Too many Goodbyes: Turning Leaving into Blessing

Lately I’ve been saying goodbye too often.

I’m nearly at the point where I’d rather skip over goodbye entirely and shift from one reality to another without acknowledging the pain of loss. But I know there are no shortcuts to joy. Skipping goodbye would only allow the emotion to pool in my heart acidic and corrosive. Feeling goodbye is part of moving forward.

If I can’t skip the goodbyes, I’ve been asking myself how it’s possible to turn the leaving into blessing.

Saying goodbye doesn’t just have to be about honoring the past, it can also be about looking forward. Meaningful goodbyes aren’t just about remembering; they’re also about leaning into future hope. Can I release my friends in a way that affirms I trust the Lord to illuminate the future?

Some friends imprint themselves so deeply on our souls they leave a fingerprint. I’m still aching from a goodbye said to a friend who left her mark on me.

Although this goodbye was one in a long string of goodbyes, it felt sharper than most because of the richness of our shared history accumulated over a decade together living as foreigners in a city that can be in turns dazzling and mystifying.

We watched together as our kids grew from toddlers to teenagers. We watered one another’s plants during trips out of town, swapped books, recipes and parenting advice. She brought meals at opportune times when I hadn’t even requested them, showered me before the birth of a baby, visited when my son was hospitalized, treating us to a batch of the most divine homemade oatmeal cookies.

We read Scripture together, prayed together, wondered together. She had counseled me, convicted me and inspired me. She had been there for celebrations and she had been there on days when I felt I was drowning. We had done life together.

Friends scatter grace through the ins and outs of weeks. And this friend, in particular, had been full of those daily graces that infuse joy into the routine of daily living. How do you say goodbye to a friend like that?

Apparently, you say it over a good lunch and a good cappuccino, or at least, that’s how we decided to say it. We lingered over the coffee, white mugs pristine on a white tile table. There was a part of me that wanted to stay right there. But life moves forward and at some point we have to rise and move with it.

So we stood and embraced. I wanted her to know that as she goes there’s nothing I want more than for her to go with the shine, with the grace, with the favor, with the peace. In sum, I want her to go with God. So I whispered through tears, “May God bless you, may he keep you, May His face shine on you…”

When I pray the words, the words of Numbers 6:24-26, the words of blessing God authored for the priests of Israel to pray over his people, the emphasis always falls on the word “shine.” May his face shine on you.

On first read, the phrase may seem a poetic pleasantry, but we shouldn’t let the beauty of the phrase mask its explosive power.

The shine referred to in this blessing is not the shimmer of a flickering candle flame; it is the blaze of the sun at noon in the desert. This shine is so intense it is blinding. It is the shine of the glory of Yahweh’s presence.

This is the shine of the God who split a sea wide open, the shine of the One who humbled the most powerful leader of the most powerful nation in the ancient world, the shine of the One who lead his people through the wilderness with a pillar of fire and cloud. It is the shine that radiated out through the linen curtains and goatskin cover of the tabernacle like a lantern burning in the wilderness. This is the shine that lit up Mount Sinai and that lingered on Moses’ face when he hiked down from the peak of the mountain after God had given him the Law. His skin radiated with such intensity that the people couldn’t stand to look him in the eye. If they winced in the face of reflected shine, how would they ever stand directly in the shining face of God himself?

The description of Moses’ incandescent face is found in Deuteronomy and we should pause for a moment to consider it, because when the Israelites first heard the blessing of Numbers 6 spoken, the impression of the shine must have been fresh in their minds.

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, he did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. (Deuteronomy 34:29-33)

If Moses’ blindingly bright face had been a one-off occurrence confined to the slopes of Sinai, it would have been memorable, no doubt. It would have been a singular moment—a beautiful, bright blip on the spiritual radar that no one would expect to recur. It would have been an exception, not an expectation.

But the radiance wasn’t a fleeting flash like fireworks that explode and dazzle and sizzle and fade. Reading on in Deuteronomy we find that whenever Moses went into the tabernacle to speak with the Lord, he was flooded with the shine.

And when he came out and told the people of Israel what was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him. (Deuteronomy 34:34-35)

Moses put a veil over his face again. Again and again, Moses had to veil his face because every time he met with the Lord his face glowed with divine brilliance. In deference to the people who couldn’t bear the intensity, Moses veiled his face, obscuring the glory and shielding them from the shine they weren’t yet prepared to face.

Since the people squinted in the light of lingering glory, it seems audacious to ask the Lord to shine directly on them. But that is precisely what the blessing of Numbers 6 asks: May His face shine on you.

May the shine that you see refracted on Moses’ face light you up.

May you experience directly the presence that you can now barely stand to glimpse indirectly.

May the transcendent God, who dwells in unapproachable light, approach you in his full radiant glory.

If we don’t sense a shock of terror at these words, then we have missed the meaning of the blessing.

The blessing makes it brilliantly clear that God’s desire is for all his people to see and experience His shine. At Sinai only Moses was invited to be so near to the radiance. Only Moses experienced unmediated light. Only Moses was embraced by God’s glory. Only Moses spoke directly with God (Exodus 33:11). Then Moses mediated God’s light and word to the people. He stood between God and the nation, a bridge between the peak and the valley. But the blessing of Numbers 6 clearly communicates God’s desire for all of his people to relate to Him with the same familiarity that Moses enjoyed.

The blessing anticipates an intimacy with God manifested in face-to-face relationship. This blessing leans forward, reaching ahead into a future grace not yet fully realized. God gives his people a glimpse of a horizon where they will encounter his shine directly. The blessing leans toward a day when the transcendent glory of God would be seen in the face of a man.

To appreciate all the meaning that is enveloped by the blessing when I say it today, I realize that I have to look past Sinai. To expand my view I start looking for other places in Scripture where I meet the shine.

It’s not hard to find. In the gospels I encounter it on the top of another mountain in an event known as the Transfiguration. In Acts I find it flashing on the road to Damascus. And I discover it in the prophetic visions of Isaiah and John, who foresaw an existence permeated by shine and the arrival of a city that has “no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Revelation 22:2)

As I speak the blessing over my friend, my mind scrolls through all the allusions packed into such a concise blessing that embraces the Lord’s shine, his favor, his peace. I wonder if the words might break under the strain. But these words aren’t fragile; they’re elastic and expansive and eternal.

The words of the blessing aren’t weighed down by the associations; they are enlivened by them.

I barely got through the blessing. My voice faltered and cracked, but I stumbled through every wonderful word and then added a few of my own. I wanted to speak the blessing in its entirety.

I was so focused on the blessing, in fact, that I had forgotten to pay the bill. It’s always irritating when logistical necessity intrudes on an emotional moment, but while wiping tears from my cheek and blotting at my smeared mascara, I pushed my chair away from the table and got our waiter’s attention.

We stepped out of the restaurant together, but on the sidewalk we parted ways.

I walked on knowing she was going with the shine, and that when we meet again the shine will be there with us.