19 May 2010



My Christian friends, in bonds of love,
Whose hearts in sweetest union join,
Your friendship’s like a drawing band
Yet we must take the parting hand.
Your company’s sweet, your union dear,
Your words delightful to my ear,
Yet when I see that we must part
It draws like cords around my heart.

And now, my friends, both young and old,
I hope in Christ you’ll still go on.
And if on earth we meet no more
Oh may we meet on Canaan’s shore.
O glorious day! O blessed hope!
My soul leaps forward at the thought
That there we’ll all with Jesus dwell:
So loving Christians, fare you well.

These words come from the Sacred Harp tradition of music, which is a form of hymn singing from the mid-nineteenth century. The popularity of Sacred Harp singing has ebbed and flowed through the years, but even now there are many Sacred Harp communities that gather together once a month or so to sing the old hymns. This hymn, “Parting Hand” is one that is traditionally sung at the end of the day as friends say good-bye to each other.

We can imagine the popularity of this song in the rural South and Appalachia when it was first sung. There was no guarantee that friends would see each other again. People lived scattered and far apart from each other, and might see people from outside their own family or small town for only a few days a year. Travel was difficult and expensive, so the moment of saying goodbye must have been terribly difficult. So glad were they to see their friends, and so sad at their parting, that in this song we hear about a heaven where we never have to say goodbye to our friends.

And yet despite the terrible scarcity these people faced, and the very few opportunities they had to see their friends face to face, their song is joyful, and the words speak tenderly about the friendships we have made, even those that will seemingly end after our parting.

As the summer approaches, we “parting people” tend to graduate, go on vacation, get married, move on, move up, and move out. Often this season is a time when we are forced to say goodbye to friends we have come to love and cherish. Moreover, the anxiety of our current culture heightens our instability and anxiety. Last week I talked to four people who had lost their jobs that week alone. Recent college graduates are entering the worst job market in recent history. In my work at the Church Health Center in Memphis, part of my responsibilities includes coordinating our college intern program. In the past few weeks, I’ve received frantic calls from soon-to-be graduates looking for something, anything, in their field. Even at this time of excitement and change, we can feel scattered and lost, unable to continue things as they have been and yet unable to see the way ahead.

It’s true for us, and it’s true for the disciples who faced a new and uncertain future after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Even in the glorious aftermath of Jesus’s appearances to them, the disciples knew that something was changed, something was different, nothing would be like it was before. They were left to carry on Christ’s church in the midst of a crippling culture. They knew now that they too could be separated from their friends, scattered and alone, left to preach a Gospel of life in the face of death, and to do so without the aid and comfort of their friend, Jesus.

And to their aid, we hear in John 17 that Jesus prays for his disciples, for his friends, and for all those who abide in him. He says: “While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”

The joy of Christ, made complete in us, even in our scattered ways and anxious times, is what Jesus wishes for us in his last prayer. He prays that we may have joy made complete in ourselves, scattered as we may be, and that the joy of his friendship may be within us so that we may carry it with us wherever we go.

The Book of Jeremiah talks about how the law of God is to written down not just on paper but on the hearts of the Israelites, so that even when they were scattered to the far corners of the earth through flood or famine or military powers, they would still have God’s law because it would be within them. And here Jesus lifts a prayer that asks the same thing for his disciples and for us: that no matter where we go, what we do or what friends we have to leave behind, we will carry the joy of our friendship with us, and within us, now and forever.

And this joy of friendship, with Jesus and with each other, is what we must carry with us when we are forced to say goodbye. Scattered joy, written on our hearts, of the friendships we have had and continue to have through our joy of each other, and the joy of the abiding love of Christ. No amount of planning or care or safety measures can prevent us from having to say goodbye to our friends. But when we have felt the joy of Christ’s friendship, written on our hearts and made complete within ourselves, we find ourselves thankful for the times we have spent with friends, joyful in our care for old friendships, and hopeful in the cultivation of new ones.

-The Reverend Stacy Smith is a Parish Associate at Idlewild Presbyterian Church, and is the Supervisor of Christian Formation in Wellness at the Church Health Center in Memphis, Tennessee.

No comments: