September 03, 2009

Ministry of Presence

AP PhotoThe other day on TV, I saw Governor Schwarzenegger consoling victims of the brush fires. I saw this twice; once, he was in northern California, offering comfort to those affected by the Auburn fire, and then, later, doing the same for victims of the fire in Los Angeles.

Both times, the sight caught me off guard. Each scene showed a woman, in tears or nearly so, with her head on the governor's shoulder, his arm around her shoulder. Who knew that the "Governator" had such a soft and caring side to him? Who could have pictured such a scene when he was an action movie star?

However, that's not the only reason the scenes caught my attention. Indeed, I have been similarly struck by scenes of other elected officials offering their comfort and consolation to disaster victims. It's such a personal thing, to be comforted in one's sorrow; and yet, the people receiving comfort likely have never met the official who is metaphorically, if not literally, wiping their tears. It's possible that they didn't even vote for him, that they disagree with some of his policies, etc.; but even so, they find his presence comforting.

The governor is there for only a few moments. To some, it may appear to be nothing more than a photo op. The comfort he provides does not replace the help and comfort of family and friends. Nevertheless, it is a type of comfort that only he can provide. It is a comfort that consoles not only the one in his arms, but also all of us--the entire state--we who have not been directly affected by the flames, but who have seen the smoke, felt the ashes falling, and who have found ourselves caught up in the emotional tragedy that we read and hear about in the news.

It is, in short, a ministry of presence, an aspect of ministry that I admit I have been slow to understand.

Especially baffling and intriguing to me is how this ministry is one which can only be carried out by the "man at the top"--in this case, the governor. It's the same role that church pastors often find themselves in. It doesn't matter how often we emphasize the "priesthood of all believers." It doesn't matter how many times we emphasize that the elders of the church are spiritual leaders of the congregation. It doesn't matter if every member of the congregation offers support, prayers, and encouragement. Such things do matter, of course, and yet it's not the same as a call or a visit by the pastor.

I'm not always comfortable with this aspect of the pastor's role. It's not that I don't want to be there for people; I do. It's just that I worry that anything I can say or do will be inadequate. All I can do, really, is show up, be present, and offer a prayer. It's nothing that anyone else couldn't do. But because I'm the pastor, it has added significance and meaning.

So this week, I've been watching you, Governor. It hasn't been to criticize you or to point out ways that the guy I did vote for could have done better. I've been watching so that I might learn from you, and learn more about the mystery of the ministry of presence.

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