“the way i see it,” lewis says from somewhere in the back of my mind. “you have two options.”
“either you love, but you remember that to love anything means your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.”
“that’s right,” i say.
“or, if you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one.”
“sounds easier,” i say.
“well of course it would be easier,” lewis says, his voice now booming. “wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.”
“but in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. it will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
we sit silently for a moment in the wake his words, sit silently in the reality that they name.
“those are your two options, the way i see it,” lewis says. “but my bet is you already know you don’t want to live like that.”
i nod. but my heart is so tired of saying goodbye.
a surprise friendship
i’m sitting on a second-story patio in berkeley watching the sun go down over san francisco. the air gets cold in the sunset’s wake. i tuck my chin into the neck of my coat. tears warm my cheeks.
i’ve just said goodbye to a friend who wandered into my office several months earlier. far from home, sindre was preparing for a paper, struggling with community, and looking for some familiarity. so he wandered into church and asked for prayer.
“you’re braver than me,” i told him.
after several months of conversations—favorite musicians, writing, following the One we call Christ in berkeley, excitement and passion of falling for a classmate, stories of feeling like a foreigner in a strange land—we share a meal together before he leaves.
“hey man,” he says after saying goodbye. a few steps already down the sidewalk, i turn back.
“i love you.”
he boards a flight home to norway days later. i don’t know when, or if, i’ll see him again.
why’d You call me here, i ask, watching the sun go down over the city by myself. to give my heart away to so many who are bound to leave one day. seems like a cruel trick.
love my sheep, i hear.
“to love is to suffer,” dostoyevsky pipes up from somewhere, his words dressed in a thick, russian accent. “there can be no love otherwise.”
the other Voice nods a knowing nod.
where you’re supposed to be
“somehow i failed to realize how transient these relationships would be when i took the role of university minister,” i tell doug, an older pastor friend who served in my current role a decade and a half before me.
we’re sharing several plates of tacos, chips and salsa, and poutine in washington the next week.
“i hate it,” i tell doug. “i hate the goodbyes. i’ve been crying all week”
“that’s why you’re where you’re supposed to be,” he tells me. “if you weren’t, you’d be in the wrong role.”
“so take your time. get it all out. and then get back and get ready for another year.”
before leaving, i visit greenacre’s memorial park, to see my grandfather’s headstone for the first time. another goodbye—the hardest i’ve ever had to say.
christians never say goodbye
someone introduced me to sabrina shortly after the new year, after a church service in berkeley. this is something of a routine.
hearing that she’s a university student, someone introduces her to me. i do my best to be myself, while also telling her about what we do in university ministry, which is harder than it sounds.
she looked uninterested. i didn’t mind.
several months later we were meeting for coffee.
“this has been the hardest year of my life,” she shared. “and even though i believed in God before, it wasn’t until this moment that i prayed to Jesus for the first time.”
“i love You. i trust You.”
a month later, sabrina is baptized at the front of the same church. by the end of the week, she’s preparing to return to china, to reunite with her family after being away for seven years.
“if i go back,” she tells me, “i won’t be returning.”
at the end of a walk around berkeley’s campus on a warm june afternoon, i share with her a story.
“c. s. lewis was saying goodbye to a friend in oxford one afternoon, an american by the name of sheldon who was preparing to return home,” i tell sabrina, turning from telegraph avenue onto dana street.
“and after shaking hands, lewis says, ‘i shan’t say goodbye. we’ll meet again.'”
“‘besides, christians never say goodbye.'”
“that’s beautiful,” sabrina says. “so what do you say, then?”
“see you later. goodbye for now.”
back at church, we step into the elevator in silence.
“but it’s still tough,” i say. “the goodbyes we must say are still hard.”
“see you later,” i say, a minute later.
memories are not people
“it’s still really difficult,” ignacio tells me when i ask how he manages to say goodbye to so many friends, year after year, teaching at oxford.
we’re seated around a table, a small group of friends, in c. s. lewis’s old dining room. after two years in oxford, it’s my last night in the country. i don’t know when i’ll return again. don’t know when or if i’ll see so many friends again.
“it’s still really difficult. not with everyone, of course, but with those who get into your heart.”
he pauses for a moment.
“it took me a couple of years to learn this, but memories are not people, ryan. when you realize that, you realize that life changes, but those people are still there, and that makes saying goodbye not nearly so difficult.”
not created for goodbyes
what i have felt most strongly lately is a desire to never have to say goodbye again.
“if i find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy,” lewis speaks up again.
like never wanting to say goodbye again, i think.
“the only logical explanation is that i was made for another world,” lewis says, finishing his thought.
“we were not created for goodbyes,” i say.
i do not think the christian vision of eternity is a reunion of family and friends on a celestial seashore. that’s too anthropological, too horizontal.
we will not spend eternity gazing at one another. we will not stand eye to eye, but shoulder to shoulder.
but i do have hope that the christian vision of eternity will mean no more goodbyes.
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away” (revelation 21.4).
our goodbyes are penultimate, not ultimate, is what lewis was trying to tell his friend sheldon. they’re not the final word, but the next-to-the-last word.
but they’re no less real for it.
and what more shall i say? for time would fail me to tell of jenna, emily, and lucas, of so many afternoons sharing life under an oak tree on campus or over coffee in milano.
time would fail me to tell of christian and trevor and kelsey, and so many early mornings crammed into my office around scripture and bagels and coffee. of taylor and winnie and discussing relationships or calling over coffee or pancakes.
time would fail me to tell of bret and gary, the shared life, the heartache of goodbyes.
“the way i see it,” lewis speaks up again. “you have two options.”
i give a silent, serious nod. the truth of his words are now grounded in my experience.
“but you know you don’t want to live like that.”