The Fragility of Presence

fragile 1Recently my wife and I have been noticing and working out something with my 11 year old little boy. He is a human container of vivacious laughter, tantrums of creative brilliance, quirky commentary and strong moral sensitivities. Just recently someone from our community popped into our house to unexpectedly say hello. At the same time they came over, my son was racing through the living room looking for a lost Lego that he wanted to add to the tower he was building. So as this family walked into our living room to say hello my son blew right past them without the slightest nod. He was on a mission! I watched as their little girl looked up at her mom with concerned panic in her eyes and say “does Daniel not want to play with me?” One of the things we’ve noticed is how his personal ambition can cause him to give people a cursory acknowledgment. Later that night as I was singing him a song and tucking him into bed, I asked why he ignored his friend earlier in the day, he said “Dad, I didn’t ignore her I just had big stuff to do.” Ugh, I’ve committed this crime so many times myself.

My self-propelled ambition seeks to push past being present with others. I began to reflect on how many times over the years my inner voice said “I’m not ignoring people I’ve just got BIG stuff to do”. What is the BIG stuff I’m a part of that has made being present to people less important? 

The kernel of presence is fragile, easily crushed by the big footprint of our ambitions.

When it comes to being the church I find nothing more easily snuffed out than availability, touch-ability, vulnerability and responsibility critical for human presence. Presence in not just a “personal” thing it is the very way the society of the Church is to be identified and constituted.

Presence is where the Kingdom of God touches human existence.

More and more I find myself sensitive to what prevents the church from cultivating presence with each other and presence within the neighborhood. Here are just 4 social forces that i sense need to be named and dismantled for our churches to be faithful to the work of presence in our world.

We Want to Be Seen

I was a chaplain for a few years and spent a lot of time in the sobering rooms of hospitals. To be a quality Chaplain one had to learn how to be quiet, asking careful question more than offering answers, learn how to have an unadorned presence with a hurting mother, brother, sister, father laying in a bed. I sometimes would sit at the bedside for an hour without saying more than a few words of encouragement, sharing in the awkwardness of unanswered outcomes. One time I was sitting in a room at a bedside and another chaplain walked into the room unknowing that I was also a chaplain. He quickly began to eat up all the silence in the room with his personality. He talked about himself, hardly asked a question, and attempted to preach a mini-sermon. Honestly, I see varying levels of this nervous-anxiety when people find themselves in more communal spaces. We are afraid of silence. We somehow find clever ways to turn conversations back around to center ourselves, yet Presence requires us to move from the foreground to the background. Our muscles need conditioning to slow down, dwell at a table with others and listen, really listen.

We are so desperate to be seen that we don’t know how to see the person in front of us.

Jesus the Messiah moved into the Nazareth neighborhood for thirty years and few recognized his identity. He was a good kid, employee and participant in his community long before his ministry went public. Are we O.K. with laying low like this? That is a wild proposition but the fullness of God hid out in the body of the blue collar carpenter. God experienced a certain kind of hiddenness and in it opened up space for the in-breaking Kingdom of God. (Rom 2:4).

  • Do we know how to be quiet?
  • Do we know how to dwell with others and behold them?
  • Are we clamoring for people to recognize our significance?

 We Want to Make an Impact

We love our heroes. We admire their ability to shape destiny according to their powerful actions. This becomes our mental framework for creating impact. The unintended consequence of the exaltation of these heroes is that these images of Impact hold a mythological power over us. The public conscious of how change occurs is decisive, expeditious and makes headlines. We don’t really have a category nor emotional tolerance for incremental, quiet, careful, patient impact. The avatar of long term patient presence does not typically go viral, it certainly won’t make us America’s fastest growing church or become the latest buzz-worthy podcast. So much of our imagination reflects an Idolatry of Impact. This impact doctrine, ‘let’s change culture,’ ‘let’s change the world,’ ‘lets do something great,’ makes quiet faithful presence in our cities/neighborhoods seem like it’s for the birds.

Our ambition to “make an impact” tries to push us from behind to blow past the smallness of the Kingdom of God.

I am sometimes struck by thoughts of the hundreds of lepers Jesus did not heal, the thousands of people he did not feed. Jesus healed so few. My strong suspicion is that we no longer have ears to hear and eyes to see how the Kingdom materializes in the smallness of the mustard seed. There is horsepower in the engine of the modern church that thrusts us toward the worship of impact. Occasionally I have a contentious conversation with a pastor about organizing BIG impact that their church folk can participate in, packaged in one exciting weekend event. Parishioners should not have the “privilege” of making a BIG impact until they’ve learned the smallness of presence. Something happens neurologically when we can “change the world” without inhabiting the lives of our neighborhood.

  • Do we try to manufacture impact through branding?
  • Do we have shortcuts to impact that need to be closed off?
  • Does our grand language for impact need to lag behind our faithful presence?

We Want to Be Clean

Near Decapolis, some people brought a man to Jesus who could hardly talk. Jesus healed the man in a curious manner: “Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue.” (Mark 7:33) To heal another man Jesus “spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.” (John 9:6)  Certainly, Jesus does not need physical props. This is an odd way to extend healing, don’t you think? In each case he rubs his fingers on people, mixed with his own bodily fluid. Today we’d be freaking out and telling him to put Latex gloves on. Jesus, God in the flesh, deliberately chooses means that are menial and exceptionally human. Instead of an elaborate polished style the Kingdom comes in simple, unsanitary, messy—perhaps even indecent ways.

The Kingdom does not overwhelm us in a spectacle of sight and sounds rather it will dwell with us in unsettling ordinariness.

In our efficiency-culture we continue to find terribly lazy ways to replace actual presence. Presence is messy, it is complicated, it is unpredictable.

  • Do we have a romanticized concept of presence?
  • When it gets messy do we automatically think something is wrong?
  • Are we OK in being seen as unclean in the work of presence?

We Want to Be Behind a Screen

Dump a bucket of ice water on your head and post the video on Facebook. Or tweet a picture of yourself holding a sign. Or sign an online petition. Voila, you’re an instant activist! There is instant gratification in participating in a cause from behind a screen. We live behind screens and the prospect of being present physically is starting to seem inconsequential.

If we offer each other a quick way to “be present” to brokenness, human nature will take that option any day of the week, creating a pressure relief for our moral conscience.

Our desires to make a difference can find an outlet online allowing our micro-attention spans to move on fairly quickly. I contend this is destructive on local imagination and engagement. Recently I had a spicy conversation at a local coffee shop about #blacklivesmatter with some Grad students. They were passionate about protest, so I had asked them if they attended any of the local protests… silence. One of the excuses for not participating locally was “it was kinda of small anyways”, yet they felt quite confident in their contributions. It’s true that awareness can equate to power, but awareness does not necessarily equate action. Being behind a screen privileges us with self-identifying with people without practicing local solidarity.

Lets be blunt that the more we think local, the more complex things seem, and the less determination we feel to act.

This is the scandal of God in the flesh. God saved us by moving out of the security of heaven. God made himself present to the hemorrhaging of the world in the vulnerable body of Christ. God did not send us another stone carved tablet, he sent us his Son. In his book, The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann eloquently said, “For whatever reason, God allows mankind to be limited and vulnerable to suffering, but he had the courage to take his own medicine in Jesus.” Jesus shows us the curriculum for change is actually being with people; actual presence teach us empathy — the ability to share someone else’s feelings, to demonstrate love, to listen deeply, and to communicate compassionately. Empathy is deformed in the silos of social media, where conservatives and liberals only read and watch their own thoughts repeated in an echo chamber of increasingly exclusionary thought. In the 21st century, we use technology to communicate at unprecedented levels but lack unprecedented understanding of one another.

  • How is the screen fracturing integrity in your local practice?
  • Has your rhetoric drifted from your grounded practice?
  • Should we reserve our opinion for only those things we’ve been present to?

These are a few forces in our midst that act upon our bodied-presence in undetectable ways. I sense they are eroding our incarnational nervous system as the People of God. Do you agree with these forces I’ve identified? Are there others you’d at to the list?


*This post includes excerpts from my book Subterranean 


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