One way to live Matthew 25: Learn how to be a healing presence

We are losing the man I will call Dan.

A valued employee of the same company for 30 years, he retired a few years ago. Until a year or two ago, Dan, the husband of a friend, was engaged with life, busy in his woodworking shop, playing with a gaggle of grandchildren, traveling and supporting the professional work his wife still does.

Today, he mostly sits in an easy chair and watches TV, emitting a low laugh -- not quite a giggle -- no matter what the appropriate reaction should be to what he's watching. His laugh means something is funny or sad or terrifying or crazy or meaningless. Sometimes it just means he's there.

There's no official diagnosis for what's battering him, though one immediately thinks of Alzheimer's disease. But it seems more complicated than that. He can still walk, though his gait is unsteady and he's had spells when he fell a lot. His rubber-soled shoes squeak as he crosses the hardwood floors, so it's easy to keep track of him.

Sometimes he can engage in conversation and make quite good sense. But these aren't long exchanges. The joy for his wife is that Dan seems happy, is not violent, doesn't appear anxious to live in any way other way than the way he's now living.

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My wife and I spent a few days with them recently in the state where they live just because we wanted to see Dan before he slipped away beyond cognitive reach of us. We brought with us no answers to Dan's situation, no words that would take away the pain, the angst his wife feels, no stack of books full of advice.

All we brought was ourselves. We hoped our presence would be our present.

It's no imaginative, stunning insight to say that sometimes the best gift we can give is our presence. But as much as that idea has become conventional wisdom -- especially for people in faith communities -- it seems to be said more than it's done.

My experience tells me that people continue to be nervous about inserting themselves into difficult situations involving illness or injury because they fear they will say the wrong words, do the wrong thing or be unwelcome. It also tells me that sometimes when people stir up the courage to make what I will call a pastoral visit, they overwhelm the recipient with unneeded words, allegedly good advice and way too much of themselves.

In either case -- fear resulting in inaction or too much action resulting in awkwardness -- no real good is accomplished.

What our churches and other worshipping communities need to do is teach members how to be a healing presence. Often, that will require nothing more than sitting quietly and holding a hand. Or active listening. That's when we simply let the one in pain or that person's caregiver unload about what's happening and what it feels like.

That's some of what my wife and I did while we were visiting. We had several good conversations with Dan's wife about how she's coping with all this and what the future might hold. And we sometimes just sat in Dan's TV room and watched whatever show he was watching, making occasional small talk.

In Matthew 25, Jesus urges people to engage in pastoral care. He puts into the mouth of the people he's addressing this question: "When did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?" His answer, of course, convicts us: "When you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me."

I've never liked the English word "least" there because it seems to create a sort of caste system. But I'm a fan of the idea that we need not bring gold, frankincense or myrrh to the wounded. Like the shepherds in Bethlehem, we can just bring ourselves.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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