Stand By

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Know any people in your life you can count on just to be there? You never have to check their availability. Paul had a friend like that. “Luke alone is with me” (2 Tim. 4:11). What St. Paul writes in his prison letter to Timothy speaks volumes about Luke and helps us coin what might be called the ministry of presence.

Typically, ministries for followers of Jesus fall under “service in the name of Christ”—or preaching or teaching or prayer or the guidance ministry of younger disciples. And each is needed. But another ministry, perhaps underrated, is the uncomplicated and simple act of staying when others have left.

We don’t know all of the tasks and roles that Luke fulfilled, though his work as a physician certainly came in handy. Paul calls him “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14). We know that Luke recorded what he saw and later wrote it down in what became the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts. But Luke’s main role in the New Testament narratives seems to be his faithful presence: staying with his friend Paul, even on the prison ship journey from Caesarea across the Mediterranean Sea, via shipwreck at Malta, and finally arriving at Rome. He also stays by during Paul’s last days of prison in Rome (Acts 28). And because Paul mentions Luke’s company, we recognize a ministry that might otherwise go unnoticed.

With unhurried presence alone, people that linger bring the still waters of the Shepherd’s peace. In those moments, unscheduled healings occur simply because someone sat by and said little.

One Saturday afternoon, our daughter Elizabeth and her Girl Scout troop skated at the public Berkeley ice arena. I went along but, tiring quickly, stood at the edge and watched our girls go by. One by one they would skate toward me, stop dramatically, and say, “See that, Mister Palmer?” I cheered them on: “Mary, you look great!” “Wow, Jane, you can skate backward as well as forward!” Then something happened. Random girls and boys unconnected with our outing began skating boldly toward me. “Hey Mister, see that?” That day, I realized that people feel anchored by an encouraging observer—particularly if that observer sees and remarks on their best moments. I was the observer; I paid attention, and that in itself was important. I also had a reason to be there: I was an adult attached to a troop of little girls.

The mystery of the Ministry of Presence is not that we did a thing remarkable or memorable, but that the friend that wanted us to stay was not left alone.

Ironically after the victory of Easter, Peter had a dark hour. Jesus had won the battle, but Peter could not forget he had denied his friend. “I’m going fishing,” Peter announced, and the next line in John’s gospel moves me: “The disciples said, ‘We are going too.’” All night they fished together. And though at a breakfast encounter the next morning Jesus would resolve Peter’s haunting failure, through the night, James and John, Nathaniel and Thomas ministered to Peter with this uncomplicated act: They stayed with him.