Sunday, March 30

Sink Into Good-byes

Dear Jacob,

When Ben was fourteen months old he had only eaten cake once.

It had been on his first birthday, which happened to fall on Super Bowl Sunday -- the last one to ever be played in January. Your grandparents were with us and we enjoyed celebrating throughout the day, circumnavigating the morning worship service. I remember that Ben wore red canvas overalls a matching hat and his chubby cheeks.  He wasn't walking yet so he'd crawl to his gifts and bang on them.  And after a nap, and because Dad worked for a church, we went back there for a youth group Super Bowl party to watch the game with them.

It was there that we let Ben eat cake.  Propped up in a borrowed high chair at the back of the room, situated over a plastic sheet, ready to sacrifice those cute red overalls, we gave him a frosting-filled slice of sweetness for the very first time.  And we enjoyed the show.  He had difficulty getting some parts of it to his mouth, chunks falling through his fingers to his lap. He had to unscroll his clenched, frosted hands several times and at one point he swiped them over his face and head, streaking himself with Buccaneer colors. We laughed and cheered for our baby boy far more than we did for either football team.

After that, I naively figured I'd park his option for cake on the shelf until his next birthday. I thought that would be very sagelike and cool. "He only has cake on his birthday," I could say.  Other things are celebrated throughout the year, other birthdays, holidays, promotions, and even good-byes. It was hard to get around serving him some, but I wanted to keep his body pure because no one else would. Here's the thing though: sugar doesn't poison us half as much as closing off our heart.

Within that church where Dad worked there were many wonderful people. When Ben was born they anticipated his arrival, showered him with homemade blankets and cared for him in the nursery. They'd rescue my arms and carry him a while, they prayed for him during his eye surgery and they gave him his first Bible. Beautiful people. There was even a couple there that wanted you boys to stay close to them, to call them Mama and Papa, to be able to run to them to feel safe and loved, to be surrogate grandparents for you knowing that yours weren't nearby.

When we first met Mama Sue and Papa Lee we instantly knew that we wanted to be bonded to them, to be partners in ministry and to sneak in some moments of just sitting at their feet to learn from them. Their kind of love was rare and wonderful.  It was your Mama Sue and Papa Lee who cared deeply for you boys, encouraging me as a mother, taking care of you while Ben was being born and sacrificing time and health and money to show Jesus to the people who sometimes forgot they were following him. We spent a Christmas together and many other lovely days.  We also spent some evenings in solidarity with them, silently struggling together over the hurts that ministry sometimes provokes.

Jacob, it is good to let people in very close to your heart.  It makes it a rich place even when all around it feels barren and cold.

It was your Mama Sue who gave Ben his second piece of cake.  It wasn't a celebration of birth or accomplishment or even one of joy. It was an acknowledgement of their departing.  It was good-bye. You see, sometimes, when people leave a place of ministry there is actually a bit of a celebration, a sending, a time to gather and tell them how very much they've meant to you.  This was her party and there were some things that she needed to receive from it.

They were moving to the deep south two thousand miles away to minister to a new people in a new place. So on this last day there was cake and it seemed pleasing to Mama Sue to feed it to Ben, strapped in his stroller, kicking his feet with delight.  And because of the pain involved in the day it seemed only right to let her do it.

The void they left was so big it could swallow the land between us and still have room for the sky.  My heart ached to lose someone who cared so genuinely for me, for my children, who made ordinary days special and who pointed us all to God.  It's important to recognize these people for who they really are, treasured servants of God's restorative grace, and to hold them close because everywhere and everyone will find a way to need them as much as you do.

Serving together in a church is nothing like working together in an office or an industry. It's not a social, fraternal order.  It's not a dutiful experience. It's a crucial under structure through which, we believe, God is working to restore all things to himself. It's a living and breathing organism working together to give the world a picture of Christ. Your dad and I consider it eternal, essential. Because it's a body every time someone leaves it it hurts me like I'm losing an arm, but as often as we're allowed to, we still show up for them -- even in our sadness.

Ben was able to give joy to Mama Sue that day. I was feeling shaky, sad, quiet but as Ben took each forkful of cake into his mouth  and responded with an ecstatic look of glee, Mama Sue would laugh.  Their joy seemed equal even though I knew she wanted to leave in tears. Ben was the sweetness for her in that moment and gave her the perspective of life in a continuum. Nothing stops.  Nothing forgets.

Good-byes are the counterpart of hellos. In church ministry I know, I know, that for every hello I say there will be a parallel good-bye; sometimes tearful, sometimes even grateful.  We need to say them all and we need to say them in the ways that will grace the go-er. We need to welcome the space that good-byes make in our hearts for the next hello, and we need to recognize what that time in-between created in us and in the world.

Mama Sue fed us all so much more than cake. She fed us strength and courage and hope. These are the things you don't just walk away from. These are the things you truly celebrate. Let them sink in deep so that you never forget.