In late August of 2001, I stood by a fountain on a crowded brick-lined plaza, hugging my dad goodbye. We had just driven from Upper Michigan to northern Virginia, to the small college where I was about to begin my freshman year, and after unpacking my meager belongings into a dorm room, it was time for him to get back on the road.
We embraced, and I let go of him, and he smiled in his gentle way and disappeared into the crowd. And although I knew I would see him again at Christmas time, this goodbye was different, deeper, more definitive than those I had known before. It left me feeling hollow and full all at once, like a balloon untethered, drifting into the summer sky, into an unknown future.
I think that this particular goodbye felt so significant because I knew, intuitively, that I would not be the same person in a few months; that life at college would intervene in unexpected ways, and that when my father and I saw each other again in December, we would behold each other with new eyes. Our relationship would be changed.
Such is the nature of leaving home: it’s never quite the same when you go back.
Little did he and I know, on that late summer afternoon 18 years ago, how dramatically life would indeed intervene—for us, and for everyone in this country, just a couple of weeks later on the morning of September 11th, 2001, when many of us were forced to say a “goodbye” of a different sort: a goodbye to the illusion of our country’s impenetrability, a goodbye to the confident expectation that there might be peace in our time, and a goodbye to the clarity and innocence of a world that had seemed relatively less complicated, at least for some of us, on September 10th.
It became clear to me, that first semester of college—and to many of us, I think, in that twilight of the year 2001—that we could take very little for granted. The precariousness of our previous assumptions about safety and security demonstrated that any moment—any moment at all—might turn into the unanticipated goodbye, the half-appreciated embrace, the unresolved question of our incomplete entanglements–cut short by time, or violence, or misfortune.
We were then, and perhaps to some extent still are, a people collectively holding our breath, waiting under the specter of another imminent loss.
But I also believe that, in that season of uncertainty, when the world shifted beneath us, each of us realized, at least for a little while, how important it is to live as if we are always about to lose each other—that is, always savoring the magnificent gift we discover in one another, the vibrancy of loving that which is changeable, and the transfiguration of the human heart that is revealed in those moments before we say goodbye, before we go our separate ways at the fountain on a summer day, before the smoke and dust envelop us, before we become dust ourselves. That urgent, insistent, keenly felt connection with the friend, with the stranger, and with our own fragile lives, was a gift revealed in the shadowlands of September 2001.
But it’s easy to forget this hard, valuable lesson, especially once life resumes its typical patterns. We get accustomed to new realities, and they become normal, and we settle into them as best we can. We assemble some sense of security and perhaps convince ourselves that this time we are safe, this time letting go won’t be necessary, at least not for a while…until, of course, the next time that life intervenes, as it always does, and a new goodbye is thrust upon us, shocking us back into life, catching in our throat like a pill we aren’t quite able to swallow.
So, why all this talk of goodbyes?
It’s because I think that by considering what it means to say “goodbye,” which is really a condensed form of the phrase “God be with you,” we might find a new way to approach this week’s Gospel passage, where Jesus offers us some challenging words about hating our families and even life itself in order to be a disciple, along with bearing our cross and giving up our possessions.
Those latter two conditions we hear elsewhere in Scripture and are somewhat more familiar to us, but hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters? This is a hard teaching to understand or accept for a way of life that is supposed to be rooted in love.
Now, commentators often claim that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole to drive home a certain point—that we need to make him and his Way the priority in our lives, the One who comes before all other allegiances, the One who lays full claim upon our selves, souls, and bodies.
And that is quite true, but we are still left to wonder, as our children play in the nursery and our spouses and parents sit next to us in the pews: how can loving our families—our birth families, our chosen families, our church families—how on earth can this love be considered a stumbling block to following Christ? Are we supposed to conclude that we should leave them all behind and become itinerant preachers in the wilds of Indiana so that we might be called disciples?
I don’t think so.
No, Jesus, in this jarring talk about hating those whom we love, is, I think, trying to wake us up, and teach us an important lesson about being able to say goodbye, about letting go of the people and things we love the most, precisely because he knows that letting go is the price of loving as deeply and as selflessly as he calls us to do, especially when life intervenes in unexpected ways: a move across country; an illness; a breakup; a national tragedy.
To love in the way that Jesus does, without clinging to safety, without controlling, without turning inward: this is the mark of a disciple.
A disciple is one who arrives into every moment, every interaction, with the clarity and gratitude of someone who is already prepared to say goodbye. One for whom every joyful greeting is already shaped by the sweet, appreciative sorrow of departure.
Because it is only in those moments when we are compelled to say goodbye to the people and places we love the most, when our eyes are blurred with tears—at the airport curb, at the schoolhouse door, at the graveside—it is only then that our hearts finally see clearly: that these people and these experiences are a fleeting gift to us, not an entitlement—a blessing from God, not a fixed commodity.
Our families, our possessions, even our own lives—as Christians, we are given the grace to perceive that these treasures all belong to the Triune God Who sent them, not to us, and we must release them, daily, into the care of the Holy One, saying, with reverence, in every moment: Goodbye. God be with you. Because I cannot hold onto you forever.
Thus, being a disciple who is able to say goodbye is about freedom—the type of freedom that allows life to be what it is, with its encounters and departures, its quiet predicability and its shocking upheavals—and to still seek God in the middle of all of it, to be servants of the God who endures despite all change, and to know ourselves as God’s beloved, above all else.
It is a strange freedom, this, one that upends everything we think we know about the world. It shapes Paul’s request to Philemon in today’s epistle, in which a severed relationship is restored under new terms.
No longer, says Paul, are Philemon and Onesimus to be understood as master and slave, as they once were, but as two brothers, two disciples, united in the love of Christ. Philemon, like us, must learn to “hate” the old way of being—he must say goodbye to the old understandings of himself and others in exchange for something new, something entirely unexpected— something Jesus requires of him, and of us.
And when he and his former servant are reunited, perhaps by a fountain on a brick-lined plaza, life having intervened in unpredictable ways, they, too, will behold one another with new eyes.
After all, such is the nature of leaving home: it’s never quite the same when you go back.
What is it that each of us must say goodbye to in this season? What must you and I release into the care of God, not because we love it any less, but because we love it so very much? Who or what can each of us set free, so that we can be free, so that we can be disciples, as Jesus invites us to be?
Whatever it is, I pray that you will taste that magnificent, slightly disorienting freedom. In letting go, I pray that we will be surprised by an exquisite, grateful, and enduring love. In goodbye, may God be with you. May God be with all of us.