Our Christmas cards still hang on an often-seen door in our home. And it is not because I am that tardy on putting decorations away. It is because those Christmas cards are worth so much more than the cardstock on which they are printed; they represent a web of kingdom relationships that stretch all over the world.
Kingdom living assumes that life will be a series of sweet and sore goodbyes. I don’t know how I missed it for so many years of reading the Scriptures. Perhaps I just scanned through the beginnings and ends of most of the epistles, assuming they were merely introductions and conclusions. Perhaps I was naive enough to think that relationships remained relatively stable for adults and churches. Either way, it has taken me a few decades of ministry and kingdom partnerships to realize that great love opens us up to (temporary) great loss.
Sweet & Sore
Underneath and preceding the epistles were webs of human relationships held together by the person and work of Christ. These significant gospel relationships in the early church compelled the Spirit-inspired writing of much of the New Testament . Apostles wrote to congregations peopled with those whom they either knew dearly or longed to know dearly. When Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians, he had in mind Lydia whom he had met by the river, the jailer whose hide he saved in such a way that he was truly saved, and the formerly demon-possessed girl whom he had helped free (see Acts 16).
When Paul wrote to the Ephesian church, his heart swelled with sentiments and prayers for the congregation with whom he had spent the longest time on his many missionary journeys. It is clear through the tears recorded in Acts 20 that the parting of Paul and the elders of the Ephesian church was a painful yet purposed parting. When John wrote letters from the island of Patmos, he likely had specific faces and families, conversations and converts, relationships and real-life memories in mind.
Kingdom living is an invitation to love people deeply and hold them loosely. My military friends have taught me so much about kingdom living because, more than most civilians, they understand concepts that are necessary to living as elect exiles on this earth. Like the Roman centurion who approached Jesus about the healing of his beloved servant, military families understand what it means to live life under a greater authority (Matthew 8:5-13). When the powers that be say move, they move, whether it feels natural or not. Due to their constantly receiving new orders, those in the military learn to love deeply, growing deep roots, even when they know they will be repotted. I am fighting to learn from them, but my heart shrinks back from relationships when I know that deep love can and often will lead to what feels like great loss.
This summer we have sent out multiple sets of friends who are far more than friends. These are the kind of people who can read your soul with one quick glance. Having done so much life and ministry together, we finish each other’s stories and sentences. There is no need to back-fill stories since we have spent decades in the trenches of life and ministry together. Goodbyes like these tempt me to harden my heart, but they also remind me that a Good God prepares and empowers us for this kind of kingdom living.
The Pierced Hand that Parts Our Ways
The hopeful hellos and the gripping goodbyes we experience as believers on this side of the New Heavens and the New Earth are not haphazard. Behind the coming and going and the pairing and parting is our Triune God. God, the Father, providentially postures and positions his people for his glory and our good (Romans 8:28-32). Jesus, the Son, parts us with pierced hands and a burning heart, knowing full well the weight of human goodbyes. He who knew the joy and awkwardness of introductions (read the calling of the disciples) also knew the tearful, tearing pain of parting (read the parting words of Jesus to his cronies in the Upper Room). The Jesus who bids us part ways with people and places we have grown to love knew the searing pain of leaving his mother in the care of his best friend from the Cross (John 19:26-27). God, the Holy Spirit, translates our unintelligible sighs at parting into prayers of purpose (Romans 8:26-27). He reminds us of what is true and buttresses our faith for the future with recollections of God’s past faithfulness.
While the world frowns upon the ordering of authority, we know that God’s thoughtful and perfect ordering of His people is a gift and a mark of ownership. In a letter to a friend, Amy Carmichael wrote, “It gives a peculiar sort of confidence that even we – we who are nothings – are being ‘ordered’ in our goings. It is very good to be ‘ordered’ by our beloved Lord.”
The Ultimate Reunion
Kingdom goodbyes lift our eyes from our temporal habitats to our ultimate home. Like a river whose streams unite and split, unite and split, unite and split until they reach their final destination, kingdom relationships move with purpose to a clear and everlasting end. From this perspective, the goodbyes we say to those whom we love and with whom we have worked as gospel partners are necessary steps toward a deeply desired end. Our goodbyes enable God’s glory to spread further and deeper to new people and places. Though the spaces between the streams may have spread, the ultimate destination is the same.
And what a destination it is! We get to work towards and wait upon the day we will dine at the marriage supper of the Lamb together. And, oh, the stories we will share and the remarkable faithfulness we will remember from our different stations and seasons. Until that day, let us continue to love deeply and hold loosely as those lovingly ordered by our agape authority!
I also feel the twinge when it’s time to “do something “ with those Christmas greetings. It was good to read about the weight an epistle would have carried in NT times. In our world, so overburdened with communication but starving for community, I love that you are hanging on to those lovely cards.