There is something poignant about the fact that our final days after 110 years in our beautiful, solid as a Gothic rock, 1904 structure, come to pass in the midst of the glory that we all know as autumn in New England. It is a glory that is about to come to a close. It is a glory that will lie dormant for a bit. And it is a glory that will burst forth in new life—resurrection. I suppose because it it the start of a new school year, but maybe it is also because of the inevitable life that is stored in the dying leaves of autumn that this time of year always expresses hope and possibility for me.
I am sitting in my new office writing on a temporary desk, surrounded by unpacked boxes and new sounds—-the rhythm of train wheels rolling on tracks and the clang-clang-clang of the warning bell; the clunky sound of restaurant garbage being rolled past the back of our retail space; fire engines screaming by as close as…well, the front door; car engines starting and doors in the parking lot slamming shut; and conversations of every sort and language (delighted greetings, angry phone calls, whispers of love)! These are new sounds for me to hear from the pastor’s office but they are not unwelcomed. There is a new kind of quiet too—when I pay attention the noise of the city square dies down and that is when I hear the best sound—the rustling of the trees and the tumbling of autumn leaves across the macadam and up against the back door. It sounds like a party—God celebrating the new thing that is happening in West Medford Square.
Our final days in the big building are marked by new beginnings in the little storefront. Our relief from the responsibilities of that property is offset by the anxiety we have over whether we can make a go of this new thing. Our 140-year-old identity of ourselves as the Congregational Church of West Medford (CCWM) is being replaced with our one-week-old identity of Sanctuary, UCC. We think we knew what it meant to be CCWM and we are still figuring out what it means to be Sanctuary. We had confidence that people gave us some standing in the community because we were CCWM and we are sheepishly wondering what they will think of us selling the building and moving to a flower shop. It is a hard thing to hold these dichotomies and the complexity of all of these experiences.
I have spoken of this many times. We are holding deep grief and celebrative joy in the same two hands and it is stressful to try to feel, carry and express both emotions. You don’t know which one to feel when and the emotions bat you around from one extreme to the other, sometimes in the same breath. Yet, this is as natural and as much a part of life as the seasons of the year. The story of gain and loss, of joy and sorrow, of life and death, of union and separation, these stories are inside each one of us. The cycle begins at birth, when we were broken loose from our mother’s womb. Our forward movement gathered momentum until we pushed farewell and, with a throbbing burst of new life, cried hello again to a vastly different world. And this cycle continues throughout our lives. Hello – Goodbye – Hello.
Hello-Goodbye-Hellos are a part of every single day. Sometimes we choose them and sometimes they choose us. Usually they are small—not so significant gains and losses—that do not bring strong emotions. But at times they are deep, powerful, wounding experiences that trail around our hearts and pain inside of us for years or they are wild, wonderful, glorious greetings of newness and celebration that fill us with the kind of joy that changes everything.
This weekend we will say goodbye to a building which is a symbol of our past and our identity. For some the symbolism is more significant than for others. But do not be fooled into thinking that it is not a significant thing for you. We will all experience some grief and we will all be changed by this transition, by this leave-taking, by the loss of this symbol. In her seminal work entitled, “Praying Our Goodbyes”, Joyce Rupp asks the question: “Do we ever get used to saying goodbye? Or should we? I think not,” she says. “Saying goodbye helps us to experience the depths of our human condition. It leads us to a much deeper understanding of what it means to live life in its mystery and it wholeness. We ought not to be afraid of the partings that life asks of us. Nor ought we to hold back in giving ourselves fully to love, to the wonderful growth opportunities of investing ourselves in people and events.” She goes on to say that “We may be harshly bruised by life’s farewells, but it is possible to be healed. We can become whole again. I believe that if we are willing to move inside the heart of the experience, to live patiently through the process even as we acknowledge the difficult, painful emotions, that we can experience the wonder of spiritual growth and the marvel of new depths of faith in our relationship with God and with others.”
Next weekend, we will say hello to a new thing—a beautiful, gracious, right-sized ministry center in the city square designed to allow us to offer hospitality and be sanctuary to all. We will form new memories and new ministries and new ways of making a difference in people’s lives. We will be a place of refuge and restoration and renewal and re-engagement and new people will come along with us to form faith and community. And the truth is, that everything we become and every thing we do will be informed by and grounded in everything that we have been in the past. That’s just the way that it is—and we thank God! It is exactly what God created—spring, summer, autumn and winter; birth, life, death and rebirth; hello-goodbye-hello.
I pray that you will be attentive to this experience for yourself. Don’t just walk away because it is too hard to feel it. Don’t pretend it does not matter to you because it is easier than acknowledging the importance of it. Be deliberate in praying goodbye to what has been. Be engaged in the skittery energy of starting a new church. Join us for worship to do so, call me and have a conversation about your emotions, meet with a counselor or friend or, or do it for yourself, but please, do it. Pray this goodbye. Pray this hello. Engage your very-whole-self in the messy process and God will carry you and we through.
With blessing and prayer,
Rev. Wendy (firstname.lastname@example.org