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Laity Sunday celebrates people in the pews


12:00 P.M. EST Oct. 14, 2010

The Rev. MaryJane Pierce Norton leads children’s time at West Nashville United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.
The Rev. MaryJane Pierce Norton leads children’s time at West Nashville United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.
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“Blessed are the people who know the passwords of praise, who shout on parade in the bright presence of God.” — Psalm 89:15, The Message

When we join The United Methodist Church, we vow to support it with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. Like so many of the promises we seek to live out as individuals, these begin with the promises of God. God’s presence surrounds us, and thus we find ourselves promising our presence as well.

Seems like a little thing, doesn’t it? Just to be present? Throughout my lifetime, I’ve heard people scoff at the importance of presence. Yet, I in part find myself living out presence because of the witness I’ve had from others.

If I close my eyes and think back many more years than I want to acknowledge, I can visualize the sanctuary at Central Avenue United Methodist Church in Batesville, Ark., and see exactly where certain members sat. In my mind’s eye, I can even see their movements during the service.

Some turned and carried on active conversations with others around them. Some sat so attentive that they vibrated encouragement to the pastor and worship leaders. Some lovingly handled their hymnals not just to sing the hymns but also to thumb through during the service, pausing over those hymns with great meaning for them.

I would like to argue that, most often unconsciously, these dear people were modeling for me during my childhood and teen years the ministry of presence. There wasn’t any reason for me really to interact with some of these adults at church. They weren’t my Sunday school teachers. They weren’t my youth leaders. They didn’t serve snacks at vacation Bible school.

Witnesses to presence

But they were people I saw in my small town. They were the librarians, the postal carriers, the neighbors down the street, the shopkeepers. I saw them and watched them as they carried on the daily tasks of life, and I saw them in the pews at church, worshipping God and participating in Christian community.

One was a neighbor who lived up the street from us. I saw him mowing the lawn, playing with his boys and chatting with my parents. And I saw him, Sunday after Sunday, sitting in the second row from the front on the left side. A witness to presence.

One was my Girl Scout leader. I don’t ever remember her actively teaching or working with us in the church, but year after year, starting with Brownies and moving forward, she planned activities and led us in Scouts. And she was there, Sunday after Sunday, sitting about three rows from the back, left side on the center aisle side. A witness to presence.

One was my seventh-grade teacher. Long before I had her in seventh grade, I saw her in the hallways at our school. And I saw her every Sunday singing in the choir. A witness to presence.

I think the pastor at my current church on a recent Sunday summed it up best with this statement to the congregation: “For those of you who are visitors, welcome. We’re glad to see you here today. For those of you who are here Sunday after Sunday, welcome. I depend on seeing you and being sustained by your presence.”

Disciples transforming the world

Transformation sounds like — and is — a big concept. But transformation includes many small acts. One of the important ones is the witness of presence. By appearing, again and again, in sustaining ways, we say, “This is important in our lives. We’ll make time for worship and Christian fellowship.” We also say, “Although there are lots of competing things for my time, I choose to make this a priority.”

The linkage makes it such a wonderful witness. We see in the pews the people we see the rest of the week. Living a good life without a presence at church doesn’t allow us to reflect God’s love and care to the world. Being present on Sunday without living a good life doesn’t allow us to reflect God’s love and care. But together both form a powerful witness.

Think of it in this way. In many congregations on Christmas Eve, we light candles and lift them. Without even one of those candles, the light of presence dims. And our witness is less.

So, as congregations gather to observe Laity Sunday this week, think about the theme: Disciples Transforming the World: Through Presence. Don’t underestimate the witness of presence. Each light adds to the light of the next, witnessing to God’s presence surrounding us and our presence, one with another, mirroring God’s love and care.

*The Rev. MaryJane Pierce Norton serves as associate general secretary for leadership ministries at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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