It was December 5, 2005. Political storm clouds had been gathering for months, but on that day, the storm let loose. Word came from our superior that – due to insecurity in the country – we were to evacuate Haiti within 48 hours. Just one day before, we’d decorated the Christmas tree. Now, we quickly removed the ornaments, collapsing the tree and storing it in a closet. Hurriedly, we did laundry, packed our clothes, swept the house and headed to the airport.
So began an odyssey that took the four of us to Bethany, Oklahoma. Since that time, Bethany has been our psychological anchor, even if after three years there Amy and I physically returned to Africa, the continent of our earlier missionary service. One son already lives overseas, and the other will soon move to another state. Like a hot air balloon tethered to the ground, one-by-one, the slender ropes have once again been severed. The balloon is slowing rising again, this time to a new base back East with a sibling, a new driver’s license and address, a new touch-back point when we return from Africa briefly to the U.S. each year. Nine years after first coming to Oklahoma, it’s time for another goodbye.
Goodbyes were the stuff of life for Paul. In Acts 20:13-38, Paul was passing near Ephesus, his old pastorate where he’d spent three years pouring his life into new disciples. He was on his way to Jerusalem, so from Miletus he sent word to the elders in Ephesus to come to see him. After encouraging them to remain firm in the faith and warning them about dangers to the flock, Luke recounts the emotional scene:
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 (20:36-38, NIV).
As Paul lamented that he would be absent from the Ephesians, so today we lament absence. Despite gadgets that connect us across the miles in real time via the Internet, there’s no substitute for sitting in the same room with friends and loved ones. Through the prophets, God had sent revelation to his people – a kind of virtual contact – yet it was inferior to the incarnation, Jesus coming in the flesh. It is only in the flesh that we can place a reassuring hand on a shoulder, wipe a tear, or give someone a hug. When distance separates us, like Paul, we grieve the loss.
The French language is rich when it comes to saying goodbye. In the musical, “The Sound of Music,” the children perform a goodnight song for the gathered party goers. In a clever bi-lingual play on words, Lisel chants: “Adieu, adieu, to yuh and yuh and yuh.” The word “adieu” (literally, “to God”) is well-chosen since her family would soon be secretly crossing the Alps from Austria to the safety of war time neutral Switzerland. She had no expectation to see them again, so she commended them into God’s hands. Yet the more common way to say goodbye is “au revoir,” meaning “until the re-sighting,” or more informally, “see you later.” The Scottish tune “Auld Lang Syne” – commonly sung at New Year’s Eve parties – is a celebration of times gone by. The French keep the tune, but substitute words with another meaning: “Ce n’est qu’un au revoir, mes frères” (“This is only a ‘see you later,’ my brothers. “) It looks forward, not backward.
Christian faith also looks forward. However sad goodbyes might be, hope changes the equation. The same gloomy Paul of Acts 19 is cheerier elsewhere, reminding the Corinthians that we are resurrection people:
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:9, NIV).
To the Thessalonians, he paints a picture of Christ’s return when we shall be raised to new life (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). We are to “comfort each other with these words” (v. 18), the promise that we shall “be with the Lord forever” (v. 17).
Former missionary Linda Seaman has said:
Heaven is where we’ll trade in all our goodbyes for hellos.
I’ve gotten better at saying goodbyes. When moving, it’s healthy to visit one last time places that hold good memories and to wish farewell to friends. I spent a lot of time this week doing just that. Some friends I won’t see again during this life, but we despair not. The Christian hope sustains us.
Saying goodbye to Bethany, Oklahoma – a safe harbor after a storm – won’t be my last goodbye. There will be other goodbyes made to other people and places on this earthly journey. I’m glad that – for the Jesus follower – the journey ends with heavenly hellos. Don’t miss the reunion!
Image credit: Luna Starla blog