It’s early. Really early. It’s dark. Really dark. It’s quiet. Really quiet.
It’s about 6:20 am on a Sunday morning as I pull into the church parking lot to open up, turn off the alarm, turn on a few lights, and get my head and heart into the worship that day. I hear the AC units kick on, and I am thankful they are working today. I unlock all the doors, thankful for all who will enter that day. I turn on all the lights, but quickly dim them all except for those in the chancel. And then in front of an empty room, I preach. I preach my sermon for the first time that day.
I’ve been working on the sermon all week. But it doesn’t come alive until I speak it aloud. My words echo through an empty sanctuary, but in my mind I see all of you who will soon be sitting in those pews. I know where you sit. I know where to look for you. And I am hoping that the word will touch you in the same way it has touched me in the past week.
It’s good to prepare. It’s good to practice. But it’s not really preaching until you are there. It’s so different when I see your face and watch your reaction. It’s not really a sermon until I see you struggle to hold back a tear. Or a giggle. Or look and me wondering, “How did you know?” Or glare at me thinking, “Oh yeah?” Or shake your head in disbelief: “I can’t believe you just said that!”
It’s a sermon when I can tell I’ve touched a nerve. Or pushed a button. Or put my foot in my mouth. Or given you something to hold on to when you thought you were going to fall. Or made you laugh and realize that you’ve been taking it all much too seriously.
I can prep, I can practice and I can preach. But it’s nothing unless you are there. That’s probably the best gift you could ever give your pastor. Just be there. React, respond, repent and rejoice with him (me) because God’s Word is just as amazing, powerful and life-changing as ever!
It’s been about three months since I’ve seen my dad. My brother gave me a heads up last week that he thought dad was slowing down. Sleeping more, eating less, not sick, just wearing out. Since I was going up to northern VA, i took time one morning to drive about 2 hours to see him.
My brother was right. Dad was different. There but not really there. I could only keep him awake for about five minutes at a time. I showed him pictures of the great-grandkids, read with him, drew a picture on his white board, but he quickly dozed off each time. So my visit became more of me just being there. Ironically, that’s all dad could do, too. Just be there.
I thought a lot about that on my way home. Is just “being there” a good thing or a bad thing? We spend a lot of time telling people in the church and community, “Don’t just sit there; do something!” Yet there are times when simply being present is not just meaningful, but is everything.
I’ve heard some describe this as “ministry of presence.” Maybe there’s not much you can do. There aren’t any profound words to speak. There’s nothing you can bring. But you can be there.
You can be there when your child looks up in the stands or out into the crowd. You can be there when someone comes home. Or when it’s time for them to leave. You can be there when they open their eyes. Or when they close them (maybe for the last time).
You can be there because it’s not good to be alone (you or them).
David Brooks' January 20, 2014 New York Times op-ed column The Art of Presence caught my eye the other day. It's definitely worth a read. As someone who often helps people and families through difficult times, his reflections resonated with me. I am constantly ecouraging my congregation to pursue an incarnational rather than an attractional style of ministry. In other words, be there rather than waiting for or trying to get someone to come to you.
The temptation is to distance yourself, assuming that they need space or time or that there's really nothing you can say or do. It turns out that showing up makes a powerful statement in itself, even if you have little to say. Don't wait. Just go. Be there.
That's what Jesus did. He shows up in our world. Now while He comes with a message and miracles, His presence also speaks volumes. We could never go to Him. Not when we are sinners and He is holy. But He can come to us. He still does. He comes and speaks to us in His Word. He still comes with gifts of grace in the sacraments. And that communicates a powerful message of love.