By Brian Keepers
The “For Sale” sign in the yard threw me. It shouldn’t have. I knew it was coming. We’d spent the whole week de-cluttering and cleaning, getting the house ready to put on the market.
But it did. Bright red, with bold white font. Sticking up in the center of the yard, edged near the street. I saw it when I pulled into the driveway after dropping my daughter off at school. It’s another tangible reminder that we’re leaving.
Leaving a place, a church, a people we love and where we’ve been for nearly twelve years. A place and a people who’ve formed me as a pastor, who’ve formed our family. Before being their pastor, this place and these people taught me as a seminary intern. My wife and I, stumbling along as newlyweds then, found community and support here. Our oldest daughter, only two years old when I was called to be their pastor, has spent her childhood and the beginning of adolescence here. Our youngest daughter was born and baptized here. Time and again, I’ve found myself whipsawed between the messy and the miraculous here–at the font and table, standing in the pulpit, sitting in coffee shops and at kitchen tables and in living rooms. In the presence of one another, our stories have been weaved and laced together, sometimes beautifully, sometimes painfully, always threaded by grace.
I want to leave well. But how? I’m not entirely sure. I think it has something to do with being honest about my own grief, and being present with people in theirs. That’s a part of being in this strange place “in between”—acknowledging both the sorrow of saying goodbye and the joy of turning toward something new. It’s all there, mixed together. To borrow from Shakespeare: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”
I think leaving well also has something to do with the art of blessing. And maybe they are connected, grief and blessing. The late Dallas Willard defined blessing as “the projection of good into the life of another.” It goes beyond words and sometimes doesn’t even require words. “You bless someone when you will their good under the invocation of God.”* To bless is a powerful act, an intimate act, a kind of benediction.
As I finish up my last two weeks with Fellowship Church, I’m practicing the art of speaking blessing over others. But the hardest part has actually been learning to receive blessing from others, which I’m discovering is just as much of an art as it is to give a blessing. These blessings have come in so many forms. A five-year-old girl who runs up and hugs me so tight I swear she’ll never let go. A sixty-year-old man who has been a friend and mentor who grips my shoulders with his thick hands and can only look at me, bereft of words, his eyes red. An elderly woman, one of the pillars of the church, who envelops me in her fragile yet strong arms and whispers in my ear, “Thank you.”
So there’s the “For Sale” sign in the yard. And there is grief. And there is blessing. And there is also gratitude. Mostly, there is gratitude. Georges Bernanos was right: “Grace is everywhere.”**
*From Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God, p.164.
**From the novel Diary of a Country Priest.
Brian Keepers is finishing up 12 years as the lead pastor of Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. Beginning in July, he will be the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.