That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, Luke 2:8-18(NLT)
Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15(NLT)
The ministry of presence is one of five promises we make to each other, and to God when we become a part of His family – and in our church family, known as the United Methodist Church. We talked about the ministry of prophetic witness last week; the next two weeks we will look at the ministry of prayers, gifts, and service.
For today: the ministry of presence – being with people as they rejoice or weep. Shepherds do plenty of both rejoicing and weeping; theirs is a tough life, so the weeping comes naturally. The rejoicing we read about in Luke’s Gospel was much less frequent, but they went to the manger that evening, and were a rejoicing presence.
We will look at the what, when and how of the ministry of presence.
Essentially it is being “with” others, even if you don’t know what to say, how to act, or even if you doubt the value of your presence in their life. And to do this whether it is in times of rejoicing or weeping.
The need for human presence is almost incalculable.
In times of Fear
We are all afraid at times. The ministry of presence brings two or more together in order to dispel the fears we feel. If that ministry is done well, it heads off fears that are tiny, so that they cannot grow and possess us.
When I was pastor in Greenville, Florida, one of the members of that church was a good friend. JoeBall convinced me to go fishing with him one day. We went off into the Gulf coast in his flat-bottomed giant fan boat. JoeBall sat in the captain’s chair and Russell sat on the ¼” aluminum floor that separated us from the water. It was a bumpy ride on this old back.
Later in the afternoon, after not catching much, the water became choppy, and we were in for a storm. JoeBall started across the bay as a short-cut to the inland ramp where we were parked. I yelled out to him, “I thought it was too rough out away from the shore; my back will crumble!”
He didn’t say a word, but smiled all the way back to shore. When we got back in his truck, I asked him, “Why’d you do that, JoeBall?” The smile got a little broader and he said, “I reckon the Devil made me do it.”
It’s been twenty years, but we’re still in touch and we both look back on those days, serving together. I had very few friends I could l count on to help me take a little time off, and times like riding with a wild man in an aluminum torture chamber helped me stay centered and laugh. JoeBall also claims I helped him a little with his life in Christ. Presence!
In times of Doubt
Jesus made sure we knew he would be with us always, and that He would never leave or forsake us.
Now, it’s obvious that Jesus isn’t here in bodily form, so what did that mean? It meant the ministry of presence would be conducted through us!
The fact that God exists eternally in the unbroken fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – a relationship of “presence” – should give us all the indication we need that His creation, imprinted with the image of God on our souls will also treasure presence.
God set it up that way, as the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit demonstrates; He indwells us with His perfect presence, and expects His children to bring that presence to others.
Our enemy, the devil, uses as his chief weapon doubt. And so often we take the bait. During one such time when much had gone wrong for our family with sickness and financial woes, and a job that wore me down like a ground-out tree stump, my dear friend Jerry Hutchinson came to the house and sat with me for a good while. He couldn’t change any of my circumstances, but having a brother to share the load gave me courage that I wasn’t alone. Presence!
In times of Trouble
There are times when circumstances overwhelm us. I have sat with families whose loved ones ended their lives by suicide, and other families who lost a loved one to farm accidents, automobile accidents and gun violence.
Trouble is everywhere; you very seldom have to go seeking it – mostly it finds us.
One such time was when Darrell and Tammy’s house burned down. When I got there half the church was standing with them in the middle of a mess; charred remains of their home, soaked by Fire Department water, stars where the roof should have been. There was a general feeling of loss, and what do you do next. In the midst of that chaos, none of us could have put out the blazing flames, and none of us could rebuild their favorite chairs, or pictures of children and family now in ashes; so we cried. We hugged and cried. Presence!
In times of Worship
The ministry of presence is important in our gathering to praise God. Connecting builds community, and your presence with others is so important, the apostle Paul reminded us to make it a priority:
And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. Hebrews 10:25(NLT)
A heresy that is trending these days is seen in people who imagine that they are very spiritual – too spiritual for “organized religion”. They assume it is possible to have a great connection with God, while discarding the church Jesus died to establish – and that same church for which Jesus will one day return.
Others think watching evangelists on TV will take the place of the ministry of presence of a local church. Well, I suppose it could work if you could get one of those televangelists to baptize, marry or do your funeral, teach your Sunday School class, visit you in the hospital or show up when you’re beaten down by one of life’s cruel circumstances. I’ve never seen it, but I suppose it’s possible.
In times of Joy
Now, I really like having saved the best of the “needed times” of the ministry of presence for the last. Joy is in short supply in our world. And that is especially so in recent weeks and months with terrorist attacks and threatening war clouds.
The world needs a witness of joy, and the church of Jesus Christ is full of souls that can provide a genuine witness of joy
Years ago my bride was a dental assistant. One day she went into the treatment room where the dentist had just finished working with a patient, an older man, who was reading his newspaper, waiting to be told he could go home. Elizabeth was going to raise the chair position to upright so the man would be comfortable until it was time to go. She stepped on the pedal she thought would raise the back, but it was the one that went the other way. The man plummeted downward, almost upside down. Moving quickly, Elizabeth hit another pedal and the chair spun to the left; another pedal spun the chair back around and lifted it up to the balcony seats. With each bouncy move the man’s newspaper flopped up and down; it was like trying to read while riding a Brahma bull.
In the midst of it all the man on this tilt-o-wheel circus ride started laughing. Elizabeth was mortified, certain she was going to lose her job for this – or worse, kill her patient with this bucking bronco chair. But she finally got the unruly chair under control, and the man, still laughing tossed his newspaper over his head. This started Elizabeth laughing just as hard as her patient. The man, with a grin spreading from east to west, remarked, honey, you sure know how to show a fella a good time!
Joy is part of the ministry of presence; just make sure you share it – don’t inflict it!
This ministry of presence is being with people who need it, whether they know it or even admit that they need it. And it is needed in so many ways it’s impossible to even just list it here.
But let’s move along to understanding some of the critical ways to answer our last question:
It’s one thing to be convinced about “being with” others is appropriately a ministry; it’s quite another to understand that there are some “do’s and don’ts” while you’re being with…
The following list is not exhaustive or new, but simply reminders of the common sense of Christian grace applied in human relationships.
Concentrate on them…not yourself
When you don’t know exactly what to say in a hurting circumstance, practice the art of listening. Most people going through a difficult time have enough on their plate; don’t bring them any more bad news.
I have been in hospital surgery prep rooms where a patient is obviously nervous about what is going to happen, and a “concerned” friend or family member shares how “Uncle Homer had the same operation; he didn’t make it, poor soul…but you’ll do fine, I’m sure.”
Resist the platitudes, like “he’s in a better place” or “well, God needed another angel”. These sayings are not helpful; asking a person how they’re feeling, and listening – really listening to their response will tell you where to take the next part of the conversation. Or if you just need to sit and silently listen.
Anything told to you in confidence assumes you have the confidence of that person to keep it in confidence. That doesn’t mean it’s ok to share it with just 10 of your closest friends as a prayer request.
If you think enlisting others to pray is important, ask permission of the person who shared it with you before talking to anyone else.
When it was announced at Pleasant Hill that my book had been published, Jeff, who makes the announcements, said to the congregation, Russell, I hope none of our names show up in that book. We had a good laugh together over that, but he made the point of privacy – confidentiality is a sacred trust – don’t break it!
If you’re making a hospital or home visit, know when to leave. I never stay more than 8-10 minutes in a hospital room, unless the patient grabs me by the arm and says, please stay awhile longer. I’m serious; people who are suffering welcome your concern, but they don’t need you to move-in with them.
Do what you say you will do! If you promise a check-back in a day or so, or to pray for the person, or offer some assistance, if they accept your offer, they’re counting on it. Don’t forget to follow up.
To “commiserate” literally means to suffer alongside. It means you’ll do like my good friend Jerry did with me. He knew he couldn’t change my circumstances, so he just sat with me until the tears dried a little. Commiseration means you enter into the suffering as a fellow-traveler; it does not mean you can answer all the questions, nor does it mean you even try.
In the first place, you’re not God. Psalm 139:1 says that God understands what’s in the human heart; what’s implied is that only God understands that deeply.
Job’s friends come closest to what it means to commiserate. When all the bad stuff happened to Job – loss of his health, wealth, all his children and even his reputation, those three came and put on sackcloth and heaped ashes on their heads and sat in silence with Job for three days and nights. They would have been held up as perfect commiserating partners if they’d left it at that.
But then they opened their mouths and tried to tell Job his problem was Job; he must’ve messed up badly for God to treat him this way!
Let me end today with someone else’s story. Writer Kenneth Wilson tells of growing up in Pittsburgh:
That house in which we lived on the side of one of Pittsburgh's hills was three stories high in the front and four in the back. The bottom layer was the cellar and the top was what we called the third floor, really a finished attic, the ceiling of which was cut into shadowed geometric shapes by dormer windows. Up there were two bedrooms, a hallway, and a mysterious storage room for trunks that always smelled of mothballs and history. Our family slept there, because the second floor was usually rented out for a tenant to help pay the rent.
Kenneth remembers that, being the youngest, he had to go to bed first, braving that floor of dark bedrooms. It felt like a long way up the steps, especially because they did not have electricity above the second floor, and a gas light had to be turned on, then turned off once the boy was settled.
That bed in that room on the third floor seemed to be at the end of the earth, remote from human habitation, close to unexplained noises and dark secrets. At my urging, my father would try to stop the windows from rattling, wedging wooden matchsticks into the cracks. But they always rattled in spite of his efforts. Sometimes he would read me a story, but inevitably the time would come when he would turn out the light and shut the door, and I would hear his steps on the stairs, growing fainter and fainter. Then all would be quiet, except for the rattling windows and my cowering imagination.
Once, I remember, my father said, "Would you rather I leave the light on and go downstairs, or turn the light out and stay with you for awhile?" . . . [I chose] presence with darkness, over absence with light.
Beloved, everyone may not choose presence, or admit that they choose it, but it is how we are hard-wired; we need presence, and God is more than willing to provide it to us as we step towards Him. He takes up residence in our heart by His Spirit, and is always ministering His presence to us.
He is also willing to go with you to provide presence to others if you’ll take the courageous step to be Advent to them.
 Matthew 28:20 & Hebrews 13:5
 Kenneth L. Wilson, Have Faith without Fear (Harper & Row, 1970), p. 54; from Tim Jones's forthcoming book, Prayer's Apprentice