This past Sunday was our last in the Jonesboro ward. We’re moving to Illinois on Saturday, and while we’ll have a chance to say goodbye at greater length to some of our closer friends over the next few days (to say nothing of when the elder’s quorum shows up to help pack the truck!), for the most part our partings on Sunday were final. (At least in the short term, that is; in the long term, who knows? We may well find ourselves visiting or even living in Jonesboro again someday, a prospect which I wouldn’t mind one bit.)
It was Fast Sunday–and yet, despite that, the ward threw a small reception for us afterward. There was cheesecake and brownies, and a few tears. I went around, somewhat misty-eyed, handing out copies of our new address in Macomb, and telling everyone to look us up when or if they visit Nauvoo (we’re only about an hour away–and we have a couch-bed!). Some sisters came up to Melissa crying, thanking her for being a friend, for the book group she’d help organize, for her work in the Primary. I joked around with one of the boys from my Primary class. It was a sad, but good, end to our Sundays with this ward of fine people.
During fast and testimony meeting earlier, a memory had come back to me–a memory of flipping through an old mission journal of mine, now long since gone. In one entry, I had been seized with the desire to list all the missionaries I admired or who had taught or influenced me in ways I was grateful for. The page was filled with names, elders and sisters I barely remembered. When I’d gone back and read this entry, long after I’d come home, I’d been struck by the strangeness of the endeavor: how could I have felt gratitude for all these people I’d hardly known, never served with, crossed paths with so briefly? Thinking about this while sitting in our pew, so many years later (and hopefully a little wiser as well), it suddenly came to me that it really didn’t matter how little I’d known those people, or how much about them had been and would always be unknown to me. I’d seem them act kindly (a handshake here, a smile there); seen them serve (keeping kids quiet at a baptismal service, helping another elder look for lost mail); heard them testify of good times and joke their way through bad times. There were a few missionaries–too few–that I really came to know and trust and love; but that didn’t make rest into mere ciphers. They were, I could see now, part of the pattern, the mosaic, the fabric which we’ve elected to allow God to weave us into. Of course they’d taught me: they were there, doing their jobs, doing their best, struggling just like me. They made up a world which had allowed me, for 22 short and difficult months, to be part of something so much larger and so much better than I was on my own. How could I not to grateful for that privilege, that honor, that fate?
So I went to the podium, and looked down on a few faces I know very well–men who had stood in the circle with me, and gripped my shoulder with care, when I’d confirmed my oldest daughter, and blessed my youngest; brothers and sisters that I’d worked with in elder’s quorum and Primary; and so forth. But there were many more faces that I don’t know well at all. A name, a handshake in the hallway, a helping hand with clean-up after church, a phone call with an assignment or favor: that’s it. Their trials, their choices, their plans and hopes and struggles, the names of their kids–all of it a mystery to me. And yet, also not a mystery. I may not know them, I may mourn the fact that after three years’ time I’m still so ignorant of so many of my fellow members of the Jonesboro Ward–yet they are not strangers; they are my fellow citizens. They are the body of Christ, and members in particular. Without them being there, without all of us being there, as we all have been called to be, there would be no knowing just what it is we are a part of. And so I thanked them for that, from the bottom of my heart. And I pray that God has used me so that perhaps someone else in that congregation has been blessed to see the pattern that their covenants have made them a part of as well–though if so, I’ll probably never know one way or another.
A while ago, I asked whether the meetings which we put ourselves through in the church really even matter….and answered that, compared to the ordinance of the sacrament, no, they probably don’t. Let me amend that. No, it does not matter much, I think, if our meetings accomplish all they are supposed to, efficiently, on time, in the best possible and most excellent way. Such accomplishments are not the ends to which this church has been designed. But they do matter if only as an excuse to get us together, in one place, at one time: to give all of us each other, fellow members, in whose faces we may briefly glimpse a higher, binding Countenance. I saw it often in Jonesboro, in the Caldwells, the Terrells, the Calvins, the Roses: these people who befriended us and home-taught us and helped us and laughed with us. But I saw it a lot of other faces too. No doubt, if I keep my heart open and my eyes awake, I will see it in our new ward in Macomb as well. And someday, we are promised, when we no longer see through a glass darkly, the distance between Jonesboro and Macomb (and everywhere else) will melt away, and every connection in all of their variety will be seen and known. But in the meantime, that promise doesn’t make it any less of a sad thing to leave our home here in Jonesboro, this place where we were privileged to see just how much a part we were of something so large, and so loving, for so long (but not nearly long enough).
(More thoughts on leaving Jonesboro and the South, in a more secular vein, here.)