The Gift of Presence

What’s the best Christmas gift you’ve ever been given? Can you think of one? A
dear saint in the first church I served would ask that question any time folks were
gathered together in the Christmas season. Pete is in his 90’s now and I’m sure he’s still asking that question. His answer is always the same. He tells the tale of Tiger, Jr. or TJ, the puppy he received one Christmas when he was a young boy. The story he recounts
is full of wonder and delight. We might question the wisdom of giving a puppy to a child
but for little Pete it was the perfect gift so much so that he can still tell the tale all these
years later. For my part, I’m not sure I have an answer to Pete’s question. If I think back
to all my Christmases, I think the best gifts are the ones that I didn’t know were coming,
the surprises. My husband, Keenan, doesn’t really believe in Christmas wish lists for
this very reason. He doesn’t want a gift to be something that you knew you wanted or,
perish the thought, asked for. He wants every gift to be a surprise, something you didn’t
see coming and maybe didn’t even know you wanted.

Jesus was certainly a gift that no one saw coming. A savior was longed for,
certainly, but I’m guessing the hope was for a mighty warrior or a just king or someone
with visible power and might. I doubt anyone expected the savior to come into the world
as a helpless, dependent child and yet that is the gift the world received. I wonder if
anyone realized that this gift was exactly what was needed. The gift of the presence of
God in this world cannot be underestimated. You see, God has this confounding
tendency to show up. God shows up often in the places we least expect, exactly when
the time is right, and in just the way we need whether we realize that need or not. That
is one of the many lessons we can learn from the stories we tell at Christmas time. God
has a tendency to show up and not only to show up but to disrupt. God disrupted Mary’s
life and Joseph’s life and the shepherds’ lives and the wise ones’ lives. They didn’t ask
for this gift. They didn’t know they needed it and it changed their lives forever.

The nativity of Christ, the coming of Jesus into this world is definitely a disruption.
It disrupts our way of being. It disrupts power structures. It disrupts our way of thinking
about the world. I’m not sure it’s a gift any of us necessarily wants or thinks we need.
Disruptions tend to be unwelcome as they mess up our carefully made plans. Mary and
Joseph probably wanted to get married with no fuss. The shepherds probably didn’t
want to be startled by angels. The wise ones probably didn’t want their lives to be in
danger because of the birth of a child. What they didn’t know and what the world didn’t
know was that this gift was exactly what all of us needed. God decided to come and be
among us. God decided to take on flesh and vulnerability and all that comes with being
a human being. God gave us a gift we didn’t know we needed and aren’t sure we
wanted. The true gift of Christmas is Christ’s presence. It is the presence of the divine in
our lives and in our world.

Gift giving is such a focus of this time of the year. We shop for others and hope
that we get the right gift. We hit the sales after Thanksgiving and when Thanksgiving is
as late as it was this year, we might panic a bit about having enough time to shop for
everyone on our list. We pride ourselves, I think, on being excellent gift givers. And
there are many messages that tell us we ought to be. One beloved Christmas tale, A
Christmas Carol, focuses on the giving. The hard hearted money lender, Ebenezer
Scrooge, is taught by the spirits to be a giver. I wonder, though, who or what is teaching
us to be receivers. Perhaps the story of the nativity does just that. Retired Methodist
bishop, Will Willimon, writes: “This strange story tells us how to be receivers. The first
word of the church, a people born out of so odd a nativity, is that we are receivers
before we are givers.” The trick, though, with receiving is that we first must realize that
we are in need. I’m not so sure we like to admit that we are lacking in any way. We don’t
want to be dependent. We don’t want to be needy. We’d much rather be the ones who
need nothing and don’t have to be dependent on anyone or anything. But the truth is:
we are lacking, we are needy, we are dependent. We are in need of saving. We may
have been taught that in giving we will be saved but it is actually in learning to receive
that we are saved.

“It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them.” God’s
incarnation saves us. The great gift of incarnation is God’s presence. And God’s
presence is with us in every circumstance of our lives. That’s why the Christmas story is
so astonishing. It tells us that God wants to be with us. It tells us that God will show up
time and time again. This is what we are promised. We are not promised an easy time
of it. We are not promised success or prosperity or satisfying relationships or jobs we
like or families that get along or, or, or. We want those things but we are not promised
them. What we are promised and what we are given is an abiding, present, shows-upevery-time God. It is this gift that changes us and the way we live in this world. When
we are uncertain and doubting, God’s presence saves us. When we are in low and in
the depths, God’s presence saves us. When we are too wrapped up in our own
concerns, God’s presence saves us. God shows up: in the ordinary moments of our
lives to remind us of who we are and to whom we belong. We know this to be true
because Christ was born. Christ was born into this world of darkness, separation, and
uncertainty so that we might intimately know the shows-up-every-time God who loves
us beyond our wildest imaginations.

It is not easy for us to receive from others and it is particularly difficult for us to
receive love, I think. Again, Willimon says this: “It’s tough to be on the receiving end of
love, God’s or anybody else’s. It requires that we see our lives not as our possessions,
but as gifts.’ This is an important shift for us to make. Our capability, our competence,
our reasonability do not make us very good receivers of love and grace. What the
coming of Jesus reminds us of is that we are actually empty handed recipients of a
gracious God who couldn’t leave us to our own ways.

And it is when we have received the gift of God’s grace, love, and presence that
we are then able to share it with others. I’m going to make a sweeping assumption here
but I’d venture to guess that we all like to control things to a certain degree, that we like
to fix problems, provide answers, and provide tangible help. We may not be so great
with the intangibles, that which we cannot touch or grasp or pass along to someone
else. Love falls into the category of intangibles as does hope and joy and peace.
Presence, for that matter, falls into the category of something intangible. And yet these
are things we can offer to others because we have received them ourselves.

In October and again in December, I made a trip to Lumpkin, Georgia. For those
who may not know, and I didn’t, Lumpkin is a couple of hours from here. It’s past
Columbus and not near much of anything else. My first trip to Lumpkin was with a group
from North Decatur Presbyterian Church and the second trip was with a couple of other
folks from DPC. Does anybody know what’s in Lumpkin? Stewart Detention Center is in
Decatur Presbyterian Church Lumpkin. Stewart is an immigrant detention center and it’s one of the largest in the country. It was built as a prison and houses 2,000 men. It is owned by a for-profit
company and when you approach the facility you see layers of razor wire and you enter
through two separate gates that slam behind you. I went to Stewart to visit detainees.
There is a ministry in Lumpkin called El Refugio. It’s been there since 2008 and is a
ministry of hospitality and visitation. They provide a place for families and legal counsel
to stay and they also help facilitate visits to Stewart. I’m telling you all of these details
because I want you to remember them. When you go to visit at Stewart you can’t take
anything into the facility with you. The only thing you can offer to the men detained there
is your presence.

On my first trip I visited a man I will call Matthew and the second time I visited
with a man I will call Ben. I sat on the other side of a plexiglass partition and used a
phone attached to the wall. I spent one hour with each and learned their stories. They
were both surprised by my visit. They didn’t quite understand why a stranger would
come to sit with them, listen to them, and offer friendship to them. I went because the
one thing I can offer in that hopeless place is presence. And I’ll tell you that it doesn’t
seem like enough. I know that the only reason I felt able to sit on the other side of that
plexiglass partition was because of the shows-up-every-time God who sent the Christ
child into this world and into our lives. On my own strength, I could not have gone to that
place but I gave the one gift I had to give, the presence of another human being. One
child of God recognizing another child of God and showing up.

This is what we do in the prison and hospital rooms and beside deathbeds. This
is what we do for the hopeless and helpless. This is what we do for those who think they
have it all together and find out, in truth, they do not. This is what we do when we are
faced with the deep grief of another. This is what we do for our families, friends, and
strangers when they find themselves in dark and hopeless places. Most of the time, all
we have to offer to others is our presence. In showing up, we can remind one another
that we’ve been there, too; we can offer a listening ear, or an affirming smile. We can
offer the love of God that has been given to us. We offer presence because God is
present with us. And we are only able to do so because God’s presence has saved us
from ourselves and the notion that we have anything to offer on our own. So often, we
want the right words to say or the right wisdom to share or the right gift to give but
presence matters more than any of those things. “It was no angel or messenger but his
presence that saved them.” It turns out I do have an answer to Pete’s question and so
do you. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human
hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” Thanks be to God for
showing up and giving us the gift we didn’t know we needed that has changed our lives

Re. Alex Rodgers

Assoc. Pastor for Faith Formation and Congregational Care

Decatur Presbyterian Church