Catherine: single, about 50, appeared to live in her own little world. On weekdays you would spot her walking (no car) the sidewalks of our town with a shopping bag. On Sundays you'd find her seated alone in the second row of our church sanctuary.
Those of us acquainted with Catherine were accustomed to her vacant stare and the painful slowness of her speech. We assumed it was due to medication.
If Catherine had opinions about anything, it was not evident. If she wished to be active in church life apart from sitting alone in a pew, that wasn't apparent either. If she had any desire for personal friendships, we weren't aware of it. Catherine was pretty much a mystery.
Then one day I found out in a humbling way that I had misjudged Catherine.
I was in the church parking lot talking with a staff colleague when Catherine happened to walk by. I cheerily called out, "Hello, Catherine, how are you?" Assuming this glib greeting would suffice and that Catherine would keep on walking, I returned to my conversation.
But Catherine didn't keep walking. She changed course and headed my direction. She stopped, looked up (she was very short) and for a long, uncomfortable moment simply stared into my face.
"Catherine," I finally said, trying to mask my annoyance at being interrupted, "What can I do for you?"
There were a few more seconds of silence, and then this:
"Pastor … Mac." Each word came very deliberately. "You … say, 'Hello, … Catherine … how … are … you?' But … I … don't … believe … you … really … want … to know. You … only … have … time … for … important people. So … unimportant … people … like … me … wonder … if … you … ever … want … to … be … with … us … too."
I was paralyzed, speechless. I'd never heard Catherine assert herself like this before.
After a long pause, she spoke again. "So, I'm … asking … you, Pastor … Mac, … do … you … ever … want … to … know … people … like … me?"
I've collected my share of rebukes, but Catherine's "do you ever want to know people like me?" is among the most unforgettable.
It raised an issue for me that, sooner or later, most men and women in any kind of pastoral work have to face. I call it the issue of presence. Ironically, it becomes a more serious matter as one's ministry becomes larger and more expansive. In most cases it's the Catherines, dwelling on the fringes who are the first to feel a leader's withdrawal to the exclusive company of influential people.
Presence describes the kind of engagement in which two or more human beings reach a level of heart-to-heart connection (koinonia, knowing and being known) that doesn't happen casually. It is a connection deep enough that each person is conscious that God is in our midst participating in the conversation.
The result of presence? People feel valued, cared for, lovingly corrected, missed when absent, comforted, and influenced to grow into greater qualities of maturity in the Christian way.
I have friends whose faces redden a bit when they hear me say that the things presence accomplishes usually do not happen through preaching or managing programs.
Catherine was the first person who had the nerve to tell me (bluntly!) that she'd never experienced my presence. There were doubtless others who thought this but weren't on enough medication to say it to my face.
I do not use presence as a clinical word. It is a flexible word, one that means many things. Underneath them all is a sense that the spirit of Jesus is evident in a conversation. And we are fully aware. As the Lord himself once promised, "Where two or three come together, I am there in the midst of them."
The essence of presence
I imagine a mother clutching her child to the breast. The child feels safe, at peace, nurtured, loved. This is presence, and the mother has made it happen.
I visualize a shepherd tending his sheep. Because he is in the midst of them, the sheep feel calmed, protected in dangerous places, treated tenderly when there is disease or injury. This is also presence and it happens thanks to the shepherd.
I think of a family physician with a patient. As he/she conducts an examination, the patient experiences a lowering of anxiety, a lessening of pain, the assurance of a healing process, a sense of hope that tomorrow will be better. This too is presence, and it is the manner of the doctor that makes it possible.
I have rarely seen presence more dramatically demonstrated than when my wife, Gail, and I spent the first week after 9/11 at Ground Zero. I made a fast friendship with a tall, dignified Franciscan monk. Together we would walk through the ruins of the twin towers where hundreds of firefighters and policemen were frantically searching for the bodies of the dead. It was a surreal scene.
Each day my monk friend wore the brown habit and the white rope belt peculiar to the Franciscans. Me? I wore jeans and a New England Patriots sweatshirt. Maybe that is why men and women, when they saw us coming, would rush, not toward me, but toward the monk, kneel and say, "Father, would you bless me? Would you hear my confession?"
People sought him out because none of us were sure that the buildings on either side of us would not collapse without warning. It was scary (for all of us) to be that close to death. But none of us was prepared to run away. The mission of search and rescue was too important. So the monk's blessing would have to suffice.
My friend would offer a brief, reverent prayer for each person and then, with his thumb, trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads. "In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I sign you with the cross. Jesus is with you. Be at peace."
I tell you: there was presence in that transaction. People returned to their work convinced that through the monk's blessing they had felt the hand of God.
After watching this happen literally dozens of times, I asked my new friend, "So, when was the last time anyone blessed you?"
"Been a long, long time," he said.
"May I bless you?" I asked.
Instantly my monk-friend sank to his knees in the Ground Zero dust. I prayed, thumbed the shape of the cross on his forehead, and repeated what I'd heard him say. "In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I sign you with the cross. Jesus is with you. Go in peace."
I pulled my friend to his feet, and we embraced. There were tears on both of our faces: this Catholic monk and this Protestant pastor. That presence between us and with Jesus I will never forget.
Wherever I have told this story, I have been approached by many people (Catholic and Protestant both) who have asked if I would similarly bless them. It's evident how hungry people are for this kind of contact, this kind of presence.
Such contrast between this experience and the one with Catherine! Did she see me as just an organizational official who had programs to run and people to manage? A preacher who spoke to crowds but avoided persons? The guy who stayed secluded, protected, in the "green room" until the service was about to begin and who retreated to it the minute the service ended?
Jesus had this presence thing nailed.
To Zacchaeus, a corrupted tax official, he said, "I must come to your home today." Implication: you and I need to be together, out of the public eye, and talk about the direction your life has taken.
At a public well, he "happened" to meet a woman from the village of Sychar. Ignoring the cultural rules regarding male/female and Jew/Samaritan relationships, he skillfully moved a conversation about wells and drinking water to one that centered on the soul: hers. With his questions and comments, he became a priestly presence to her so that she (and the people of her village) might experience spiritual birth.
Jesus was present to the diseased and disabled and demonized. Oh, add to these his presence to the so-called thief on the cross. "Today—you and me—we'll be together in paradise." What an exchange that was! One, a thief; the other, the Savior of the world. Together? In Paradise? Really!
Most of us know these stories, but we need to return to them to remind ourselves that the nucleus of Christian ministry is found in personal encounters where just a few people search for new levels of relationship to Jesus.
St. Paul was pretty good at presence too. His two-year residence in Ephesus (Acts 20) is a case in point. My executive summary of his comments to the elders there: "I modeled the Christian life for you and taught you about Jesus. I opened my soul to you when I was discouraged, humiliated, felt threatened. I lived in your homes. I wept with you. I trained you to be leaders."
Summarized: I was present to you. Now you must be present to the people as I was present to you.
A bit of the Charisma
The word charisma describes part of what I'm trying to say? Charisma: meaning a power or a gift that comes through the presence of God's Spirit.
"He will guide you into all truth," Jesus says of the Holy Spirit. "He will convict you." "He will remind you of things I've taught you." "He will empower you."
This is charisma: the promise that God (through his Spirit) works through willing people. In this greater sense, God is also present in such critical moments. His hand is upon our ears and eyes, upon our minds, calling to our attention the reservoir of truth that we have stored up from previous experiences.
Therefore, when we speak, we speak out of the closeness of God and believe that he will superintend our words and thoughts for the good of others.
In moments when one believes he is caught in the flow of charisma, it is time to acknowledge what may be happening.
Many years ago, a man who is today a highly respected Christian leader came to visit with me when he was a college student. After we were seated and comfortable with one another, he surprised me with these words: "I've prayed about this conversation. I have some important decisions to make. I want you to know that I expect that God will be present, giving me guidance through the things we say to each other."
Then he added, "So please be very careful about your responses. I may hear what you say as God's purpose for my life."
No one had ever said this to me before. It was a stunner. Do with it what you wish, but understand me when I suggest that if all of us felt this way about the charisma of presence (that God may be speaking through us), there might be a greater substance, a greater seriousness to our Christian discourse.
At a very difficult time in our lives, a trusted man came to visit my wife, Gail, and me in our home. In the course of our conversation, he said, "I know that these are dark moments for you both. And I'm here to tell you that you have a choice to make. You can deny your pain, explain it away, blame someone else … or … you both can accept and embrace that pain and hear the things God has to say to you, things he might not have been able to say to you under any other circumstances."
Minutes later Gail and I went to our knees. With many tears we told God we would take the second option: embrace the pain and listen carefully to what he wanted us to hear. That happened almost 30 years ago, and what we heard and what we did has made all the difference.
That man is gone now. But the day he came to our home, he brought the presence of God with him. And our hearts burned.
Back to Catherine
Out in that parking lot, I reached for both of Catherine's hands. I said, "Catherine, I've heard what you've just said. I apologize sincerely, and I ask your forgiveness. We've got to have a good long visit and see how we can do some things better."
Ever since, I have tried to do this presence thing better. I have had my breakthroughs. There are people out there who feel I've heard them and that I've said something in response that was useful. But I know there are miles to go before I get this thing completely figured out.
The name of Fred Mitchell is not well known. He was an Englishman, a pharmacist, who was chosen to give leadership to China Inland Mission during the mid 20th century. Mitchell died in India in the first commercial jet aviation crash in the early 1950s.
Fred Mitchell was not a great speaker (although the content of his talks was powerful). He was not a fiery fund raiser or strategist. But he made a tremendous difference in the lives of people one by one. He knew what presence was all about.
A friend sent Mitchell a letter one day in an effort to thank him. In the letter the friend included a poem he'd written to express his appreciation.
For me 'twas not the truth you taught,
To you so clear, to me so dim.
But when you came just now,
You brought a sense of Him.
That's what the ministry of presence is all about.
Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership Journal and chancellor of Denver Seminary.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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