Every day we say it: “Goodbye.” “Have a good day.” “Ciao.” “See you later.” It is our casual way of parting, and we don’t usually think much about it, except for those times when we are really saying a goodbye to someone who — due to moving or other circumstances — we may never see again.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Shakespeare knew all too well. There are no truer words.
It is difficult to know how to say a meaningful and poignant farewell to someone we care about. Abraham Lincoln gave one of the most poignant farewells of all time upon leaving Springfield, Ill., to embark on the presidency of the United States. “Here I have lived a quarter of a century and here I have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” He was never again to return to Springfield, Ill.
As far as poignant farewells in movie history, who doesn’t remember the words of Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick in “Casablanca” who broke our hearts as he uttered a goodbye to his beloved Ilsa? “Here’s looking at you, kid.” A phrase etched forever in our memories.
I have been thinking a great deal lately about partings, mostly because our minister at the Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church, Rev. Dr. Tony Larsen, is retiring at the end of this year after serving our church for 41½ years. He came to this ministry as a mustached, dynamic, guitar-playing young man, and he has stayed with us for four decades, getting ever better over the years.
Tony is not only an amazing minister of the church but a highly esteemed activist in our community. When there is a murder, he leads a candlelight vigil at the site of the murder to grieve with the victims and families as we sing together, “I have a dream within my heart, I have a dream within my heart. For a world that’s come apart, I have a dream …” If there is a social justice cause, he leads marches while playing his beloved guitar. Some of the causes have included LGBT rights, rights for immigrants, Take Back the Night marches for non-violence, and so much more.
And within the community, Tony has been involved on the boards of numerous nonprofit agencies. He even began the practice of splitting our collection every Sunday with various nonprofit community efforts. When a congregant occasionally suggests that our church could use the money, he reminds them of the cause. It is, he will tell you, about living what we believe.
So now, when it is time for him to leave after more than 40 years, we are dumbstruck and a little wounded and a little achy. We really don’t know how to say goodbye to this man who has been like a father, a brother, a friend, a comforter, a listener, as well as the world’s greatest hugger.
He has helped us through marriages and divorces, through births and through deaths, through joy and through grief. When my own heart was broken by the death of my cherished daughter, he knew just the words to say at her funeral to capture her beautiful soul when we were too tortured to speak. And he knew the words to say to me when, following her death, I was ready to crawl into bed for a year and fold myself into the darkness.
“We are all broken in some ways,” he said, “but it is what we make of that breakage that forms our legacy.” That image of melding together the shattered pieces of ourselves to move forward with a measure of grace despite deep pain is a profound metaphor for those of us dealing with our own unhealing wounds.
Since Tony first came to our church, our services have ended with Tony’s final words, “This service has ended but your service has begun again,” to which the hand-holding congregation says in unison a simple phrase, “Peace and unrest.” That phrase very is meaningful to us. We all know the importance of peace but it is only unrest that makes us get off of our couches to help the sick, to write to a congressman, to participate in a march, to volunteer for the homeless, to give money to victims of hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes.
Without unrest, there can be no activism, and it is only activism that creates change. And so, at the end of a recent service, Tony created a heartbreaking silence with his words. “In a while, I will no longer be with you who have been like a family to me. But please know that I will be, even from afar, so very proud to have been a part of you and of this journey. I will leave you with peace and unrest.” You could have heard a pin drop in the church. We know he is a model of finding the life we are meant to live.
Tony has prepared for his exit by counseling with other ministers who have been in the same situation, by lining up work he will be doing in retirement, and by honoring every activity he does as the final one at this church. He also asks us to prepare for his exit. He asks that we embrace our grief as a gift, for grief is only there because love is there also. He asks that we take time to heal, for healing is a part of being made whole.
And he asks that we remember always that love abides forever, even after the physical presence is gone. There is a wonderful quote by James Frazer that speaks to this. “The second principle of magic is that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance even after the physical contact has been severed.” And thus we know that there is a magic and a mystery which keeps us connected forever as we continue moving forward while “Standing on the Side of Love.”
So, farewell to you, dear Tony, and farewell to all of those we must say goodbye to in this short and precious journey we share. For you, Tony, and for all of us, we will remember “Peace and Unrest.” It is our increasingly urgent cause.