It’s that time of year for us here. School ends tomorrow. I’m relieved, because my daughters will have survived finals, which was a little touch-and-go this year. I’m having my last mentoring times with the young adults I’ve invested in for the past year or two or three. I’m trying to be a little Jesus-like and leave them with the most important things I can think of. No, even more important than ultimate. Good guess, though.
Being a missionary in Nicaragua also means this is the time of year when we say goodbye to a bunch of missionaries who are moving back to the States or Canada or from wherever they came. While people might leave any time, the end of the school year always sees the highest concentration of departures because 1)many of them have kids in school, 2)many of them are teachers, and 3)somehow the beginning of the summer just seems like a natural time for people to transition.
One of the things you don’t realize before you start working internationally is the revolving door.
Nicaraguans, from my personal experience, are probably less likely to move than folks in the U.S. Poor Nicaraguans who are able to buy, or build, or even squat to obtain homes, tend to fix and improve them over time, as they can afford to. In the U.S. middle class, we think in terms of “starter homes.” Here, Nicaraguans take their starter homes, often much rougher than you would imagine living in, and slowly turn them into a decent place to live. Further, Nicaraguans are, in general, very connected to their extended families, so they will often choose to stay in close proximity to one another. I don’t have a large study to back me on this, but in the six years I’ve lived here, only one of my close Nicaraguan friends has moved (not counting students going to college), and they moved to Leon to be closer to his wife’s family. Counting the eleven years since I first started coming to Nicaragua, one other family built a new home, which took several years, and moved into it shortly before we came to Managua.
IN sharp contrast, my best gringo friends, in a few weeks, will have moved away three different times. I mean, I made best friends, they moved, and made new best friends, and they moved, so I made new best friends and guess what? Moving.
Now I realize that some people have it harder in this. Certainly people who work as seasonal laborers in agriculture live this way, constantly moving, constantly saying “goodbye.” So I’m not feeling sorry for myself–okay, no, that’s a lie, I am feeling sorry for myself, but I’m trying to keep this in perspective and limit my self-pity.*
The combination of doing student ministry, which inherently involves sending kids off into the world to take their next steps and pursue their calling, and being part of a community of expat folks who seem to come and go with the wind, leaves us in a continual state of letting go. Since I get so much opportunity to practice this discipline, I’ll offer a few reflections on what God is teaching me through this.
- Choosing to keep an open heart to new arrivals becomes harder–and more important–with every departure. We discuss this a lot, how seeing folks come and go for years can tempt us to close down. “Oh, you’re new here? How long do you plan to stay?”One of our early close friends, who arrived at the same time we did and left a couple years later, really suffered from not feeling included in the missionary community. At the time, that looked shocking. It’s still painful, but I understand much better now why it happened. Am I willing to invest in people who won’t be here–who may not be part of my life–for very long?
2. It’s tempting to make people lame ducks the moment you hear they are leaving. You may have been close before, but they’ll only be here for another six or nine months, and this is the fifteenth close friend you’ve said goodbye to in the last 3 years, and they’re already focused on living elsewhere, and… Very tempting. It sucks for the people leaving, who are already going through a tough transition…and it’s still very tempting.
3. Probably the biggest danger is simply limiting how close we get to people in the first place. I mean anyone. Yes, as a Jesus follower, I believe that people are eternal and we will spend that together; yes, I know all about God giving and taking away–more than I wish I did, I know that–and nevertheless we start to employ defenses to cut down how much pain we endure. That’s how defenses work.
Those are the temptations. They each get stronger as we live here longer. As I mentioned, for me they also increase because I’m already investing deeply in the lives of the young adults who are almost certainly leaving, or at the very least transitioning to other communities here. I can easily feel like I’m already maxing out by sending off kids I’ve taught and coached and walked with through their joys and miseries. I’m not going to stop giving my heart to them, so maybe I’ll just pull back from everyone else.
Living in the present means little if we aren’t valuing the people around us. Being mindful, paying attention, remembering that life is lived only one moment at a time, here and now, none of these have the same impact if we’ve drawn back from those sharing our present moment with us. Pulling back from everyone is another version of refusing to live in the present, refusing to be present for others.
I believe that God calls us to suffer for one another. That’s how I’ve learned to understand goodbyes. When people leave here, especially when I’m not convinced that God is calling them elsewhere (and obviously God tells me these things), letting them go is a version of laying down my life for them. I’m giving up what I want and prefer for their good, and choosing to continue to love them and not lame duck them up until the minute they leave is a form of “being devoted to one another in love.”
If I believe people matter more than anything else in life other than loving God–while understanding that the two are inextricably connected**–then I see these temptations I described for what they are. They aren’t just a minor temptation to pull into my shell a little more, to be a touch less open, a tad less vulnerable. Changing how I relate to people because I’m protecting myself from the pain of their (potential) leaving is going back on my calling. It’s not doing to others as I would have them do to me. It’s a big deal.
So I’m recommitting myself to loving others the way Jesus loves me. Specifically, I’m choosing to take on the suffering of letting go of friends, of the students I mentor, of the amazing people called to other work in the Kingdom and even the wonderful people who may be bailing early on their calling here. As C.S. Lewis described, the only way to be protected and safe from emotional pain in this world is to close yourself off to everyone, and that turns out not to be safety but entombment and death.
From one perspective, life is simply a long series of goodbyes: to the fathers and sons who die and leave us here, to the children who grow up and need to become their own and not ours in the same way anymore, to the friends whom we help get married and will never be as close again as when they were single, to the disciples we do our best to love and prepare and send out because we’re all “sent ones” and we’re not supposed to keep disciples for ourselves, even the ones whom we enjoy the most, even the ones who make us laugh the hardest. We’re supposed to send them, in Jesus’ name.
People aren’t ours. That’s where I’ll end. The people we love the most may feel like they’re ours, but in the end even our husbands and wives aren’t ours in the sense that we get to choose not to say goodbye. If while I’m with you I can be present, see you for who you are and not who I would make you, and give you a little bit of grace to take with you, then I’m living my calling. Letting you go is also my calling.
Goodbye, Friends. I’ll miss you. Go with God.
*If one is really committed to self-pity, I would not recommend moving into a poorer community. It can really screw that up, seeing others go through much worse.
**And I’m less convinced than ever that we all believe this.