It has been a few years since I said my goodbyes to my children as they began their freshman year of college. With Annie, my daughter, it was quick and dirty. She walked us to our car with her hat pulled down on her head, her new glasses worn as a shield on her face, and with fear and resolve in her eyes said “Goodbye, I love you” and with hardly a hug she walked away. She never looked back and we never had time to say much. It was different with Jack but no less poignant. At least we had a chance to say a few words of love and support. After telling him I loved him and asking him to please keep in touch, we stood and watched as he walked off to a Spanish placement test. I remember exactly what he was wearing: Jeans rolled up above his ankles, flip-flops, an orange t-shirt with Camp Miniwanca blazoned across the back and his Timbuk2 bag slung across his shoulders. He looked relaxed and confident, but I wanted to run after him and hug him one more time. I’m proud to say that I restrained myself, and, as we returned to the car and drove away, silence filled the car. It was a difficult but sweet goodbye.
Life is filled with goodbyes and goodbye rituals. In my family you never leave the house or hang up the phone without saying, “Goodbye, I love you.” It’s a habit we are all used to. When I take the time to stop and think about what I’m saying, however, I realize how important this habit has become to all of us. It is the way we acknowledged our attachment and feeling for one another. It is a goodbye that ties us together.
Other goodbyes are more difficult: goodbyes at the stormy end of a romantic relationship or friendship, often spoken in anger and heat; goodbyes when you leave a job you have loved and are going off into the unknown of something new; goodbyes when you won’t see someone for a long time and your heart aches at the thought; goodbyes when you have to say goodbye forever and you have so much to say and such a hard time saying it; goodbyes when you don’t have a chance to say goodbye and are left numb by all that has been left unsaid.
“Don’t drag it out” is the advice most people give about saying goodbye. Just get it over with and put it behind you. But how you say goodbye is terribly important, your tone, your words, and your eye contact can all help make the goodbye tolerable in some way, shape or form. When you say goodbye you have to ask what you are leaving behind that will stay with someone. The way you say goodbye can create a feeling that they are connected to you, loved and valued or the feeling that your separation doesn’t matter much in the scheme of things.
There are definite rituals that we associate with saying goodbye: a hand shake, a hug, a kiss. Sometimes goodbyes are filled with advice; “Be good while I’m gone and brush your teeth every night and cooperate with the baby sitter. Or they can be critical and chastising; “You are making a huge mistake leaving this firm. You don’t know what you are doing.” Sometimes they are blaming, punishing and self-centered; “Because you are going I will never be able to forgive you. You are
ruining my life.” A goodbye can be a blessing or a curse. How you say goodbye depends a lot on your perspective on life, whether you tend to be fearful or trusting, generous or selfish, accepting or blaming, loving or playing the role of the curmudgeon. How someone says goodbye to you can set the tone for the rest of your relationship and your life. Let someone express confidence, hope and love and you will carry that into the future. Expressions of disappointment and criticism can follow you forever as well.
The Bible is full of goodbye stories. Abraham said goodbye to all that was familiar to set out for who knows where. Noah said goodbye to neighbors and friends knowing the annihilation that was coming their way. Joseph watched as his brothers laughingly waved goodbye and good riddance to him after they sold him to nomads. We can imagine the pathos of Mary’s goodbye to Jesus at the cross.
Matthew concludes his gospel with the story of Jesus’ goodbye to the disciples. Their emotions must have been in high gear. Only 40 days ago they had been shocked, frightened and dismayed at the crucifixion. Forty days ago they had felt the despair that comes with betrayal and defeat, only to have Jesus suddenly appear to them, resurrected and present with them as they met together, ate together and traveled home from Jerusalem. Now it looks like he is leaving them for good. Again there will be a saying goodbye, again the despair of losing him, again the wondering what the future would hold.
What they don’t get from Jesus is a slap on the back and a “goodbye and good luck.” Jesus doesn’t blame them for not defending him at his arrest. He doesn’t chastise them for running away at his trial and being no shows at the cross. Jesus doesn’t say what we most likely would have said. Jesus’ goodbye is a vote of confidence in the disciples and a promise that regardless of how they lived and what they did he would remain with them always. In his benediction at the end of Matthew Jesus didn’t curse the disciples but gave them his blessing, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and promised he would be with them day after day, forever.
Protestant Pastor Michael Lindvall tells the story of losing his 7 year old son at the New York Auto Show in the overwhelming Jacob Javits Center on the west side of Manhattan. Over 2 hours he searched for him as the ache in his stomach grew larger and harder. His son wasn’t in the Lost Child Center, and security refused to page the boy, so Lindvall began a systematic search of the building. He finally found his son a mere 200 feet from where he had last seen him. After Lindvall picked him up and gave him a huge hug of relief he asked if his son had been afraid. “Only a little,” he answered. “What did you do all this time?” he asked. “I waited here; I knew you would come back and I just kept doing this,” and he made the sign of the cross slowly several times. “Where did you learn that?’’ Lindvall asked. His son told him that he had seen it on TV and that it reminded him not to be afraid and that God was with him.
Comforting is not the word that comes to mind when I think of the Trinity, which the sign of the cross symbolizes. Confusing, incomprehensible, unnecessary…those are the words that people use to describe the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some of us who are history buffs can vaguely recollect that the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople and Ephesus established the relationship of Father to Son and Holy Spirit to both Father and Son. Though this was an important issue in the Mediterranean world of the fourth and fifth centuries, most of us probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Yet, physically making the sign of the trinity over and over again was what gave comfort to a 7 year old lost and alone in a crowd of thousands. And it was the image of the Father,
Son and Holy Spirit that Jesus left with the disciples to give them vision, hope and comfort for the future. Paul used this image as well at the end of his letter to the Corinthians. He said goodbye to the Corinthians with these words Jesus used that are found in Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, “The Amazing Grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, the extravagant love of God, the intimate friendship of the Holy spirit be with all of you.”
What is there in the image of the trinity to give comfort and confidence to the friends and disciples of Jesus and Paul as they said goodbye? How could the concept of the Trinity ground our own lives in the constant presence of God in our own lives? If we could rid ourselves of the image of the Trinity as linear and set in concrete and understand it instead as organic and dynamic in relationship to us and the world then perhaps we could get to the heart of the true Biblical image of God.
The Bible describes God as transcendent. This is the mysterious God we understand, whose face we never see or know. This transcendence is, in the words of Sallie McFague, “the silence that surrounds all our paltry and pathetic attempts to speak of God.” Transcendence speaks to us of a God we cannot capture or pin down. God’s transcendence allows us to trust God because we know that God is not like us. God is much more than we are. Understanding that God is transcendent frees us from trying to figure God out and put God in a box.
But through the Bible and the story of Jesus we also know that God is immanent…that God permeates creation. It is the breath of God that animated Adam and it is God who sustains us and all of life. Sallie McFague’s metaphor of the world as the body of God gives us a solid picture of God here with us as a palpable presence in all time and space. It is through the concept of immanence that we have a vision of a mutual and interdependent relationship between God and the world. God is not “out there” but is here with us, suffering, loving, comforting. McFague says, “The classical picture, an imaginatively powerful one, employs royalist, triumphalist metaphors depicting God as king, lord and patriarch who rules the world and human beings, usually with benevolence.” The metaphor of the world as the body of God turns the model of God as king on its head and is expressed in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” God is not king over the world but lives through the world in all its beauty and tragedy.
It is the spirit of God which then brings together the God beyond understanding and the God we have seen and experienced through Christ. It is the spirit of God that permeates all of life, God as the spirit of the body that makes this mysterious God known to us in our inward being.
It is within this understanding of God as mystery, but also as one with us in Christ and one brought close to us, as close as our heart beat, as close as our breath by the spirit that gives us a fresh and living way to understand the Trinity. It is this God, father, son, and Holy Spirit that goes with you and never leaves you. It is this God, mother, lover and friend, who understands you and knows you, who undergirds your life through all the ups and downs, the tragedies and the grand successes. This is not a God who rules over you, blames or manipulates but loves and cares. This is a God beyond all comprehension but a God as close as the blood in your veins, so that coming or going, living or dying, saying hello or goodbye you are held, you are safe. You will have to say goodbye over and over again in your life but you will never have to say goodbye to God. This is the God that will never lose you or leave you. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.