For Liz, Scott, and All of Us: The “Ministry” of Presence

I looked at my various gizmos this morning and had two things which peaked my interest, a Facebook message from my friend Liz, a psychology teacher in Texas and a phone text from my brother, both in response to the news yesterday from Newtown. I had said to Liz the day before that I was thinking of helping out in Newtown, though I had no training in being a first responder. She replied that she understood. She apparently had been doing this sort of thing for the last few years and knew a lot. On the subject of addiction, (my specialty), she knew less and didn’t feel comfortable doing it most often.

My brother Scott and I had the beginnings of a longer conversation the other night. Scott wants to believe in God, I think, but just can’t find the thing that unlocks faith for him, whatever it is.  He texted me, “Where was God in Newtown?” — a reasonable question. There’s a common link between the two questions that I wanted to share. The link is what we called in seminary “the ministry of presence”.  We in ministry like to make the simple sound complicated, and the “ministry of presence” is one of those simple, but vitally important concepts.

When I was doing CPE/chaplaincy in seminary, I ran into a problem – I didn’t know what to say to someone who had some sort of big issue. I always felt like it was my calling in life to have something to say to help people out.  But if I couldn’t do that in a situation, what kind of ministry could I do. My one tool didn’t fit the situation. When I brought the issue up to my group, the suggested I try “the ministry of presence”. When asked what this was, they explained that it was both nothing and everything. The ministry of presence is this: 1)saying nothing 2) listening and 3) saying by your actions and/or relationship “I’m here (present) for you”.

There are times when there is nothing to say, and so the most appropriate thing to say is nothing.  In the field of psychology, we call this Carl Rogers’ theory of “Unconditional Positive Regard”. As my professor at grad school called, “Yes therapy”. The person talks, and you say “Yes?” or “Yes…” or “Yes!”  and they get better by being/feeling  heard . What Rogers was able to do was actually care about the people he was responding to by saying “yes”. It wasn’t a technique to him, it was the way he went about being. He was curious and wanted to see where people’s minds went. He was caring and wanted people to be heard.  He was interested in what was important to them. And that, dear friends, is the core of all psychology, most good ministry … and my grandfather’s fishing trips.  It is how we build relationships – by shutting up, listening, and hanging out together without the need to say anything.  We inherently (many of us anyway) know how to do this and it is what counts.  Research has been done on which type of therapy is most effective and invariably the answer is this: 70% of therapy has nothing to do with technique, or approach or skills. The thing that makes or breaks therapy is the relationship between client and therapist.  If you feel like I like you and you feel like I care and, I can help you. If you don’t, I can’t.  

So what makes a bad therapeutic relationship? Non-presence or warped presence.  Every therapist has people that they can’t be present for, even if we want to.  For some of us, it’s pedophiles that push our buttons. For some of us, it’s people whose anxiety gets all over us.  For some of us, it’s murderers. For others of us, it’s people that remind us of our mothers or fathers or people who wear red.  Whatever it is, if you can’t be present, you shouldn’t. People don’t feel safe when they think you don’t like them. People don’t heal if you want to rip their heads off.   

The other thing, which I’ll call “warped presence”, comes when you need something from the person you’re taking care of. If you need a person to respond this way or that, they can’t respond as they need to. If you need to be taken care of, you can’t take care of them.  When therapists or caretakers take advantage of a person, they are not only not helping them, they are hurting them.  Helpers who hurt teach people not to ask for help again.

So the “ministry of presence” requires the ability to be with someone without freaking out, the ability to not need something from the other person or try to take something from them. It requires the ability to be quiet and listen, and it requires you to care. If you can do that, even for a brief time, you can help anyone heal.

This leads me to my brother and God.  If there’s a weakness to my theology (my beliefs about God), it’s about the question of evil.  In religion, we call it the question of “theodicy”. How can a loving God allow evil to happen? Does God want evil to happen? Does that make God evil, if God allows evil to exist? And if God is all powerful, why doesn’t God stop these things from happening? The answer is that I don’t know, but I can live with that. For me, God does what God does and in the end my relationship with God is far better than I could hope. There are some things I’ll never understand until I’m face-to-face with The One God.

Still, It turns out that other people are better at theory than I am, and here’s my understanding of their theology.   God, as one who loves us, lets us learn by doing. The “All-Powerful” God holds back some of that power and lets us try our hand at things.  The void between what could be (if God ran things) and what is (if we run things) is the place where we learn and grow – and where evil takes place. The “everlasting” God also changes as He/She/It  sees what happens.  If you think of yourself as a parent learning about and from your kids as they grow, it’s the same as the relationship between God and us. We’re the kids and God is the parent.   We have limits put on us – the laws of physics, for example, but within those limits, we have a lot of freedom. We are, with our nuclear weapons, are like a kid playing with a pointed stick. God could take away all the sticks and all the things that could be made pointy, but what fun would that be? Sometimes all a parent can do, in the best interest of the child, is give us a warning, point out the dangers, wince and hope we get bored with them.

God, in short, practices the ministry of Loving Presence with us. In the UCC statement of faith, we say that God promises us “presence in the time of trial”. It doesn’t say that God will prevent us from having the time of trial, but that God will be with us during those times.  That presence with us is about all anybody can do on the day after a tragedy. There’s nothing to say, but “I’m sorry this happened” and “I’m here we’ll get through this together”.

Remember what I said earlier about the ministry of presence requiring certain things:  the ability to be with someone without freaking out, the ability to not need something from the other person — the ability to be quiet and listen, and the ability to care? God has all that “in spades”.  Even when we’re freaking out, lost in grief, pain, anger or whatever – and even yelling at God, God doesn’t get freaked out.  The Creator of The Universe doesn’t need anything from us.  The God who created us has the massive ability to care for us.  And, the God of prayer listens to us all the time. And God can do it for all eternity.  God knows we will get healed no matter how long it takes – or in what life.

Sometimes, we don’t have it to give. All of us have times and places and people with whom we just can’t practice the ministry of presence.  At times like this, I’m guessing that nobody in Newtown has enough to give to anyone.  The answer there is to widen the circle of people to include outsiders.  That’s where people like Liz come in. But for the “normal” people and times, that’s what a church does. Sometimes it takes a hundred people to have compassion for one person.  In a church, the community increases the odds that everybody can be coped with all of the time. Surely somebody can sit with this person or that, despite their lack of sanity, their smell, their ability to be obnoxious or controlling. Whatever their problem, somebody can deal with it or maybe even find it endearing.

So, for the Lizzes of this world, who practice (the ministry of) Presence every day and for the Scotts of the world (which is pretty much all of us a day after such tragedy), you are a reflection of the God that some of us believe exists. We’ve learned to care, and we’ve learned to be there from the Best of Them All.





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