Eight years of “goodbye”

Two weeks ago, I left behind the town of Lafayette, Indiana. I lived there for more than eight years, which is the longest span of time I’ve lived in one town or city. It was the closest I’ve come to calling a town my own.

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.
Leviticus 25:23

What always held me back from feeling settled in Lafayette was the fact that it is such a transitional town. When I left, several people in my church commented that it was hard to imagine the church without me. They had arrived later, and as far as they were concerned, I had been around forever. I was the permanent one—possessing eight years of permanence!

You can’t shake that unsettled feeling when you live in a town like that. You know that you are a sojourner. You can’t fool yourself into believing you’ll be there forever.

In the Old Testament, as Israel was preparing to move into the promised land of Canaan, the Lord instituted a series of laws about how they were to treat the land. They were not to overwork it or sell it permanently because the land was his, not theirs. They were tenants; he was the landlord. He was their host; they were his guests.

For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.
1 Chronicles 29:15

When you’re a stranger and a sojourner, you feel your impermanence on a visceral level. You could disappear, and the world could go on just fine without you. You flit about like a phantom, a shadow, moving from place to place, with no substance.

When I moved away, I had many people come to me to wish me well and to say goodbye. It was hard for me to say goodbye—not because the separation was too painful but because it was perhaps too easy. Most of these friends I will be able to keep up with on Facebook, after all. There will be few severed relationships.

And this was not the first time I’d had to say goodbye. The fact is that it was simply the conclusion to eight years of goodbyes. When you live in Lafayette, people come and go every year. They pass like phantoms through the town, taking classes or working a temporary job until career or family draws them away. You make friends, then let them go, then make new friends, then watch them leave as well. And when it comes time for you yourself to leave, it is not your closest friends who have remained to see you off. So “goodbye” is not as hard, because it’s fundamentally no different from any of the others.

O LORD, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
Psalm 39:4–5

Here in the West, we do our best to quarantine death, to hide it away in hospitals and nursing homes, to pretend that we will live forever. We do our best to make this world a heaven, to live in a nice neighborhood and own a shiny car and find a purposeful career. But this requires a lot of transience and rootlessness, a lot of moving around. So even though we can postpone the death of our bodies, we cannot avoid the isolation of lost friendships. Our impermanence is more obvious than ever.

Hear my prayer, O LORD,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,
a guest, like all my fathers.
Psalm 39:12

The earth is the Lord’s. I’m just passing through. I am a sojourner here, a guest of the Lord’s, just like my father was, and his father before him—a man who did not last long enough for me to meet him. There is no hope to be found in our relationships with one another. Hope must be anchored to an immovable object; I can’t find hope in my relationships with other people any more than a ship at sea can anchor itself to the wind and fog.

Who does David, king of Israel, appeal to in Psalm 39? He appeals to the one who created the land on which he is kneeling, the one who owns it and will continue to own it thousands of years after David vanishes from the earth. The Lord is the only permanent mooring in a world of passing shadows.

So may you cling to the Rock which will outlast the world. And may you find eternal life by binding yourself to our eternal God.

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