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.

An unwilling celebrity (Mark 1:32–45)

Here in the U.S. of A., we love our celebrities. Since our nation was founded on the rejection of any sort of monarchy, we don’t have any royal family to obsess over. Fortunately, in an act of supreme benevolence, a parade of actors, actresses, musicians, and models has filled this gap in the American psyche. Ah, the superior lives of the beautiful people!

The problem is, just like any European royal family, many of these celebrities have done little to earn the adulation they receive. For some, their only ticket to stardom has been their good looks. Somehow, they have drawn to themselves crowds of followers, to the point where they are unable to go out in public without attracting far too much attention.

So it seems odd and irreverent to say this, but Jesus was a genuine first-century celebrity—at least at the beginning of his ministry. He generated incredible interest and attracted many followers, but unlike many modern celebrities, he actually deserved the attention. In Mark 1:32–45, we find the beginning of Jesus’ position as a Galilean celebrity, but we also see Jesus’ unusual response to all this attention.

Not a day has passed at Capernaum since Jesus drove an unclean spirit out of a man in the synagogue. Between this and his healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus has demonstrated an ability to rescue people from both demons and disease. By the time evening rolls around, practically the entire town has surrounded the house. Hope for healing and freedom has been kindled by this preacher from Nazareth. This flame is stoked into a blazing furnace when Jesus responds to their cries for help by healing those who are sick and casting out the demons. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that news will be spreading very fast about this man. What’s strange, though, is that we’re beginning to get the idea that Jesus doesn’t seem to be embracing this publicity. The demons that he is casting out know who he is—that he is more than just another man—yet he won’t let them tell anyone.

Then, long before the sun rises the next morning, Jesus disappears from Simon’s house. The whole town goes looking for him, and Simon and his friends finally find him out in “a desolate place,” far outside of town. He has been spending hours in prayer to God. “Everyone is looking for you,” they appeal to him. Why did Jesus leave? He’s become incredibly popular in Capernaum! What is he doing out in the wilderness?

In the wilderness, Jesus has been praying, talking with God. Here his mind is free from the noise of the crowds; he can rest, and can spend time with his heavenly Father. However, that is not the only reason he has left Capernaum. He tells his disciples, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” Once again, his preaching ministry is his highest priority; although he is glad to perform miracles, he won’t stay in a town that becomes fixated on his miraculous abilities.

While on a journey between towns, Jesus is approached by a leper pleading to be healed. According to the law of Moses, anyone who had leprosy was pronounced unclean. Since his disease was contagious, he was placed under quarantine for as long as he had leprosy. He had to leave town, live alone in the wilderness, and announce to anyone who came near that he was unclean (Leviticus 13:45–46). This law was necessary to prevent an outbreak of leprosy, but it doomed the leprous person to a cruel and lonely existence. No one wanted to have anything to do with a revolting leper.

For this man, Jesus represents not only a chance to be healed, but a chance to rejoin society again. And Jesus feels such gut-wrenching compassion for him that he reaches out toward him. For the first time since leprosy broke out on his skin, the man feels another human being touch him. And at once, he is healed.

That touch becomes the pivot point of Mark’s account. Up until this time, Jesus could enjoy the company of his followers in town, and he can travel to the wilderness to spend time abiding with God. Not any more. Although he warns the man not to tell anyone how he has been healed, the man is so excited—can you blame him?—that he spreads the news to anyone who will listen. Before long, Jesus can’t enter town anymore, and even the wilderness is no longer a refuge from the crowds. They surround him all the time now, pleading for help. There is no escape from the celebrity status he has been trying to avoid. The irony is that when he touched this leper (an act that should have made him unclean, according to the law), Jesus offered the man a chance to rejoin society again, to leave the wilderness, to live again among other people, to enjoy their company. As for Jesus, he can no longer enjoy the company of his followers but has been driven out into the wilderness by the crowds. He takes the leper’s place.

Mark seems to describe Jesus as being pulled in two directions. On the one hand, he has a mission to accomplish, followers to train, and good news to preach. On the other hand, his compassion for other people is so intense that he feels compelled to help them, even if it means attracting an inconvenient and sometimes dangerous crowd.

I suppose at this point we could turn this story into a moral example for us. We could start feeling ashamed because we don’t love people as much as Jesus did; we could resolve to do a better job of following Jesus’ example. It wouldn’t be inappropriate.

For now, though, let’s not do that. Let’s simply sit for a while and watch Jesus as Mark’s story unfolds. How he longs to spend time alone with his Father; how he wants to pour himself and his teaching into his followers. But he is simply so compassionate that he can’t turn away anyone who pleads with him for help. No one is a nuisance to him. Not even you.