The Gift of Presence

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It was 4:06 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon when I got the call from Kevin. “There’s been a passing in my family, I don’t know if I can make it to the retreat anymore.” I was stunned. People I knew in his family came crossing through my mind. “Who passed?” I said, dumbfounded. “What happened?” Kevin then went on to say, “My mom’s dead.” Wait. What? Kevin’s entire family goes to my church. They’re great people. They’re great servants of the Lord. They’re very active in the church as well! I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if I could even believe it or not. Then Kevin went on to say how his mother had taken her own life. Taken her own life?! Suicide?! What was I supposed to say? What can I say? Was I even supposed to ask him questions? Before Kevin hung up, I told him this: “Hey, don’t worry about the retreat. That should be the last thing on your mind. I’ll be praying for your family.” I mean, seriously, what else can I say? Me. A 23-year-old pastoral intern, thrown into an emergency pastoral care situation because the lead pastor was on a three-month sabbatical. Practically no experience whatsoever, with minimal seminary education as well.

After the phone call, I sat in a daze in my church office. Am I supposed to make phone calls? Am I supposed to pray? Am I supposed to go? What was the “right” thing to do? What was the “pastoral” thing to do? I headed over to the main office of the church and saw that the other pastors on staff had received the news as well. We were all in a scramble to try to find more information to confirm if this was true or not, because we could not believe it at all. Suddenly I remembered that I had a prior engagement for that evening: a staff dinner for the church summer school program I was directing. I began to make phone calls to see if my assistant directors could take care of the staff dinner. But what was I supposed to tell them? I couldn’t tell them the full details; I had to think of a generic reason, such as a “family emergency for a parishioner.” I then realized I had to make the phone call to the lead pastor, who was on sabbatical out-of-state, to give him the news. As soon as the call went through, the lead pastor said, “Kevin called.” That’s when I knew. He too had received the news. Was that enough phone calls? I looked at the clock, and I realized that I had been sitting around for too long. As I headed out the church doors, I saw three of our elders from the consistory who had already gotten to the church to carpool to the house. I took that as a green light to begin the tough drive over to the house.

Once I stepped into the house, Kevin came running into my arms. I grabbed and held onto him. He started wailing and bawling as I did my best to hold onto this burly college athlete. I held him for a few minutes as he continued to cry. After he wiped away his tears and began to find his composure, the first question that he  asked me was this: “Do you think my mom’s in heaven?” What was I supposed to say? Yes? No? I don’t know? Do I need to encourage him? Do I need to give him answers? Is he looking for answers? Or am I called to just be there, and be present?

I went ahead and told Kevin that the person I knew, his mother, was a woman who loved the Lord. That’s all I could tell him. I couldn’t give him any answers. I couldn’t give him anything else. I wasn’t supposed to give him anything else. In that very moment, I needed to just be there physically, emotionally, and spiritually; solidly present next to him.

Later that week, on a Friday evening, was the viewing. The services were emotional. All of Kevin’s friends and the church family were filled with tears. They were filled with the “what if’s,” wishing and hoping that this wasn’t real. Kevin sat in the first row looking at the casket, staring in a daze, with tears trickling down his face. It looked like he was trying his best to hold it in. But the moment that I went up to him again after the service, he couldn’t. He didn’t. He began to let it out, and just began to cry, and cry, and cry.

A couple of weeks later, Kevin and I met up to grab lunch. As we were eating, I wanted to try to avoid any conversations about his mother. But Kevin ended up bringing that conversation up anyway. He said, “You know, my mother didn’t quit on life! It was the depression! It was the drugs that took her life. I’m at peace. I know my mother is in heaven. I know I got my angel in heaven and she’ll be watching over me. I know that as a Christian, I have the hope of the resurrection. So I’ll see her soon and very soon.” I smiled. I had nothing else to add. It brought me comfort to know that Kevin was finding peace in the Lord. It was also humbling to know that I didn’t do anything for his peace! I didn’t teach him anything, nor did I give him any answers. I had learned to just be there and be present. That’s all he needed. That was all the space that God needed to work in that situation of grief.

There are so many times that I look back to this situation. I think back to the phone calls and my course of action that I took that fateful Tuesday afternoon. And I stand humbled, because pastoral leadership in crisis is not about giving the right answers. It’s not about being perfect in what you do. It’s not about doing the “right thing.” It’s not about giving answers at all. It’s about being present. Being there, in that moment. Being a beacon of comfort, and surrendering it all to the authority of our Lord. We’re not called to a ministry of “doing,” but we’re called to a ministry of “being.”  ∞

James Lee is a 6th-year M.Div. student from Temple City, California. He is the English Ministries Pastor at Korean Grace, CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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