Lori Newton was a 37-year old mother of two boys. Lori and her husband lived in a small town, west of Nashville, Tennessee. She was very active and involved in the lives of her young children. She served as secretary of the PTO, Sunday School teacher and loved to take trips with her husband and children to a local lake, north of Nashville.
In the fall of 1990, Lori was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Treatments failed to improve her condition and in early 1991 she was admitted into the local Hospice Program. It was through that local Hospice Program that I came to know Lori and her family. I was a young, student pastor at the time, working to balance school with sermon preparation and climbing the ecclesial ladder. I was focused on the Vanderbilt degree, the position, the initials before and after my name. I wanted my ministry to have meaning and significance and the way to do that was to reach a level of prestige and honor. At least that was my way of thinking at the time.
I visited with Lori and her family many times over the next several weeks. They were one of the first families I had visited as a Hospice chaplain so I was nervous about what I should say and how I should act during my visits. But my time with this family provided some of the most formative hours of my life and set the stage for how I would approach ministry for years to come. I realized that there were no theological words I could share that would relieve their pain. They were already grieving and there was nothing I could do or say to change that. But this family taught me that ministry is not about having all the answers to life’s questions. It’s about recognizing the value of simply being present. Galatians 6:2 tells us, “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
As the years have passed by and I have attempted to do what God has called me to do, I have never forgotten those lessons and the value of being present. I would love to think that, fifty years from now, people would remember at least some of my sermons. But realistically, they have probably already forgotten most of them. And I know that fifty years from now, the letters in front or behind my name will be rather insignificant. The position, power or titles I will hold will not matter very much either. The rung on the ecclesial ladder that I have reached will be meaningless. But what people will remember is those difficult days when I was present with them. Those days I showed up, loved them, cared for them and, more importantly, showed them a presence which was an extension of Jesus’ greater love and care.
Look at what the theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote:
“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.”
There is a power to simply being present with each other. To live with each other in our common joys and sorrows.
Unfortunately, I have found that my need to also be useful and do something significant with my life can still interfere with my ministry of presence. There are always meetings to attend, plans to layout or details to organize. But I have learned that the priority each day must always be to sit beside somebody and know them by name or to share a meal with someone or to listen to someone’s story and tell them mine. Maybe ahead of all the meetings and plans and activities, we need to let each other know with words and handshakes and hugs that, through Christ, we don’t simply like each other, but we love each other.
Lori passed away in the spring of 1991 and, although the family had only known me for a few months, I was asked to perform the funeral service. Years later, I still received calls and cards from Lori’s husband and children. We even had lunch a few times. My time with Lori and her family was an experience that I always go back to whenever I find myself caught up in the web of church busy work.
Jesus showed us that, if we are not willing to be present with someone, we can’t make a difference in their life. This is how we fulfill Christ’s call to love one another as he loves us. Don’t let the busyness of life rob you of the joy of simply being present. Present with your spouse, present with your kids, present with those in worship, present with those you don’t know. It may not always be comfortable or convenient. But you will find that it is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.