Leavetakings and New Beginnings

  • Posted on Nov 9, 2009

 The fall seems have flown by and now we are almost at Thanksgiving! As I noted in my Monday meditation today (, this time of year truly marks the end of the year for me. Not only does the liturgical year–Advent–begin at the end of November, but the season of All Saints and Thanksgiving bring my attention to those I love and see no longer as well as the blessing of these departed loved ones in my life. My parents were born on November 6 and November 8. My son, who is now 21(!), was born on November 7. So, this time of year naturally reminds me of leavetakings and new beginnings.

As I pondered how it could be that it was 21 years ago that I was in the hospital wondering what labor and delivery was all about (and about to find out directly), I was brought back to pregnancy and delivery by our two Memorial couples who will be finding out directly about birth this month. On Sunday morning, I gave the parish cross to Tom and Erin who are expecting a baby this coming weekend. Sunday afternoon, I took communion to Liz and Steph. Liz hopes to have her son (to be named Henry Isaac!) over Thanksgiving (or sooner she says). My visit with Liz and Steph took me back 21 years to sleeping sitting up, eating Ben and Jerry’s heath bar crunch ice cream a pint at at time, and raking leaves 9 months pregnant. Such feelings of excitement, anticipation and fear rolled into one.
At EFM class (Education for Ministry) last week, I presented a theological reflection on my son’s leavetaking a few years ago to China. I’ve written about his coming home as part of my South Africa writings. Here is the excerpt.

The Art of Coming Home

It was the longest day of my life so far. Surely there have been many long hours and days. There was the day leading up to thyroid cancer surgery. There was Bryan’s prostate surgery this past February. But Wednesday, May 31, 2006 must have been the longest day of my life. My first born son, Jack, would arrive home from Beijing, China after an academic year away. He was to fly through 12 time zones and over Russia, the Bearing Strait, Alaska and then across the entire United States. I began to feel the dread of his journey on Monday. My stomach just didn’t feel right. That’s where it always begins. In the pit of my stomach. As I sat down to read the newspaper on Tuesday morning the phone rang. It was Jack. He was clearly anxious. He couldn’t get everything in his suitcase. He had to leave his sleeping bag behind. He had said goodbye to all his teachers. Now it was almost time to say goodbye to his Chinese mom and dad—who had loved and cared for him since he arrived last August. Parting was hard. His voice kept getting quieter. He said he didn’t feel well. He couldn’t breathe. Could I call him back? When I called back after an agonizing five minutes, he seemed better, but his voice still was weak. “Breathe, Bub,” I said, “Just breathe.” We started talking about the Orioles—how was the hometown baseball team doing? Not so well. The pitching stank. A laugh. Equilibrium was returning to his voice. After I hung up, I had to breathe—deep, long, slow breaths. My heart went out to my son. It is always hard saying goodbye to those you love. It is particularly hard saying goodbye to friends and family who live far away—even after only a few short months.

My son’s phone call brought me back to the weeks and days leading up to leaving South Africa after almost three years. There were many goodbye parties. There was the usual pathos of leaving a parish you love as a parish priest—some parishioners accepted your move and gave thanks for being together, some parishioners clung tighter, some parishioners distanced themselves from you as far as possible, some were inexplicably angry at you. But the day we left—that was a long day as well. By then, the furniture was again on the container somewhere in the Atlantic on its way to Baltimore. We didn’t pray for the container anymore. We had been burglarized again and so had less luggage than what we arrived with. The parish car was at Peter Day’s house without tires on blocks—so it wouldn’t be stolen before the next parish priest arrived. Passports and tickets in hand, we were just waiting to go. All international overseas flight generally leave Johannesburg in the early to late evening. That meant waiting around all day. I don’t even know what we did. Jack and Anna read the new Harry Potter book which was impossible to get at home, but plentiful on the shelves of Johannesburg bookstores. But the time came to go to the airport. It was time to leave our home of three years. It was time to leave my sister in Christ Estelle. We drove to the airport in two cars this time. The Rogans drove Jack, Anna and Bryan. I rode with Estelle. A great heaviness hung in the car. Estelle had special African music on her tape player. We drove by those same gold dumps and mines that we had passed three years ago—now as familiar as old friends. The heaviness stayed with us as we checked our luggage and waited with a grand assortment of friends from the parish in the restaurant area. Then it was time to board the plane. It was time to leave Estelle. That meant we were really going. On the way to the entrance to the boarding area, Dorothy Mosepe and Thembe arrived with presents. There were hugs all around. Then I turned to Estelle. It was too much. The floodgates opened. We hugged and she ran off into the crowd. I watched until I could no longer see her bright white hair. It didn’t take long. Once in the duty free area, I headed for the Ladies Room. I sobbed and sobbed in the stall. My heart felt as it were being torn from my body. Why was I leaving? What was I thinking?

How can it be that leaving people you have known only a few short months or a couple of years be so difficult? There is something about leaving friends in Christ in another part of the world. There is something about stepping forth in faith into a dark and unknown place—only trusting that God’s love will be present in those who are your companions on the way while in that place. In our American world of “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine” and “Well, what have you done for me lately?” it is humbling and awesome to place your lives in the hands of strangers and be loved beyond measure—just because you are human and a child of God. There is no sense of binding family duty in the world of global ministry. There is just the overwhelming love of God. People love you because you are you in Christ. Amazing! It took going to the farthest spot in the world for me to realize this. Once you realize this, you never want to let it go.

I know there were some adults who wondered how Bryan and I could possibly let our 17 year old son go to Beijing, China for an academic year. Was it prudent? Was it safe? Could we possibly be good, responsible parents if we let him go? I think it was the gift of South Africa that Jack even considered going to China for his junior year of high school and we as his parents considered letting him go. We know that the kindness of strangers is an incredible gift and blessing—especially the kindness of strangers in Christ. Strangers in Christ? Is that possible? The only way to know for sure is to step into that dark, unknown place and see. And we now know. In God’s love, there are no strangers. Only ministering angels. But we have to step out in faith not knowing to know it finally.

As Jack left China, his Chinese father cried. On the other side of the world, as he walked down a long corridor at Baltimore-Washington Airport, an American mother embraced her son in tears. Both were tears of heartache and joy—for the leaving and for the coming together once again. If we don’t meet in South Africa or America or China again, we will meet in the Kingdom and there we will see one another face to face. I now know that this is true in my heart. The tears tell me it is so.

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