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Sweet Sorrow

Many teams come to rely on one person in such a way that they do not think they will cope without them. It is at this moment that the greatest of risks is innocently formed.

Short of death, do we ever say final goodbyes anymore? The global reach of transport and technology means a trip or a message home is always possible: the former, occasionally; the latter, hourly.


It has always felt too painful to admit it might be the last time we see someone. Au revior and, more prosaically, see you are the balm of parting; there will always be another time, we imagine. But what if there won’t be and you know or suspect so? Two emotionally wrought stories of parting from the Old and New Testament hold much for us, even in an era of seamless availability.


The impulsive, threatened rage of King Saul against David, the emerging contender for Israel’s crown put at risk a remarkable friendship with Jonathan, Saul’s son. Today we might playfully call their relationship a bromance, but there was an unusual intensity to it. Following David’s victory over Goliath and the Philistines, it was said that ‘Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul’. Many people may identify with the pair in the way family came between friends.


Having vowed to kill David, the couple test Saul’s resolve at a feast. David absents himself from the meal and the King’s rage against his own son for aligning with David rather than his father led Jonathan to storm out in ‘fierce anger’. Knowing the risks of being seen near the Court, David arranges with Jonathan a sign he is no longer safe with Saul and must flee. Jonathan shoots an arrow in the open, calling out to his young, unwitting assistant in a way which indicates to David what he must do. The signal was oddly superfluous, because the two still came together to weep on each other. The story concludes in heartbreakingly laconic words: ‘He got up and left; and Jonathan went into the city’.


It’s unlikely the pair thought it marked the end of their relationship. Both knew Saul’s days were numbered as King and that David must succeed him. Some time later, they are able to meet briefly at Horesh and Jonathan’s words reveal his expectation: ‘you shall be king over Israel and I shall be second to you’. It seemed to them the dream ticket. The house of Saul and the house of David at their best would rule over the nation. No wedge could be driven between the two men and their trust in God would right the mistakes of Saul’s impetuous rule. You can see the workings of Jonathan’s mind. Trying to make sense of the fracture between the two families, Jonathan could imagine a future where God made all things work together for good. Only he didn’t.


Expressing familial loyalty to Saul, Jonathan battles the Philistines at Mount Gilboa and dies with his father in a crushing defeat for the Israelites. Though God had deserted Saul’s rule, perhaps Jonathan thought his destiny with David would protect him. When David learns of his death, he laments wretchedly.


As we minister for God, we imagine the shape of the relationships which will surround our work. There is often a clear logic or deep desire to what we want and we think we feel this way because it must be of God. The story of David and Jonathan’s parting shows us what we also know to be true from experience: God’s ways are higher than our ways, and even the application of reasoning, prayer and intuition can deviate from the purpose of God. For David, the moment he assumed his biggest ministry for God – the monarchy – was also the scene of his greatest calamity so far: the death of his deepest friend. Jesus was firm in asserting that the clouds rain on the righteous as well as the unrighteous. Sometimes, it seems, they rain on our parade too.


The second story of painful departing is St Paul’s, as related in the Acts of the Apostles. Having spent much time with the elders of the church at Ephesus, he called them to a meeting down the coast at Miletus. It is unlikely they knew the purpose of this gathering; Paul’s ministry was itinerant and unpredictable and he wasted no spare time when it could be used to build the Church up. Presumably he wanted to preach while his boarding pass was being checked. Yet what he said shocked them rigid.


There is deep foreboding around his words to them. He does not know what is going to happen to him. He knows that wherever he pitches up there is trouble and, to date, has escaped by the skin of his teeth. This will continue. He does not consider his own life of value. On one level it is a template job description for an Apostle: driven, unswerving, inflexible. On another, it sounds like the words of a para-suicidal. The dread is compounded by the prediction that ‘savage wolves’ would come in to tear their fellowship apart. Not for Paul the sweet, meaningless assurances we share on saying goodbye. He poured a harbour-full of cold, salty water over their aspirations. But worst of all was the promise that ‘none of you…will ever see my face again’. Rarely is anything so implacable shared. And it was this that distressed them because it was so immediate and unyielding.


It afforded a moment of stunning intensity and drama, illuminating the depth of their bonding in Christ. Only a few years earlier they knew nothing of this man. Now they parted with the passion of fateful lovers. It asked this regional church to guillotine their human ties to Paul; it also compelled them to forsake their dependency on him and find a new sufficiency. Many teams come to rely on one person in such a way that they do not think they will cope without them. It is perhaps at this moment that the greatest risk is formed, where dependency on another replaces sufficiency in Christ. In the world it is a failure of imagination to see it another way; in the Church it is a lack of faith.


Had David, Jonathan, Paul and the Ephesian elders lived today, the outcome would have been so different. David and Jonathan would have struggled the most. Jonathan would have been under electronic surveillance, unable to communicate with David. David would have gone dark, knowing his face must always be obscured in public, unable to make any electronic transaction, realising it was only a matter of time. The epic quality of their ancient encounter somehow diminished by the bloodless sophistication of modern tracking.


The gravity of Paul’s departure would be replaced by the weightlessness of instant messaging. He could text from the boat, Skype on arrival, podcast from his next engagement. These are the blessings we are beginning to take for granted. There is never really a lasting goodbye; our relationships subsist in a strange, partially understood digital world. If we are tempted to think it is as good as face to face, we might remind ourselves of the beauty of human presence and physical touch. When we ask God to surround us with his presence, it’s something more than a digital hyperlink we are looking for. Why would we think the need for human presence is any different?


The drama of these two partings – painful, visceral – still has something to say to us in our digital comfort. Sometimes God will not give us the people we think we need. It may not make sense; it might hurt us. But there is a deeper sufficiency to be sourced and new friends to be revealed.



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