Unexpected Goodbye

Unexpected Goodbye April 5, 2006

When I came to Calvary there were, objectively, a lot of older folks filling the pews. (Of course as each year goes by “older” gets a new definition, but that’s another blog entry.)

Those older folks provided the leadership everywhere I turned at church and, frankly they’d been hanging on for much longer than they’d anticipated waiting for new birth to come. They were tired; they were getting even older. Rather than dealing with church politics, their waning energy should have been spent dealing with health problems, moving out of large houses and into retirement communities.

Well, things are changing around here; new leadership is stepping up; new faces are filling the pews. And this has freed some of the old guard up; I’ve noticed lately that some of the folks who were the most visable leaders when I came have been fading a little. Not all of them, and not completely, but gradually a weekly Sunday presence has been replaced by an occasional appearance—it’s too hard to make it down into the city every single week anymore; there are too many personal decisions taking their energy and attention.

Not to be morbid, but the end of life is coming for some of them (well, technically it’s coming for all of us, just some sooner than others). And that means I’ll be doing some funerals.

Now, believe me, I’ve done a lot of funerals over my last three years as pastor of Calvary (I’m too tired to go back and count exactly how many, though). But for the most part they were funerals for the older folks I didn’t really know, those who had been unable to make it to church for quite some time, certainly longer than I’d been here. Those goodbyes have been sad but pretty standard, textbook pastoral care situations.

I’ve had, for the past three years, a vague sense of dread because I knew that time would march on and that, sooner or later, I’d be doing funerals, not for people I knew only by their pictures in the 20-year-old pictoral directory, but for these people . . . people with whom I’d had meaningful, lucid conversations, people who had walked a little while along this journey of faith with me.

I knew it would happen, but I’m finding I’m not quite ready. Who ever is, really?

It was last Thursday when I found myself way up near Columbia, Maryland and thought to myself, “I should really stop in and see Bill Goon.” Mr. Goon used to come every single Sunday and sit with his wife, Jenny, in the second row, left side. At age 90 he was pretty spry, spry enough to know he had some serious objections to a young woman coming to be Calvary’s pastor.

Like every other kind of grace, gradually it happened for us . . . . Love melted my fear and his ambivalence, and by the time he had to move to assisted living last year, Mr. Goon and I were fast friends.

He loved it when I came to visit; whenever I did I left feeling like I’d done something wonderful just by showing up. He’d beg for me to sing the song we’ve been singing at Calvary every Sunday for several years, Make Us One, even though it is an objective fact that I should never be singing in public in any manner audible to the human ear. We’d pray together and he’d pray for his Jenny and for Calvary and for me. And he’d always chuckle every time we visited, about how he used to be so closed-minded—to think that a woman couldn’t be pastor! How silly!

It’s been about a year since he’s been able to get home, and we’ve visited every six weeks or so. Last week when I happened to stop by he told me he was happy to see me because he was getting ready to leave. Bags were packed, he told me, and he was going home. I nodded and tried to ask for clarification; this was news to me. Frankly, he wasn’t looking all that robust, and I couldn’t imagine Jenny caring for him at home by herself, but his eyes twinkled in anticipation as he talked.

Turns out Mr. Goon was right after all. He did go home, just last night. After 92 years of life he closed his eyes and went home . . . to Jesus.

I didn’t know when I kissed him goodbye last Thursday that I was saying a forever goodbye—and a beginning hello, for the first time since I’ve been pastor at Calvary, to the job of saying final goodbyes to my friends.

I’m so glad for Mr. Goon that he doesn’t have to suffer anymore.

I’m so sad for me that I’ll never leave another visit without wondering whether or not I’ve just said an unexpected, final goodbye.

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