About three weeks ago, I (John Simon) started a part-time position as a chaplain for a local hospice care provider. While I’ve worked as a pastor for several years, hospice is a completely unique adventure for me. This is, in fact, my first rodeo. When you’re familiar with the rhythms of pastor work, it’s not uncommon to start reading for patterns when you meet with people. So understandably, I assumed hospice would be similar. I thought to myself, “These people are dealing with the trauma of mortality and grief, so they’ll probably want to vent their fears and have some predictable religious dialogue.”
Recently I met with an older couple; the husband was in hospice care and in slow decline. His wife was dynamic and hospitable. She was extraordinarily chatty which, to a green chaplain like myself, seemed uncanny. “My husband and I used to sit on our back patio and look at the mountains and wonder about all kinds of spiritual things,” she told me. “I’d like to ask you these questions, I think you could really help out.” I chuckled and agreed, reminding her that I was speaking from my own personal views.
She straightened up, and projected loudly so that her hard-of-hearing husband could listen along.
“When scientists say that the universe is expanding, is that because God is making room for the people who die and go to Heaven?”
“How will my husband’s dead relatives know that he’s on the way when he dies? He doesn’t want them to not be ready for him when he dies.”
“Is Jesus going to have enough food for everyone? Heaven must have an awful lot of people.”
I was fully prepared for her troubled, existential questions about the universe and the afterlife. I wasn’t as prepared for questions about Jesus’ catering options in the heavenly city. She then went on to share with me experiences that, by her admission, she hadn’t told more than a handful of people in her life. As a quick reminder, I’d met this woman for the first time less than 45 minutes ago.
What captivated me about this story was how authentically ‘her’ all of these questions were. They weren’t trying to sound theologically accurate, or acceptable for the Sunday School crowd. They were asked by a woman who likely hadn’t been inside of a church in decades. Yet here I was, a mildly experienced pastor and a wildly inexperienced chaplain, fielding questions from someone who wanted comfort and care much more than she wanted answers.
This interaction was a beautiful reminder about the heart of empathy. It was a conversation built on a posture of listening, kindness, and maybe most importantly: presence. The idea of a “ministry of presence” is one that I’ve heard countless times in the context of chaplaincy. But I believe it goes deeper than that. Presence is the very heart of the Incarnation– Jesus’ entry to the broken world that we inhabit, in order to bring healing and restoration. Presence is the vision behind the term, Emmanuel– ‘God with us.” Presence was the stance that Jesus took with his disciples, and the place He takes with all who follow Him. As Christians, when we speak of being bridge builders, the goal isn’t the bridge. It’s creating presence with the soul on the other side.
Like my friend and colleague John, I (Ron deVries) have also had ministry moments that have stood out as unique and rich.
Recently, I was asked to help plan and lead a funeral (memorial service) for a beloved member of a small community. This community has one church in it and it is not CRC. Over the last few years, I have developed a relationship with the leadership and have helped out this pastorless congregation who desperately desire to be Kingdom focused.
The lay leaders had asked some really good questions about the “How, Where, What” of leading a service like this. “We have never done this before,” they shared with me. So, we worked together, we prayed and compassionately supported the husband and 15 year old daughter of the woman who passed away. We listened to the parents and brother who mourned the loss of their daughter and sister. (To be clear, this family were not church attenders but they trusted the church to be one they could turn to in a time such as this).
We intentionally walked with them in their pain and prayed for God to help us lead and speak of His Love, Grace, and Mercy.
The Holy Spirit prompted us to reflect on Psalm 23 during the service.
The community hall was filled to the brim with people who listened and then shared about the love of a woman who lived out hospitality and grace. It was beautiful and powerful.
This doesn’t happen if the family doesn’t trust the church to show up and help. This doesn’t happen if we don’t spend time in the world, being salt and light. This doesn’t happen if we don’t show up.
Christ showed up and his Spirit was felt in that place. Emmanuel, God with us.
We are called to be people who show up or, as John pointed out, be a ministry of presence.
In mentoring, a big part of our purpose is to show up, to listen well, and follow the Spirit's leading, much like Philip did in Acts 8 where he had a ministry-of-presence moment with the Ethiopian eunuch.
When we represent the vision of Generation Spark, presence and empathy are key. When we stay within our comfort zones, we can come to expect the predictable. Creating spaces of presence outside of our generational norms may require us to leave our comfort zones, and venture out of the predictable. We may find ourselves surprised by the uncanny or the unorthodox. And yet, this is where the presence of love and empathy can be created. Presence with those who, like the woman from John’s story, are likely frightened about their future and want empathy more than perfect answers. Like the family who lost their wife and mother, they needed someone to lean on, to be present even when words were hard to find.
- How might we be people of empathy in our everyday lives?
- What might “showing up” look like in your context? As a pastor, a youth leader, a parent, etc.?
- Have you considered intergenerational mentoring in your church as part of its discipleship model?
Want to learn more about Generation Spark and what it might look like for your church? Join us on Tuesday, August 29, from 7:00-8:00 p.m. (Eastern), for an informational webinar.
Please feel free to extend this webinar invitation to others in your church and networks who might be interested in Generation Spark. We look forward to sharing more about this exciting opportunity with you!