“When We Are Called to Bring Nothing but Our Presence”
A Sermon by Jennifer Johnson, Student Minister
Delivered on Sunday, November 25, 2018
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“We cannot change the world by a new plan, project, or idea. We cannot even change other people by our convictions, stories, advice and proposals, but we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, lay aside their occupations and pre-occupations and listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their center.”
—HENRI NOUWEN, from The Wounded Healer
Right around this time of year, the adult members of my extended family begin scheming to take home top honors at our annual Yankee Swap gift exchange, the highlight of our Christmas Eve gathering. The object is to go home with the best gift; but what most of us really want are bragging rights. We compete and sometimes go to great lengths to bring the most coveted gift. One year, our family friend Dave brought a gift-wrapped tub of live lobsters.
Going strong for more than two decades, our Yankee Swap is raucous and lively with lots of good natured teasing. But if I’m honest, I have to say it’s not my favorite. It stresses me out and adds one more errand to my already too-long holiday to-do list.
Maybe the Yankee Swap stresses me out because it touches some old childhood angst. I used to get really nervous going to my friends’ birthday parties. I worried, every time, that my gift would be found wanting—and that, in turn, I would be found wanting. After my parents divorced, money got extra tight and the budget for birthday presents was lean. When I was invited to a party for my friend and her twin sister, my mom insisted that I bring just one gift for the twins to share; that was all we could afford. I still remember the heat rising in my face as I approached their front door with one gift in hand, while all the other kids had two.
Of course, no true friendship was ever gained or lost by virtue of a birthday present. Our family’s Christmas Eve bragging rights are short-lived. Excepting Dave’s lobsters, no one remembers for long who brought which gift—the rice cooker versus the smart phone charger versus the coffee table book.
And yet there’s something to it, all that childhood angst and my family’s high-spirited competition. Our gift-giving rituals, I believe, signify a deeper desire to connect, to be seen, valued and affirmed.
In this morning’s opening video, Brené Brown teaches that empathy fuels connection. Not sandwiches or sweaters or rice cookers. Not advice or solutions, and especially not “at least” comparisons. We connect mostly deeply not by giving each other things or even words. We connect most deeply when we offer nothing more and nothing less than our compassionate, attentive presence. We connect by showing up.
It seems so very basic. It seems like we shouldn’t need TED Talks or animated public service videos to remind us of such a basic truth. But apparently we do. Just yesterday morning I stumbled upon this Facebook post from the news source Vox:
“What a lot of people don’t appear to understand is that the single easiest way to make friends is to show up when it matters — and the single easiest way to lose friends is to, well, not.”
A lot of people don’t appear to understand this.
When I apply this basic truth to my own life and experiences, I realize that many teachers have been showing me all along that what matters most is showing up. But those teachers and their lessons have been obscured by a culture of greed and consumption that would have us believe we are wanted and valued most for our material resources, for our spending power and social status; for what we can give, rather than for who we are.
This morning I’d like to give four of my most memorable teachers their due, by shining a light on the lessons they have taught me about showing up with nothing but our presence.
The first of my teachers is a four year old girl named Norah Wood, whom I’ve never met but who made national headlines when she forged an unexpected friendship with an 81-year-old widower named Dan Peterson. I first heard the story of Norah and Dan on WBUR’s Kind World broadcast more than a year ago, and it has stayed with me since.
The day Norah met Dan was a special day, her fourth birthday. She was happily scanning the grocery store aisles from her perch in a shopping cart steered by her mother. In front of the dairy case she caught a glimpse of a sullen, gray-haired man.
“I thought he needed a friend,” she told the reporter, “because he was sad.”
Understanding that Dan was down in the valley, Norah shined her little light in his direction. “Hi, old person,” she chimed out loud. “Today’s my birfday.” Tickled by her sweetness, Dan chatted with Norah for a few minutes. She asked him to take a birthday photo and reached out for a hug.
Norah could sense that Dan was sad, but she couldn’t know that he was utterly despondent with grief after losing his wife six months earlier. According to the reporter, “A darkness had settled over Dan that he couldn’t seem to escape.” Dan was in a dark hole, alone and hopeless, until Norah climbed down a ladder to be with him in his sadness.
Norah’s mom Tara posted the photo of the two of them to Facebook and a mutual friend recognized Dan. She commented that it was the first time she had seen him smile since his wife had died. Tara understood that something special had transpired between her daughter and the stranger. Moved by Dan’s grief, she arranged to bring Norah to visit him.
From that first moment in the grocery store a lasting friendship bloomed. Dan is no longer in the valley. When Norah brought the light of her presence to Dan, he rediscovered the light in his own life.
“Norah got me out of the loop. Gave me something to live for,” he said. “It’s like the sun came out, you know?”
Do you know? Have you been down in the valley? In the dark? By your self? It may be me or it may be you. May be your sibling or your cousin, too.
I do know. The deepest valley I have known is the one I landed in after the birth of my youngest daughter twelve years ago, when postpartum depression hit me hard. Which brings me to my second teacher, my sister Kate, who met me in that valley.
My daughter Carly was born with bright, expressive eyes and a sweet, fuzzy forehead. She smiled big, happy smiles, right from the get-go. But in the first weeks of her life I could barely summon a smile in return. I went through the sleep-deprived motions of newborn parenting, but could feel almost nothing—no delight, no joy, no hope—just the dull, heavy weight of responsibility and the tight, gut-clench of shame.
My closest people rallied around me. They wanted to make it all better. Carly and her older sister Amelia needed me to be better. And I did get better, eventually—with their support, therapy, medication, and time. But before I could muster the will to get better, I needed someone to be with me for a while in my dark hole. That someone was Kate.
Kate lived in Chicago at the time, and I was here in Massachusetts. She established a ritual phone call with me, at 9 o’clock each night, after I had crawled into bed for my first brief shift of sleep before it was time to nurse again. I don’t remember what we talked about. The words didn’t much matter. What mattered was her loving presence in the darkness. What mattered was that she listened, and cared, and stayed with me until I grew drowsy enough for sleep. Sometimes I just sobbed into the phone, and she whispered back how sorry she was for my pain. Kate called every night without fail until, little by little, I could see the light that led me to recovery.
Last summer I completed my chaplaincy internship at a hospital in Worcester. There I met my third teacher, a patient named Shawn.
At the start of the summer unit, the new chaplain interns preoccupied ourselves with tools of the trade—prayer books, bibles, referral lists, holy oil, prayer shawls, and sacraments; anything to keep the suffering of our patients at a safe distance.
I quickly learned from my patients that my toolkit was rarely wanted or needed. What they wanted and needed was my presence. I learned this lesson most poignantly from Shawn, whom I met each week on the dialysis unit. Shawn is forty-five years old with end-stage renal disease. He was my most enthusiastic patient—always eager for a visit, though he was often evasive in his sharing. He only vaguely alluded to his past struggles, the trouble he got into in his youth, and the specter of his own mortality.
Our conversations were sometimes stumbling and awkward, but Shawn always asked me to come back. I couldn’t quite figure out why. . . Until our last visit when Shawn revealed his reason and taught me a lesson I will carry throughout my ministry. He said he felt like he had a light bulb inside of him and when I showed up and listened to him and cared about what he had to say, he felt the wattage of his inner light increase.
On the heels of my chaplaincy internship, I began my student ministry at First Parish, and here I am learning new lessons about presence from you, this justice-seeking, light-shining congregation, my fourth and final teacher. Whenever I enter the church, whatever the time of day, I am greeted by a Sanctuary volunteer stationed in the foyer. Volunteers who show up around the clock in body and spirit to shine a light for our guest in Sanctuary who faces deportation, and to forge new bonds of love and community with her and her family. Volunteers who are supported by a congregation that voted to take the risk of showing up against a racist and inhumane immigration system.
It is here, through Rev. Annie’s work with the Boston Immigrant Justice Accompaniment Network, that I was given the opportunity to show up myself at Immigration Court as a sponsor for an asylum-seeker from Honduras. For several months, she was unjustly imprisoned first in Texas and then in Massachusetts simply for presenting herself at the southern border. As I sat in the court room beside a team of court accompaniers from Annie’s network, my sponsee was brought into the courtroom by a sheriff’s deputy. She was clad in an orange prison jumper with shackles on her wrists and ankles. When the judge heard her bond case, all I had to do was raise my hand to signal my presence as her sponsor, and to affirm her connection to a community of love and humanity.
Here, among all of you, I am learning that we cannot wait to stumble upon a dark hole or deep valley where people are struggling alone in despair. As people of faith and compassion, we are called to cast our gaze in search of the dark holes. We are called to proactively shine our light for friends and strangers alike in unfamiliar valleys. We are called to risk our own comfort and to breach unjust barriers to reach those valleys.
“Rarely can a response make something better,” says Brené Brown. “What makes something better is connection.” There is real power in the connections we make with each other. With nothing but our presence, we can make the sun come out for a stranger; we can light the way to a sister’s recovery; we can turn up the wattage of a suffering patient’s inner light; and we can shine the light of liberation for our shackled neighbors. You taught me this, you and Norah, and Kate, and Shawn.
Who are your teachers?
I’m still planning on taking part in my family’s Yankee Swap this year. I’m not opposed to gift-giving rituals, and I appreciate the indulgences of the season. I like to create a little magic for loved one with pretty packages, shiny new toys, and wishes granted. What I am against is a culture of greed and consumption that prioritizes status and stuff and distracts us from the true gifts of human connection. When we offer up or presence, in love and compassion, we reap the gift of connection as much as we give it.
When we brighten the lives of our friends and neighbors, we increase our own wattage, too. And when we cannot sing like the angels, we can still, and always, change the world with our love.
“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” —Albert Schweitzer
“When the Sun Came Out” by Erika Lantz, WBUR Kind World
Brené Brown on Empathy, an RSA Short
Boston Immigrant Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN, pronounced beyond)