The Guidebook of Goodbye - 2 Kings 2:1-14
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
I have a dear friend from college, whose father is dying. He was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer this summer, and recently was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma. It hasn’t been safe to visit her dad in the hospital, so they have spent time together every day on zoom. Sometimes her dad is well enough to play a hand of poker with his 8 year old grandson; sometimes my friend and her dad just talk. Over the days, her dad has connected with different family members and friends, and has had the chance to give thanks and make peace. It has been a holy time.
I read our story today in the book of Second Kings as a similar story, a kind of guidebook for dealing with loss. It opens on the day when Elijah was taken up into heaven. Seven years earlier, God had told Elijah that Elisha would be his successor, and since that time, the two had been inseparable. Elijah had been Elisha’s mentor and spiritual father. Now it was time to say goodbye.
It wasn’t a surprise departure. Both Elijah and Elisha knew it was coming, as did the bands of prophets at each of the sacred sites they visited. It was as if Elijah was on a final tour, and everyone was coming out to see him off. The itinerary is significant: each place Elijah and Elisha stopped had important historical and religious significance. Gilgal, where they began, was the place where Joshua crossed over the River Jordan, leading the people into the Promised Land after 40 years in the wilderness. Bethel was where Jacob had his dream of the stairway to heaven and was a long-standing site of worship. Jericho was the first city they came to in the Promised land, and the Jordan River is where Joshua and the people crossed into it. Elijah was one of the greatest prophets Israel had ever seen, and his final journey brought him to sacred places in their life together as God’s chosen people.
It’s the first place in our guidebook of goodbye. When preparing for the final stage of life, often hospice workers often recommend the practice of life review. Life review is an opportunity for a dying person to reflect on the significant events of their life, and to share them with others. It’s an opportunity to reflect on questions like:
In what ways do you think I’m like you? And not like you?
Who is the person who influenced your life the most?
Do you have a lost love?
Is there anything you have always wanted to tell me but never have?
The questions are a way to visit the ‘sacred places’ of one’s life. These conversations are places to make peace and find a deeper sense of connection.
Our story today also points out the critical nature of relationships in the final stage of life. Each time Elijah set out for a new destination, he said, “Elisha, stay here.” Each time Elijah replied, “As the Lord lives and you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Dying is an individual act, but dying well depends on one’s connections to others.
Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan on dry ground. It harkens back to Moses and to Joshua, who both part bodies of water to allow people to cross. It calls forth the power of God in these moments of passage. Those we love can bring us to our final destination; from there, we continue alone.
When Elijah crossed the Jordan River, he asked Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you.” In our final stage of life, we have the power to bestow a legacy, to share tangible gifts of remembrance as well as words that strengthen and encourage others. Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. The double portion was what a first-born son would inherit when his father died; Elisha was asking for his portion as an adopted first born, the heir of Elijah’s prophetic ministry.
“You have asked a hard thing; yet if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted.” Elijah knew that whatever he could bestow on Elisha was empowered by God. When you think about it, it is a radical letting go. Elijah could no longer teach Elisha, support his efforts, be a listening ear. He had to give the most precious work of his life over to God.
I once had a choir director who likened the life of faith to leaning back into God’s arms. “All of life is like leaning back into God’s arms,” she said. “As time goes by, you lean back a little further, a little further, so that when you die, you don’t have any distance to fall.” I think this is what happened for Elijah. He had his doubts, his dark night of the soul, but in the end, he kept leaning on God, walking with God. And in our story today, the final story of his life, he walked with Elisha until the two of them were separated by a whirlwind and a chariot of fire.
Sometimes I think death is a mystery. One moment there is breath, and then it is gone. The line between living and not living seems thin. What can we make of that lifeless form, which once had such vitality? Human flesh without the animating force is pitiable, a mere remembrance of a glorious puzzle, once complete.
Elisha is not silent at the departure of his master. He cried out, “Father, father!” eyes straining the horizon, until he can’t see Elijah anymore. Elisha tore his clothes, a traditional sign of mourning. People only had one set of clothing in those days—it was a sign that things would never be the same.
It seems the narrative should pause here. Maybe Elisha did spend time sitting in his torn clothes on the banks of the Jordan. And when we experience a deep loss, it seems the world should stop.
But it doesn’t. And neither does the narrative. Instead, Elisha picked up the mantle of his master, Elijah. He stood on the bank of the Jordan and struck the water, calling on the LORD. The waters part for him, and he crosses back over to the land of the living. He becomes the next prophet, even greater that Elijah. Elisha is changed, but God is faithful.
If you think of our story today as a guidebook for saying goodbye, where do you find yourself? It doesn’t have been be a physical death. Grief of all sorts follows the same pattern: friends moving away, the loss of a job or relationship, sickness or loss of routine. Are you Elijah, feeling the end of something? Perhaps you might take the opportunity to review some of the events of your life, share them with others. Harvest the gratitude and meaning you can from that which is ending. Are you Elisha, accompanying another who is saying goodbye? Are you experiencing loss, sitting in your one outfit torn from top to bottom? Can you look back on an ending, and see where you have assimilated the loss, where you have picked up the mantle and carried on?
If we read today’s story as a guidebook of goodbye, we can find ourselves in many different places in the story. We may find ourselves cycling through one response to another, then back again. There is no straight through path to picking the mantle—there is no shortcut in grief.
But there is Presence throughout the story—Elijah and Elisha’s story, and ours. The Presence is God. God’s purposes, often unseen. God’s power, at times hidden, and other times on full display. God’s faithfulness to see us through all the endings and goodbyes of life, until we see God’s glory face to face.