I did not weep, driving home from the meeting. Only because I possess a Y chromosome and have Appalachian blood in my DNA. I did not weep because I do not often possess the ability.
Our church’s elected officers had approved Pleasant Hill’s annual statistical report. We took less than a single minute to do so, determining to study and discuss the numbers at our next meeting. The report was a speck of dust compared to other important decisions made that night. But that report is the item that has haunted me.
The report contained the number of members who have left Pleasant Hill Church in the previous year. The number itself wasn’t alarming; it was actually much smaller than in the early 2000’s, when we lost over a hundred a year. But this year’s number was greater than zero. And it hurt. Because when someone leaves our church, it feels like they left me.
I’m not at all good with saying good-bye. I think I remember every person who has left me: my high school girlfriend, my buddy whose family moved away, the customer on my paper route who cancelled his subscription.
Isn’t it ironic that I am in a profession that so often experiences people leaving? I think I remember every person who has left Pleasant Hill Church. I try not to fault the ones who left because they died, or the ones who moved out of state. I don’t like it, but I cut them some slack.
Some left because of theological differences. Sometimes that wasn’t pretty. Is there a person present that morning who does not remember the elder announcing angrily in worship that he was leaving the church because of a decision made by the rest of the Session? Sometimes the leaving is sadly beautiful: the elder who studied scripture with me and prayed with me for hours in my office, then stood and embraced me as he, too, felt compelled to worship elsewhere. We continue to embrace each other as brothers in Christ.
Jesus, too, had to deal with people leaving. I wish he had said more about how to deal with it. When Jesus told the rich young man he must sell everything he had and give the money to the poor, the young man found the cost too high, and he turned away. One version says “And Jesus loved him as he walked away.” It’s easy to love someone who is coming towards you with open arms. It is not so easy when suddenly all you see is their back.
Saying goodbye is hard. We bond with others, then set them aside, or are set aside ourselves. A handful, if we’re blessed, stay with us through all the ups and downs, but most people are in our lives for a while, then gone. It is finished.*
My mind understands that people leave. I know it usually isn’t about me. My faith acknowledges that leaving may be part of their own pilgrimage. My heart accepts their departure. But driving home after that meeting, my right eye refused to accept these tough realities. That rebellious right eye was the one that released the single tear that rolled down my cheek.
I had just remembered God’s promise: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) Turns out that was a tear of joy. Or at least of gratitude.
(* These two paragraphs were inspired by a devotional written by Laurie Beth Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org)
_________________________________________________________________Dr. Dave Fry is the senior and founding pastor of Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church in Duluth, Georgia, which was started in 1985. Send comments to “Fry on Friday” at email@example.com.