I’ve long been an advocate for what the late, great Henri Nouwen, described as a “ministry of presence.” Simply being. Sitting. Listening. Crying. Not trying to solve problems. Not strategizing next moves. Having the right, or even any answer. Just a steady presence in times of turbulence and chaos.

Last week I was able to posture myself with the context of a ministry of presence. A good friend of mine had recently been unceremoniously fired. Without any moral failure or scandal, he didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to his team. He was, rightfully so, devastated. Almost in a state of shock. I went over to his house, specifically into his garage that he had tricked out into a enormous man-cave. He told me the story. He cried. He yelled. He raised his fist. I just sat there. A ministry a presence. Thanks be to God.

And while I hope and pray you have a similar experience of a ministry of presence, Nouwen also championed what he described as a “ministry of absence.” Absence, has Nouwen contextualizes is, doesn’t mean not showing up. As he suggests, “without a coming there can be no leaving, and without a presence absence is only emptiness.”

In fact, what Nouwen is actually suggesting is what he refers to as an act of “creative withdrawal.” For Nouwen, the purpose of such withdrawal is to pave the way for the Spirit of God to work freely in a person or situation without us potentially getting in the way! Nouwen put it best. “We have to learn to leave so that the Spirit can come.”

Beloved friends, I think there’s a lot of truth in that and a lot for us to think on. Anyone else ever feel like they are constantly “on”? The anxiety of a beep or a buzz. The addiction to respond to that one last email. The “FOMO” on the next activity or project.

With smartphones in hand, there is almost a subtle and at times not so subtle assumption that we are always available. If we don’t hear back from someone or receive a prompt response, we’re quick to become offended and annoyed. Does anyone really take seriously anymore our automated email replies if we are traveling or on vacation?! Maybe, as Nouwen points out that our desire to be over-available is deeply connected to our desire to be and feel needed?

Dear friends, in the midst of His earthly ministry, Jesus consistently pulled back and away from people. As Nouwen wrote, “(Jesus) continued to return to hidden places to be alone with God so that he might be renewed and refreshed by simply communing with God the Father.”

How might you practice a ministry of absence? Maybe it’s just turning off your phone. Think about the last time you turned your phone off! Maybe it’s not rushing in to troubleshoot every problem at work or at home, but giving others permission to problem solve, succeed and fail. Maybe it’s giving yourself permission to kindly say “no” to last minute demands of your time.

Obviously, these are complex issues and of course, sometimes life just happens. But I wonder what a ministry of absence would look like in your life.

 

Grace & Peace, Pastor Matt