By Nan Smith
4 “But I have said these things to you so that when their time comes, you will remember that I told you about them. I didn’t say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5 But now I go away to the one who sent me. None of you ask me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Yet because I have said these things to you, you are filled with sorrow.” —John 16: 4-6 (Common English Bible)
Long ago, as an ISU student taking my first class on bird identification, we had our first outdoor bird watching hiking around the ISU campus. I remember one of my fellow classmates pointing out a little bird flitting about in the bushes. Our instructor said confidently “ah a LBB.” And there we were, all those newbie bird nerds, frantically looking for the LBB in our brand-new bird guides. We were impressed by our instructor’s knowledge, but also questioning as none of us could find this particular bird in the book.
When we rounded the corner, another bird flitted away and again the instructor said “oh another LBB” and again no one could find it in the guide. Now none of us wanted to be that student who had to ask where to find the bird in the guide, but with the third sighting of a LBB—well—someone took the risk and said, “Where exactly would we find that?” Our instructor just laughed and said “LBB means little brown bird”—the chosen designation for those non-descript brown birds that all look alike except for subtle imperceptible differences; those sparrow-like birds or fall warblers that are the bane of many a birder.
Truth be told, I never was particularly good at identifying LBB’s and really only have a handful that I feel confident about.
One notable LBB, that I absolutely love, is the white-throated sparrow. This sparrow has black and white racing stripes across the crown of its head and a little white patch on the throat beneath the beak. Its markings are quite distinctive, but what is even more recognizable is its call. This bird’s plaintive call has a cadence that sounds like: “Sammmmm—Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”
Throughout my life, I have always been partial to this bird. I just like the way it looks and sings. Its call has always signaled the change of the season, whether spring to summer or fall to winter. As such, I have come to associate the call of the white-throated sparrow with new beginnings or with transitions. The very first time I walked into Hope United Methodist Church for my put-in meeting, I heard a white-throated sparrow singing in the distance. Fitting, as it was a new season of a new appointment.
So, on that last Sunday of October this year, I was half-expecting to hear it’s call when I left my church. You see on that Sunday; I told the Hope UMC congregation that I would be retiring at the end of this appointive year. Yet a new transition on the horizon. And although I expected this announcement to be draining emotionally, I wasn’t prepared for the flood of emotions I felt when I stood to give the announcement.
Gazing out over my congregation there were just so many memories of the ways I felt connected to these people. There were those shared times of joy and laughter and the poignant memories of the pain and despair. These were the people that I had shared my life with for nine years; people who I had listened to and who I had prayed with amidst the struggles of life. So many sacred memories. Looking out in love and care, I was keenly aware that I wasn’t all that sure how one says goodbye.
Yes, pastors and congregations go into every appointment knowing that at some point we will have to say goodbye, but the actual reality is incredibly difficult. There is a grief that accompanies this time of letting go that needs to be honored. There is a responsibility to say goodbye in such a way that the faith community will be ready to welcome their new pastor. There is an anticipation of what will be coming, but also a realization of what will be lost.
It does make me appreciate the emotions the disciples must have felt when Jesus told them that he would be going away soon. What grief they must have felt following that statement. What anxiety they must have felt knowing that they were expected to be the ones to pick up the pieces and carry on this fledging ministry of Jesus. Even though Jesus had predicted his suffering and death repeatedly, the disciples didn’t seem to grasp the significance of that. They didn’t seem to realize that Jesus leaving them, would change them profoundly.
In any transition, the people involved will need to reorient or redefine themselves in light of what will be different. The disciples needed to do this in the absence of Jesus, I will need to do this in moving into retirement, and my congregation will need to do this in embracing someone new to pastor them. Change is hard. Too often we want to keep the status quo, the familiar, the safe, and the predictable, simply because to do nothing is easier than change.
I am living in the in-between of what is and what will be.
As I anticipate what life will be like as a retired person, I am also grieving the loss of my identity as pastor of a congregation. As I anticipate the new relationships I will form, I grieve the ones that will soon be ending. For now, I concentrate on ending things well. To do so will help bring the closure needed to make a good beginning for what is next. I share this offering that speaks to what I am feeling at this particular moment of time.
Life happens in the commas of our existence,
the pause if you will,
the imperceptible hesitation,
a gasp, a catch, a momentary thrill,
an inhale of anticipation,
in the benedictions and the beginnings,
and in the silence of a but,
before the heart is broken.