As a pastor at Heartland Church, I have the opportunity to see hundreds (if not thousands) of people each week. People may think I never get lonely because of the amount of interactions I have, but that is not necessarily always true. As a pastor, but more so as a human being, I need to have personal and intimate interactions with people. Community is vital. Community might be messy. But that’s what living in a community is like, right?
I tend to be an introvert (that may shock some of our church members!), and I can function at a high level being by myself. After the stay at home order was announced, I immediately felt the pressure or desire to simply be able to shake someone’s hand. Better yet, give someone a hug. I have a beautiful wife (that I love to hug and kiss by the way!) and two boys (4 & 2), but I still had this inclination to be able to not only receive a handshake or a hug from someone but to give a handshake or a hug. I typically did not think about “needing” people to surround myself with until I realized the importance of “needing” to be surrounded by people. Shouldn’t we take that initiative, though? Not just waiting for someone to be present with us, but us being intentionally present with someone else. You might say, “I am having such a difficult time right now and I simply do not have the capacity to do that.” I have been there. I know what that feels like.
I did have the opportunity to do that when my mother-in-law, Connie, was diagnosed with stage four oral cancer. When we heard the news that she was given a maximum of four years to live with surgery, we immediately packed our bags and traveled six hours to Georgia (where my wife and I are from) to spend some time with her. She then told us as best as she could that she would likely never speak again because they would have to remove her tongue and she would be on a feeding tube for the duration of her life. Tough news to hear from one of the most caring and loving individuals I have ever met. She is the best mother-in-law I have ever had! She is the only one I have ever had, but still!
She and I had a very personal conversation while just the two of us were watching my two boys and niece play in the yard. She asked me with tears in her eyes, “Do you think they (her grandchildren) will know that I love them even though I can’t tell them I love them?” I replied, “The times I have felt loved the most have been when people are intentionally present. The gift of presence can be way more powerful than words. We have one mouth and two ears. It’s usually better to listen before we speak and most people that “love,” do exactly that: they listen. I can honestly say that my most memorable moments in knowing I am loved by those closest to me are not necessarily their words, but their actions. The act of presence can be such a gift.”
She cried. I cried (and I am not even a crier!). She had her surgery that lasted twelve hours recently and she ended up having 100% of her tongue and a portion of her vocal cord removed. She is also on a feeding tube and temporarily on a trach. Needless to say, her life and our life have changed quite a bit. She was able to go home after spending twelve days in the hospital. A few days later my oldest son, Scout, was turning four. He was so excited (birthdays are a big deal in our home!). The first person to FaceTime him on his birthday was my mother-in-law, who is his “CiCi.” She did not speak. She did not have great reception. It was honestly a little messy and it was honestly a little frustrating. But one thing I do know––Scout knew that he was loved.
She may not have been there physically. She may not have been able to say anything. But she was “there.” As a younger pastor, I still have so much to learn about being compassionate and present, because quite honestly it does not come natural to me. But that is not an excuse to go about my business and not care for others. I am called to love my neighbor… even when I do not feel like loving very much. You may want someone to “be there” for you but have you “been there” for someone else? Love your neighbor today… and tomorrow… and the next day! It might be a FaceTime or Zoom meeting, but as long as you are “there,” you are helping and loving your neighbor. We cannot do this by ourselves. We need people. Even if you do not know what to say: Be There.
Mitch Johnson is the Discipleship Pastor at Heartland Church in Winter Haven. You can reach him at:
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