Goodbyes and being the one who stays
My favorite yoga pose is the tree pose. I love the experience of shifting my weight to one leg, finding a center, imagining my foot sending strong roots deep into the earth to hold me, as I raise my other foot, resting it against my calf muscle. I love to breathe deeply and reach my arms out and up, stretching my fingers skyward. On a good day — one where I’ve found and held that elusive balance — I’ll wave my arms back and forth as if swaying in the wind, trusting my roots to hold me steady, flexible, able to give when the wind rushes in, but made strong by roots mostly invisible beneath the soil.
Psalm 1 compares the righteous to trees, the unrighteous to chaff driven away by the wind. This time of year especially this growth metaphor suits, as trees bloom and spring gardens start to bear fruit. It’s a season of newness, of life.
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, the Psalmist writes,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on [that] law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
My college chaplain used to reference Psalm 1 when I was frustrated by the season in which I found myself. As a student at a Christian college, more often than not this frustration stemmed from pressures to “do something” for God, and for the world, while slow hours of study left me feeling guilty, as if perhaps I’d gotten off that path of righteousness and was instead lallygagging with my nose in a book. I imagine many of us have experienced something like that during a season of waiting, or education, or illness, or other seemingly fallow seasons.
No, he preached to me — this work would bear fruit later. I was in a season of deepening roots. In seasons without visible fruit, the tree is still alive, is still being faithful to its tree-ness. The work we do during such seasons is “doing something,” it’s not just sitting around, twiddling our thumbs. And so we can learn to look forward to other seasons, and take more pleasure in rooting ourselves, in finding a place to stand and sway.
I’ve been thinking about this passage, and my college chaplain’s message, lately because this is the season in which college towns so often have to say goodbyes. Every spring — not only spring, but especially spring — we say goodbye to people leaving the triangle (the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, N.C. area). When I first moved here, it wasn’t so hard. I was recently uprooted myself, I was the one who had left others to come here. But each year our roots grow deeper, each year we live in a place with particular people, our love for them will grow, if we let it, if we cultivate it, as we do here each Sunday and in small groups and in so many other small moments of life together throughout our days, weeks and years.
But seasons come to an end, and sometimes “fruit” looks like a new job or a new home in a far off place. Sometimes our delight in the Lord and in God’s gifts, God’s call upon our lives, leads us away. As the gospel passage today from John reminds us, we do not belong to this world — and so, rooted as we may be in God’s ragtag community of the faithful in this world, we remain nomads, following God through the wilderness.
Indeed, shifting metaphors, the last verse of Psalm 1 assures us that the Lord watches over the way of the righteous. The paths we tread when we go out from here each Sunday, but also those longer roads that lead to other splits and turns we cannot yet foresee. We may be called to be rooted like trees, but we are also supposed to be movable, with the promise that God watches over our paths. We are not driven about forcefully by any wind that blows; but we do move, step by prayerful step.
“I am not asking you,” Jesus says in John’s gospel, “to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world . . . as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” As God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us, so we send each other.
Part of our lives together, this tension between rootedness and mobility, is the necessity of acknowledging our limited claims upon one another. We cannot make one another stay when God calls us elsewhere. We share the gifts of the spirit together for a season, in this little corner of the world, but we don’t belong to the world. Neither are we driven aimlessly when we depart a place. Rather, we leave as those who are sent, with a purpose rooted in God’s love, rooted in righteousness, even when we can no longer be rooted in the literal ground of this particular place.
We have said goodbye to many people over the last year, and those goodbyes aren’t over yet. Sending loved ones off after seasons of work and education and growth here in Chapel Hill and Durham never gets any easier. Indeed, I think it gets a great deal more difficult every time. Sometimes I joke that I want to move too, just so that I can go somewhere that people won’t leave me so often. It takes a long time to put down roots, though, and I’d rather not pull mine up, even if being the ones who stay is hard. Being the ones who stay is another kind of calling.
Being the ones who stay means welcoming new faces into our communal life, new friends and new seasons. It means being a place that nurtures and cultivates relationships knowing full well that, one way or another, we are likely to say farewell eventually. It means trusting that our leaves will not wither with each departure, but that God is faithful to those who find “delight in the law of the Lord.”
And so we stay, and we send, and we pray together when God calls people elsewhere that God would protect them, watching over their paths even when their steps lead away from us.
May we be like those trees, with roots that go down deep to streams of life-giving water. May our fruit be sweet and plentiful. May we share it freely, widely, and with all who are in need, for it was never ours to keep.
Meghan Florian gave this sermon at Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship, where she is a member, on May 17. She is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. She lives and writes in Durham, N.C. She blogs at femmonite.com.
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