Practicing the Present: Race Among the Ruins

When I was a pastor, I found that the hardest part of visiting church members at the hospital was leaving them in the same condition I found them in when I entered the room. It seemed to me that my visits should make a difference. If they did not, what good were they? On each occasion I read Scripture, spoke words of comfort, and prayed. Yet when I was done people seemed no better off.

It’s one thing to talk about practicing the present when life is ordinary. We can face the bread-and-butter struggles of daily living with some serenity, confident of God’s presence. As long as we know that our problems are merely day visitors who show up for a few hours and then go on their way, we can easily put up with them. We might even be willing to bear with them for a few days or a few weeks because we know that in time, things will go back to normal. Our trials are unwelcome guests, but we say to ourselves, “This too shall pass before long.” 

But sometimes the circumstances that visit us arrive for the long term with no sign of leaving. They don’t come for a short stay. They move in and become part of the family. My employer tells me that my position has been eliminated and there is no other opportunity for me with the company. The doctor’s diagnosis indicates that my condition will be prolonged, without any certainty of treatment. My spouse decides to leave me, or my child says that he or she is gay. We have entered into a new “normal” in which boredom is the least of our problems. Suddenly, we hate our life as it currently is. The thought of practicing the present under such conditions not only appears foolish but seems cruel. How do we practice the present when the present is no longer a good place to be? It is almost impossible to offer an answer to such a question that does not sound glib.

Furthermore, the answer that we might offer while contemplating such circumstances from a distance is liable to be very different from the one we would give while suffering through them. The Psalmist might well say, “It was good for me to be afflicted” in Ps. 119:71. But that is the perspective of someone after the trial is over. His tone is very different when he is in the midst of it. Then he cries, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1–2)

Frankly, the church has always tended to mistake stoicism for grace. That is why many of us are so inclined to offer platitudes in the face of suffering:

“Suck it up and tough it out.”

“Look on the bright side.”

“Things could be worse.”

These aren’t the things we actually say, but the things we do say often amount to the same sentiment. We dress our platitudes for church, of course. We mention God and talk about things working together. We remind people of the blessings that will come out of this suffering and of the wisdom they will gain as a result. We tell them that obstacles are only opportunities in disguise. What we say is sometimes true and may even help. But they can’t remove us from the circumstance. Our friends move on and return to their ordinary lives while we are left in our suffering to contemplate what has happened to us. “Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”  C. S. Lewis observed.

It took me a long time to realize that my role as a pastor when visiting the sick was not to fix their problems but to practice the present. Every visit was a symbol of God’s presence with them in the midst of their suffering. Scripture promises God’s control and care in even the worst of circumstances. Prayer opens the door for God’s involvement and serves as a reminder that our suffering does not go unseen. Years after those visits, which seemed so impotent to me at the time, church members would tell me how much comfort they derived from them.

This ministry of being present is an important pastoral tool in helping people take ownership of difficult circumstances that are beyond their control. It’s also a tangible reminder of Christ’s presence and His dominion over sickness, death, and destruction. “The kingdom of God is where Jesus Christ is. But Jesus Christ always lingers in the darkest places in the world” pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke observed.

Practicing the present doesn’t magically make grief or anxiety disappear. When we practice the present we are not transported emotionally into some other realm, so we do not have to deal with the trauma that has happened to us. Nor does it deliver us from the changes that inevitably come. Eventually, our appetite returns. We put on our clothes and go back to work. We pick up the kids from school and feed the dog. But it’s not as if nothing has changed. Everything has changed.

Practicing the presence does not deliver us from turmoil. It does not transfer us into a special state of grace that somehow enables us to float above our circumstances so that we feel untouched by them. We may experience regret. We can be confused about what we should do next. We might feel afraid. We may even be angry enough to scream and sad enough to weep. Or we may feel nothing at all, as we seek a temporary respite from our circumstances in the numbness of shock.

If practicing the present is unable to deliver us from the frailty that attends all mortals when they find themselves in great difficulty, what good is it? What exactly does it do for us? The answer is that it delivers us into the hands of God.

If you practice the present, God will not magically make all the bad things that have happened to you disappear. Things can always get worse. What I can promise you is that if you look for God amid your circumstances, you will find Him. Our afflictions often act as a goad whose uncomfortable prodding compels us to follow paths we would not have chosen otherwise. The landscape may appear barren. It may seem to you that you have been abandoned. Even though you may not sense Christ’s presence amid your circumstances, you can trace His proximity on the map of His promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you. I will be with you always, even to the very end of the age.”

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Every Pastor a Potential Hero

This morning I came across this passage in Alexandre Vinet’s Pastoral Theology:

 “We must not fear to bring before us the gloomy view of the ministry. Let us say to ourselves that in this career heroism is necessary. All pastors ought to be heroes, for Christianity even in the people is heroism; a Christian is in spirit a hero, a hero potentially.”

 According to Vinet, one of the hindrances to ministry is a failure to expect difficulty: “The history of the Church is composed of a succession of troubles and of peace; and these periods are unforeseen. The deepest perturbations are not always announced by sure, and especially by distant presages. The sky is serene in the evening; the next day a storm bursts forth, and the stormy weather cannot be anticipated.”

 It is understandable that we should be alarmed when storms arise in ministry but we should not be surprised, as if something unusual were happening to us. The church’s normal condition, Vinet points out, is neither of absolute affliction nor absolute peace. The ministry is “a tempest of the spirit” (Gregory Nazianzen).