“Sit here while I go over there and pray.”  Jesus tells his disciples at the Garden of Gethsemane.  Then he invites his three closest friend to “keep watch with me” (Matthew 26:36-46).  The hour of Jesus’ arrest was coming and Jesus does not want to face such a moment alone.  So he requests something of his friends:  the ministry of presence.

The ministry of presence is just darn hard for us do-ers.  Like Martha and Mary squabbling in the kitchen, some of us find it much easier to do rather than to just sit and be.  When I do, I retain some power and I am useful. When I just am, I must embrace my powerlessness and I feel futile.  Never have I felt such powerlessness when sitting at the bedside of the dying.  I cannot inquire about future plans or a hope of health (focus on fixing).

I just have to sit and be still.

The disciples cannot offer this gift to Jesus.  In his great hour of need finds them sleeping…twice.  Finally, he gives up and does not wake them, praying by himself.  I often wonder what would have been different for Jesus and our gospel text had the disciples been awake and receptive, offering the ministry of presence.  This grand gift of presence is powerful because it gives the heartbroken freedom to express whatever they desire.  My husband, a hospice chaplain, has this gift.  Often patients will share with him their fear and disappointment.  But to loved ones, they are positive and pleasant.  Why the stark difference?  My husband offers no judgment or emotion as the dying share their heart.  He is a neutral zone that accepts everything they want to express.  And the result of this ministry of presence is amazing.  Many times he reports that he listens as the patient works out deep spiritual and emotional issues.  What a simple task and what a great reward!

Parker Palmer tells a story about repelling (hanging off a cliff, suspended by rope).  He did not know it was part of the hike.  And when his guides put him in his harness and hung him over the cliff, leaning into the pull of gravity seemed like a certain path to the morgue (despite the tutorial given by the leaders).  Parker, finding himself much older than his guides and assumingly much wiser, did what seemed natural to him.  He straightened up, slamming his face into the cliff.  The patient guides reminded him of his safety and again instructed him to lean into the gravitational pull. The second lecture seemed just as counter intuitive as the first.  Yet, once Parker “sat” into his harness he understood how he could “walk backwards” down the cliff.  And down he inched to the sure footed ground below.  The ministry of presence is counter intuitive to a do-er like me.  Yet when I am open and receptive to what the heartbroken have to say, I give them safety and freedom that otherwise may not be available.  For some caregivers, this gift is simple to offer and for others it is a taxing service.  But no matter the struggle, humans need the ministry of presence.  Even Jesus, God with skin on, requested this valuable gift.