Last weekend I traveled to another part of the state to say goodbye to some friends with whom my life has been intertwined for several years. A month from now both families are heading overseas. One will work at an orphanage in a rough and remote part of Africa. The other will pastor in the expat community of a large, cosmopolitan Asian city. Their situations couldn’t be more different. This was their last chance to be together before two of the grown children take off a few days from now to begin a language program in what will be their parents’ new home.
It was a privilege for S. and I to be with them. As I said, our lives are intertwined, and our presence made a good excuse for a party. We had dinner together and caught each other up on our news and struggles and hopes, then prayed for one another as we get ready to head our different directions. It was, what? the sixth or seventh such gathering I’ve had with various overlapping groups of international friends just this summer, not counting the one-on-ones.
Sometimes this aspect of my way of life seems so cool. I have a network of wonderful friends and colleagues all over the world! And while I may not see some of them for years at a time, many of them come through my town every time they are in the U.S. It may be easier to get together with people who just come through town occasionally. I've spent more "quality time" with J., who lives in SE Asia, than B., an equally dear friend who lives in downtown Denver. Though B. and I got together recently as well. It was great to get to know her children. I don't think I'd met the five year old!
On the other hand, with all these international friends, it can seem like just one goodbye after another. To see more and more people I care about scattered in more and more different directions can feel so fragmenting. At times my relational network seems painfully large. What is it about me that keeps giving away pieces of my heart to the people around me? Would it be any easier if I had a permanent companion or two instead of this relay-race of relationships? Or is such loss part-and-parcel of being a mission mobilizer? I don't think my tendency to keep reaching out is something I want to change about myself, but sometimes I count the cost.
Do I want to be the one going off and having adventures? Who would I go with? Going in one direction would mean not going another. Whose "tribe" would I choose to join? Staying where I am may actually be much better for being part of their lives than throwing my lot in with some group of them without the confidence that God had opened that particular door and nudged me through it. Quite possibly that day will come.
Meanwhile, I feel much more connected than some of my friends overseas who are barely keeping their heads above water. They’ve given up a lot, relationally, much more than I have. Many are living far from "home" and in places of social and emotional isolation. “One thing I know for sure,” wrote D. to the church sending them out, “is that if we didn’t sense God’s hand in all of this, we couldn’t bear to leave you just as summer turns to fall here in incredible western Colorado.”
Even with this odd pattern of making new friends all the time and sending them out, I’ve realized I’m not as lonely as I was. I think the sabbatical helped. Not only did I learn to be more comfortable being by myself, I also learned to appreciate some of my local relationships more and saw them grow stronger. What happened in 2007, when so many of the people I cared about left all at once, devastated me. Now, looking back, I realize I don’t feel so alone anymore.
That sure helps when it’s time to say goodbye.
> See also a couple of related 2009 posts, Traveler and Reunion.