How to be Present

“There is a big difference between being proximate and being present.”

I could still quit, I thought as I found a place to sit and finish some work. I had just come from my last meeting with Human Resources before starting as an Intern Chaplain with a large North Texas health care system. Frustrated with the process and still rubbing my arm from the mandatory flu shot, all I could think about was how time-consuming the on-boarding process had been and how much important work I had to do. I mean, I’m a busy guy—I don’t have time for all of this, I thought. So, I found my self-righteous throne on a waiting room couch, pulled out my laptop and an apple, and buried my head in the screen so nobody would mistake me for someone who wanted to make small talk. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a gentleman grabbing the chair to my left and shifting it ever so slightly before sitting down. I could feel him look at me, but I was determined to keep my eyes on my computer and finish my work. It was then he took notice of my apple. 

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” he said, almost making a joke. I glanced up with a polite, church-smile, friendly nod, and said, “That’s the goal!” We shared a couple more apple-themed pleasantries and few awkward pauses, my attention never truly leaving my computer. 

“Take a bite of it,” he said. 

“Excuse me?” I responded.

“I want to see you eat it,” he said rather decisively. 

I begin to stammer, but he now has my full attention. “Oh, I’m just kidding,” he said with a smile. This was the first time I noticed how tired he looked. As I was about to set my gaze back on my computer, he said, “My wife is going to die today.” 

I looked over to see him, truly seeing him for the first time. His eyes were glassy with tears behind his bright red-framed glasses, looking everywhere and nowhere. He began to weep. Slowly I set down my laptop and finally gave him the attention he needed; the attention he deserved. The precious man—knowing nothing about me—began to bare his heart. The shock, the fear, the family issues, a wayward son, the goodness of God, all on full display in this man’s story. A story that I almost missed.

This was the moment that solidified my decision to begin my journey as an Intern Chaplain and complete my first unit of clinical pastoral education. I graduated from The King’s University in December 2018 and loved my experience. It provided me a place for deep intellectual pursuit and spiritual formation. However, even the best education cannot prepare you to be with a hysterical father as his wife fights for her life, or a woman whose husband just died from cancer. It was entering these spaces that taught me the need for a ministry of presence.

Ministry of Presence

There is a big difference between being proximate and being present. We live in a remarkably individualistic world, and many of us have adopted a largely individualistic faith. We actually have a difficult time being present—present with God, present with ourselves, or present with others. If you’re like me, I want to escape the discomfort of silence with music, television, or podcasts. 

I had to learn to be present with myself and with God before I could be present with others. I had to press into the discomfort of silence. I had to allow myself to feel pain. I had to confess that I don’t have all the answers and that hollow platitudes do not satisfy me or those who are grieving. A ministry of presence beckons us to deeper waters. 

Listening Presence

I hear a lot of stuff. We all do. Just like Adam and Eve, I find myself enticed by the desire to determine what is good or evil, wrong or right, truthful or fake, important or insignificant. Once I have reached my verdict I respond. If it is “good,” I will listen. If it is not, I tune out, or respond with my underdeveloped thoughts. To listen is altogether something else.

I love Henri Nouwen’s take on it: “Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”

To learn a ministry of presence, I had to learn to listen. I had to learn to hear someone’s feelings, experience, or silence, without the goal of responding or fixing. Practically speaking, I had to spend a lot less time talking, or thinking about what I was going to say next. I learned that a thoughtful question, or even unhurried, non-anxious silence are often more inviting than a good quote or even finding the “right” Scripture reference.

Presence > Performance

That is not to say I don’t rely on Scripture to inform my counsel and my prayers. In fact, Scripture informs much of what I say and how I pray. What I had to learn is that ministry, no matter how “humble” or “meek,” can still be polluted by my desire to be seen, validated, and affirmed. When I’m ministering in this performance mode, it is much more challenging to be present with God, myself, or someone in crisis. Even finding the right Scripture can be done in a self-serving manner. I know I can recite a Psalm with the desire to see an immediate, radical shift that leads to a patient sharing their gratitude. 

Ministers of presence, on the other hand, don’t place such a heavy expectation on themselves or the patient. I desire to walk into a room open to what the Lord wants to do, ready to receive the patient where they are, and able to leave without fixing the problem or getting any credit. 

The precious man who I met on that waiting room couch changed my life. He dared to share his pain as a gift and an offering. He had no expectation of me but hoped I might receive him. I believe that most people are simply looking, hoping, and waiting to come across someone who might dare to look them in the eyes long enough to feel empathy and acceptance. In church we often talk about the presence of the Lord—as we should! Chaplaincy has taught me that the Lord actually desires my presence—our presence. When we are fully present with God and each other, He too is present with us.