Popularized in a 1959 speech by President Kennedy, it is said that when written in Chinese, “crisis” is composed of the two characters meaning “danger” and “opportunity.” Though the actual linguistics of such a translation are a bit shaky, the sentiment is a good one: crises are crucial moments with high stakes.
The church is not unfamiliar with crisis. Throughout its long and storied history, the church has faced despotism from within and from without. She has been both the persecuted and the persecutor. She has been both endangered by standing against kings and kingdoms, and she has been endangered by playing bedfellow to Presidents and Prime Ministers.
I think that the biggest crisis for the church today is her lack of presence. By this, I do not mean that there is a shortage of churches. No, if anything we could use to do with quite a few less churches. Rather, Christians have misunderstood what it means to be “in the world, but not of it.” Lack of embodied presence is both the church’s greatest danger and her biggest opportunity.
James McClendon devotes Part I of Ethics to a discussion of “embodied witness.” Nestled in a brilliant chapter on body ethics, McClendon writes about the virtue of presence:
By presence is meant quite simply the quality of being there for and with the other. Exactly because it is not on any of the classic lists of virtues, it may be easier to approach without preconceptions. God’s presence with us is one of the great gifts of the gospel, associated with the incarnation of the Word, the giving of the Spirit, and the return of the Lord; in Christian history his presence is celebrated in every eucharistic meal, invoked at every baptism, and claimed anew at every gathering of disciples. . . . Presence is being one’s self for someone else; it is refusing the temptation to withdraw mentally and emotionally; but it is also on occasion putting our own body’s weight and warmth alongside the neighbor, the friend, the lover in need (Ethics, 115, 116).
In this agenda-driven, results-oriented world, presence often feels like an idle waste of time. We get stir crazy. Simply “being there” for the other feels so passive and non-strategic. Yet, it is this seemingly dull ministry of presence within which God moves most forcefully.
My neighbor is battling cancer, for the fourth time. She and her husband are introverts, as are my wife and I. We see one another a couple times a week, exchange text messages, and give the obligatory wave or head nod whenever we pass one another on the street.
Over Christmas, they travelled to Switzerland for three weeks to visit his parents and see his hometown. While they were gone, we fed their cat and changed its litter. It seemed like the least we could do. Several times we’ve offered to bring over a meal or invited them to our house for dinner. We’ve put out an open-ended “just let us know if there is anything we can do for you.” All they’ve ever asked of us is to watch their cat for them while they are away.
This past weekend, he and I took his truck to check out a used refrigerator. On the drive, he gave me an update on her most recent procedure. They’d found cancer cells in her skin now and are concerned that it might be progressing toward her spine. I told him how sorry I was to hear that and, again, asked if there is anything at all we can do for them. He replied, “You have no idea how grateful we are that you look after the cat while we’re gone. It is such a big help. We’re planning on doing a lot of travelling this year because we don’t know how much time she has left. We can plan those trips because we know that you will look out for our cat while we’re gone.”
That is presence. For the past two years, I’ve been wondering if there is something else, something more, I could do for them. As it turns out, being present and watching the cat is enough.
There are many things in our culture that masquerade as presence. McClendon calls them “ghostly imitators” of presence: an actor’s stage presence, a politician or salesman’s public presence, one’s “online” presence, these are all “the assumption of a virtue not possessed” (Ethics, 116). Even worse than the imitation of presence, however, is its perverse counterfeit, nosiness. Nosiness takes presence and turns its outward focus inward. Yet neither the ghostly imitation of presence nor nosiness are as insidious as the inverse of presence. The inverse of presence is not absence, though. The inverse of presence is alienation and withdrawal. When the church is complicit in alienating the other, when she pursues withdrawal from the world instead of engagement with the world, she fails to be whole.
This is an abdication of her mission, for the church is tasked with figuring wholeness in a broken world. James Davison Hunter, in his book To Change the World, calls this mission “faithful presence.” It is what is meant by shalom. Wholeness, faithful presence, is what Jeremiah imagines when he writes to the exiles in Babylon, urging them to
Build houses and settle down; plan gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in numbers there; do not decrease. Also, seek the shalom of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. – Jeremiah 29:5-7
The church’s greatest danger is in becoming an agent of alienation. Her greatest opportunity is in faithful presence. Be present.