Lately we’ve been using different phrases when saying goodbye to someone—both in our verbal conversations as well as at the end of an email or written note. Typically, I’ve said things like “Best,” “Talk to you later,” “Peace,” or “God bless.” But now I find myself saying or writing parting words like “Stay safe,” or “Be well,” wishing others good health to avoid becoming sick or even dying. This pandemic has heightened our awareness about how vulnerable we are and that no one is completely safe from the virus, no matter how careful they try to be.
While that can lead to fear and anxiety, it can also lead to a healthy contemplation of our mortality. We all know that we will die someday. Yet oftentimes we live in denial. We just don’t want to think or prepare for that day. I read recently that some teachers are preparing their wills before they go back to the classroom this fall. They understand that returning to their jobs puts them at increased risk as they interact with students and fellow staff members.
Believing that it is never too soon to prepare for our death, several of our ELCA congregations in the Treasure Valley have engaged in a workshop called “Estate Planning for the Heart.” Just as we prepare financially for what will happen when we die, so we can prepare spiritually, too, so that our loved ones will know our wishes when the time comes.
It gives me peace of mind knowing that my family won’t be burdened needlessly because I have done the work now to prepare a will. And I continue to have conversations with them about my wishes. For instance, not long ago I told them that I would like a natural burial after discovering that there is a place in Idaho that accommodates this practice. It’s a way for me to acknowledge that just as God breathed life into us from the dust of the earth, so does our breath return to the God when our bodies return to the earth. Green burial is also a way for me to continue to care for creation, even after my death, knowing that it is less harmful to the environment than traditional burial or cremation.
For people of faith, planning for death is not a morbid exercise. It is an affirmation of our belief that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, death is only the portal to new life. As St. Paul put it, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
When congregations have had to close their doors when they are no longer sustainable, there is of course grief and loss. Members sometimes have likened the experience to Good Friday. Yet others have compared it to Easter. Their resurrection hope helped them see that even in the death of their beloved parish, God was calling them to see what new ministries and ways of being church could emerge by God’s hand.
When I took French lessons back in high school, I preferred the parting word “a bientot”, which means “see you later!” to the more permanent sounding “adieu” which means “goodbye.” And yet as I consider the origins of the word “goodbye,” what better way for us to bless each other when departing than by saying “God be with you!”.
That’s the promise Jesus gave to his disciples with his own parting words: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
May we rest in that promise, too, confident that God goes with us wherever we go.