We Say Goodbye, and Presence Lingers

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I sat in the dark last night and remembered.

This was not entirely by choice. For some reason, our electricity has spontaneously gone out a number of times this summer. I was just about to transition to some writing when the lamp went dark. “Again?” I wondered. Yes, our electricity had disappeared once more.

Thankfully, my computer was still charged so I continued in what I planned:
I began to write my last sermon.

In a matter of hours, I knew would say goodbye to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. I’ve served this congregation for the last ten months as a temporary pastoral leader. All week long, I’ve thought about what I want to say. Now it was time to put it on paper. So I sat in the dark with a candle burning beside me. Crickets resounded through an open window.

And I began to write words for my fourth last sermon.

See, I’ve done this before. Three other times, I’ve said goodbye to congregations I’ve loved. Each time, I’ve expressed gratitude for people who have shaped me. They’ve made me more human. They’ve helped me love more deeply. They’ve helped me know who I am and what I care most about.

As I wrote this last sermon it its particularities, my mind experienced an array of memories from the other places. I recalled the other last sermons too. Most of all, I remembered people with names and felt a lot of gratitude.

If you are a part of any congregation, I want to tell you this: When your pastors make transitions and leave, they still love you. We remember you fondly for decades. We make important decisions to get out of the way so other leaders can follow and thrive. We want to support them. But we don’t love you any less after leaving, and that experience is a gift to us. I hope it’s a gift to you too.

Years ago, I read a touching news story (I wish I could find it again) about Alzheimer’s patients and the changes they experience in their bodies after someone has visited them. Sometimes, the patients don’t recognize their visitor, but even then, forms of connection linger after the visitor has left.

I suppose that happens on a large scale when any of us – not just pastors – leave a community. We say goodbye, but a presence lingers both within us and beyond us. In each chapter, we meet people who particularize us. They make us more fully who we are. Since these forms of presence become a part of our very identity, they can’t really be lost.

So today, I say goodbye again, and I’m aware this will be my last last sermon for a good while. Sure, I’ll continue to give sermons in various places, but imagine it will be a long while before I’m ever anchored in a traditional congregation again as ‘the pastor.’

Though I love the people I’ve met in these traditional congregations, I’m purposefully stepping away from this kind of leadership in order to organize new forms of community. This new vision with Michigan Nones and Dones has marked my life too, and I want to chase after it alongside the very people who are making it their own.

So today, when I say goodbye,
a presence will linger within me and beyond me.
As I think of this,
it seems fitting to close with a prayer from Dag Hammarskjöld:
For all that has been, thanks.
For all that will be, YES!

Renee Roederer

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