The Gift of Presence


I have spent 40 years learning and practicing psychiatry. And I have spent a lifetime learning to know and to follow Jesus Christ. For at least part of my career I think that I tried to allow psychiatry to inform my faith. But now I would say that my faith informs and shapes my psychiatry. In other words I ask, “How does God see psychiatry?” and not “How does psychiatry see God?”.

This week I am teaching students at the Ukunda Missions School who are training as missionaries. The students are passionate about sharing their faith in Christ with those as yet unreached with the Gospel. They have sacrificed having families, or in some cases being with their families, in order to follow God’s call into missions. And they have sacrificed their desire for jobs and successful careers. It is as though they are, with Moses, esteeming the reproach they may receive for following and preaching Christ to be of greater value than the treasures this world has to offer.

As I face the students each day, I know that these young people, in their twenties, thirties and forties, are prepared to suffer and even to die for Christ. So I find myself praying, “God, of all the things you have shown me in my lifetime, including the things you have taught me from psychiatry, what is most important for me to share in these five days?”

It is rather like “special forces training.” I want these highly motivated young people to be equipped in every way for effective participation in the most glorious task of laboring and even dying in God’s harvest field. But time is short and we must impart the most essential elements.

I have sensed that my part has to do with helping the students become ‘incarnate’ to others even as Christ laid aside his glory and took on human form. The challenge is to lay aside our entitlements, our preferences and our prejudgements and to truly enter into the experience of another so that they can say, “Yes, you have understood me; yes, you have loved me. Now speak to me.”

Years ago one of my mentors, an atheist psychiatrist, said, “Our patients most value the gift of our ‘presence’ to them. They are willing to offer good money for that.” And for money I am willing to attempt to be fully present to my patients. But with those closest to me I often allow distractions to take me away from being fully present and truly listening to the needs of their hearts.

So I am using the Gospel of John chapters 13-17 as the foundation of my special forces training on “Servant Love.”

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