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The Gift of Presence: A Guide to Helping Those Who Suffer
Joe. E. Pennel Jr., MDiv.’64, DMin.’77
Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009.

pp. 9-11


My vocation as a pastor has drawn me to writing this book. For over forty years I have stood beside those who suffer. I have seen people suffer as a result of illness, broken relationships, moral failure, the loss of a loved one, and the loss of income. These experiences have caused me to reflect on the meaning of suffering in both theoretical and practical ways. The aim of this book is to provide practical yet substantive help for anyone desiring to reach out to family, friends, and strangers who are caught in the tangle of suffering.

Suffering is a universal theme that joins people at every point on earth. In a strange and mystical way, it makes us aware of our transcendence and destines us to go beyond ourselves. It happens, as we know, at different moments on the path of life. It takes place in various and different dimensions. It evokes either compassion or despair. It consoles, or it intimidates. It is tangible with an intangible meaning. It leads to either joy or despair. Yet one thing is certain: Suffering is inseparable from the life of humanity.

It is my hope that The Gift of Presence will be a treasure for those who want to develop a better understanding of suffering, who desire to know what to say and not to say, and what to do and not to do, and who seek practical resources that will enable them to be truly present with those in need.

Ministering to those who are suffering does not mean that we understand all there is to know about suffering or have all the “answers,” because suffering is, at best, an intangible mystery. It simply means that we are present to those who suffer so that they might not suffer alone. This handbook provides practical suggestions for those who care enough to walk alongside those who are traveling the winding path of suffering. It also provides help for understanding the different responses individuals can have to suffering and addresses some common questions they often have about God during such an experience by reaching out in practical and compassionate ways.

We offer those who are suffering a sacred gift when we agree to be present to their pain. Being with them in meaningful ways can provide a source of safety and comfort. It also is a gift to us because it is in such moments that we experience the Holy.

Robert Browning Hamilton’s poem “Along the Road” tells of walking a mile with Pleasure and learning nothing despite her constant chatter. In contrast, when he walks with silent Sorrow, he learns many things. As we assist those who are suffering, we also learn something of great value for the living of these days.


Joe Pennel is a professor of the practice of leadership at Vanderbilt Divinity School. The Gift of Presence: A Guide to Helping Those Who Suffer is his most recent publication.


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