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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

the ministry of absence

Many years ago I was working for a month at a summer camp with a group of dear friends.  It was a rich and wonderful time in which we got to see God work and move and act in so many ways in the lives of teenagers from all over the country.  At the end of our month together, the person who had been directing our efforts spent time with each one of us helping us sift through the time together, mining it for hidden gems that might have slipped through the cracks unnoticed if we weren't paying really good attention.  As he and I sat together, talking about all that God was doing within and around me over the past month, he made a statement that has stuck with me to this day.  "You did a wonderful job," he said.  "But it seemed like you always had to be around, physically present, whenever anything was going on.  It seemed like you were only confident that God would work if you had your hands in it.  I wonder if you might need to learn how to trust God in your absence as much as you seem to trust him in your presence."

There is something to be said for the ministry of absence.  Henri Nouwen talked a lot about it in the book The Living Reminder, which I highly recommend!  And it seems to be part of what Jesus was getting at when he said to his friends, "It is best for you that I go away." (John 16:7, NLT)  It was in his absence that the Spirit would come and offer God's presence in a whole new way.  A whole new level of intimacy.  Absence was necessary to make space for a new presence.  I can't even begin to explain the mystery of all of this, but it does make me wonder if we shouldn't pay more attention to this phenomenon in our own lives and ministries.  We tend to think we always have to be present for things to go well.  I wonder though, if the truth isn't more that we actually have a desperate need to be present.  Heaven forbid that things would or could actually go well while we were absent.  What would that say about us?  We need, in some sad and insecure way, to be indispensable. As a result, we end up filling all the space and leaving no room for God to move and to act and to speak.  We've taken up all the space with our own actions and words and presence.  Therefore an emptying needs to take place, an absence needs to occur, in order for God to fill that empty space with his Spirit, his Voice, and his work.  Then, and only then, can we, as Henri Nouwen puts it, "Be the way without being in the way."  I think it is definitely something to ponder.

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