It hit me this past week, like a wave washing over me out of nowhere. I'm not sure why, but there it was. It's not as though I haven't felt or experienced this before. When I officiated Nick and Naomi's wedding a few years ago, and then when they moved away from South Bend to Cleveland, I certainly had a sense of separation and loss that came pretty close to that of bidding farewell to one of my own children. After all, I've known Naomi since she was twelve, and she and my DoRena have been the best of friends ever since. DoRena was also her maid of honor, and Naomi's wedding was the closest I have come (so far) to marrying off one of my daughters. I'll finally surpass that next spring, when my Beanie Belle is married to Mr. Sam Wirgau.
Anyone who knows me at all, knows that I've been dealing with the growing up and moving away of both my Beanie and my Zach, who are both in college and making plans for their future as adults. Praise God, but have mercy on my poor paternal heart, which has its ups and downs with rejoicing in these good things. My good friend, Rev. Todd Wilken, had to "rub it in" a bit this past week, when he pointed out that I still have seven other children to say goodbye to in the years ahead. Thanks, Todd. I doubt that it will get any easier, although I do suspect that each goodbye, like each child, will be unique. It has been different with Zach than it is with DoRena. Of course, by the time my little Gerhardt reaches that point in his life, I'll be pushing sixty (God-willing), and I suppose I shouldn't even try to guess what that will be like.
For the moment, having admonished myself and others recently about the dangers of making idols and false gods out of our children, I've been confronted with that idolatry in my own heart again this past weekend, in which Gerhardt has been ailing with the croup. Further evidence that there are still new things to experience as a parent, even after eight other children. I can hardly imagine a more terrible sound than the rasp and wheeze of this illness, which has frankly sounded more like a death rattle than anything else. And there's been that terrifying fear, again, that grips my heart whenever my children are in danger (real or imagined). Like the widow of Zarephath, my iniquity is brought to my remembrance, and I conclude that God is judging me, that He will have no mercy or compassion, that my son will not live but die. I am staggered at the faith of father Abraham, and can hardly comprehend his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Truly, such faith can only be the work of God the Holy Spirit. Lord, I believe, but help Thou my unbelief!
Well, it hit me this past week that I will have more than seven other sad goodbyes to say in the years to come. I suppose it isn't entirely fair to compare anyone else to my own dear children, and of course it isn't quite the same, but the fact is that the children of my friends and of my congregation are also dear to me and precious. Seeing them leave home, whether off to college or getting married and moving away, will be different than saying goodbye to my own sons and daughters, but it will be hard enough to bear in its own unique ways. Presumably, I will continue to have a steady connection to each and all of my children, no matter where they get themselves off to. There isn't quite that same built-in assurance in the case of others. Finite creatures can only maintain so many connections in life; time goes by, and people change, and that's just the way it is. But it makes me sad to think of it.
I love the young people of my congregation, and I relish the privilege I am given to watch them grow in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and man. It is such a unique blessing to be their pastor, to have the joy of baptizing them, catechizing them, communing them, celebrating with them, and sometimes commiserating with them. I typically have my young catechumens in class with me for four or five years, and there is a special relationship, a comfortable rapport, that develops between us in that time. That is actually one of the more important benefits of pastoral catechesis, the way in which we get to know each other as pastor and parishioner. I'm to the point of having children I baptized as infants in my confirmation classes, and, as their father in Christ, I surely do have an affection for them that is not unlike that of any father for his children. Which means, I suddenly realized, that saying goodbye to them, someday (sooner than later), is going to be a bittersweet thing, not unlike the experience of sending my progeny off into the world.
On top of all that, when my young parishioners also happen to be the friends and playmates of my children, and the children of my own dear friends, there is that further bond of familiarity and affection, which will make the eventual goodbyes all that much harder. The children of one family, for example, were all pretty little, still in gradeschool, when they first came to Emmaus, and they've been great friends to my family all these years, but now those children are almost all out of high schol and making their way in life. I miss the bond that I shared with them, as their pastor, when they were younger and in catechesis classes with me. It was much the same with Naomi, and I think it will be even more so with her younger siblings, whom I have known since they were three and seven, respectively. I marvel at the young adults they have become, even as I cherish the countless memories of the times that my family and I have shared with them. So it goes. My younger children now have their own circle of close friends, who also happen to be the children of my friends and among the little lambs of the flock entrusted to me. I love the opportunities that I am given to be a part of their young lives, but I don't look forward to the day when they go riding off into the sunset. Perhaps the best I can hope for is that some of these young friends of mine will marry into my family. We'll see.
Recently, I've enjoyed the chance to share some fun times with a few of these dear young people. On the drive home from the opening service at the Seminary a week or two ago, I had three of my young parishioners in the car with me, all of them teenagers now, and it was such great fun to visit with them, to laugh with them at silly jokes and goofy conversation, but also to chat with them about more serious things. Those same three teenagers, and a fourth, were all at the Worship & Spiritual Care Workshop this past weekend, and I could not have been more proud of them. They are a credit to their parents, and they do our congregation proud with their theological acumen and piety. Alas, I know it is going to break my heart when they all sail away, even though I will continue to be proud of them, no doubt, no matter where in the world they may end up. I hope it is not too far away!
Of course, along with all the bittersweet goodbyes on the horizon, there is the fact that the Lord is likely to bless me with grandchildren, and there will be more children at Emmaus to baptize, to catechize, to absolve and commune and care for as the sheep of the Good Shepherd. Even better, there are finally no permanent "goodbyes" for those who are in Christ Jesus. So I rejoice in the fellowship of His one Body, the Church, in heaven and on earth, and I thank God every day for the privilege of sharing that blest communion with others.