About this time some sixteen years ago, I sat in the parking lot in Nacogdoches, Texas. I had traveled through the city many times but rarely had stopped to do anything more than make a pit stop. I had driven about four hours to meet with the pastor of a church that I’d never met in a city that I had never heard of … all because I served on an Annual Conference team with his wife. We said hello, and as we sat and talked for a couple of hours, I became more interested in working on this team. We departed and agreed to talk in a couple of days.
Little did I know that this simple “hello” at a gas station with Richard Burnham would turn into sixteen years of ministry and friendships. My last significant church goodbye was sixteen years ago when I bid farewell to Williams Memorial UMC. Forgive me if I struggle — I’ve said farewells to choir members who have retired and senior pastors who have moved to new appointments. I’ve stood with congregation members who said goodbye to their loved ones in hospitals, funeral services, and burials. While I’ve had many significant goodbyes in ministry, they haven’t been my own. It’s been others saying goodbye to me. And so, I’m finding it challenging to say goodbye.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “God keeps our goodbyes painful in order to highlight how vital our past togetherness was.” If that is true, then ours is very rich and “vital.” We’ve shared ministry and music moments beyond compare. More than that, you have become significant friends to Rhonda and me. You have raised and loved our children, helping to steer them on a path toward serving their country (thank you, Dave Cox.) You’ve helped us make a home here . . . a life here . . . rich beyond compare . . . once inconceivable when I came here those years ago.
As we depart, if I’ve caused anyone discomfort with an unkind word or an unkept promise, I apologize. I’d like to think that when we share unexpected “hellos’ in the future that we’ll recognize the ties that once bound us together around music and worship and friendship.
The poet Les Murray writes, “People can’t say goodbye anymore. They say last hellos.” And, so I leave you with a hello. I couldn’t make myself say goodbye.
Soli Deo Gloria!