Chaplain’s Corner: CLXXVI

“The Ministry of Presence”

When someone is hurting, it’s tempting to think our call as friends and family is to do something amazing or to say something unusually wise. But most of the time, the need of the hour is simply to show up.

In his best-selling book, “How to Know a Person”, David Brooks recounts the story of a professor who teaches decision-making skills to first year medical students. Out of the blue, Nancy Abernathy’s world was shattered when her 50 year old husband died of a heart attack while cross-country skiing. Nancy continued teaching throughout that winter and spring. During one class she casually mentioned that she dreaded the start of next year’s course. That’s when she invited students to bring a family photo so they might get to know each other. How could she hold up a picture of her late husband and not break down in tears?

Summer came and went. The fall semester arrived and so did the dreaded day. When she stepped into her lecture hall, bracing herself for the painful memories, she noticed something was different. There were way too many people in the room. Her new students were there. But so were last year’s students.  They had come to be with her at this tender moment. As Nancy later reflected, their silent presence was the ultimate gift of compassion.

When David Brooks was teaching at Yale, he got to know a student named Jillian Sawyer. She recently lost her father to pancreatic cancer. Before he died, Jillian and her dad had talked about all the things he was going to miss in her life. He wouldn’t be there on her wedding day. There would be no father-daughter dance. He wouldn’t have the joy of meeting any children that came into her life.  Sometime later, Jillian was a bridesmaid at the wedding of a friend. The father of the bride offered glowing remarks about his daughter’s curiosity and spirit, then joined her for that special dance. Jillian excused herself and walked towards the ladies room, where she had a good cry. When she came back out, all those who had been sitting at her table were waiting for her.

“What I will remember forever,” Jillian recalls, “is that no one said a word. I am still amazed at the profoundness that can echo in silence.” There were hugs. “They were just there for me, just for a moment. And it was exactly what I needed.”

Years ago, when I was going through the hardest time in my life after losing my daughter to cystic fibrosis a pastor friend came to see me. It wasn’t so much what he said to me because he didn’t try to spend a long time trying to explain away what had happened. He just sat-shared some coffee and tears.  This dovetails with the Apostle Paul’s gentle words in Romans 12:15: “Mourn with those who mourn.”

Notice what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t advise his readers to tell a grieving person that everything’s going to be OK. Or to give them the contact information of a local grief therapy group. Or provide an explanation for why this awful thing happened. Or tell them not to cry. It’s deeply reassuring to note that Jesus in the presence of grieving friends, shed tears.

Being present, paying attention to a hurting person, noticing their circumstances, sustaining a heightened awareness of what they are experiencing, is a powerful gift. Where is God when life hurts? Until we’re all in the next world, we won’t be fully able to answer that question. But in the meantime we can know how to answer a corollary question.

Where should WE be when life hurts? We should be nearby, giving the gift of simply showing up–the ministry of presence.


Ron Naylor, Chaplain