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The Power of Presence

I spent this weekend with 39 thousand of my closest friends, in Anaheim California, at the Religious Education Congress. I have been a speaker there for over 30 years.
​​​​​​​This year, my topic; Permission to be me in a FOMO (fear of missing out) world.
​​​​​​​Borrowing from Kathleen Norris, “We want life to have meaning, and want to be fulfilled, and it is hard to accept that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we would like to be.”

I told stories, and listened to lots of stories, and it helped me remember the power of presence. Because presence does not distinguish. Or judge. Presence just is. And more than ever in our world, we need it.

In Losing Moses on the Freeway, Chris Hedges writes about his father.  “But what struck me about him most,” Chris writes, “as I grew older, is that he did not have to embrace difference.  Charming, good looking, endowed with an infectious sense of humor, it would have been easier to go along.  He could have simply been ‘nice.’  He could have avoided the confrontations that tore him apart.  But he understood the message of the gospel, although I suspect his actions were less intellectual than instinctual.  I asked him once when I was a teenager what he said to bereaved families when he went to the farmhouses after the funerals of loved ones.  Surely, I thought, even my father with his close proximity to disease and death and grief would have some wisdom to impart.
‘Mostly,’ he answered, ‘I make the coffee.’
It was his presence, more than anything he could say, which mattered.”
That’s it?
Yes, that’s it.
​​​​​​​We do find a way to complicate things, no doubt about that, by turning whatever he did (or had, or offered) into a program on “presence.”  You know, with a sure-fire title like “Discovering the Five Steps to Presence.”  Or requiring “advanced presence certification.”  Churches, to be sure, would oblige the formation of a “presence committee.”
​​​​​​​But here’s the deal: presence is not a skill set.  Presence is what spills from one at home in their own skin.  Or at the very least, one who has given up the need to impress or fix or please or jump hoops for laurels.

It reminded me of Irvin Yalom’s story about a friend’s final days in her horrible fight with cancer, and the news that her surgeon informed her, “he had nothing more to offer.”  “What is wrong with doctors?” she said.  “Why don’t they understand the importance of sheer presence?  Why can’t they realize that the very moment they have nothing else to offer is the moment they are most needed?” (From Momma and the Meaning of Life)

So, yes. Presence does not distinguish. Or judge. Presence just is.
Or mostly… just makes the coffee.
​​​​​​​This sounds simple.  But it is hardly easy.  Because presence is what happens even in the midst of life disagreeable, circumstances unfriendly, and grief all-encompassing.
​​​​​​​I do know this: presence is surely not easy in a world where we have to be “on.”  Or in a world that worships at the altar of the superlative.
​​​​​​​So, it is not surprising that we walk (or race) by these moments… to be present.  Or when presence is offered to us.  After all, there are so many ways to be derailed-be it distractions, diversions, multi-tasking or interruptions (or all the good work we’re doing on the presence committee).
​​​​​​​Even so.  Presence sees no boundaries.  Because presence recognizes no walls.

Hedges writes that his father (while a pastor and chaplain at Colgate University) started a gay and lesbian support group under his own name because the group was unable to go public, for fear of repercussion.  He talked about his father’s “ministry,” and how it was predicated on knowing what it meant to be “an outsider… he knew the awful cost of being different, the intolerance and hatred it bred, the way it leads us to deny the humanity of others, perhaps because of our own hidden differences, our fear that we too will be thrust aside by the crowd.”
​​​​​​​This story resonated with me.  And I realize why presence is so powerful and inviting.  Because every one of us knows what it is like to be on the “outside.”

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” Thank you Henri Nouwen.

I confess that when I’m down, I’m susceptible to an internal grilling, “Does my life even make a difference?” And I have found that this question messes with me only when I assume that something is missing from my life (you know, FOMO, fear of missing out). Or that I need to prove something to someone. It doesn’t help that we live in a culture that assumes “enough is never enough.” (Only insuring that we will respond to the question with an even more frenzied lifestyle.)
In those moments, I’ll turn on the coffee pot, and remember Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ wisdom that “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.”
We offer coffee, and we make space…
We make space to see.
We make space to be seen.
We make space to give wholeheartedly.
We make space to welcome.
We make space to offer comfort or reprieve or hope.
We make space to be sanctuary in a world of disquiet, disruption and misgiving. 

Did you see the super moon at the Spring Equinox this past week? Mercy it did my heart good.

Quote for your week…
​​​​​​​Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. Leo F.Buscaglia

Photo credit. Thank you Zach Hershey


​​​​​​​How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving
​​​​​​​and tolerant of the weak and strong. 
​​​​​​​Because someday in your life you will have been all of these. 
George Washington Carver

This is what was bequeathed us:
This earth the beloved left
And, leaving,
Left to us. 
No other world
But this one:
Willows and the river
And the factory
​​​​​​​With its black smokestacks. 
No other shore, only this bank
On which the living gather. 
No meaning but what we find here.
No purpose but what we make. 
That, and the beloved’s clear instructions:
Turn me into song; sing me awake.
Gregory Orr
​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Lord, make us instruments of your peace. 
​​​​​​​Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion. 
Help us to remove the venom from our judgements. 
Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters. 
You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world: 
where there is shouting, let us practice listening; 
where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony; 
where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity; 
where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity; 
where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety; 
where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions; 
where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust; 
where there is hostility, let us bring respect; 
where there is falsehood, let us bring truth. 
​​​​​​​Pope Francis
​​​​​​​(Adapting St. Francis prayer)


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