By Bishop Joe E. Pennel Jr., Special Contributor…
The advertisements in department stores are not hesitant to suggest the kind of gifts that we should purchase for friends, family and strangers. These ads scare us to believe that if we do not offer just the proper gift it will tear the fun out of Christmas. However, we will not find the most extraordinary gift on the shelves of box stores.
Carol McPhail contributed an article to the Birmingham News in which she said, “For most people, the task of gift giving is a tangle of social and emotional complications.” To say the least, it is a difficult task to decide whom to buy for, how much to spend and what to purchase.
The most important gift that we can give is the benefaction of our presence. It is an unforgettable gift when we are lovingly and emotionally present to others in the now of life. We must understand that it is possible to purchase just the right gift and still not be present to the friend or family member. The gift of presence to those whom we love does not bend or break our finances. It does require connecting with our feelings and our emotions. It demands intentionality, the burning of psychic energy and seeing with the heart.
The gift of presence is of utmost importance if we desire to reach out to family, friends and strangers who are caught in the tangle of suffering. Suffering can be the result of illness, broken relationships, moral failure, the loss of a loved one, and the loss of income. Suffering is a universal theme that joins people at every point on earth.
In a strange and mystical way, suffering makes us aware of transcendence and destines us to go beyond ourselves. It happens, as we know, at different moments on the path of life. It takes place in various and different ways. It assumes different dimensions. It evokes either compassion or despair. It consoles or it intimidates. It is tangible with an intangible meaning. It leads to either joy or dashed hope. Yet one thing is certain: Suffering is inseparable from the life of humanity.
The ministry of presence is a way of “being” rather than a way of “doing” or “telling.” As we prepare to be with those who suffer we should not think about what to say or what to do. We should not anticipate how to react if certain situations should develop. Instead, we should inwardly prepare ourselves to focus on the “now” with feeling and care. We would be well advised to go with the earnest desire to participate in the space of those who suffer.
On the last day of November my wife and I went to visit a friend who lives in an independent care facility. As a way of helping her to enjoy the season, we took a lovely poinsettia. We sat on a couch in the lobby and listened to her talk about her life experiences. She did 90 percent of the talking. Our questions and comments were few in number. We simply tried to be present. She thanked us for the flower but she was more interested in our being present to her.
Christians hold to the belief that the gift of God’s love was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, God’s love became physically present. In Jesus, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. One of the ways that we respond to a giving God is to give ourselves to others with intentional acts of embodied love.
Let us not forget that it is difficult to be present to others if we do not practice the presence of God. Being open to God is not encouraged by our secular culture. The power of the secular beckons us to conform to the opinions and standards of this world and not to that which is Holy.
I am not arguing against the giving of touchable gifts. I am steadfastly holding the conviction that the gift of presence is one gift that is incomparable.
Bishop Pennel is a retired bishop of the United Methodist Church and is a professor of pastoral leadership at Vanderbilt Divinity School.