One Last Time

I relented sometime in the last year and watched the musical Hamilton after my youngest two memorized literally every song and sang them incessantly. And while I’ll be the first to admit I’m no fan and therefore a poor critic of musicals, it impressed me thoroughly and I’m glad for once I didn’t let my stubbornness get the better of me.

We were listening to one of their Spotify playlists the other day and the song One Last Time came on. Take a moment to listen to it if you haven’t. It’s beautiful. Not just musically but in what it talks about. I won’t pretend to know whether it accurately reflects how Washington and Hamilton interacted as Washington retired, but I think it captures some of the core elements rather well.

President Washington retires rather than seeking an additional term. Rather than assuming the leadership mantle for life and becoming a beloved King he settles for the fleeting role of statesman. He sees that in his leaving office he has a unique opportunity to model to Americans – and the world – what democracy can really be. To give it flesh and bone or, perhaps more accurately, an empty office to fill.

Hamilton is understandably stunned and skeptical, to say the least. How counterintuitive, to follow a course of action that will widely be misunderstood as weakness when in reality it is in fact the strongest course of action Washington could possibly choose to follow. To take the risk that people will watch and learn, or in the mantra of Hamilton, that history has it’s eye on him.

I’ve found this song compelling in recent weeks. The lyrics haunting. Much has changed in my life this year. Much uncertainty. But perhaps the strangest of all those changes was stepping away from a group of people I had loved and served for nearly 11 years. Stepping away from brothers and sisters in Christ because I felt it was the Holy Spirit’s desire for them and for me that this should happen.

I’d never had to do that before. I’ve left employers before in the corporate/professional and academic worlds. Such comings and goings are expected. You miss some people and not others. And in nearly all of those situations I left knowing things would go along mostly unchanged. I was part of a larger entity. My departure wouldn’t substantially affect the organization.

That’s both true and untrue of a pastor and his congregation, a shepherd and his flock.

The nature of pastoral parish ministry is of necessity and privilege a very personal one. As one of my first seminary profs waxed eloquently about for the better part of an hour, a pastor performs a καλου εργου, a noble task. Pastors are privileged to be part of their congregant’s lives in an intensely personal way rarely afforded to those outside immediate family. We are privileged to be present shortly after births as well as shortly before deaths. We stand with people in their moments of greatest joy as well as deepest sorrow. This privilege is not afforded to us because of us personally, but rather the office we bear, the duty and responsibility of shepherd. Caring for the sheep. And that means getting to know them, just as a good shepherd can tell every sheep from another and knows their personality and quirks.

For eleven years I was invited into their lives. And then one day, I left.

In one sense they remain the congregation, the flock, and my departure doesn’t significantly alter that reality. They begin the process of finding a new shepherd. But in another way, the congregation was shaped by my service as shepherd, just as they had been shaped by other shepherds over the last century, and as they will, God-willing, be shaped by their future shepherds.

It’s weird to go from knowing the intimate details of their lives to not having contact with them. There’s a balance of sorts to try and maintain, to ensure I don’t become problematic in their duty of receiving a new shepherd, in not preventing them from grieving (or rejoicing!) and moving on. And not knowing where that balance line is, my communication with them has been minimal, to say the least.

And that’s hard.

I worry and pray for them, in some ways as I worried and prayed for them while I served them. Most of those prayers don’t change, and to them are added prayers for their protection and wisdom and peace as they prepare to Call and receive a new shepherd, and prayers for that shepherd that he will know them and love them even better than I attempted to.

There’s also the human, most likely sinful aspect, of wondering what the long-term effects of my 11 years with them will be. What did they learn from me while I was with them? How was I a good shepherd and how did I fail them? And what did they learn from my departure as well? Did I teach them how to say good-bye, as Washington sings to Hamilton? Meaning did I model for them things that will be helpful as they move forward as individuals and a congregation? I wonder. I worry. I pray.

I can think of lots of things I wish I had done differently. I can worry about whether I was right to deal with this sheep or that sheep in this way or that. I can imagine how things might have differed had I opted for alternate courses of action, more firmness here, more gentleness there. But I can’t change any of those things now. Now they move on, one way or the other, for better or worse for their time with me, just as I move on changed for my time with them. We each have to follow the Holy Spirit’s calling in our lives the best we can.

My consolation in all of this is one day we’ll meet again. No longer as shepherd and sheep or pastor and congregant but simply as brothers and sisters in Christ. Fellow heirs of the kingdom of heaven. By the grace of God I pray I conveyed that hope and certainty to them over the course of 11 years. Not perfectly, obviously. But always pointing to the one and only Son of God as the best and most perfect one to not simply emulate but trust in with every moment of our lives, every circumstance. Because only He can handle those highs and lows, those doubts and misgivings and uncertainties and regrets. Only He can redeem them all until his return when we’ll never need to learn or teach how to say goodbye again.

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