Acts 20:17-38 Saying Goodbye

This is Paul’s farewell address, and I hear an echo of Jesus’ own farewell address in it. In the twenty-second chapter of Luke, Jesus also meets with his disciples in a room. He has more clarity about what’s going to happen to him than Paul does, who doesn’t know that the journey he’s undertaking will eventually end in his death. Still, Paul expresses that he’s worried when he meets with his friends in Miletus. Both Jesus and Paul understand the urgency of the situation – that they are leaving behind a community that will need to act with an ethic of love and servitude, and that will be tested. The disciples at the Last Supper will see Jesus again soon, although they don’t quite believe his assurances that this is so. The church of Ephesus will never see Paul again. Both of these scenes are full of weeping, fear, hope, and prayer.

Is it appropriate to speak of a spirituality of departing? I have left many places in my life. Sometimes I’ve departed well, and sometimes just slipped away. In those moments when I snuck away in the middle of the night, I told myself that I was doing so because I didn’t want a big deal to be made of my departure. It would’ve been truer to say that I didn’t want to be disappointed if people didn’t react to my leaving in the way that I wanted them to. So I didn’t giving them a chance to react at all. In those moments when people have made a big deal of my departing, I’ve been slightly embarrassed, but also grateful because I’ve had the opportunity to express my love of them and my sadness over the fact that I was going. Reflecting on this, it seems that my ego was more involved, and more fragile, in those moments when I just slipped away. I wish that I had imitated Paul, and treated a good departure as another gift of community.

Last summer, when I was just beginning to think about the spirituality of Luke and Acts, I talked to the children at church about joy. We explored together the different kinds of joy that one can experience – sad joy, happy joy, creative joy, silly joy, and many other varieties. I used the example of parents sending their kids off to college – not the best example for six year olds, but on my heart since my own daughter will be leaving for college within a few years. We can have joy in such moments, I suggested, because we’re proud of our loved ones and excited for the rest of their lives. At exactly the same moment, we can feel grief because something that’s been so important to us is coming to an end. This, too, must be part of the spirituality of departing. The willingness to let ourselves feel everything – love, sorrow, joy, worry for the future, nostalgia for a vanishing past.

To say that something has a spirituality is to say that the Holy Spirit is active in it. I think that the Holy Spirit is very active in this departure that Paul takes from the church in Ephesus. I think it’s also present in all of our departures, if we can set our own egos aside and pay attention to it. Such moments can teach a huge array of spiritual virtues, not in spite of, but because of their sadness. We learn what things mean to us when we let them go. And although we’re called to hold our positions and even our relationships lightly, even though we shouldn’t try to control them or insist on having our own way, that doesn’t mean that we’re not allowed to feel deep and authentic emotion when we come to the end of a time of sojourning together.

Karl Stevens
Karl Stevens is an Episcopal priest, a spiritual director, and a writer and artist. As a priest he has served as a college chaplain, a parish priest, a diocesan missioner, and a director of children and youth formation. As a spiritual director he has worked privately with directees and led groups of other directors in organizing retreats and special events. As an artist, he co-curated the EASE Gallery, created a series of paintings on the Stations of the Cross that have been used by area churches, and displays work and writings on kpbstevens.com. In addition to all of this, he is the co-host of the Lost in the Wilderness podcast, along with Rabbi Daniel Bogard. He is married with one child and lives in Grandview Heights.