Ministry of Presence

Randy and I met years ago when we planned a funeral together for a man from Advocate Harbour. I had more and darker hair then and he looked exactly like he does now, save for the fact that he no longer has a “perm”. Randy is ageless and I am convinced this has to do with a lingering sense of wonder he brings to life. When we sat down to figure out how we would work as colleagues in team ministry we first had to sort out our expectations. I like working with people who are not “dramatic” and Randy assured me I would not find him so. Randy had heard I was some kind of workaholic and wanted to know if I would expect the same of him. I assured him I would not.

The next order of business was Randy’s job description. He didn’t like the title “Minister of Visitation”, it sounded too passive, too static and too limiting. Randy preferred “Minister of Pastoral Care”, he could and would offer this spiritual support to anyone and everyone he found in his midst. This could happen when people were busy sorting items for the Fall Fair when he would offer tea, space and affirmation as nerves and expectations were getting into very high gear. This could happen when a staff member was going through a rough time but no one seemed to notice. Randy noticed and again he would offer his office as a place to unwind and open up about a personal challenge. This could happen when the Lead Minister was out cramming three visits and three bus rides into an afternoon and someone dropped by the church “just because”. Randy would welcome her/him, take him/her back to his office and listen to whatever was on her/his heart.

As I have worked with Randy over this year I have come to the realization that he truly practices something we in the church call the Ministry of Presence. My friend and colleague Diane Tingley defines the Ministry of Presence as, "Creating sacred space in which the soul feels safe enough to show up, is welcomed and honoured, and we are called/blessed to give witness to it doing its work." This is exactly what Randy does. He brings to the encounter no vested interest, no rush, no interruptions, no advice, and a total commitment to meet the emotions being shared with same. If you arrive in his office downhearted Randy is there with you, if you arrive anxious Randy meets you where you are, if you show up filled with good news and celebration Randy is ready to blow the balloons and dance with you around his desk.

Whenever I think about pastoral listening in the Bible my mind goes to Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. Where I identify with Jesus is the reaching out to the other, he a Jew and her a Samaritan. I identify with Jesus’ work ethic, he was not sitting in one place waiting for others to come to him. And I identified with how comfortable Jesus was with challenging the norms of his society, it was a scandal for women and men to be so familiar in a public setting. But where I struggle is in the unexpected timing of the encounter, I like to schedule my visits, my encounters. I like to jam as much as possible into every day. Just allowing the encounter to happen, to be open to someone dropping in, and being present without the need to be somewhere else in a short period of time, takes a Ministry of Presence I don’t always embody. Randy does.

The text Grace read earlier was chosen for a reason. Preacher and scholar Fred Craddock says of the Apostle Paul in his letters to the Corinthians, “In his ministerial life-style Paul came to the Corinthians as one who made no attempt to package the gospel in plausible words of wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:4)…God’s purposes are enshrouded in a mystery, oblivious to the human eye and mind (1 Corinthians 2:9). They are available to those who love God. This wisdom is available to the person who knows the interior of the person they are engaging. We receive God’s wisdom as a gift.” My colleague did not assume he could pass you pious words, a book or a pat answer to your every spiritual challenge. Quite the contrary, Randy would be the first to share with you that the truth is a mystery, that the Holy Spirit does not give neat and tidy answers, that love is the only way to navigate the situation that comes to all of us. Further, Randy would say that developing an interior life is the best way to respond in love. Otherwise we are doomed to toss and turn with the wind, carried away by whatever emotion or circumstance emerges.

Later in his life Randy has become a practitioner of contemplation, the belief that silence and experiences beyond words can hold the truth of the Spirit. I consulted the Taize community on 1 Corinthians 2 and here is what I learned:                                                                                  Poor Corinthians! They thought they had understood. Paul had come to see them. Confusion reigned in their minds. They wanted him to shed some light on obscure and disputed points and on how to live and pray together. Paul responded by telling them that the truth of the Spirit had to be understood and lived out in relationship. God’s gifts cannot be understood without a deep transformation of our whole being. They know they belong to God (3:21-23). Made holy by God, they know they are also "called to be holy" (1:2). Paul wants to help the Corinthians truly to know God’s gifts (2:12). It is striking that he is not more directive. He would like the Christians of Corinth to learn to think for themselves, to acquire the “depth of insight” (Philippians 1:9) through which they can move and grow in the only reality that lasts (13:8).

I have heard that the large groups that gathered for Randy’s faith studies would sometimes get frustrated by what they felt were non-direct answers. Randy’s approach in all these matters was to assist us to understand what we are loved by God, we are holy people, that we are called to live in relationship with God and with each other, and that the deep transformation we require comes from a deep interior life, one where we feel connected to the Spirit and maintain that connection through daily prayer, rituals and centering. Randy would say, and has said, only then will we know the answer that we are searching for.

In his Ministry of Presence Randy has given us space, made no attempt to rush us or the Spirit and encouraged us to go deeply into the mystery that is God, confident that the answer will bubble up inside us, inside this community. For all that bubbling, all that spacious time and all the insights he helped us experience in revelation, we give Randy our thanks and appreciation! Amen.