The Christian calendar celebrates the birth of Christ differently than our culture celebrates Christmas. In our culture, we typically think Christmas is over on December 26th. We take the wreaths off our doors, put away the stockings and dismantle the tree for other year. The ancient Christian tradition sees December 25th as the beginning, not the end of Christmas. The end does not come until twelve days later with the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th, the revelation and arrival of the wise men from the East.
The wise men came to pay homage to a King as foretold by the prophets and an unusual star. The event was filled with wonder, awe and gratitude. We typically celebrate Epiphany in our churches on the first Sunday of the new year but this year, I found myself in a sister church on January 6th in a worship service that celebrated the life of a man who had given his life in service to pay homage to Christ every day. The man's name was Jim Lane.
I did not know Jim personally but I knew of his ministry. He spent countless volunteer hours establishing connections between United Methodists here in Arkansas. Jim had email before others had computers and he recognized the power of social networks while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was still experiencing puberty. Jim established an email network among us. It distributed all kinds of information - some relevant, some irrelevant, some irritating. We learned as we went along what was appropriate and what wasn't. It was a powerful tool of ministry. Our conference eventually took over the project but it was Jim's vision and leadership that connected us first. We should all be appreciative.
Since Jim had been such a connecting figure, I expected the service to be packed. I was wrong. There were many there from Jim's time at Levy United Methodist Church, a few retirees and the family. It was, however poorly attended, a beautiful service. Jim, as those who knew him would expect, had preselected the hymns and Scriptures. Revs. Davis Thompson and Leon Gray, and Dr. Earl Carter did an outstanding job retelling Jim's story and how his faith in Jesus Christ had shaped his life. Jim's life and death had something to say and those who gathered were blessed to hear it.
But where was everyone else? Had we already forgotten what Jim had done for us? Is our connection so broken that we no longer feel drawn to be there when one of the links that bind us together is lost?
In this day of text messages, twitter, social networks, and email, we have unlimited ability to communicate but, I wonder, have we lost the art of connecting? John Maxwell in his book, Everyone Communicates, Few Connect, reminds us that the ability to connect with others begins with understanding the value of people. If I have learned one thing in ministry, the greatest value we bestow one to another is with presence. Being there is the tweet you don't have to write or the sermon you do not have to preach. Jesus tells us whenever two or three are gathered, he will be there. If we are present with each other, he will be present with us.
Yes, we are all busy but perhaps we need to think seriously about how we are practicing ministry through presence. Being present to hear the re-telling of our stories helps us understand who we are and provides hope and strength for the ministries at hand. It also inspires gratitude for how their ministries have impacted ours. It adds value to our connection and adds value to our lives. When a colleague shows up to be present with us, it reminds us we are not alone. There have been crisis times in my own ministry when my colleagues have come to be present. In the chaos of my secretary being stabbed, it was the presence of those who came to be with me that provided a miracle of grace that guided me through what had to be done in my congregation. I have also felt the absence when I needed the presence of my brothers or sisters and felt left in the cold when the cavalry did not arrive.
Our nation is mourning the tragic deaths and wounds this week from the shooting in Arizona. There is great debate among the talking heads about the language we have employed in our political debates and our every day verbiage. Maybe it is just a symptom that we have forgotten presence as the most powerful tool in our communications tool chest. We write covenants, ministry plans, and vision statements but perhaps all those things would be unnecessary if we could strengthen our ministries with a real and unwritten covenant of presence. Previous generations seem to have understood this far more than the baby-boomers currently leading many of our congregations today. Somehow we think we are individually more powerful than we are collectively. That is neither biblically or theologically sound. Christianity was always a community based faith. So - while others blame and point fingers, I will look in the mirror and repent. There are times I should have been there but wasn't.
The wise men paid homage by traveling a great distance to be present with the Christ child. They did not send an email or post an update on Facebook. They were there to pay homage. They were there to connect and as a result, they were blessed and so were we.