In the first week of my first call, I received a letter from a beloved seminary professor and friend. He wrote, “You will be good news to the people in those two churches.” It was the first time that I considered that ministry might include me being me and not just me doing church. In the course of my 10 years in parish ministry, I practiced the ministry of presence. I stood watch with families at the bedsides of loved ones who were dying. I spent the night holding the hand of a single mother who was giving birth alone. I sat with families at funeral homes and wedding receptions. Still, I never felt really useful. People would say thank you. They told me that my presence meant something. I didn’t see how.
Then I got to be on the receiving end of the ministry of presence. Out of the blue, my daughter Elly suffered two grand mal seizures. As we waited for her to wake up in the hospital, a friend sat with us. She held our hands and prayed with us. She came again the next day, bringing her mother and treats. They sat with me while my daughter had tests. When Elly got out of the hospital, we needed to watch her constantly for more seizures. A friend brought me dinner and shared it with me. Another came for a morning and stayed on through lunch. The friend from the hospital brought her mother, and ice cream, over to the house. I cannot remember much of what these women said. The words didn’t matter. I cannot remember their prayers—though we prayed together. What I do remember is the women’s presence. I held tightly to them and to those moments together. The new situation was scary and left me feeling lonely and alienated from normalcy. I looked forward to the presence of friends and family. Their presence was good medicine—good news—for me.
Our presence matters. We are good news to one another when we hang out through the messy stuff—the tears and bad words and unfixable situations. We are good news when we have nothing to offer but our availability. We are quiet support like the foundation of a house, present but not often noticed.
At a recent workshop, the leader asked each of us to answer the question, “Who pays attention to you and why?” One of the participants spoke about a friend who was a gifted listener. “The first time I met her was at a busy conference. She stood right next to me and treated me like the most important person in the room. She gave me her full attention. I felt like royalty.”
In all of our relationships, one of the gifts we offer and receive is presence: being fully engaged in the moment. Like children at play, we become so occupied with the present that we lose track of time. When we experience fierce presence, we know that we have been seen, heard, and understood. Someone “gets” us. We feel valued.
Many of our encounters, however, lack this quality of presence. We are distracted or distant. Most of us are pretty good at faking presence. We say “uh-huh” into the phone as a friend recounts her day, all the while checking e-mail. At a conference, a colleague moves his head up and down while scanning the room for someone more important to talk to. At meetings we stare intently at each speaker, thinking about a problem at home or formulating our next comment. As a result, we move through our lives in a fog, only half aware of what has transpired over the course of each day’s conversations.
Practicing Fierce Presence
Learning to be fiercely present takes practice. My children have been the best teachers of this art. Even with them on my lap, my attention wanders to the book I’m writing or a client’s situation. Gently but firmly, my daughter touches my cheek with her hand and turns it toward her. “Mommy, look at me.” She lassoes my attention again and again until I finally let the meandering thoughts go and focus solely on her.
Here are some actions that support the practice of being present:
Put other work aside. Close folders, books, the Internet connection, and anything else that might pull your attention.
Minimize potential distractions. In the office, shut the door, turn off the phone’s ringer, and shut down the computer. At a public venue, take the nonpower seat so that all concentration can be on the person you are talking with. Avoid looking at your watch.
Pray. On many days it seems that it is only by God’s grace that I can focus on anything. Between the children; my writing; the needs of my editing clients; the stuff in the house that screams, “fix me, clean me, straighten me”; and my own personal worries—it’s amazing that I have even one brain cell left to use with a coaching client. For that reason, I always ask God to center me, to calm my worried mind, and to create a space where I can pay attention to the needs of the one before me at the moment.
Focus your body. Both my piano and clarinet instructors believed that proper posture laid the foundation for playing good music. Good posture doesn’t hurt in our interpersonal relationships either. Turn your body toward the person you are speaking to. Lean forward. Keep your hands and arms in an open position.
Open your mind. In a conversation, we open our mind to the other person. Our personal thoughts and distractions are quieted so that we can be open to receive the gift of the other—his or her thoughts, emotions, and needs. Our agenda is put aside. This time is not about us but about them.
Stay present. Inside the conversation, the only time that matters is now. Each time our mind wanders, we feel the imaginary hand on our face, turning us back toward the present. Intrusive thoughts are shooed away, like flies. Important inklings—persistent insights we want to share with the other—are jotted down for a later time.
Attending to Others
When the leader asked me, “Who pays attention to you and why?” I could not think of a single soul. All week I had been chasing my then three-year-old daughter around the beach, often stopping her to lecture about the importance of paying attention to one’s parents. Then I remembered the bag of treats in my room. Just before I had left for vacation, a friend had packed up a bag of snacks, some homemade, all within the confines of my narrow dietary needs. She had certainly been paying attention to me. I recalled the six-year-old girl who sits with me and my daughter in church. Each time I take out my journal to jot down a note, she asks about it. She watches my every move and imitates many of them. I remembered the patience of the women who came to sit with us, to attend to us, in the days following my daughter’s first seizures.
As the faces of people who have paid attention flashed in my mind’s eye, it occurred to me that these are the people who have taught me how to attend to others. If I am able to be fiercely present to another it is because I have experienced that same gift from other people—strangers and friends. And I would boldly say that it is here—in those moments of fierce presence—that I have seen Jesus. Yes, I know Jesus to be present in communion, in baptism, in the reading and preaching of the word. But those experiences are given depth and richness by the Jesus I meet in those who attend to me—who pray with me, who bring me bread, who hug me and welcome me to sit and eat with them. When we attend to others, giving them the gift of our fierce presence, Jesus becomes present to other people as well.
Excerpted fromA Generous Presence: Spiritual Leadership and the Art of Coaching, copyright © 2006 by Rochelle Melander. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce go toour permissions form.
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