This afternoon, I found myself tromping through a small wood with my children in Holland Park in London, where we're having a little vacation time. There’s more to do in London, of course, than one could ever do. As Samuel Johnson aptly noted, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." However, what always strikes me when we go on vacation is that for my children, the primary activity of interest has nothing to do with all of the amazing things they can see in a new place; it is simply the ability to spend time with their parents. Oh, don't get me wrong, they love many of the activities in London; but they would be just as happy, I think, simply going to the local park, or staying in the flat and playing cards.
It makes me remember what a powerful gift it is to give someone -- particularly a child – your focused time; and, under normal circumstances, how little -- in my own life -- that must actually happen. I am blessed with a job that provides me with some flexibility, and I generally work from home a day or two a week; and, of course, my children are with me at church on Sunday, getting to watch me engage in one of my significant job responsibilities. So in my mind, I am "around" my children a lot. But for them, that's clearly a very different animal than the kind of focused time that happens on vacation.
In church life, we talk regularly about a "ministry of presence." In a culture that places an enormous value on "doing," it is very hard to appreciate the importance of simply "being" with someone. To talk about a ministry of presence is to recognize that simply being physically present with a person is a gift. In the context of church life, this is generally used to speak of being present with a person in some moment of crisis: an illness, a loss, a death. In these settings, our instinctual response is to want to “do” something that will make the situation better -- to ease someone's pain, to offer someone a word of consolation. And the reality, of course, is that often nothing we can say or do will make the situation better; but simply being with a person -- in the same space, attentive and caring -- can make all the difference in the world.
But the same is true in non-crisis situations: being truly present with a person validates and affirms them in ways that are profoundly important, and can be far more significant than anything we can do to show our love. While I am a terrible model for this in general -- scurrying from one place to another throughout the day -- I am pretty intentional about trying to be better with my kids. We place a high priority on being present (or at least ensuring that one of the parents are present) for all the school events and games. I make sure that I'm always reading something with each child (even if it's reading along on one of their assigned school books with them); we generally have a Netflix show that we're watching together; and we all listen to a lot of the same music (which is -- mercifully -- fairly easy with my children right now).
These disciplines make me appreciate how simply being present makes a difference in someone's life. They remind me that the mystery of the incarnation is about how God demonstrates God's own love for us by being present in the person of Jesus. They invite me to extend that same ministry more broadly to the people around me. They also make me appreciate vacation.