Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Gift of Presence: ministry with fewer words

I've been the "chaplain" at times, and now I'm the "pastoral intern," and what I am gathering in all of this is that I do not have the power to change a situation for someone. Only God has the power to change their perspective in it.

The gospel, the true hope of the world through the cross of Christ, has been packaged and taught in easy steps; it's been downsized and minimized into commitment-light; it's presentation is sometimes given with no thought for the physical and emotional welfare of the image-bearer who's receiving it. Some have even delivered it with a literal bullhorn.

In the past, I've been guilty of trying to make the gospel palatable--of trying to sell half-hearted Christianity to a soul who can't see how he could buy the whole package. Once when a friend sat across from me and told me he just couldn't believe in Christianity because he wasn't raised in a Christian home, I took his rejection of the gospel as a personal failure. As if my evangelistic fervor could have won him into the Kingdom. As if I, and not the Holy Spirit, woo people to faith in the Carpenter who turned the world upside down.

The truth is: I've made more than my share of blunders.  Author Jerry Bridges was right: "Grace stands in direct opposition to any supposed worthiness on our part." 

Jesus, the most eloquent truth-teller of all, delivered it first and foremost through the ministry of presence...followed by words of extraordinary significance. He was hanging out with the shady Samaritan woman, his feet were being anointed with oil by a female known for her sin, he ate with fraudulent tax collectors and broken prostitutes. The sick and diseased hung on him; the demons he cast off shrieked at his presence; those who touched the very edge of his garment went away rejoicing.

And when he did speak, when he did open his mouth, he tended toward stories and questions, parables and paradoxes. This was the upside-down Kingdom he ushered in. The last shall be first, the least of these are worthy of extraordinary kindness and generosity, the meek shall inherit the earth.

The way Jesus communicated goes against my natural bent, on so many levels. If I am talking to a young woman battling addiction about Jesus, and her eyes glaze over, I am tempted to talk faster and louder to see if she gets it. If I am counseling someone on entering a vibrant relationship with Christ, I am tempted to rush to the sinner's prayer, instead of helping this person understand the enormity of Jesus' love for them and the cost of following him. This goes against the very teachings of Jesus and his way of loving and engaging people with truth.

But I do not have to give in to my temptations. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says so. 

The other day something out-of-the-ordinary happened that awakened me to how well I love. My neighbor of three years stopped by and offered words of comfort for us, as my mother-in-law is now in hospice care and will be gone soon. She was so understanding and kind and supportive, and before she left, she hugged me and said, "We love you guys." And I was caught off guard. Although this woman believes in God, she doesn't attend a church. I know her through "over-the-fence" conversations and a few backyard get-togethers.

But she has shared bulbs from her garden with me.
She has comforted me in my infertility.
She celebrates with me in my joys.

Her gift of presence has spoken volumes. Now her words mean something as well. This disciple of Jesus was moved by her kindness, her simple generosity.

What does the phrase "the gift of presence" mean to you? Do you tend to love others with many words or few words? 

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