Goodbye is Hard

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The Spouse had promised really good curry, but told me to eat a sandwich first.

“The speeches will be long,” he said. “We probably won’t see dinner until after 9 p.m.”

As a lecturer with broad interests, the Spouse is invited to all sorts of events. This time, it was an interfaith dinner at city hall and partners were included. The theme of the evening was “Faith in the Future” and the speakers were Sarah Joseph and Karen Armstrong.

Sarah Joseph is a British writer and broadcaster who converted to Islam as a teenager and focuses her work on Islam, women’s rights and interfaith questions. Karen Armstrong refers to herself as “a runaway nun.” She has written over 20 books exploring the Abrahamic religions, theologies and histories as well as memoir and biography. From both speakers, I think I expected to hear about something historical, perhaps concerning the underpinnings of our contemporary situation. Instead, the evening was a call to action.

Karen Armstrong spoke about compassion—not soft-bellied, sentimental love, but active engagement with the world. I was struck by Armstrong’s strong assertion that all faith traditions share the golden rule. Compassion is the common thread—and it is more important today than ever before.

“I am convinced that unless now we learn to implement the golden rule globally and ensure that in whatever walk of life we find ourselves that all peoples—whoever they are and whether we like them or not—are treated as we would wish to be treated ourselves, the world is not going to be a viable place.”

The world can be a weary place and Armstrong assured us that we are at our best when we let it disturb us. She spoke of “dethroning yourself from the centre of your world.” We should respond to our own pain by helping others. We should deal with uncertainty by reaching out.

Sarah Joseph’s focus was religious literacy. She gently argued that in our multicultural and mingling society, there is no excuse for a lack of curiosity about those around us. But this isn’t just about keeping our eyes open; we also need to be willing to open our mouths. We need to find the willingness and courage to speak about the important things. Sacred things. Things like compassion and forgiveness. Love. Fear. Death. Courage. These are holy things. We use the word holy to indicate things that are special and have been set apart—but Joseph encouraged us to remember that set apart should never mean locked away. We need to talk about the things that matter. If we don’t talk about these things, who will? Without sharing, how can we develop the vocabulary? And without a sacred vocabulary, how can we even think about these things?

There was a lot to chew on, and then came the delicious curries.

At dinner, I sat beside a young woman from Cairo. She had studied architecture, but was now moving into the field of sustainable design. She was worried that too many buildings and ways of building were unnecessary and wasteful. She didn’t want to be part of the waste—she’d rather develop new ways of working.

Religious language works like this, too. We build structures with our words. Livable, lovable, traditional and otherwise. These can shelter us, sustain us, and challenge us. Or not. They, too, can be wasteful so we need to be aware and careful. We need to be faithful, not just to the ways in which we’ve always described the world and our lives, but also to the reality of the Living God among us. We should choose our words carefully. They shape how we live. Do our stories and images help develop our compassion? Do they help us to see and serve Christ in all times and places? Does our language confine us to closed communities or open us to others?

In his October interview with Peter Mansbridge, Gord Downie spoke about preparing for his father’s death. He said that together with his siblings, he helped “get our dad to the door.” I love that. It is a beautiful way to put it. I hadn’t thought about approaching death like that before. There is hospitality here and caring. It connects with ideas of journey, closure and the hidden-ness of love after death. But the image is concrete and active, too. For me, this is new and helpful language that speaks about the holy work of letting go.

I am glad for places where words can be new and where we can find new ways of seeing. The Presbyterian Record has been a place where that happens and it has been beautiful. Saying goodbye is hard. But we will find new places. Perhaps not as well-researched or as far-reaching, but our national conversations will continue. I think we’re too hungry for connection and community to let our church grow too quiet.

Thanks for reading.

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About Katie Munnik

Katie Munnik is an Ottawa writer currently living in Cardiff with her Spouse and three growing children. Each Monday on the Messy Table, she writes about the practice of reading lectionary and the practical theology of parenting - from birthday cakes to broken hearts and everything in between. Katie also writes Kaleidoscopically, a monthly column in the print edition of the Presbyterian Record. You can also find Katie on twitter @messy_table Subscribe to this blog.