If you have ever dropped off someone at the airport, you know the drill. Many times, we don’t bother to park when we take our friend or loved one to the airport. Oh, it’s not that we don’t love the person or wish him or her a safe journey, or want to hold their hand for one last minute, it is just that you can only go so far into the airport before the one departing has to check in the luggage, pass thru security, and go to the seats reserved for those who are scheduled to actually be on the plane. And then, most people don’t want to pay for the parking—even if the first hour should be free—which it usually isn’t. After these kinds of mental calculations, most of us will hastily embark on our goodbyes in the car upon the approach to the airport and settle for a quick hug while we are getting our loved one’s luggage out of the trunk. “Call me when you arrive,” we say. And then we get into the car and drive away, sometimes with tears in our eyes and a catch in our throat.
Contrast this with arrivals at the airport, or just about anywhere where people are traveling or awaiting news. Is there anything more heart-warming than to see people waiting at the closest-thing-to-the-gate for their loved one or beloved to step off the plane, walk down the hall, and into an embrace? Is there anything more cheerful than an enthusiastic greeting that shows someone that he or she was hopefully anticipated, eagerly awaited, and lovingly enveloped in welcome?
I’ve always thought that architects should create special places or designated spots for loved ones and friends to say their goodbyes—like a “good-bye guest lounge”—(with free parking!) rather than the usual departure zone which happens curbside at the airport. Standing by the car, in the “no-parking zone” with horns blaring and people rushing by, taxis waiting, and buses pulling up with your car’s emergency lights blinking while you simultaneously grab the luggage from the trunk offers no real space or time to say good-bye properly. A quick hug and rushed words always seems entirely out of kilter with the emotional moment at hand.
So, today, our scripture features Jesus ascending…which is a fancy word for Jesus leaving and returning to God— and we can empathize with the disciples craning their heads to get a good last look at their teacher and friend while trying to exchange some meaningful words that will ease the pain of his departure. Perhaps we will be inspired by today’s reading to spend at least as much time on saying a proper goodbye with our loved ones as we do with our arrivals.
In any case, Jesus—unlike some of the other gospels– actually does this long goodbye speech in the gospel of John and, in it, he sounds a lot like a mother sending her eldest off to college, out into the world, or into a new marriage. For one thing, he reminds the disciples of everything that he taught them and second, he prays for them. We see a glimpse of that prayer today. He turns to his parent in heaven and prays the prayer that crosses the lips of many a parent or beloved—“Dear God, I have done what I could. I gave them the words and the teaching that you taught me. I prepared them as you prepared me. I did my best. I protected and guarded them as much as I possibly could. Don’t abandon them. Don’t abandon me. Keep your word. Keep them from the evil one. Keep an eye on them. And please don’t let them do anything stupid. “
Well, maybe not that last part. But if you read the words of John, you have a sense of Jesus pleading, begging his God and our God, to care for these friends of his because he can no longer do so in the way that he once could.
This departure, this pleading, probably happens more than we think by moms and dads, brothers and sisters, good friends and lovers, as they drive away from the curbside drop-off at BWI, or the train station, the steps of the dormitory, or the prison gate, or the hospital room, or rehab after visiting hours. But it also happens as our life circumstances change and the causes to which we were once highly dedicated and able to physically and mentally embrace and endure move forward without our investment of physical or emotional energy. You leave a job of 5 years or retire from a career of 30 years, leave plans for your successor to help guide the team or staff in the coming days, and after praying for the best possible outcome, you walk out the door, and leave. You let go. You do so because you must. But it takes time. The mental letting-go doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with the physical. Especially if you were (and still are) deeply invested in someone, some project or some cause bigger than yourself. You must learn a new kind of relinquishment, one that allows you be much less involved—or not in the actual day-to-day—and at a distance. Departures, of any kind, including those biggies—divorce, death, and devastation—necessitate a certain amount of grieving, time to process, and an emotional—and spiritual– letting-go.
So—I am not surprised that John’s Jesus has this long conversation with his disciples and then with God when he leaves again after his resurrection. It’s the kind of thing a mother might do—to turn to her grown child and say, “now, remember to take your medicine, remember what I taught you, keep away from bad company, and remember to wash your socks and take out the garbage.” “We know, Mom,” we retort as we shake our heads and close the door with some annoyance. But even so, we are usually subconsciously glad that someone will still concern themselves with our well-being and our trash…which is to say that we generally welcome SOMEONE mentally looking out for us, no matter how old or mature we think we are.
Likewise, the disciples will wonder how their little movement will continue without Jesus in bodily form to guide and direct their steps. Are they strong enough? Who will be there when they fall? How will they move in the world when the One who believed in them isn’t there to pick up the phone at 10 o’clock at night when the demons aren’t falling from the sky, the fish and loaves aren’t multiplying like fish and loaves should, and there is not a single person who wants to tell them from which side of the boat to cast their nets? How will they get along with a memory rather than a mentor?
However, Jesus doesn’t leave the disciples or us standing empty-handed at the curb. True, he won’t be in their lives in the exact same way, but if we are honest with ourselves, neither are we—in each other’s lives in exactly the same way. And to that, I say, “Thank God.”
We all grow and change; none of us is a static photograph in God’s album or in our own lifetime. We diminish ourselves and God when we try to “freeze-frame” God and ourselves for one moment, one character trait, one belief system, one beginning, or one ending. We are a series of arrivals and departures, and while any one moment or person may leave us bereft, our lives are so much more than any one goodbye or hello, character trait, deficit, or belief system.
What did Jesus leave his friends and disciples? A blessing. He blesses them on their way. He urges them onward. He gives them encouragement. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he says. “Abide in me,” he says. “Bear fruit,” “in a little while you will see me,” and remember “your pain shall turn to joy.” He also promises them an Advocate, a comforter who will come and who will be in Spirit with them. And then he prays for them—he prays for their well-being– as he goes to God and becomes one with them within the heart of God.
And we, who receive these words today, inherit the same blessing upon which Jesus bestowed on his followers. We meet in the heart of God, which means that Jesus can and will be present in some mysterious way through all of our arrivals and departures, even when we hastily move on to the next thing or the next chapter with tears in our eyes and a catch in our throat. Even when we are struggling to remove our all our baggage from somebody else’s trunk, or are parked precariously with our emergency lights blinking and the rain pouring down all around. Jesus will be there even when the one person who knew us well has embarked on a plane or a journey to Timbuktu, and even when we are still clinging, even when our soul knows that it is best for us to let go, let go, and let go already….we can still hear—we can still slow down enough to listen to the Spirit saying something to us. And that something will sound a lot like something which Frederick Buechner, in the Spirit, once wrote:
“When you remember me, it means you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. I means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.”
Bob Perks tells the following story.
Bob once overheard a father and daughter in their last moments together at the airport.
“They had announced the daughter’s departure and standing near the security gate, Father and daughter hugged and he said, ‘I love you. I wish you enough.’ She in turn said,
‘Daddy, our life together has been more than enough. Your love is all I ever needed. I wish you enough, too, Daddy.’”
“They kissed and she left. He walked over toward the window where I was seated. Standing there I could see he wanted and needed to cry. I tried not to intrude on his privacy, but he welcomed me in by asking, ‘Did you ever say goodbye to someone knowing it would be forever?’
‘Yes, I have,’ I replied… ‘Forgive me for asking, but why is this a forever goodbye?’ I asked.
‘I am old and she lives much too far away. I have challenges ahead and the reality is, the next trip back would be for my funeral,’ he said.
‘When you were saying goodbye I heard you say, ‘I wish you enough.’ May I ask what that means?’
He began to smile. ‘That’s a wish that has been handed down from other generations. My parents used to say it to everyone.’ He paused for a moment and looking up as if trying to remember it in detail, he smiled even more. ‘When we said ‘I wish you enough,’ we were wanting the other person to have a life filled with just enough good things to sustain them,’ he continued and then turning toward me he shared the following as if he were reciting it from memory:
‘I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.
I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.
I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.
I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much
I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.
I wish enough ‘Hello’s’ to get you through the final ‘Goodbye.’”
So may it be. Amen.