Rolane and I took home many impressions from our visit to Israel back in 1994. Not the least among them was the image of shepherds ‘abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock’. As we hurried in true western fashion from one important site to another, we came upon one or more of these caretakers seemingly just ‘hanging out’ with their wooly charges.
We were impressed because their demeanor was in such sharp contrast to the model of shepherding we often see in our churches and ourselves. In the midst of hurrying about being faithful feeders, guides, guardians and healers of our people, we often neglect the power and blessing of just being there with them.
I’ll never forget my first funeral. A community leader in his 30’s had committed suicide, leaving a grieving widow and two young sons. I drove to her house wondering what I should say, what verses I should read, and how I should proceed with the arrangements. A few years back this dear woman and one of her sons visited us here in southern California. Though 26 years had passed, the memory of that terrible time was fresh. Asking her what she remembered about our first meeting that day, she remarked that all she really cared about was that I was there – just there. She didn’t remember the prayer, but that I prayed. No memories of the funeral sermon, either, just that God’s Word comforted.
Could it be that instead of worrying that our sermons be profound, our counsel insightful, and our organizational skills impeccable, we should rejoice in realizing the incredible blessings that being with our disciples brings to them, and to us? Pondering this question recently, I jotted down a list of such delights. It’s only a start. I’m sure you can add many more, so consider this a primer to get you started.
Joy – “..In Thy presence is fullness of joy; in Thy right hand there are pleasures forever” (Ps. 16:11). David extols the blessing of having God near, the Giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). When we are with those God has given us to love, there comes a deep sense of His goodness and presence. Rolane and I experience this every time we are with our kids and grand kids.
Courage – As Joshua was preparing to enter the Promised Land, God encouraged him by saying “Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9) One can hear this comfort echoed in Jesus’ words after He charged His disciples with a challenging mission “.. and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). I vividly recall my first trombone solo in 6th grade. My nerves were on edge as I prepared to play in front of strangers. Then I spotted dad and mom several rows back. Their presence bathed me in calm. Here were two people who loved me, no matter how I played that day. That was all I needed.
Protection – It is interesting to look at Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Among other things, he warned these men that after he left “savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock..” (v. 29). Apparently his very physical presence had served as a defense against false teachers interested in drawing disciples after them. One is reminded of a familiar story at the time of Christ’s birth, where it is written that “in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). As with these servants of old, being with our people enables us to defend them against the numerous and seductive schemes of the evil one.
Growth – Continuing to look at Paul’s example, it is evident that while being with his people, they grew in their spiritual life (Acts 20:18-21, 25-27, 31), and in his absence believers often struggled to stay the course (Gal. 4:18-20). Yes, the Spirit generates all growth, but He uses the presence and ministry of other believers (whether professional staff or laypersons) as instruments in the process. And this process is multifaceted. Living with people can be messy and challenging, even as Paul relates concerning the Ephesians (Acts 19 provides ample testimony of this). As we are with our people, we become part of that wonderful process through which the Spirit shapes us into the image of the Son. While solitude is an effective spiritual discipline, the Christian is designed to grow in community. As pastors, we can promote spiritual growth in our people just by being with them. Amazing!
Intimacy – As Paul left the Ephesian elders at Miletus, we observe a tender moment. “And they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him, grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they should see his face no more” (Acts 20:37-38). There is an unmistakable sense that these men shared a deep and abiding love for one another. Good shepherds know their sheep, and that only comes from being with them. To the stranger, our twin daughters can be indistinguishable. But Rolane and I know them as two distinct and unique creations of God. Our years in their presence, observing, listening, experiencing and sharing have brought an intimacy with our kids that warms our hearts. And now we’re building that privilege with our sons-in-law and grand children.
In our technological day, aside from being physically present with our people, we can be ‘virtually’ with them, too. I do not believe email, smart phones and social media are enough, but they certainly do allow us to keep in touch like never before. Just remember that even with these conveniences, nothing is quite as good as ‘being there’.
As we continue in life and ministry, let us be sure to appreciate the blessedness of presence. Spend time with family, friends, neighbors and church members. Relish their presence. And thank God that He loved us by sending His own Son to be with us – Emmanuel!