There are so very many things they don’t teach you in seminary. I’m embarrassed to even begin this post that way. It’s the truth, though. And the accompanying truth, like so much of life, is they couldn’t possibly teach you most of what you will learn in the years after.
Anyway. Enough of that. Here’s what I’m learning right now that I didn’t know before: saying good-bye to a congregation is hard. Really hard. Even when it’s a congregation you knew you were only going to be with for a short while. Even when you’re headed to another congregation you know you’ll love too. The reason it’s so hard is that this church business, in spite of itself, is all about love.
I should have known that, I guess. My family has had a relationship with the institutional church that you would not describe as “easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.” Or, to put it another way, we saw our share of church fights. And we stayed. My parents stayed in church in spite of a lot of hurt. They stayed for a lot of reasons. One of them, I realize now, must have been love.
I’m re-learning this as I make visits to members of our congregation who are mostly homebound or who live in care facilities and aren’t able to worship with us regularly. I’m making visits to tell them good-bye. Most of these folks are people I have only spent a few hours with over the course of the last few years. I’ve checked in on them a time or two a year, and if they’ve gone to the hospital, I’ve seen them there. And yet, these goodbyes are giving me grief. I end an afternoon of visiting worn out by the sadness that I will not soon cross paths with these saints, perhaps not again in this life.
These visits remind me that the bonds we share in the church are not the same as the bonds we share in the rest of the world. The bonds we share in church are bonds of love, the love of Christ, a love that is deeper and and more true than we can fathom.
Yes, we fight in the church. We air our dirty laundry. We show our backsides. We hurt each other. We are careless, and sometimes just plain mean. We’re definitely not perfect. Anyone who suggests we are is lying. The truth is we’re all sinners in this thing together.
But we’re sinners bound together in love. And I don’t mean flaky love, or passing love, or empty platitudinous love. I mean love that lays its life down for a friend. I mean love that is patient and kind. I mean love that endures.
This is one of the things that we lose sight of about ourselves, and as a result we forget to share it with the people around us. We, in the church, we love each other. Truly, madly, deeply. (Yep. I just made a Savage Garden reference. I apologize.)
We forget that truth. And we hide it sometimes because it’s scary. But in spite of all that, it’s true. We love each other. That’s what makes us the church. Love is why we come back week after week and sit next to each other and sing together. Love is why we listen to each others’ stories of heartache, grief, illness, loss, confusion, doubt, and fear. And love is why we dare to tell them. Love is why we give up our afternoons to visit our elders in the nursing home, and why we take our children to soup kitchens. Love is why we eat the same casseroles month after month at the potlucks. Love is why we dare to disagree so boldly and why we care so much about the outcome. Love is why we stay in community. Love is what makes us the church, Christ’s body in the world.
In sharing some of this with my dad, he told me that he had always heard the story that Blessed Be the Tie that Binds was written by a preacher saying goodbye to a congregation. He didn’t know (and I don’t know) how true that story is, but I’m going to take it and run with it.Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above. Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares. We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear. When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again. This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day. From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.