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Backpacks and Little Robes

September 2, 2003

"I prayed for this child, and God gave me what I asked for. And now I have dedicated him to God. He's dedicated for God to life." (1 Samuel 2:27-28, The Message)

We hesitated a little before we woke our son Josh up this morning. He was ready. He had carefully chosen his backpack, his lunch bag, his notebooks and folders and pencils and markers and crayons and scissors. He was ready; a little nervous, but ready. We weren't so ready.

But we woke him up anyway, and in between all his excited chatter we got some breakfast down him, got him dressed, got his stuff together and got him into the car. Nothing many people don't do every morning. Nothing we won't do every morning for the next, what, 13 years? Cut us some slack, though. This was our first time.

We drove him to school, gave him a hug, and sent him off down the hall to his classroom. He never even looked back, of course, which thrilled and broke our hearts all at the same time. To him, it's all a big adventure, full of wonder and promise. It's a milestone, a rite of passage. He's a big kid now, ready to take on the world. And we know he's ready, and we want him to. We wouldn't hold him back, even if we could. Still, there's a part of us that wants to. There's a part of us that knows that life will never be the same from this moment on, that wants to look back instead of forward, that resents what's lost as Josh gains some independence. We can't be with him at school to be sure that he eats, to remind him not to chew on his fingernails, to kiss him when he's disappointed, to protect him from danger. Until 2:25 this afternoon, we have to trust others to watch over him.

My grandmother, in her eighties, is at life's opposite end. She's in the hospital. Much of the time she's lost in dementia. We don't know how permanent it is, whether she'll get better or not. Yesterday, though, she fixed my mother with a long stare and then said, "I'm going to be with Jesus, and you'll have to take care of everyone." Was that just a product of her confused mind? Maybe. But she's right, and her failing health reminds us that relatively soon, at least, she will do just that. One day, maybe tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year, we'll have to give her a last hug and kiss and send her off and be left with only memories of the way things used to be. She won't even look back, of course, because to her it'll be an adventure, full of wonder and promise. And we won't try to hold her back, even though a part of us will resent what we're losing and want desperately to hold on.

But that's life, isn't it? It's a series of goodbyes, a litany of letting go. Ask two parents I know who in the last few months have sent both their sons to the other side of the world, one as a soldier in Iraq, one as a missionary in Africa. Ask the parents I know who have in the past week or two sent their kids out of state to college. Ask the mom in her little boy's fierce embrace while ours wandered merrily off down the hall to his classroom. Eventually this morning, she probably had to do what must be nearly impossible -- break her child's embrace and leave him crying, get in the car, and drive away.

But it isn't just parents who know about letting go. Some of you may have had to let go of the dream of being parents. Some have had to let go of spouses. Most of us have to say goodbye to friends in moving vans. To parents at gravesides. We say goodbye sometimes with intentions of meeting again, and sometimes we really do. But it's not the same, is it? And sometimes we say good bye with the too-clear knowledge that we will never see, hold, or speak to this person again.

Leaving is on my mind today. Good-byes have me preoccupied. And I'm thankful for another mother and father who left their son so that he could embrace his future. Their names are Hannah and Elkanah, and their story says a lot about saying goodbye.

Maybe you know the story. Hannah and Elkanah wanted, more than anything else, a child together. But months came and went. Years. The families around them grew. They talked of nursing and teething and colic. They talked about their children's first steps and first words. And Hannah and Elkanah couldn't join in those conversations. And then one day Hannah added a vow to her prayers. "Give me a son," she promised God, "and I'll give him to you."

You probably know the story. God did indeed gave Hannah the son she'd asked for, and can't you imagine how heavy the vow she'd made became? She knew the day would come, long before she was ready, when she'd have to make good on it. And so after at most three or four years, when her son Samuel was weaned, Hannah went to the tabernacle at Shiloh. She brough a bull, flour, and wine as offerings. Oh, and she brought one other offering. Her son, Samuel. And she left them all, including Samuel, there at the tabernacle when she left. She took Samuel by the shoulders, stood him in front of Eli the priest, handed him a bag filled with Samuel's clothes and favorite toys, and then walked away. I wonder if Samuel held on like that little boy this morning at Joshua's school. I wonder if he cried and called out after her. Can you imagine how hard it must have been for Hannah (and Elkanah -- don't forget Dad!), to entrust their son to someone else like that, to give up bedtime stories and lost baby teeth and eskimo kisses and games of hide-and-seek and a little hand in theirs? There's a line that tugs on your heart in 1 Samuel 2:19 and gives you a glimpse at what it must have been like for them: "Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice." Almost too much to read, especially this morning.

How do you say goodbye to someone you love? Hannah did it by giving her son to the Lord. She didn't give him to the tabernacle, or the priesthood -- she gave him to the Lord. So this morning Laura and I entrusted Josh to a God who's infinitely more faithful than the Chicago Public School system. We turned him over to the God in whose love we trust before we turned him over to his teacher. I've prayed this morning for my son. I've prayed that God will give him confidence and joy and satisfaction in what he's doing, that his classmates will be nice to him, and that his teacher will grow to love him as much as I do. I've prayed that he'll be safe and not too homesick (but maybe just a little!). And even as I pray, I know that God can do all that and much more, stuff that I haven't even thought to pray about. I feel better knowing that he's in the hands of One who is far better than I am at loving and protecting.

And our family, as we contemplate saying goodbye to my grandmother, isn't thinking about giving her over to death, or eternal sleep, or to the random universe. When her life ends we'll entrust her to her Lord. We'll send her off to be with Jesus. And we feel confident that he'll put an arm around her and escort her to the presence of God himself, her mind and body in the best condition they've ever been in.

This morning, for my money, that's the only way to do goodbyes. When it's time for that last hug, that last kiss, then it's time to entrust those you love to someone greater than yourself, to someone who loves them more than you ever can. It's time to give them up, not to chance or fate or luck or their own wits or the kindness of strangers. You give them to God: to infinite love, matchless kindness, lavish mercy, deepest wisdom, and strongest protection.

Until 2:25 this afternoon, at least.

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