LOCKDOWN! A call came from the police within an hour of our first day in our new appointment. “Lock down the building. A bank robber is on the loose and is coming your way.” The staff was just finishing a communion service in the chapel as a way of beginning our new ministry together, so everyone scattered to make sure all doors were locked. As we regrouped for a reception, Gary and I were repeatedly greeted with a smile, “Welcome to Birmingham! You didn’t know what you were getting into, did you?”
Sitting in the chapel that first morning, I held the image of an empty bowl in my heart. It was a suggestion from my spiritual director, who invited me to go into this new adventure completely empty, allowing God to “fill my cup.”
During the last several months I attempted to empty my bowl so I would be ready and open for what lay ahead. I did not want to drag unfinished business or other personal baggage into the moving van along with everything else. Bringing closure to relationships was the most important part of that process of emptying. Even though friendships that have been nurturing and life-giving will continue, the relationship will now be different because we are living in another community and pastoring a different church.
Over the years I’ve learned that emptying my bowl includes five phrases, “Thank you. Please forgive me. I forgive you. I love you. Goodbye.” Thank you.
The call was unexpected, for we hadn’t had contact in years. “Hi, Laurie. This is Tom. I heard that you are moving and wondered if we could meet for lunch?” When we met Tom began by saying, “I want to thank you for your influence in my life. You asked me to chair a major committee at the church at a young age, and I wasn’t sure I even had the qualifications. Thank you for believing in me and mentoring and encouraging me. It was a great experience.”
“Tom, I am the one who needs to thank you,” I responded. “You compiled an extensive handbook for each member of this committee, along with policies, procedures, and checklists. You also held us accountable with a gentle spirit. I’ve never told you this, but you taught me more about organizational leadership than you will ever know, and my passion for creating handbooks comes from you.”
Similar conversations were repeated with other friends over the last five months. “Thank you for walking beside me.” “Thank you for coming to my rescue.” “Thank you for praying for me.” “Thank you for being there for our children.” “God bless you for your kindness.”
The bowl cannot be emptied until we have said our thank-you’s. Thank you. Please forgive me. I forgive you.
In our United Methodist Book of Worship there is a ritual for leave-taking for a pastor in which these words are spoken:
Pastor: I thank you, the members and friends of — United Methodist Church, for the love and support you have shown me while I have ministered among you. I am grateful for the ways my leadership has been accepted. I ask forgiveness for the mistakes I have made. As I leave, I carry with me all that I have learned here.
Congregation: We receive your thankfulness, offer forgiveness, and accept that you now leave to minister elsewhere.
Pastor: I accept your gratitude and forgiveness, and I forgive you, trusting that our time together and our parting are pleasing to God.
Forgiveness is an essential part of emptying my bowl. I continually make mistakes, unintentionally hurt others, and don’t always exemplify the mind and heart of Christ. Taking the initiative to reconcile when relationships have been strained takes an enormous amount of courage. Yet we cannot move on with a clear heart and no regrets without leaning on God’s grace, saying what needs to be said, and making things right. Please forgive me. I forgive you. I love you.
None of us says, “I love you” as often as we should. Yet no three words have more power to bless, affirm, heal, and transform than “I love you.” During the last five months I decided to empty my bowl by telling as many people as I could that I love them and that I am far richer for their presence in my life.
I made a list because I didn’t want to leave with a bowl that was half empty. Gary and I met with groups of individuals who are very dear to us. I also had lunch dates with people who prayed for me, loved me when I was unlovable, and whose lives have touched me deeply.
Those times were filled with laughter as well as tears. Memories of open water swims, bike crashes, family camp, weddings, and hospital stays. We remembered when I was dressed up as the prostitute Rahab for a first- person sermon. Memories of “Olympic games” at a strategic planning retreat brought gales of laughter. Our young son Garth’s antics when he was introduced to the congregation on our first Sunday at First UMC, Grand Rapids, twenty years ago, elicited knowing smiles. Funny and even embarrassing incidents from my years as a district superintendent were recalled.
Even though we vowed to continue friendships, we also needed to acknowledge that things would be different. At times I was surprised at my emotional reactions. A few weeks ago I ran into a couple whom God accidentally (no … intentionally) placed in my path many years ago on one of the darkest days of my life. I dissolved into tears attempting to explain how much their presence and compassion gave me the strength to endure. I love you. Goodbye.
It’s no coincidence that these five phrases are often suggested by Hospice caregivers for people who are transitioning from life to death. In order to bring closure to a life, it’s important for people to be at peace, and peace comes from being released from the lockdown of regret, anger, uncertainty, and longing.
When sitting with people who are dying, I will occasionally ask if there is anything they need to take care of before emptying their bowl and letting go. More than once there has been a specific person they wish to see, whether a family member, friend, or someone with whom they have been at odds. When resolution comes a peaceful death often follows.
Over the past few months we emptied the bowl by saying goodbye to both people and places. Our three children came from different parts of the country to say goodbye to the house in which they lived for twenty years. We went to old haunts, took an eight mile walk around the local lake, and shared stories. We came full circle, then said farewell. Goodbye.
At the end of my conversation with Tom, who has a chronic illness and is on disability, I decided to go deeper and asked, “How is your spirit? Have you found a faith community?”
“I wasn’t prepared to answer that question.”
“I hope that you will find your place in a church for your own spiritual nourishment and so that you can connect with God and others and continue to make a difference in the world. Despite your illness you still have something to give, Tom, just as you made a huge impact on my life.”
“For a long time I thought I could will my health to improve. I don’t have the energy to be an advocate for my illness or change the world.”
“It may seem as if illness has emptied your bowl, Tom, but God invites you to fill it with hope and encouragement. God is not through with you yet.”
With an empty bowl I am not locked down in my own narrow attitudes but am able to see God in every moment and live fully in the present. At the same time no one is locked out, for there is room in the bowl for everyone and everything. Constructed out of gratitude for the past and hope for the future, my bowl is ready to be filled with new adventures of faith and transformation, a passion for sharing the story of a Savior who offers the abundance of loaves and fishes, and a grace that undergirds every moment.
P.S. The bank robber was caught outside the Presbyterian Church across the street.