paradox: presence and powerlessness in god's grace...

Today the snow continues to fall - and blow - but with much less ferocity than yesterday. Today there is snow to shovel, music to practice and errands to mind. This break is well-received. I awoke to a Taize chant slowly bringing clarity to my day:  "O Lord, hear my prayer, O Lord, hear my prayer:  when I call, answer me." Then I read the daily Henri Nouwen reflection for the day:

Being with a friend in great pain is not easy. It makes us uncomfortable. We do not know what to do or what to say, and we worry about how to respond to what we hear. Our temptation is to say things that come more out of our own fear than out of our care for the person in pain. Sometimes we say things like "Well, you're doing a lot better than yesterday," or "You will soon be your old self again," or "I'm sure you will get over this." But often we know that what we're saying is not true, and our friends know it too. We do not have to play games with each other. We can simply say: "I am your friend, I am happy to be with you." We can say that in words or with touch or with loving silence. Sometimes it is good to say: "You don't have to talk. Just close your eyes. I am here with you, thinking of you, praying for you, loving you."

During a recent introduction to lay visitation at our church, I mentioned that our newly emerging ministry would be an exercise is powerlessness, presence and tenderness.  The word powerlessness made some uncomfortable. "Our presence carries great power" they suggested, "what we are doing matters." No question that a ministry of presence has real significance.  No doubt that a disciplined commitment to tender listening touches the heart of those in need. And yet I have come to trust that our presence and tenderness have no value if we think we are the gift.  It is God's loving guidance that calls us into this ministry - and it is only God's grace that sustains us. We cannot - and must not - try to do this all on our own steam.  In a word, we are powerless.

Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities, observes that without a grounding in God's compassion - and without a reliance on God's presence in those we are loving - a ministry of visitation and presence quickly descends into acts of obligation. He notes the difference in the care people with intellectual and physical challenges receive in an institution versus a community of compassion. The vulnerable often are reduced to problems. They are seen as "other" who must be attended to as quickly and impersonally as possible so that other "problems" can be addressed. That is one concern. The other is that we can convince ourselves of our own nobility in reaching out to those who suffer. But as Cesar Chavez said on so many occasions, unless our destiny is tied to another's, bourgeois "helpers" soon become bored, distracted or exhausted. We are genuinely powerless and dependent on God's guidance and presence if compassion is our goal.

The fascinating and sacred paradox of this powerlessness, however, is that when we own and accept our reliance upon God - and sense God's loving presence in the person we are visiting - then we start to be nourished and fed. We find ourselves getting much more than we give and receiving far more than we share. And this mutuality of trust creates a blessing that can help sustain us in the most trying times. 


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