This is the season for valedictory and commencement addresses. At high schools, colleges, and universities all over the country, speakers try to make sense of the bittersweet stew of farewells and new beginnings. United Methodist clergy on the move this month try to do the same thing.
For everything there is a season,” the Teacher said, “and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away. God has made everything suitable for its time” (Eccles. 3:1, 5b-6, 11). Especially for Methodists, there’s also a time to move.
Methodist clergy of earlier generations tell of the whiplash-inducing experience of being at annual conference one Sunday and learning that on the following Sunday they’d be serving a different congregation. There’s nothing like coming home Sunday evening and telling the family that you’ve got three days to pack up the household and move to a new home. And nothing like telling a congregation on Monday that by next Sunday they’ll have a new pastor.
That system served its purpose back in the days when the life expectancy of a circuit rider after he began riding the circuit was two years and the church still had a category of clergy called “worn-out preachers.” It’s easier to tell the story of those days than it was to live them.
The appointment system is a little more humane today, but itinerant ministry can still be hard to understand and harder to live with, and its difficulties for both pastors and congregations tend to get pushed out of sight. Today it’s difficult to explain why the system works the way it does and why it can be a good thing. But that’s the way it is with stories, even biblical ones. They often get stripped of their messy ambiguities and prettied up to make a point.
For example, in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian court official (Acts 8:26-40), I’m not sure it was as easy as Luke says it was for Philip to drop everything, leave his ministry in Samaria, and head toward the wilderness road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza. As Luke tells it, “an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go’” (v.26), and Philip got up and went, simple as that.
Luke leaves out all the messy details, like the inner struggle Philip may have had before leaving what may have been a pretty good ministry, or the doubts he may have had about whether this was the right move at the right time, or his vacillation between going or staying.
Did he experience the move as a call from God to a place where he clearly needed to be? Did he wear out his welcome in Samaria and leave just in time, a wilderness road seeming the best place to be for the time being? Or did he recognize he had done all he could do there and feel the need to grow into something more, not knowing what that something more would be? Did he go with confidence in his response to God, or with ambivalence, uncertain whether he had made the right decision? None of that gets into the story.
Luke not only tidies up the details of what led Philip to this brief encounter; he also cleans up the details of what follows. After the Ethiopian had been baptized, “the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; [and the Ethiopian] saw him no more” (v. 39). Nor will we; there’s not another word about Philip except a hint that he may have settled in Caesarea (Acts 21:8). Two journeys intersected on a road in the wilderness; two people met just long enough for God’s purpose to be accomplished; then their paths diverged and they parted company, never to meet again.
One of them at least, the Ethiopian, had his life changed, and he went on his way rejoicing at what had happened in that brief encounter. But what happened between his baptism and his rejoicing? Did he say goodbye to Philip so easily, or did he try to cajole him into staying a little longer, enough longer that he might get more from Philip, more insight, more guidance, more practical help for the journey ahead? Did he shed tears before he rejoiced? Again, Luke omits all those details.
Frankly, I wish Luke had provided more of those details. It might help us deal better with the brief encounter we’ve had during my time at Williamsville, with what led our journeys to intersect on this wilderness road of life, and with our parting, each in our own direction. But life seldom provides those details until much, much later if at all.
Like anyone, I believe, who trusts deeply in God’s grace, the kind that surpasses all understanding, and who has lived long enough to see a more generous amount of it, I believe little if any sense can now be made of our time together. God’s ways with us are deeply mysterious. As the parable says, it’s hard to tell the difference between the weeds and the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30), so we need to be very careful about what in our time together we discard and what we keep. It’s wise to let both weeds and wheat have their way with us until God sorts them out in the end. Even the darkest and most chaotic sea can be a passage on the journey toward the promised land (Ps. 77:16-20).
It’s also difficult, I find, to say much about what lies ahead. After all the long journey I’ve made in this little boat, I find I’ve barely cast off from the pier, and ahead of me stretches a vast and measureless sea. What lies ahead is out of sight, beyond knowing. Each of us will travel in some new direction. But which direction? Many roads diverge ahead of us, and each one will make its own difference. Each one will make all the difference.
So today – and this is true, I think, of every experience of parting and new beginning – we give thanks to God that our journeys have brought us to this brief encounter on the road; we regret the hard and rocky soil of missteps, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities in our time together; and we celebrate the good soil and the scattered seed that will in its season bring forth an abundant harvest of grain, thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold more than we planted (Mark 4:8).