“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”
– Henri Nouwen
My mother died two weeks ago. I promise that I will not begin every blog from now on that way but today it seems appropriate. She had surgery on a Tuesday night and never really came back to us. For seven weeks she stayed in a hospital bed and we stayed beside her, my sister, my step-father, my wife and me. At first we all wanted to stay but then the economy of energy began to dictate that we take turns. We would work in shifts like factory workers passing in the courtyard. My step-father came faithfully every morning, though most mornings Mom did not know that he was there, or if she did, who he was. Chonda would come just after lunch and spend the afternoon and evening combing Mom’s hair, making the nurses laugh, cleaning soiled bed sheets, and playing Doris’s CD for Mom. And I usually had the graveyard” shift. I would come sometime after my last appointment, 8 or 9 when the hospital was starting to get quiet and the rooms were dark. I would just sit, reading the Psalms to mom, talking to her about the Olympics playing out on the TV, or telling her what latest yard project Sammy was doing at their little home. I don’t know if she heard me much. Some times I would decide to leave at midnight if she was sound asleep, many times I stayed until Sammy came in the morning with a cup of coffee and a ham biscuit from Hardee’s. We would spend a minute catching up and then start the process all over again.
During that time we came to appreciate the ministry of presence, those people who stopped their busy schedules for only a moment, entered the hospital room and just sat. Most did not do anything particularly memorable, some stayed too long and talked too much, others only flitted in and out with a mumbled prayer and a quick handing over of a casserole, like the Olympic relay team passing the baton on the flickering TV over our heads. Some seemed comfortable in this “visitation” role, others were very ill at ease and made me nervous. But they came. They came and sat and when they came they brought Christ with them. That’s the ministry of presence.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for every text, every FaceBook post, even every email and phone call. These people were making an effort to connect and I am thankful. But there is something about presence, physical presence, the warm bodied, looking you in the eyes, not sure what to say, presence that allows Jesus to enter the scene in a new way. That presence sustained us and encouraged us through seven grueling weeks. And even at Mom’s funeral, the ministry of presence is what ministered to us.
I have never been one to go to parties much, or sit long hours with elderly people on a Sunday afternoon, or take the time to drop in on a friend that is sick (or hurting.) For one thing, guys don’t do that. For another everybody is so busy, they are, I am, busy. We have modern conveniences to help us with that, texting, voicemail, FaceBook. I usually make sure I do that and send a nice card with a little check in it when the time is right….. I have missed it. If I get too busy doing the Lord’s work to BE the Lord in someone’s time of need then I have misunderstood the Gospel. Jesus always went to feasts and funerals. He never turned down an invitation to eat or mourn. That was where some of His best stuff happened. Water into wine. Loaves and fishes.” Little girl, get up.” “Lazarus, Come forth.” Jesus was all about the ministry of presence.
I am determined to do better. A friend of mine was in the hospital last week, It was a busy day. Counseling all morning. I had two meetings in Lebanon in the afternoon. It was supper time when I was driving back to town but I decided to stop by the hospital. We sat and talked for 45 minutes. We told stories and laughed. We hugged and showed pictures of our kids. In a little while I prayed a not too profound prayer and left. Not much to it. It was the closest I was to Christ all day. Mike