The Power of Presence: Part 2God, Identity , Theology
Contributed by: World Renew
In Power of Presence Part I, I spoke about a “partnership model of standing alongside others in the work of long-term change – comparable to the quiet, slow, humble presence of a midwife” inspired by this metaphor found in Isaiah:
“For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.”
We might learn more by asking: What does a good midwife do?
First of all, there is a huge difference in approach, a power difference that becomes obvious from the definitions—the word “obstetrician” comes from the Latin obstare, which means “to stand in front of.” (Rice 65) So it’s not uncommon to hear a male obstetrician say things like “I delivered her baby.” Really? You did? I’m pretty sure the labouring woman might have a slightly different take on that.
On the other side, the word midwife is originally from the Middle English mit wif meaning “with woman,” recognizing that her primary work is one of presence. And midwives say things like “I attended the birth.”
A midwife must be so sensitive to what is unspoken, what the labouring woman’s body requires from moment to moment, that over time she learns to anticipate what the woman needs. What would it mean for us if we attuned ourselves to God that way? If we did what a good midwife does, as Christiana Rice describes: “moaning as she moans, swaying as she sways, offering her own body as a stabilizing presence to lean on, a shoulder to cry on, and a hand to hold”? (Rice 181)
A friend of ours from Indiana who has been attending births for twenty-five years, explained how she sees this role. She said: “I hold space for the labouring woman and her family… She imprints on my language and body movements as I attune to her so that I can anticipate and sense in my own body what is happening to her. I never allow my own needs to become dominant. I submerge myself in order to serve her.” This is a role marked by deep humility and service.
One of the lovely things about seeing justice work this way is it locates the site of justice not always far away (where we bring our luggage to someone/somewhere else), but nearby, even within ourselves. Perhaps the most important justice work many of us need to do right is to remove the barriers that exist within our own minds—the deeply ingrained sexism and racism and elitism that allow us to hold on to our own privilege when dealing with those who are marginalized so we can celebrate our role as those who help.
What if instead, we joined our hands behind the necks of people who are suffering and moaned and swayed in sync with them (like a good midwife) to see what we could learn? What would God speak to us through them?
Maybe what is required from white middle-class Westerners, from men, from all those with socio-economic power, is not more religious or political activity that originates with us in control and our voices at the forefront, but simply more listening, more partnering and attunement to the justice work of others. (Rice 18)
And it may be that people of privilege have no greater justice work than coming to terms with the seeds of injustice that have taken root in our own hearts that allow greed and selfishness to flourish and cause irrevocable damage to others.
It’s difficult and complex work. But we don’t have to know all the answers or be able to do all the right things. All we need is the kind of fearlessness a midwife has as she reinvents her strategies for each birth, relying not on a predetermined program or step-by-step list of predictable solutions, but relying instead on a lifelong habit of attunement.
If we are changed by God at all, we are changed in community. And if we change culture at all, we do it as the exiles did: not by fighting Babylon, but by inhabiting it… (Rice 16)
By the slow, insistent work of living a new narrative alongside the narrative of empire…
By the humble work of listening and allowing ourselves to be changed by the stories of those around us…
By paying attention to the “deep longings of our neighbours and responding accordingly” (Rice 59) …
By taking our cues as a good midwife does, serving in humility where God is working to birth justice in this world.
All births are disruptive. They upend the status quo for the entire system of parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and friends who welcome that baby. Nothing will stay the same. And it is the same with the birth of the kingdom of God. Perhaps the most major disruptor to the status quo the world has ever known took place in the birth of Christ. Mary, a young woman from humble origins, was chosen to be the birth-giver of divine love into the world. And while she is pregnant, she bursts out with Mary’s Song in Luke 1, telling of massive disruptions:
- where the humble are lifted and the rulers thrown down from their thrones,
- where the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty,
- where the mercy of God lasts for generation after generation.
If we truly want to learn about living justice and doing mercy, perhaps we should unpack our “luggage,” put aside our need for control, and listen again to the song of a woman on the margins of society as she sings about the world God is labouring to birth among us, a world marked NOT by power and privilege but by humility and love.
It may be that the question we need to ask is not “How much did you do for justice?” but rather “How present were you to the groaning of God in the world? How well did you listen to the stories of others?” The world is full of stories that no one is listening to. And we are invited to hold space and be present and inhabit the communities we live in with the hope of a new narrative, because in this case, the birth of the kingdom of God is absolutely certain. As we are told in Isaiah 42, verse 3: “God will bring forth justice.”
But God will do this, not us. That’s the good news. And the good news is also this: if we choose to serve as midwives for the places God is labouring to bring forth justice, we will be changed.
My friend from Indiana told me that after 25 years of attending to women, she has been transformed: “It has increased my empathy, strengthened my intuition, challenged my implicit biases, taught me huge lessons about systems and institutions and how they work, tested my boundaries, and made me very humble.”
In short: it made her more like Jesus.
Where, in our world, is God groaning like a labouring woman to birth justice? Those are the places we should be, as midwives. And in many cases, these are the places World Renew is already working.
I thought I would end with some images from to consider as we think about this question. What would it mean for us to truly enter the experiences of land that is decimated or people who have been traumatized by disaster or forced to flee because of violence?
How might the power of presence begin to heal a broken world?
Listen again to these words from Isaiah 42:
“For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, gasp, and pant.”
“As God births, we attend, like midwives—always learning, always in awe, always changed. This is how Jesus changes the world.” (Rice 207)
Written by Rebecca Warren, World Renew Board Member