When I was in my early twenties, I spent about a year living in-house at a Christian mission organisation; I was an intern for the first three months, and returned after Christmas break to stay on in a somewhat more nebulously defined position. There were about ten of us interning during those first three months, and we shared the mission house with another eight or so members of the on-site team, as well as many others who came and went during the day. We were a tight-knit group, and even after the rest of the interns had gone home for Christmas and not come back, we kept in contact, at least for a while. Gradually, though, the group skype calls ended and the long email chains stopped appearing in our inboxes. While individual friendships have certainly survived the intervening years, the cohesion that we felt as a group of interns has long since been lost. I am in sporadic contact with a few people from those days; others seem to have dropped off the face of the earth.
In a way, living in the mission house meant that we all became very adept at saying goodbye. Most weeks of the year, teams of visitors would come stay with us from across the country, most often from churches but also from Christian schools and other mission organisations. We interns would take them around the city, introduce them to the work of our organisation, run teaching sessions, eat meals with them, and otherwise simply hang out. There was a typical pattern to our relations: on Monday we would all still be feeling each other out, by Wednesday we would have gelled as a larger team, on Friday we were friends — and then they would get back in their vans or on the plane and we would say goodbye under the assumption that we would, in all likelihood, never see them again. The weekend would be spent cleaning rooms, changing linens, and otherwise getting ready for the next visiting team. Rinse and repeat.
When my husband and I went to seminary it reminded me of those first months in the mission house: we fell into a tight-knit, ready-made community, whose shared purpose lent it a certain intensity as well. And, as before, it was a community where we constantly found ourselves saying goodbye as friends and classmates graduated and set off for parts unknown. It was only twice a year, generally, rather than every week — but there it was, all the same. My best friend’s husband got a job on the other side of the continent from where we’re living now. Our kids’ godparents range from 4.5- to 12-hour drives to a six-hour flight away. Now we’re reaching the point where some of us haven’t met each other’s youngest children. We are a scattered people.
This past Christmas, Anselm’s godfather, the Engineer, sent him a present of a few books. The package also contained two letters: one for Anselm, and one for us. The Engineer wrote that he was beginning to understand what it meant to long for heaven — for that time when we would all be reunited, never to be separated again. I know exactly what he means. To me, the promise of eternity with not only God, but with other believers as well — it seems too wonderful to grasp. But back when I was living at the mission house, I wrote these words:
So when I think of heaven, I think in part of these three things which will finally be allowed to fully flourish: God’s love for us, the perfection of our nature and characters, and our great glorious happy mess of relationships. What joyful reunions there will be: not just our friends and family, but also those semi-strangers who came into our lives, changed us, and disappeared again. We shall have untold millennia for those wonderful things that friendships are made of: for talking and laughter and a good day’s work accomplished side by side. And we shall never run out of time: we shall have all the time we need, with every single other person, because we will be in eternity together. Together! — what hope that word gives me: together.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul writes of what will happen when perfection comes. Now, he writes, we see but a poor reflection in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. He speaks of Christ: one day we shall see him face to face, and know him face to face, as he now knows us. But I think that the promise is even greater than that. One day we shall meet, all of us who know him, and then we shall know each other fully, there in all the company of heaven.
Amen and amen. So let it be.