You know the saying that goes, “You can never go home again”? The phrase was running through my mind as I drove the four hours from New York to Washington last weekend to attend the installation of the Revs. Maria Swearingen and Sally Sarratt at Calvary Baptist Church. I’m so delighted for that amazing congregation and their two wonderful new pastors, and I felt excited about being there for such a celebration.
As I drove and thought about never being able to go home again, I began to wonder what it would feel like to walk through the doors of that beautiful building in downtown D.C. for the first time since I moved to New York to become the pastor The Riverside Church three years ago.
I began to wonder … and then I started to worry. Because it’s true: you really can’t go home again. And Calvary had been my home for 11 years. The people in those walls taught me how to be a pastor. My children grew up running down the hallways and learning in the Sunday school classrooms. We shared many special moments together: baby dedications, baptisms, funerals and everything in between. So many amazing seminary students came and went during my time at Calvary, all of them now serving in important leadership roles all over the country. And grief, personal and global, was shared and carried together in that beautiful community.
I’d never returned to a church I formerly pastored before so I didn’t know what to expect, but I did know for sure that you can’t go home again. And so, I was worried that there would be new people I didn’t know. I was also worried there wouldn’t be new people I didn’t know. I felt sure I wouldn’t remember some names, and I was worried about that. I worried that the kids who were little when I left wouldn’t remember me. I was worried that my return would cause attention to be pulled away from the installation. I was worried that nobody would notice I was there.
Here’s what happened when I got there: everything was fine. Great, in fact. I didn’t remember all the names, but people helped me remember. The kids at least pretended that they remembered me, and I marveled at how big they’d all grown. Some dear members had aged considerably, but were still there, participating with gusto. There were new people. A lot of new people — nice people, who made jokes about the large and imposing picture of me that was installed in the library after I left.
Most of all, it felt good. So good. There were so many people I love in one place, marking a wonderful past and moving with courage into the future. There was a sense of optimism — of rightness — about new leadership and new opportunities. And there was distance, a bit of a feeling of nostalgia, but an awareness that my work is elsewhere now, and my voice has joined the voices in the great cloud of witnesses cheering this lively community into the future.
A friend told me just the other day that the work of ministry is like putting your finger into a pool of water and looking to see if your finger has made an impression. You can’t see any impression at all, of course, and often it’s hard to believe that the hard work of ministry yields any meaningful and long standing results. And it’s not just ministry that can make a person feel this way.
The work of building beloved community is hard. Living day in and day out in the radical ways Jesus taught can be exhausting and too often we can see all the ways the world hasn’t changed — or seems to have gotten worse. It can be almost impossible to believe that investing our lives in nurturing relationships and building community is worth it. But every now and then, if we’re lucky, we catch a glimpse of what this kingdom of God business is about. It’s sowing seeds that another will till. It’s opening ourselves to transformational relationship — which by definition means that we will not remain the same and change will come. It’s holding the sacred and precious in hands that know better than to clench tightly in fear, but instead remain open to letting go and to receiving anew.
We can never go home again. But if we do this thing called life well, if we really commit to the messy work of loving each other, then we need not be afraid of the changes that come. Instead we can step back, take a deep breath, and exhale the words of Dag Hammarskjold: “For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come, yes.”