I think this summer will be remembered as a summer of goodbye. My pastor and his family moved away this month, and he is now serving a different congregation in a different state. The relocation process for a pastor in our church body is necessarily tedious. It seems like weeks of the summer have been spent just saying goodbye.
There have been other summers of goodbye. The summers of my late high school years come to mind. First, at the end of our junior year, we said goodbye to all the seniors. This was the summer of our school choir trip to Disney. I’m not even a Disney fan, but it is admittedly a great place for teenage memories and songs for goodbye. Our actual choir performance was rained out, but we managed to sing anyway. We sang “The Rose,” with its wonderful acapella harmonies while sitting in the hot tub, and we sang “Remember When the Music” while gathered in the hotel lobby.
The summer of our senior year came; it was our turn to spread our wings and to say goodbye. At our high school graduation ceremony, we sang the popular “Friends are Friends Forever” by Michael W. Smith. I think I accompanied on the piano. We gave hugs. We exchanged pictures and cassette tapes. Some of us might have cried, (I didn’t), but no one was really sad. It was just so exciting to be going out into the world. We were full of hopes and dreams, and our youthful idealism kept us from being afraid. I wonder, do Christian teenagers still bring out Michael W. Smith, when it’s time to say goodbye?
Now, in our middle age, the goodbyes are harder. Over two decades have passed, and we are not the same people we once were. The youthful idealism is gone, replaced, hopefully, with some degree of wisdom, but also tempered with a good dose of the struggles of adult life. Hope is still a commodity, but it is harder to find. Courage is harder to muster. And it is harder to let go of something that seems so good.
I came to know my pastor three years and some months ago. During the season just after Easter, I found myself in the pews of his church. I had been in a period of wandering from church to church, looking for a home, feeling not unlike the proverbial lost sheep. That Saturday evening I sat towards the back of the church with my (then) two boys. It was Good Shepherd weekend. We sang the hymns based on Psalm 23, we listened to the readings and the sermon, and I knew I had found my shepherd.
During the three years that followed, we moved from the back of the church to the front. We added another boy to our church pew, and had him baptized. Nearly every weekend we came and were blessed by the ministrations of our pastor. He loved my children and encouraged them. He taught me, fed me, forgave me, and preached to the fears of my soul. And when I recently traveled through the valley of anxiety and depression, he was there to walk with me.
How to say goodbye to this man? Where was the song for this difficult farewell? This time around, Michael W. Smith wasn’t cutting it.
This time around I turned to Mozart, diligently practicing the first movement of Sonata 11. During the depths of my springtime depression, my pastor had sent me a link to this sonata, suggesting, perhaps, that it might be soothing to my soul. Little did he know that I had the sheet music in my attic.
When the news was official that my pastor was leaving, I took my sheet music to the sanctuary. The church is not air conditioned, and the piano light was so hot, but still I had to play. I thought about the message Dr. Suzuki had found in the music of Mozart:
All right. Life is sad. But if there is love, see how beautiful life can be. The sad life that we all must live – let us go along together and comfort one another.
I played, the notes of the piano echoing through the empty sanctuary. Sometimes I played at night, with only a few lights in the sanctuary, and only the sound of the cicadas outside. Sometimes I played in the silence of the afternoon with the sunlight filtering through the stained glass windows. Then one rainy morning I played, and in the background there was the telling sound of packing tape.
I stopped in the office on the way out. “Will you let me play for you before you leave?” I asked.
“I won’t leave town without hearing Sonata 11,” he replied.
Five days before his departure, I played Sonata 11, as my pastor sat listening. I wasn’t sad. I was nervous, and by the end I couldn’t play the fast parts very well, but mostly I was just happy that I could play for him. It was my song for goodbye.
And that was supposed to be the end of this post. I would to take my boys to the Saturday service and say my final farewell, and that would be it. The church picnic was to be on Sunday, but I’m not much for church picnics anyway. I didn’t think I wanted to go.
But then another song, and an invitation: The closing hymn on Sunday was to be “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.” The organist wanted to do something a little special. He would play the organ, and he asked me to play the piano. I was so touched that he would ask. Here was another person, perhaps feeling a bit like I did, and he was asking me to join with him in another song for goodbye.
I took my boys to the Sunday service. The older two watched the toddler so I could play the piano. I was glad I was not singing because it is much easier to play without crying. “God Be with You Till We Meet Again” is blessedly easier than Sonata 11. I played loudly, and it felt good. I was sad, but I was not alone. I was joined by the organist and by all the other members of our church home. Together, we were singing and playing our final song for goodbye.
Afterwards we stayed for the picnic. It was fun! Yes, it was bittersweet, but I was glad to be in the company of our church family. The picnic wound down, and I lingered for one last hug before pushing my toddler home in the stroller.
God be with you till we meet again….with a shepherd’s care enfold you.
Goodbye, dear shepherd. We will miss you.
May our Good Shepherd guard and keep you and your family until we meet again.
- Dr. Shinichi Suzuki quote from Nurtured by Love, Alfred Publishing Company, 1983.
- No, we did not sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir when we sang “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” but our organist recommended the recording to which I linked.
- This may be the first and last time I post one of my own recordings on YouTube. My patient and talented husband, John David Duke Jr, was my recording technician. All of the pictures were taken at Immanuel Lutheran Church. Our garden volunteers have been busy this summer!