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September 7, 2016
During trips to southern California I have able to visit my aging father in his assisted living residence. Each month on my day off I would drive down the coast to the south end of Orange County to spend time with my dear, declining 87-year old father. He never has, and never will complain or become testy. He is truly aging and fading gracefully. He brightens up whenever any of his children or grandchildren enters his room. He enjoys getting out with us, sitting at the nearby park overlooking the ocean or a car ride. We are proud of him and love him.
But, my father IS declining. His ability to speak is gone. His memory is reduced. He now shuffles, and is often safer in a wheelchair. He nods off to sleep throughout the day. He needs staff to assist with hygiene, showering and changing undergarments. And there is nothing any of us can do to reverse his decline. We call it the “long good-bye”.
These days it is so obvious, that it is almost comical. I have the vantage point of perspective. As I reflect on this past year it strikes me as more than coincidence that my aging father was teaching me the same lesson from the Lord – presence is precious. Jewish culture calls it ‘sitting shiva’ – the importance of presence when others are in grief.
Years ago my best friend’s mother suddenly passed away. I offered to go with him as he spent the day with her friends, and then buried her remains. As we sat, just the 2 of us alone, staring at the wall in which her remains were placed in an urn, I felt anxious. I was his best friend. I was his pastor. I should say something to help him, to comfort him. Yet not a single word left my mouth. I was unsure what to say, so I said nothing. I felt helpless, like I had failed him. As he softly sobbed and spoke of how much he missed his mother, I apologized for not being a better friend, for not saying something helpful. He looked at me and slowly smiled with deep appreciation as he said “but you showed up”.
Ministry can be like that at times. During one particularly trying and discouraging period at a church, I recall calling one of my trusted colleagues and pouring out my own frustration and heaviness to him. I said, “I have tried everything I know to do and this church is not turning around”. I felt weak, even wondered if it was my fault – if I only was wiser, knew more what to do in this kind of challenging situation. I was becoming discouraged in the midst of a tough situation that was not experiencing a ‘happy ending’.
Jesus Himself ‘sat shiva’ with us. He became one of us. Incarnation – taking on flesh and being among us was an important part of how He conveyed God’s love. Being present. Not quickly verbalizing ‘answers’. Jesus spent time with sinners. Jesus touched lepers. Jesus shared meals with outcasts.
Presence is precious. As I look back on this last year I can see the contribution I was able to make to my father – presence. Caring enough to show up, and to keep showing up. When I did not have answers. When I felt unable to “fix” things, presence was what I could do.
Being present lets people know they are not alone, that we feel their pain. Presence helps them feel God’s love.
Who are you, or can you minister to by the gift of your presence?