My friend David wheelchairwas diagnosed with Motor Neurone (Lou Gehrig’s) Disease in 1986. He was in his forties and was in a good place both in his career as well as in church. By 1992 he was a quadriplegic confined to his wheelchair and needing help for all his basic needs. His wife Dorothy spent each day attending to his physical, emotional and spiritual needs with nary a complaint. But those of us close to her knew that the constant caregiving did take its toll on her. So we rallied round to help.

With Dorothy’s trusty station wagon, we were able to take David far and wide (within Singapore, that is). Wednesday mornings were spent having breakfast at the East Coast beach where Sammy and Tammy, their two Labrador Retrievers, would endlessly chase the waves. Friday afternoons saw us meeting at their home for four-o’clock tea and prayer. Some of us were regulars, while others would drop in occasionally to join us in prayer. As the disease progressed, the number of people who came dwindled. They were no less concerned or caring, but David’s progressive muscular dystrophy led to a marked deterioration in his ability to speak. This made communication difficult and many were worried that they would frustrate David by their inability to understand what he was trying to say to them.

And so they stayed away.

Which was such a shame, because David enjoyed the company. And even though he was no longer contributing to scintillating conversations or holding forth on matters theological, he was party to all that was going on. More than that, he knew that his friends cared enough to be there. Like the friends in this passage of Scripture:

When Job’s three friends heard about all this calamity that had happened to him, each of them came from his own country – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to come to show sympathy for him and to console him. But when they gazed intently from a distance but did not recognize him, they began to weep loudly. Each of them tore his robes, and they threw dust into the air over their heads. Then they sat down with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, yet no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great.
(Job 2:11-13 NET)

Can you imagine sitting alongside someone for seven days and seven nights wihout saying anything? “The friends came to Job in his need. They weep with him and sit quietly with him. Their quiet ministry of presence speaks loudly to those who think that only words heal.” (“No One Spoke a Word”, in A Year with God: Living Out the Spiritual Disciplines, eds. Richard J. Foster and Julia L. Roller. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009.) We only visited with David a few hours each week, and yet silence sat uneasily among us. Alas, like Job’s friends subsequently, many felt that they needed to say or pray things in order to be of help to David. And some, like Job’s friends, caused more pain with their words than if they had stayed silent. There were those who suggested that David was in the condition he was in because he had “unconfessed sin in his life”. A lesser man than he would have blown a fuse. But he smiled benignly and showed them the wisdom of silence.

Like Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1979), David found that God could use him far more mightily as a result of his “woundedness”. He once said that God was doing so much more through him in his incapacitated state than He would have done when he was riding high and enjoying worldly success. David was able to share with others how to be victorious in the midst of suffering. And he could do it with authenticity. So those of us who learnt to practice the ministry of presence with David found ourselves blessed by the richness of the precious lessons he had acquired in adversity. And in case you think that we had a special gift of reading his mind (since he could barely be heard when he tried to speak), let me assure you that we did not. Mere mortals, we had to painstakingly read his lips, or make use of alphabet boards in order to retrieve the gems he had in store.

And so it cuts both ways — our silent companionship was a blessing, and, because we were silent, we were able to “hear” all that God was saying to us through David. It’s a lot like our times spent in prayer in the Father’s presence. It is in those moments when we silently dwell in His presence that God often speaks loudest. Which is not to say that we should not bring our requests and petitions to our heavenly Father. Our dependence on him blesses His heart, I am sure. But when we are so full of chatter about our prayer needs, God can’t get a word in edgeways. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in Life Together (New York, NY: Harper, 1954, 79),

Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the Word of God. We are silent before the Word because our thoughts are already directed to the Word, as a child is quiet when he enters his father’s room. We are silent after hearing the Word because the Word is still speaking and dwelling within us.

In 2000, David slipped into the presence of the Lord…peacefully, in his sleep. He had blessed so many of us even though his words were few. So, don’t let your awkwardness or inhibitions stop you from blessing someone with the ministry of presence. Who knows, you may be blessed in turn.