The woman’s name was Florrie and five minutes with her changed the shape of my day, and perhaps my heart. Joe and I were on our way into Home Depot for the zillionth time to get some calking for our DIY kitchen remodel (next post, with pictures!). So, as I mentioned in my last blog, God has been training me in the art of presence, which means I am seeking to be attentive to everything he puts in my path, recognizing that there is purpose in all of it. When I saw this young disabled women standing outside the store with her sign asking for help, I pondered what that purpose might be. In the past I’ve either ignored these kinds of situations or given them money and gone my way, relieved to be rid of the guilt I felt at my own blessed life.
Speaking of guilt, after my last blog I heard from some of you, both encouraging me about what I saw as a failure to practice presence to its fullest, but also concerned that I was experiencing guilt that God never intended. I get that, I really do. I know what it is like to live a performance based journey with Jesus, and it is no fun.
But that all changed for me years ago when I really began to understand what grace entails, and the reality that God doesn’t need anything from me, and that whatever he calls me to do will not only be for his glory, but will always be for my joy.
The illustration that has helped me the most comes from John Piper in his now classic book, Desiring God. He tells of how the things God commands us to do are not a job description from an employer who depends on us to get the work done. Instead, they are a doctor’s prescription for our neediness, a means by which we can find the path of joy in our service, of health for our souls.
God brought this home to me several weeks ago when I did miss an opportunity to minister to a homeless man. In my prayer of examen the next morning I told the Lord I knew I’d failed and was sure he was disappointed in me. The Spirit spoke so clearly then: “Tricia I am not disappointed in you, I am disappointed for you.”
Those words gave me a new perspective on presence. God wants so much more for each of us. Simply put, being attentive to the whispers of the Spirit as we go about our days, listening for direction and obeying God’s guidance, is all for our own joy. And when we fail to listen, we are the ones who miss out. Yes, obedience glorifies God, but only fully and completely when we rely on his grace and find our delight in doing so.
These things were on my heart as I stopped to talk with Florrie that day. In her very stilted English, she told me she was a refugee from Romania and had been here ten months. She has two small children, lives with a friend, and has been unable to find any work, even though she would love to do some sewing. But here’s the thing: over and over Florrie stopped her story to say thank you to me for listening, her eyes filling up with tears. I found myself overwhelmed with emotion and asked if I could pray for her. We held hands, and I prayed as we both began to cry and then she couldn’t stop hugging me. And although I did give her some money, in the end, she gave me so much more for in that moment of being present with Florrie, I experienced the heart of Jesus. In fact, according to Christ’s own words, I actually ministered to him. Even now I am undone by the wonder of that.
The young man sitting alone across from us held his head and cried like a baby, groaning in what must have been excruciating pain. It was Saturday at midnight and we were in the ER after Joe had taken a tumble on the sidewalk playing tag with the grand-kids. Although I’d been asking God daily to train me in the lost art of presence, I was completely unnerved by this situation.
Surrounded by well over a hundred people—all in various states of sickness and injury—I felt something akin to panic. Joe grimaced silently beside me, trying to find a comfortable position for what he said was the worst pain he’d ever experienced, while an elderly woman nearby threw up all over the floor as her son wiped her face, trying to help her maintain some semblance of dignity. The last thing I wanted to do was ask Jesus where he might be present in that room, or how I could be present to the hurting people on my right and left.
But there was that boy whose moaning I couldn’t ignore, so I finally stepped across the aisle and asked if I could pray for him. He nodded, eking out a “nice to meet you,” and I put my arm around him, offering a brief plea for relief and peace. I’m not sure it really helped.
But before I finish that story, let me explain a little about what I’m calling “the lost art of presence,” and why it has become so central to my spiritual journey. Vocabulary.com offers a great definition of presence that pinpoints the essence for me: "Presence is the state of being somewhere. When you get an invitation that reads "Your presence is requested,” you are being asked to show up. "
So basically, presence means to show up for your life, to actually be where you are—not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. I know, this sounds pedantic, but the reality is that practicing presence is becoming more difficult every day as our digital worlds expand and our devices eat up our attention like demanding children who won’t be ignored. (For more on that, see my book The Wired Soul: Finding Spiritual Balance in a Hyper-Connected Age).
Of course no one demonstrated the art of being present like Jesus did. I’ve learned so much from reading his encounters with others, but these three things in particular stand out:
Still, wherever we ended up sitting—after initial triage, after getting x-rays etc.—we found ourselves in proximity to that young man I’d prayed for, still groaning in pain, albeit with less intensity. Yet, when I saw that his reading material was The Bible of Satan I felt even less inclined to get involved. Joe noticed as well, and began to pray under his breath, so I joined in, telling the Lord I agreed with whatever Joe was praying. Although my heart ached for the boy, I couldn’t bring myself to do anymore.
I share this because I feel like I have more stories of failure than success in regards to being present to God’s plans and purposes for others he places in my path. Yet God is changing me, and I am beginning to feel a deeper desire to engage with the world as Jesus did. In some blogs to come I will share what that looks like, and what I am learning about the joy in store for us as we learn to show up for our lives and recover the lost art of presence.
To watch a video of my teaching on The Lost Art of Presence, click here.
To listen to an audio message of my teaching on The Lost Art of Presence, click here.
Oh, in case you are curious, Joe ended up with a broken collar-bone and two cracked ribs. I'm learning to be present to him in a whole lot of new ways!
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Tricia McCary Rhodes
Passionate about spiritual formation, slightly obsessed with technology and the soul, author of 8 books, affiliate professor at Fuller Seminary, wife of one, mom of two, grandma of four.