Practicing the Art of Being Present
“My cousin’s dad died, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know what to say,” said my friend John.
“Why are you confused?” I asked.
“My uncle was a big presence in our lives. He died suddenly, and I know my cousin has to be feeling lost, just lost, like I am,” he explained.
A Stunning Change
His quandary reminded me of Dennis with whom I worked very closely. He was one of the most intense people I ever worked with and one heck of a project manager. He never missed a product release date. He worked everyone hard, including himself.
Several years after I left the company, I ran into Dennis at a gas station. While catching up with each other, he told me he became a pastor in the Methodist Church. I was stunned when he told me about his conversion. Talk about a turnaround!
We set a time to meet. I wanted to hear the whole story.
This hard-charging, ruthless project manager turned pastor was now a specialist in hospice care.
I said, “I dread the thought of visiting someone who is seriously ill or dying. Maybe it hits too close to home, but I am just terribly uncomfortable.”
“Why?” he asked.
I Am Terribly Uncomfortable
“The guy is dying, and he is probably in a lot of pain. What am I supposed to say? Should I try to cheer him up? What do I talk about if I go and visit the guy?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you what I do. I practice the ministry of presence,” he said.
“What is the ministry of presence?” I asked.
He said, “You visit the person who is dying and just be there for them. In some cases, they want to talk, so I just listen. In other cases, they are in such pain they just moan. Most of the time the true comfort I bring is just being there. I am simply present for the person. That is the ministry of presence.”
My wife, Kathy, has practiced the ministry of presence for years. She is the first to visit a friend who is dying. Like Dennis, she looks forward to visiting with the person. She said, “Sometimes I read the Bible to them. Sometimes I just listen. Sometimes I sing hymns. Most of the time they just want me to be there, to be present.”
We Were Sad Together
So I told my friend John, “All you have to do is visit with your cousin and be there. You don’t have to say anything. He knows you loved his dad and the impact he had on your life. Just be there with him.”
The next week we met again, and he said he took the advice and visited his cousin.
He told me, “It was amazing, and it just felt right. I wasn’t uncomfortable because I practiced the ministry of presence like Dennis and Kathy did in the stories you told me. It was a wonderful visit even though very little was said. I just showed up and was there for my cousin. We were just sad together.”
What I Did Wrong
What I didn’t tell John was it wasn’t long after Dennis and I caught up that he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I visited him in the early stages of his treatment. We talked about old times, and he was kind to me. He knew how uncomfortable I was with his situation.
When things got bad, and he was in home hospice care, I talked to Dennis’ wife by phone about how his disease was progressing. She kept telling me to come by for a visit. She said that Dennis would love to see me.
By the time I worked up the nerve to visit him, it was too late. He was barely alive and heavily sedated, surrounded by his wife and kids. I waited too long. I never got to say good-bye or to practice the ministry of presence with the man who taught it to me.