I like to be independent. I don’t like seeming weak. I don’t like asking for help. But over the last couple months, I’ve had to. I’m currently facing a health issues. It’s nothing too serious, but it’s something that has been bewildering and, at times, left me feeling completely helpless and alone.
But what has stood out the most to me is what a powerful thing presence can be. I have been so grateful for people simply being present with me in these difficult days, and the power of presence has been reinforced for me over and over again.
Being on the receiving end of help has started a stream of thought for me about what presence means and why it’s spoken so strongly to me.
Presence is more than just being there.
Presence is being open, not necessarily available 24/7. That’s an impossible expectation to put on anyone. But I can’t describe the relief I’ve found in those who are present with me, not simply in proximity, but in spirit by letting me know I can call at any time and say, “I can’t. I can’t tackle this anymore.”
Presence is listening. People know when the person they’re talking to is distracted. Sometimes you can’t help it, but a listening ear that is all there can be like fresh water to a thirsty person. Unvirtuous Abby once posted: “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference” (David Augsburger, Mennonite Teacher).
Presence is forgiving. It can be tiring. And sometimes the person in need doesn’t have room in his or her life to return the favor or even the mental space to remember to say thank you. Sometimes there can be hurt. But being present is being compassionate, overlooking wrongs.
Presence is active. It’s one thing to be available, but if someone is hurting, sometimes they have no idea or any capacity to state a need they may have. It’s recognizing, it’s noticing. At times my need was taken care of even before I felt it.
And most importantly, presence gives hope. The words or help of a friend has helped me face another day, it’s helped me stay positive, it’s given me courage—for no reason at all but the fact that I don’t feel alone in this.
As Advent is coming up, I find more and more richness in the name of Jesus: “Emmanuel,” “God with us.” His gift to us is His presence. He is someone who is wanting us to draw near.
“God with us” means that someone has an interest. Someone is nearby. Someone gives us the courage to face the next day. I’ve heard people say, “You shouldn’t go to God with a list.” And while that is valid, I honestly don’t think He cares if we end up going to Him in weariness with a request. I don’t think He tires of it. Knowing He is with me in unanswered health issues gives me peace. His presence gives me hope.
And it is through the presence of people that I’ve felt God’s presence as I walk through this.
Photo by Hania Luna
Recently in Old St. Paul’s Forum, we discussed our faith journeys and why we go to church.
As someone who attends church, I think this is important to do. But it’s hard. St. Augustine said, “What art Thou to me? In Thy pity, teach me to utter it.” That’s been my prayer for myself. Teach me, Lord, to be able to voice the peace and hope you’ve given me.
Something I often see in Christians is that they work from a context of needing to save souls for eternal life. And while it’s legitimate, it’s also a whole other world that is so far away from our thinking and our lives.
But I love what John says in 1 John 1:24-25: “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what He promised us—even eternal life.”
It reads (as I understand it) that the reason for Christ coming was so that we could remain in the Son and the Father—and, oh yes, you also get eternal life…almost like an afterthought. So when Christ told us that He came for us to have life and have it to the full, He meant more than eternal life. He meant a full life here. Now.
Honestly, sometimes I ask, why couldn’t God have chosen to send Christ at the end of the world and let us all choose at that time? He could have left the world as it was with Adam and Eve and then at the end of our lives, Christ could die and save us. But what kind of life would He have given us then?
He wanted us to know the Spirit’s comfort. He wanted us to know relief from the guilt of sin while we lived. He wanted us to have the assurance of a better place than here. He wanted to be a part of our lives in our conversations, our prayers, our daily moments. He wanted us to have the confidence to enter into His throne room and pray to Him while on Earth. HE, the God of the universe, wanted to be a part of our insignificant dusty bodies.
“Eternal life,” though important, can often be irrelevant. My choice to follow God is a response to Him who interrupted history to be present in our lives.
Photo by Larissa Peters
I have long been a dedicated reader of Wendell Berry, both his poetry and his essays, and often turn to his work whenever I feel a struggle in my soul for a moment of peace and wilderness.
His poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” especially, has always held tremendous power for me:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water …
Poetry in general holds a great deal of the stuff of God for me, reminding me to be mindful, present, and appreciative as I move through a world filled with the Creator’s wonder and mystery.
The Bible itself—like many sacred texts from around the world—is packed with poetry, from the psalms to the Song of Solomon. I suspect that this is not simply because of poetry’s popularity at the time of the sacred texts’ inception nor because this was the only art form available to its authors. Rather, I suspect that the use of poetry points to the fact that there are some things, some ideas and inspirations, that simply cannot be accurately conveyed through purely literal and linear forms of storytelling. Knowing this, it makes perfect sense to me that so many authors have turned to poetry to help them better capture in words the rapturous sensations and experiences of God’s presence in the world.
Another poem that continuously arrests and inspires me is Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”:
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
Returning to this poem, I’m struck with the sensation of some gossamer thread of my own soul finally catching somewhere. I’m struck with a moment of peace in the midst of my constant web-weaving and thread-throwing. I’m struck by the strange power of God to speak to me afresh through the work of poets long-dead, unknown, or faraway.
I’m struck with a newfound appreciation for not only the mysterious, wonderful works of God, but for the gift of poetry that so faithfully reminds me that these catching-places are wonders deserving of constant pause, recognition, and gratitude.
Where are your catching-places? Do you find that poetry helps bring you back to these spots and moments, or is it something else—some other art, exercise, or discipline—that grabs your attention and reminds you of the beautiful wilderness of God?