Abby and I are struggling to say our goodbyes to many in Orlando whom we’ve grown very close to. We feel a deep sense of loss as we wonder how to respond to Tim’s post, or to Carissa’s post, or to Tonya’s photographic E-News tribute, or to the things that have yet to be spoken to us. Abby is overwhelmed by the number of thank you notes she wishes she had time to write. I find myself full of thanksgiving that we should be so blessed to leave a church with such an undeserved but heartfelt sendoff.
And since Pastor Clay already broke the ice by canonizing The Lord of the Rings as one of the top 25 books every Christian should own, I would like to share some thoughts from this fictional work which I find applicable to the manner in which one can leave a church.
The trilogy begins with a very old hobbit (eleventy-one years, to be precise) named Bilbo Baggins who is very wealthy and established in his community of the Shire. Bilbo is also isolated from and in conflict with some of his fellow hobbits who are prevented from inheriting a portion of his estate by his supernatural longevity. He lives in seclusion and hides himself whenever possible from his extended relations. His only real peer-to-peer friendship is with a wizard from out of town, to whom he explains: “I’m old, Gandalf. I know I don’t look it, but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart. I feel… thin. Sort of stretched, like… butter scraped over too much bread. I need a holiday. A very long holiday. And I don’t expect I shall return. In fact, I mean not to.” The way that Ian Holm in the movie adaptation delivers that last sentence, you can feel the bitterness in his resolution to leave his community.
And so he leaves, eastward, towards Rivendell. In spite of the fact that he disappears from the Shire with much fanfare, on a personal level it is easy to imagine that he is not greatly missed.
I’m not sure whether Tolkien explicitly intended to contrast this departure with the very end of the trilogy, when Bilbo’s nephew, another Baggins, also leaves the Shire to never return.
Frodo goes west, on a boat, to the Grey Havens, an idyllic afterlife intended mostly for elves. He makes this decision after completing an epic journey with a fellowship of other heroes to destroy the evil of an ancient ring. Frodo leaves behind Gandalf, his sage shepherd. He leaves behind Aragorn, who has been his chief protector. He leaves behind Merry and Pippin, who have each grown together with Frodo in courage far exceeding their stature. And most notably, he leaves behind Samwise Gamgee, as relentlessly faithful a companion as one could possibly have, the only one who remained with Frodo through his entire quest. When you share this kind of a fellowship, it is a weightier decision to leave.
Bilbo went east.
Frodo went west.
The Gjertsens go north.
I am very humbled and grateful to God that our departure from Orlando Grace Church resembles Frodo’s more than Bilbo’s. Though it rends our hearts deeply (and I’m not sure reality has even set in, yet), Abby has reminded me that the sadness we mutually feel is the fruit of healthy, deep-rooted relationships.
There are other ways one can leave a church. Over the years at OGC, we’ve seen many slip out quietly. Some have left because it’s easier than peacemaking. Still others have left because it’s easier than submitting to church discipline. Any of those could have totally been us, but for the grace of God.
But God had ordained for us a different journey, one which put us in vital fellowship with Orlando Grace. You were a buttress to our faith through seasons of infertility and disability and even death. Together, we dealt with adversity and celebrated victory. Whether birthing a church blog or seeing women disciple one another, we have shared in the edifying “one-anothering” of a healthy church. Together, we strove and gave and saw that God actually does speak Chidigo, a language formerly without a Bible or even a written form. Like Frodo’s companions, Orlando Grace has been the fellowship which shepherded, protected, and shared its gifts with us through a long journey.
I commend that kind of fellowship to anyone who treats church membership lightly. I could not imagine it any other way. You can grow into people, as Frodo did, or grow away from them, as Bilbo did. As we leave OGC, there is not a trace of staleness or coldness with the relationships we have.
Your journey continues, as does ours. Our most urgent prayer, other than selling our house, is that we would find a community of believers in New Bern with as much vital fellowship as what we’ve experienced in Orlando.
Tolkien pens well through the voice of Gandalf the emotions we feel about this departure: “I will not say ‘do not weep’ for not all tears are an evil.”