We’ve all heard it often over the years: “Life is all hellos and goodbyes.” It is an expression that certainly suffers from over-use, but that doesn't mean it is not true. Welcoming and farewelling are basic markers along the path of life. Welcoming well is greatly important to us as human beings; we all know how wonderful it is when we are truly made to feel welcome in a new community, family, or even workplace. We also know how difficult it is to be ignored, slighted, or treated as unimportant by others in some new place in our lives. Farewelling well is just as important. Leaving a family, job site, or community of any kind with gratitude and the grace of letting go freely is a balm for the sadness of life's many goodbyes.
The life of a pastor is certainly one made up of regular rounds of hellos and goodbyes. Each time we take up a new assignment as pastor of this or that parish we are welcomed, usually warmly, and we begin the slow process of coming to know the people of that community, their interrelationships, their joys and sorrows. Ever so gradually, we find ourselves woven into the fabric of their life together as we rejoice over births and baptisms, mourn over deaths and tragedies, celebrate feasts and graces received, renew, repent, and start over in a million ways. Love grows as ministry sets down deep roots in the lovely soil of our shared humanity and reaches upward into the ineffable light of all that is beyond us. Those first tentative handshakes of welcome become embraces held long and deep. It is a lovely thing. It is deep. It is of God. It is also the ground within which a deep spirit of welcome and hospitality is sown into the life of the church community.
Years go by and eventually it is time for the pastor to move on. The first announcement of the coming change brings surprise and disappointment, then acceptance, and finally the long and gracious process of letting go and farewelling well. It begins slowly enough: an occasional dinner invitation, then a few more, kind words spoken as folks leave church, (“We are sure gonna miss you, Father!”), then in the final weeks before the end, cards and notes arrive with deeper and more formal expressions of gratitude and loss, and finally the last liturgy together with great music, especially touching prayers, blessings, and a few “eulogies” from church leaders. Finally, a grand picnic in the church yard or nearby park…where the last one to get a hamburger is you…too busy accepting heartfelt embraces once after another after another. And then its done and through it all the gift of gratitude has been abundantly shared and the "letting go" process that is a kind of little death blooms into a freedom to for both pastor and parish to look ahead with hope and joy. That "little death" has blossomed into a "little resurrection." And when the pastor drives away from the church for the final time, room has been made for the new pastor to be welcomed, received, woven into the fabric of this family of faith and love.
Having just walked through the farewell part of this “hello and goodbye” experience I feel full beyond measure of grace. “Grace” is a theological and spiritual word for “gift”. I feel greatly gifted by the love shared with me by the parishioners of Sacred Heart Church in Spokane. That grace heals the sadness of saying goodbye and points me toward the next stage of my life. This farewell was a big one because it also marked my retirement. For the first time in 42 years, I won’t be moving on to another parish family. Even as I write this, I am still getting used to that reality. The first week following my final farewell seemed to last forever; the second week, less so. The routines of parish life that marked my daily life with appointments, meetings, and regularly scheduled liturgies are now absent and I have the new work of rebuilding my daily life with new markers that will make it meaningful and rich. Some of those new markers are already taking on some shape: walking the pup, walking (briskly!) myself, reading, praying the Psalms, quiet-time, nourishing gratitude. There are new freedoms and new challenges and new opportunities to be pursued, but now at a more contemplative pace, letting God into more corners of one’s life, simplifying everything. Other retired pastors have often told me that retirement is a huge gift…a great grace, so I am already getting my first taste of that grace.
I do have some goals for these coming years. Certainly I will be growing older and the infirmities that come with age will not be avoidable. This stage of my life will be the final one; it will end with death. So with whatever years I have ahead I want to take seriously the advice my brother, Bill, often dispenses to the rest of us: "Don't die an a------." More than that, I want to land this plane, to use an image from my late friend, Jerry Haupt, as Jerry did: free. Free of anger, resentment, animosity, hate, and a host of other vices that still rumble around within my heart too much. I want to take more seriously the advice of my pilgrim friend from Brazil, Luis Vianna, who tried to teach me along the Way in Southern France to walk slowly, lift my eyes more, and let God's rain of grace upon grace not bounce off my Gore-tex shell, but seep in and water my soul from within. I want to continue learning from my other late friend, Sister Dorothy Byrne, because of increasing blindness and the weakness that comes from having lived over 95 years to no longer be able to extend herself in service to others, except in prayer. "I can still pray...I guess that is what God has given me to do. That is my mission now. So, Kevin, I pray for you by name every day." Following Dorothy's inspiration, I would like grow in these last years of my own life in simplifying things down to that foundational ministry: praying by name for so many.
I have work to do if I'm going to follow that way; I'm already making some choices along that line. Some are more interior and quiet. Others are more adventuresome. One big one that will certainly occupy plenty of space in this blog and the photography page, begins December 2, 2021. Early that morning, I will begin a journey to Ecuador. I will live in the Andean city of Cuenca for five months. I'll help out at the Church of San Francisco and tend to the North American Catholic Community there. Having farewelled well from Sacred Heart Church, I am ready to be welcomed well in Cuenca. As this new grace unfolds, know that you are welcome, by way of this humble website, to join me along the way.
Grace and peace!