Your Presence Is a Living Sermon
Written by TM of JC on April 23, 2021
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs | Source images: View Stock / Getty | Ryan Klintworth / Lightstock
My first deathbed visit as a pastor was with a person I’d never met. On the drive over, I wondered what I would say and if I’d be able to keep my emotions in check. But, primarily, I felt grateful that I would not be ministering on my own. I was apprenticing an older priest at the time; she was an experienced pastor and I a self-conscious twenty-something. She’d planned to visit a dying woman in a nursing home that afternoon, and she invited me to join her.
At the woman’s bedside, we prayed a short liturgy for the time of death from The Book of Common Prayer. My mentor graciously delegated a few of the prayers and readings to me, but my main job in being there was to watch and learn. Neither of us knew the woman who was approaching her last breaths—we came at the request of her daughters—but my mentor greeted her warmly and confidently. I saw how she gently held and anointed the frail, failing hands. I noticed her fight back tears.
It was a fairly unsensational visit. The woman and her family were our only congregation. But I left deeply humbled that we were invited into such a sacred space.
Competencies of the Call
Pastors, for better or worse, have a backstage pass to others’ most profound experiences. We do not trade in worldly power or influence, but we are given the holy privilege of shepherding people through the thresholds of life. In the musical Hamilton, a young politician dreams of being “in the room where it happens.” Ours is a different room: the room where birth, death, marriage, divorce, crisis, illness, and bereavement happen.
This calling necessarily shapes our competencies. Pastors, especially young pastors like me, need to learn much more than how to preach a sermon or manage volunteers. This is part of what makes apprenticeship so precious; watching my mentor care for a dying woman gave me a reference for my own future. Some of my most formative experiences in ministry have been with older priests who allowed me to tag along with them.
But the power of pastoral ministry lies beyond any skill set. Specifically, the ministry of presence—of being in the room where it happens—is more about being there than about doing anything. The pastor’s presence speaks its own word. Our willingness to show up is a living sermon, the love of God made tangible in the places people most need it and often least expect it—the hospital room, the courtroom, the morgue. In the language of my Anglican tradition, pastoral presence could be described as sacramental: something that signifies a greater reality.
When I was in seminary, my mom battled cancer. We had already lost our dad, and we were struggling to process the threat of another loss. Our hospital stays with her were marked by pain and fear. After one of her surgeries, I arrived at the hospital to find two pastors from her church already there, praying with her. Seeing their faces beside the hospital bed along with my traumatized siblings reminded me: We are not alone in this experience. The church is with us. God is with us. A card or a phone call would not have conveyed this to me as powerfully as their presence did.
In my own ministry, I sometimes worry about presuming upon people. For millennials like me, even a phone call can feel intrusive—Why not a text instead?—and the decreasing significance culture places on pastoral ministry can lead us to assume we are not wanted in moments of crisis. So, I’ve often erred on the side of caution, offering to come to the hospital or suggesting, “Let me know if you need anything.”
But I’m realizing that the courage and clarity of mind required to follow up such an offer—“Yes, Pastor, please come to the hospital right now,” or “We’d like some meals delivered to our home”—are usually not fair to ask of a traumatized person. Part of our ministry is in taking the initiative: “I’d like to come pray with you. Is now a good time?” Even without such a conversation, sometimes it’s appropriate to just show up. My mom has no idea how those two pastors knew to come to the hospital after her surgery. She did not request their presence; they simply gave it. And that is part of what made their coming so meaningful.
When We Can’t Be There
There are times when physical presence is impossible, as we’ve all experienced during this pandemic. Many have suffered alone in their hospital rooms. People have grieved deaths without funerals. New Testament pastors faced similar separations from their people, albeit for different reasons. Like us, they sought creative solutions. Paul wrote pastoral letters to the churches in his care while he was traveling or imprisoned—letters that have become our Scriptures. But as Paul reiterated, nothing replaces face-to-face ministry. Separation did not dull Paul’s longing for reunion; it increased it (Rom. 1:11; 1 Thess. 2:17–20; 2 Tim. 1:4).
Jesus, too, experienced separation from people he loved. Though he waited to visit Lazarus’ family in their time of crisis (John 11:5–7), he still risked his own life to go to them in Judea (vv. 8, 16). And though he intended to raise Lazarus from the dead, he still wept at the tomb with Lazarus’s sisters (vv. 34–35). Jesus’ ministry to this bereaved family culminated in his raising Lazarus, but it did not begin there.
The Light of the Church
Two years ago, I also became a bereaved sister. My husband and I serve in ministry together; at that time, we were working at a large church under a team of experienced clergy. Our ordination was three weeks away when, on Thanksgiving morning, I learned that my youngest brother had committed suicide the night before.
The next six weeks were a sleepless blur as I struggled to process this loss. My mind was muddled, and my nerves were raw. I couldn’t sleep, and when I did sleep, I had nightmares. I began to experience inordinate fear for my children, worrying that something terrible would happen to them. Grief compromised me in every way.
Now that I’ve had some time to heal, I occasionally revisit the season following my brother’s death. Prayerfully remembering helps me process my memories from that time. And every time I recall the grief, I also recall the presence of my pastor. I remember his voice over the phone minutes after we heard the news; his prayers over every room of our house when I was troubled by nightmares; his offer to keep my brother’s ashes in his office until the time came for me to drive them across the country to my mother’s house; the small wooden cross he gave me, which still sits on my desk.
After my brother’s memorial service in South Carolina, my mom gave me a small portion of his ashes to bury at my church in Virginia. It was a strange and private experience, burying a part of my brother’s body in a memorial garden outside the building where I served. But we invited our pastor and his wife to join us. Minutes after we arrived, I realized, I have no idea how to bury ashes. How are we supposed to do this? Then, I turned to see my pastor walking down the drive with a shovel in his hand.
My pastor was present in ways I did not know how to ask him to be. And now my darkest memories are marked by the light of the church. The minist