by Joanie Butman
A woman emailed me this week seeking advice regarding what to bring or say during an upcoming visit with a dying friend. I have no training or mastery in situations such as these other than my own experience – on both sides of that equation. One of the blessed byproducts of your own suffering is a deeper well of empathy and compassion for the suffering of others. Though any guidance I could impart was confined to my own limited sphere of influence, I shared that the best she could offer her friend was the Ministry of Presence.
The “ministry of presence” is a favorite phrase of chaplains to describe how they work -- with or without words -- to be the vehicle of God’s love when they enter the room of a dying patient, the cell of a prisoner, the cubicle of an employee, or the fox hole of a frightened soldier. (https://network.crcna.org/chaplaincy/ministry-presence)
Years ago, when I was told I wasn’t going to survive the first recurrence of cancer, my sister and I sat in the doctor’s office stunned by his blunt diagnosis delivered with callous (almost cruel) nonchalance. After we left, we didn’t speak for a while. Then, if I recall correctly, almost simultaneously we turned to each other and said with equally brutal honesty, “What an a&@hole!” We didn’t quote scripture or fall to our knees, that would come later for me. At the moment, however, my sister was giving me the ministry of presence. An oncologist herself, she could had offered her own erudite opinion or viable options, but she just sat with me, sharing the weight of my situation, resisting the urge to ‘fix it’ or offer meaningless platitudes. Years later, during my most recent recurrence (seven years after Dr. Doom’s death sentence by way) when she couldn’t be with me in person, she strategically mailed cards so that I would receive one each day of my convalescence, simply stating that she was thinking of me and how she felt about me.
The most beautiful illustration of the ministry of presence I can share is the way my friend, Noonie, slept by my bedside for ten days during my last hospital visit. It was a gift I will never be able to repay. Through those long nights we talked, we prayed, we laughed, we did laps around the ward and visited other patients. She even showered me, God bless her, and has probably never been able to look at me the same again. She let me dictate what I needed at any given moment and was happy to oblige. One particularly difficult night it was reading me scripture, but more often it was our easy silence that comforted me most.
Like my friend who emailed me, many of us find ourselves at a loss when confronted with the suffering of a loved one or even a stranger. We want to comfort and help. We want to DO something when frequently just the opposite is needed. I’ve read the ministry of presence described as a “way of ‘being’ rather than a way of ‘doing’ or ‘telling.’ As we prepare to be with those who suffer we should not think about what to say or what to do. We would be well advised to go with the earnest desire to participate in the space of those who suffer.”
It’s not easy or comfortable, which is why so many avoid it. However, I promise that should you choose to enter into the pain of another, you are both blessed. The only ability required to practice the ministry of presence is availability and the willingness to trust God to do the rest.