Affliction and the Ministry of Presence

The author of Psalm 34 reminds us that God is “close to the brokenhearted” (34:18).

I find that expression so interesting.  In this verse God isn’t immediately fixing the brokenhearted or punishing the heartbreakers.  The primary activity of the verse isn’t God speaking or moving or doing or instructing or chastising or asking.  God is simply present.  Close.

Which is, of course, what the brokenhearted often want most.

In Prayer In The Night, Tish Harrison writes that the church has trouble tending to the afflicted. Christians are wonderful with short-term need, she acknowledges, but long-term suffering frequently catches us off-guard.  We know how to bring casseroles; we know how to pray with someone or send a card or bring flowers.  We can offer a drive to the doctor’s office.  And it is easy to offer these things in times of acute crisis.

In affliction, though, in longer-term suffering, the needs seems rawer, more difficult to meet with simple material acts.  It demands more.  It asks something of us that is greater than casseroles and drives and one-time visits. 

To my mind, affliction demands consistent presence.  Being there.

Ask me what has helped me the most in this time of sorrow and difficulty and I will say, people being with me.  My husband puts me in a hoodie and comes downstairs and watches endless hours of British gardening shows with me.  A friend of mine Zooms me every week to chat about everything and nothing.  Another friend sits with me while we drink coffee.

They don’t do anything in the strictest sense.  They can’t fix the hurt. But their presence soothes.

And so does God’s.  That’s why we crave it.  I find it so human that Job’s entire diatribe, all of his sorrows and complaints, amount to one single, desperate plea for God’s presence.  He wants God to show up.  He wants God to be present in and around his suffering.  And Job does, indeed, receive God’s presence.

I want God’s presence, too.  And anyone reading this blog knows my struggle of late has been feeling that presence at all.  I still have bad days.  But it helps to remember that the body of Christ is also God’s presence.  That God’s people are, in many ways, the expression of His love on earth.  When we talk about being God’s hands and feet, it’s not just a metaphor.  Or it shouldn’t be.

Walking the streets of my neighborhood, I think, I just want to feel your presence.

And then sometimes without realizing it, I do: in the quiet stillness of my husband as he contentedly listens to Monty Don talk about chrysanthemums while I doze on his shoulder, in the coffee cup a colleague pushes across the table at me, in the question my friend always asks my via text: “What’s your number today?”  (We have a scale: 1 is catastrophic mess, and 10 is ‘feeling fine and like myself’.)

In the kind of pain that cannot be fixed but must be faced, there’s very little material comfort.  But presence matters in mysterious and healing ways that I can’t understand.

I’ll close with the quietest simplest example of presence I can think of:

My dad and I talk about the weather every time we’re on the phone.  Every. Single. Time.

I used to be amused by this quirk.  My father isn’t much for the phone; his habit is to randomly share news and information through my mother, as she talks on the phone to me.  But whenever we found ourselves in a chat prior to the past several months, his question was inevitable: “What’s it doing at your house?”

After I described the weather situation, he’d tell me about what was going on there.

Once, in a conversation with Mom, I laughed about what I had come to call “Dad’s weather obsession.”  Mom told me that every night, he puts on his glasses and consults the phone to find out what the weather is like in my city.  “I wonder why it’s the weather he’s always thinking about,” I said.

“I think,” Mom replied, “it’s his way of feeling like he’s there with you. Like he’s around.”

For some reason the thought brought tears to my eyes. And now, every day, with my mother’s sickness as the gray background, my dad and I have long talks—much longer than we used to have, about all sorts of things.  But they always end with the weather.

It’s raining, I tell him.  I had to take the plants in because it was about to frost.  It’s so windy I couldn’t fix my hair.  It was so unseasonably warm today the cats slept in sunbeams for hours.

And he says, the rain kept the deer away.  Or it was so nice he was able to gather all the fallen chestnuts in the yard.  Or that the wind is so bad he could hear it through the walls of his little shed, louder than the circular saw he had going.

Our chats about water, wind, and sun aren’t doing anything in particular.  They’re a being-there.  They’re a way of saying without extravagance, I’m here.  And more importantly: I’m here, with you.

Presence doesn’t take anything but time.  And that’s the rub, because time is what so few of us are willing to spend.  But Christ calls us to sacrificial giving.  So as we look out at the hurting world, I suspect the question, where and with whom might I spend my time? will be paramount.

For the afflicted, the comfort of company means more than medicine.


4 thoughts on “Affliction and the Ministry of Presence

  1. Your entire post spoke to me, but I particularly felt this part, “Presence doesn’t take anything but time. And that’s the rub, because time is what so few of us are willing to spend. But Christ calls us to sacrificial giving.”

    I am so, so guilty of not wanting to make time to just be with someone. Oh, I will, as you said, in times of direct need, but the “just being there” is something I lack. Thank you for the reminder of how important it is. 🤍

    Liked by 1 person

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