Practicing the Gift of Presence in the Digital Age

One of the greatest problems I have faced in both pastoral ministry and health care chaplaincy is the ability to be present. Chaplaincy formative theories often utilize the language of being a non-anxious presence when relationally connecting with people. In an age of alarmist news media, social media, cell phone, tablet and television screens, and copious other distractions, it can be nearly impossible to be present in the moment with another human being. The challenge for pastoral ministers is to have the capacity to be present with others for the sake of relational connection, empathy, compassion and the communication of the gospel.

The idea of being present with others is often framed from a psychological lens, but there are plenty of biblical examples that show the necessity of being present for the sake of connection. In the story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38–42, we see Martha triangulating Jesus by asking him to command Mary to join her in the household tasks. I have often heard Jesus’ chastisement of Martha told from the perspective that she was being a “busybody” or failing to value the teaching of Jesus available to her. I want to propose another avenue of thinking about this passage: Jesus is inviting Martha to be present.

The problem that Martha is facing is not her hard work ethic. Jesus does not criticize Martha’s busyness. In verse 40, the English Standard Version the author labels Martha as “distracted with much serving.” In verse 41, Jesus tells Martha she is “anxious and troubled about many things.” Jesus contrasts this way of being to Mary who he declares has “chosen the good portion.” This may seem strange since Mary was only sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to his teaching. Jesus is inviting Martha into this sacred space of being present. Jesus is not criticizing Martha’s hard work ethic or her chore list. Jesus is offering Martha the profound gift of letting go of those responsibilities from taking over her mental, emotional and spiritual peace. Jesus is inviting Martha to become rather than do.

The Lure of Shiny Objects

The world of technology invites the user into an experience of busyness. For those with a natural propensity to find identity in consistently being busy, technology is an invitation to obsession, addiction and distraction. Technology tricks the user into believing they are being purposeful, meaningful, and working by lighting up the rewards center of the brain each time an email is checked, or a status updated. With social media there is the added temptation to believe that one is connecting with another person. The problem with these beliefs and behaviors is that the human being is connecting physically with an object, whether it is a phone, tablet, or computer. If Martha was bombarded with the distractions present in first-century Palestine, how many more distractions are available in the instant culture of the 21st century?

In Matthew 6:25–34, Jesus gives a discourse on anxiety. “Do not be anxious” is a command of Christ. I wonder how often this command goes unheeded in many churches and its inversion celebrated. Jesus states in Matthew 6:34, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” This statement is an invitation from Christ to be present. Jesus is communicating that being anxious is a state of thinking ahead or thinking about the future. Being present is being mindful and aware of our current context. Being present allowed Mary to connect with Jesus because she was not thinking ahead to all the household chores that needed to be completed. In a modern relational context, being present is the ability to be fully engaged with the person in front of us rather than the milieu of non-present individuals trapped in the subconscious of our phones.

The Spiritual Discipline of Presence

I occasionally met with a Christian mentor while serving as a pastor of a rural church. After we would meet, I often left with a profound sense of loss and a feeling of disconnection. After reflecting on our visits, I realized that every time his phone rang (which seemed excessive) he would take the phone call and talk on his phone while sitting directly across from me. Not wanting to disconnect from the physical, I would often stare at him while he sat across from me and talked on his cell phone. The phone calls felt intrusive. I was staring at another human being having a conversation with someone who was not present. This Christian mentor was not able to effectively mentor and minister with me because he was distracted. I cannot help but wonder if the ministry and connection he was attempting with the person on the phone was also limited. In other words, he was quasi-connecting with two people but ultimately connecting with no one.

Being present and connecting relationally with others is more than good business practice. Being present is a spiritual discipline. Being present is an act of worship and obedience to Christ who calls us into a different way of being in the world. Jesus’ call to Martha is an invitation into mindful awareness of the beauty of the moment. It is an invitation to relinquish control of our futures and focus on the one place in which we can have an effect and impact: the present moment. It is an alluring deception to believe that we can control the future. Our distractions waste our lives and hinder intimacy in the relationships into which God has called us. As a minister I have often found myself thinking about the sermon I need to prepare, the Sunday school class to teach, and emails that needed to be sent while “ministering” with those in the congregation. Jesus’ invitation to be present is a spiritual discipline and a call to lay aside those worries and concerns.

Putting Away Technological Things

A spiritual discipline I have employed as a health care chaplain is to put away technology during times of relational connection. This habit or spiritual discipline of limiting technology reminds me that my greatest responsibility in any given moment is the person in front of me. I cannot “be” with the person on the phone, but the person in front of me is an opportunity to have real relational connection. The temptation in this boundary is to ignore the phone when it chimes, dings, or buzzes. The spiritual discipline is to remind yourself that the ability to relationally connect with others depends upon the ability to be present. This is true in worship and connection with God. As much as we focus on limiting distractions in worship settings, we must also be ruthless in limiting distractions when connecting and being present with people.

In an age of distractions, it is necessary for pastoral ministers to do the deep work of being present with those they have been called to serve. Being present is more than just wishful thinking, it requires the spiritual discipline of limiting distractions, mindfully focusing on the present, and valuing the relational connection with the person in the current moment. Being present is an invitation from Christ to trust our future to him and to desire authentic intimacy with God and with the person directly in front of us. Being present is a rejection of the tyranny of the urgent, of distractions projected by others. Being present is a life-giving invitation to receive from God and others the gifts that they have to share.

Josiah Hoagland
Josiah Hoagland

Josiah Hoagland is a hospice chaplain and Army Reserve chaplain living and serving in Northern Minnesota.