May is graduation time: a time for goodbyes.
Sheldon Van Auken reports a touching scene in A Severe Mercy. After their last lunch together in Oxford, Lewis and Van Auken shook hands in parting. Lewis then said, “I shan’t say goodbye. We’ll meet again.” Having crossed the street, he called back to his friend, “Besides, Christians never say goodbye.”
But we do say goodbye. And we should.
Of course there is an important truth behind what Lewis’s says, namely: Christians trust that our goodbyes are not permanent, not the final word. This great truth and the poignant way in which it is captured in this anecdote explain the popularity of Lewis’s statement. I take issue neither with the insight, nor the beauty of that interchange between friends. But I do take issue with the suggestion that Christians do not say goodbye.
We all understandably dread goodbyes, especially with those we love most. Moments of parting can be among the most poignant of human experiences. And likewise among the most important. We should thus do our best to get them right.
I can remember the countdown to leaving home for college the first time. The fact that I was the youngest in my family and had been alone with my parents for two years made it all the more difficult, for all of us. The cloud of dread hovers and intensifies as the moment approaches. Finally, it’s time. Emotion breaks through, first in one, then the other. The long embrace, sobbing.
But what if that moment were somehow excised? Somehow you are whisked away, at no fault of your own, so no one has to say goodbye. Sure, there may be immediate relief. But in the long run, an important opportunity has been missed.
I fear that sometimes we allow ourselves to run from moments of farewell—either consciously or unconsciously. Often have I heard someone mumble, “I hate goodbyes.” But is it reasonable to transfer our hatred of the parting itself to the rituals of marking the parting? I would like to suggest that we should actually seek, rather than avoid them.
Goodbyes provide a unique opportunity to do three things: express gratitude, ask forgiveness, and offer encouragement.
A farewell is the natural context for expressing gratitude. Of course gratitude can break through in a relationship at any time; a gratuitous exclamation of ‘What would I do without you?’ is perhaps always in order. But normally it takes unique circumstances to elicit such an expression. Parting prompts us to look back and reflect upon the good things that, at least to some real extent, are about to be lost. We realize in a special way how much we appreciate certain things that our loved one does, or has done, for us. How fitting it is to mark this realization with appropriate words, gifts, or other signs of appreciation.
If nothing else we might simply say: “I want you to know that your presence in my life has meant more to me than I can say. Thank you.” Words such as these can both give a new vision of what has gone before, and fortify us for what is to come.
Asking forgiveness is not easy, and perhaps no context can really change that. And as with gratitude, asking forgiveness is appropriate or even required at any number of times. But farewells are again a natural context. We are looking back and taking stock. We realize that we have failed—in particular obvious instances, or perhaps in more generic ways. Now is the time to express sorrow and ask forgiveness. Our request may elicit—though it need not—a reciprocal petition for forgiveness, which can occasion a reconciliation, even one we didn’t realize we needed!
In any case it would not be good to part from this person, to move on, without first seeking to right whatever needs righting.
The third point—offering encouragement—might be the least obvious. Here I include expressions of confidence and well-wishing, as well as the offering of advice or even fraternal correction. We are in a unique position to speak-into the lives of our loved ones. Given our intimate knowledge and affection for our loved ones, our confidence and our counsel to them are all the more meaningful. It is often upon a son’s leaving home, for instance, that a father can both foresee the son’s success, and offer direction that helps assure it.
As a professor in a college community of several hundred people, I have had ample opportunity for reflection upon saying goodbye. Every May the students with whom I have shared a life for four years effectively vanish into thin air. Sure some of them stay in touch, and come back and visit. But fundamentally, that group of roughly ninety people, some of whom I have really come to know and love—sharing trials, tears, and triumphs—leaves never to return.
My eldest daughter has herself ‘gone off’ to college—that was rough, and the rest will probably follow in succession. When I watch fathers give away their daughters in marriage, I have to fight back my own tears. I hope I won’t need to be resuscitated at my daughters’ weddings.
So I am learning to say goodbye. And it is a skill that I would do well to learn better.
Last September my father passed away. I will not see him again on this earth we enjoyed so much together. His burial was a grace-filled farewell, to which I fondly, if solemnly, return through memory. I will never forget the closing of the casket, nor the closing of the ground over it. Christian faith does not remove the need for a goodbye. Rather, I suggest, it deepens its power and significance, and its importance—for there is more at stake.
To say goodbye is to mark appropriately that something is over. And it prepares us to enter in to a time of separation, a separation either in figurative death—such as someone moving away, or a literal death. That we hope and trust in a glorious ‘other side’ of the death does not mean there is no death. But it does give us new perspective on the separation. The ultimate sting of death has been removed. The proximate sting of death remains, and is marked, endured, and transcended, through good goodbyes.
So Christians do say goodbye. Differently. We are grateful both for what has gone before, and for the fact that there is more to come, later, and we strive to be undaunted by the chasm that separates the two. We ask and offer forgiveness, confident in a mercy that encompasses all. And we offer encouragement and direction, to fortify for the separation—a separation we know is not final.