November 22, 2020

“Prelude to Goodbye,” Bob Ryder


Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant as well as to harvest;
a time to kill as well as to heal;
a time to take things apart as well as a time to put them back together;
there’s a time to cry just as there’s a time to laugh;
there’s a time to grieve just as there’s a time to rejoice;
there’s a time to scatter bricks, just as there’s a time to lay them in place;
there’s a time to embrace, as well as a time to refrain from embracing;
there’s a time to call off the search, as well as a time to begin looking;
there’s a time to give belongings away, just as there’s a time to collect what we need;
there’s a time to tear things apart, just as there’s a time to sew them together;
there’s a time to keep silence as well as a time to speak;
there’s a time to hate as well as a time to love;
there’s a time for war, and there’s a time for peace.

Go outside some night this week when the sky is clear – maybe around 6 or 7pm – and you’ll be able to see Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all at once. They’re all to the South, Jupiter and Saturn a good bit further West below and right of the crescent moon, Mars closer to overhead. Once you’ve found them, take your time, consider what we know about their orbits, and you can almost see the depth of field in their respective distances: Mars is closest to us, then Jupiter, then Saturn. A semblance of depth perception emerges if you take your time and really look at them for a bit, particularly with Jupiter and Saturn right next to each other – as close as they’ve been in the sky since 1623.  If you don’t mind getting up early, go outside again around 5am. You’ll see Venus as bright as a jewel right about where Mars was a few hours before.  Hang out until just before sunrise and you’ll catch a glimpse of Mercury on the eastern horizon. There’s a link in the manuscript to help locate the planets if you’re interested ( Make some coffee, bundle up and have a look some night this week if you’re so inclined – it really lends perspective on our place in the cosmos.

It’s only coincidence, but not long after Susan and I began working here in 1997, the planets were in roughly similar positions such that one evening while I was walking with Sheba – our shepherd/husky daughter at the time – I was able to see the same combination of planets with that same vivid clarity and depth. It never occurred to me a similar celestial view might happen when we’d be preparing to leave as it was while we were getting started. It never occurred to me we’d be here this long. Still, watching it all come around – there’s a lovely poetry to it. Time passes, seasons come and go, oceans rise, empires fall, and we say our hellos and goodbyes as the heavens float along in their courses. For everything there’s a season, a time for every matter under Heaven. Isn’t it something?

We say our hellos and goodbyes in this sacred rhythm of inevitability. This reflection is a prelude to goodbye. “There’s a time to cry just as there’s a time to laugh. There’s a time to grieve just as there’s a time to rejoice.” We still have over a month as your pastors, so this isn’t quite our last moment together. That last moment is coming soon, though, and we’ll serve each other well by acknowledging how things will be – and how they won’t be – when this season in the life of NCC comes to its conclusion. Theresa Dulyea-Parker – our excellent Regional Minister with the Disciple of Christ – counsels that as we say good-bye, we make a point to “bless, forgive, and release” one another. How could you say it better? Let’s make that our purpose for these last weeks – to bless, forgive and release.

First, the release – It’s important we all understand this well: Susan and I release New Covenant Community from any sense of loyalty or obligation to our legacy. Fond memories and appreciation of our time together are fine, but you owe us nothing after our work here is finished.  We encourage you to use your imagination in the years to come as NCC moves on to its next chapter. Our hope is that you’ll succeed and surpass what we’ve accomplished while we were your pastors, and that NCC thrives in its ministry when we’re gone, regardless of how similar or different things might be from how they were when we were here. Nothing would make us happier than if you soon find yourselves saying “Things at NCC are better than ever!” We’ll rejoice if attendance and giving goes up after we’re gone. Embrace new possibilities and move beyond what we’ve been doing.

Your steering committee has done a beautiful job finding and calling Bryan Burris as your new interim minister. Welcome him and enjoy working with him – Susan and I have met him and we like him very much. Be open to his ideas and wisdom. We wish him and you every success, and you all deserve a clean start free from any distraction or interference that loyalty to Susan’s and my tenure might elicit. This is one reason that Susan and I will not be part of the congregation when our work is finished. Things don’t need to stay the same as when we were here, at least not for our sake – continue what happened while we were here ONLY if that is what works best for NCC. There’s a time to tear down as well as a time to build up. Our time is coming to an end; we release you to whatever ought to come next.

Likewise, we ask you to release us. Susan and I need space to explore new possibilities in our lives. Being your pastors – and being a clergy-couple – has been a joy and a privilege for which we’ll always be grateful. But it’s harder than it looks, and we want to experience being married without sharing responsibilities for the life of a congregation. We want to enjoy weekends and free evenings. We want to take care of our health. We want to travel and see family and explore new interests. I want to expand my skills as a canine behavior consultant. I want to get good at drums and guitar. I want to train for another 100-mile bike ride. Susan is thinking about how to make a difference in the world with her skills as an administrator and wants to spend more time writing and doing ancestry research. To pursue all of that, we need to finish our relationship as your pastors. I remember a pearl of wisdom from a therapist I saw for a while who noted as our work was coming to conclusion, “Bob, when our work is over, we’ll need to behave like it’s over.” After December, you and Susan and I will need to behave like our work is over. When we see you in the community, of course we’ll be friendly, still interested in how you’re doing, still wanting to hear about your work and travels, your children and grandchildren. We will still love you. We won’t be your pastors. We ask your understanding in advance when we’re no longer available to you in the ways we’ve been available for the past 23 years. Disengaging might seem awkward for a while and it will surely feel sad at times, but that sadness is part of the catalyst needed for transitioning to a new reality. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to cry… a time to grieve.” If our stepping away feels like an occasion for grief, it means we’re seeing things clearly. Let’s release each other with courage and love.

The forgiveness – We say it often for a reason… “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Humans sometimes hurt one another. There’s no way we’re together as long as we’ve been that we didn’t hurt each other sometimes. It’s important as we prepare for goodbye that we offer forgiveness where forgiveness is needed. Sometimes we’ve hurt each other carelessly, sometimes knowingly. There have been times we’ve disappointed each other, times we’ve betrayed each other. There is nothing to be gained reciting specific instances or episodes now – suffice to say, as best we can, let’s forgive each other before we say good-bye. Susan and I leave with no hard feelings and no ill will for anything untoward that has come our way. We hope you’ll forgive us and free yourselves of any hard feelings or ill will for hurts that came from us. Please forgive us our sins as we forgive you for yours.

The blessing – For all of its 28 years, NCC has made its place in the world with an approach to spirituality based in curiosity, questioning conventional wisdom, bearing with each other when we’re a pain in the ass, commitment to social justice, devotion to the open table, and a lovely sense of humor. Together we’ve laughed and wept, explored science and literature, had a service washing one another’s feet.  We’ve welcomed liturgical dancers and scholars of the Jesus Seminar, we’ve watched movies, attended plays – indeed had a musical written and performed about us, and partaken of a Lakota Sioux Sweat Lodge. We’ve reached out to neighbors, enjoyed retreats, fixed leaky roofs and drained flooded basements, sheltered from tornados, made new discoveries and weathered passionate disagreements. And through all of that I’ve often thought of NCC as an oasis – a weekly respite to gather, catch our breath, tend our wounds, regain our strength, and revive our hope for the possibilities and challenges in the week to come.

When Susan and I came along there was a couple here for a while named Laura and David, who were among our founding members. They had two young daughters who came to worship with them before we had a Sunday School, and one week Susan offered a reflection on how we experience time in cycles. Something Susan said that morning prompted their daughter to ask her dad if time was like a circle. David replied, “No, time is a straight line.” Thoughtfully, their daughter came back, “Then why are clocks round?” Puzzling for a moment, her dad replied, “Go ask your mother.” I don’t know if the humor comes through in my translation, but in that moment – with the of David’s comedic timing as he recounted the conversation – the chapel just exploded with laughter. It was beautiful! One of the things I’ll always keep in my heart is that this congregation laughs together more than any I’ve ever known. I’ll wager NCC laughs together more than almost any congregation anywhere. I’m really proud to have been part of that. Another thing I’ll always hold dear is that those same children – Laura and David’s daughters – talked to their family and friends referring to NCC as “the bread church” – because they were always welcome to share communion with us, as children always have been here. They were around six or seven years old while they were here before their family moved to Wisconsin, and they had as good a sense as any seasoned theologian about Jesus’ ministry of inclusivity and reconciliation. The bread church – “out of the mouths of babes.” To have worked for a congregation where children and LGBT folk and conservatives and liberals and black and Asian and rich and poor can all feel welcome, can all come together in peace to reflect on how to make the world a better place for all concerned – I’ll always feel good about that. Thank you for letting us be part of that all this time – what a blessing!

So let that be the blessing we leave with you. NCC was “the bread church” before we got here, and it will be the bread church after we’re gone. As we prepare to go, Susan and I offer our heartfelt blessing that you may continue this sacred project, gathering at Christ’s open table every week to share with one another the most meaningful aspects of your lives. In times of grief and joy, in times of living and dying, in times of tearing down and building up, as the planets cycle through their orbits and season come and go, may you welcome and care for one another here in “the bread church.” May the blessings of Jesus’ love – beyond all explanation – remain with you around Christ’s open table in the bread church all they days of your lives. Amen.