Bonhoeffer, Insignificance, and the Ministry of Presence
“He has made the lowly and humble to be lifted up. That is the wonder of wonders, that God loves the lowly: ‘God has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.’
Not because of some remarkable human trait in her (Mary), not because of some great piety, not because of her modesty, not because of any particular virtue in her, but apart from any of these characteristics, only because God’s gracious will is to love the humble and lowly, the insignificant. He chose to make them great.
When we reach a point in our lives at which we are not only ashamed of ourselves, but believe God is ashamed of us, too, when we feel so far from God, more than we have ever felt in our lives, then and precisely then, God is nearer to us than he has ever been. It is then that he breaks into our lives. It is then that he lets us know that that feeling of despair is taken away from us, so that we may grasp the wonder of his love, his nearness to us, and his grace.
Who of us would want to celebrate Christmas correctly? Who will finally lay at the manger all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all pride, and all selfishness? Who is content to be lowly and to let God alone be high? Who sees the glory of God in the humble state of the child in the manger? Who says with Mary: ‘The Lord has been mindful of my humble state. My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior?”
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who strongly opposed the Nazi regime, spoke these words while preaching to a London congregation during an Advent service on December 17, 1933. Bonhoeffer’s words are especially significant considering the world in which he lived. His home country, a land with no regard, rather a hatred for the lives of the marginalized. His call to recognize the “humble” and lay down self is poignant for its time and echoes true today.
For years, I’ve visited my mother at the memory care facility she calls home. Each visit, I pass wheelchair bound residents, like my mother, enroute to her room. Lined, worn faces greet me as I make my way through the corridors. Some smile, meeting my gaze hesitantly, as if unsure of a response. Some stare expressionless, as if they’ve lost any hope that someone might find them worthy of a greeting. A simple, warm smile and a hello are nearly always met with a smile. If not a smile, aged eyes soften with gratitude and meet my gaze.
Through the years, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting with many residents, listening to their stories. Stories of real people living real lives. Like the former Tigers baseball player, the woman who came from Stalinist Russia, or the spunky man who made his living as a jockey, traveling the country with his horse. Every time, I walk away moved by their stories. The idea they might consider themselves beyond worth is heartbreaking.
How does a person lose hope for even the smallest of kindnesses?
Ministry of presence. I first heard this phrase years ago and was immediately struck by its beauty. The simple act of being fully present, recognizing the person before you, meeting them, if not in speech, but by offering the gift of your full presence.
In our rush-about, 140-character world, it’s practically a sacrifice to pause long enough to meet those placed in our path. Yet, these are the very people whose world’s can change from such an experience, even the briefest of encounters. The elderly dearly need our ‘presence,’ but there are so many others.
It’s worth asking, “Who do we come across each day that might desperately need our ‘presence?'”
All of us can reach a place of feeling marginalized and unknown. Maybe, it’s the young teenage boy behind the cash register at the convenience store or the overworked, exhausted waitress that brought you colder than desired coffee. Perhaps, the mom of littles, in desperate need of sleep and unable to stop her youngest from howling through your flight home.
Perhaps like me, you’ve had times of feeling insignificant. Maybe, even now. I’ve been the beneficiary of the gift of the ‘ministry of presence’ countless times in my life. A dear friend, who sadly is longer with us, was especially gifted in this ministry. Her offering of presence in times of hardship, sometimes by the simple act of sitting with me in silence was a true gift. Her very presence, enough to bring relief and make me feel recognized, known.
Know this…the God who stooped to be born in a manger, who chose to rid himself of divine splendor and glory…sought and met a seemingly insignificant young girl of extraordinarily humble means and chose her to bring his light into this dark world… that He might meet: the forgotten that they might know they are not forgotten, the insignificant that they might know just how significant they are, and the hopeless to offer them hope.
Christmas is only Christmas, because it’s the birth of hope. The miracle is – God with us. Emmanuel.
God chose to be with us…with you. You are not forgotten. You are not insignificant.
May you “…grasp the wonder of his love, his nearness to us, and his grace…” this Christmas.