goodbye.”
Be ye glad!