Longing for Presence

It’s been a while since I’ve written down some thoughts, but given our current and ongoing circumstances in dealing with COVID-19 I thought that this would be a good time to do so.

One of the biggest things I’ve been missing through these past several weeks is the presence of friends. Being face-to-face with another live human being who wasn’t my wife or kids, holding a conversation, and even hugging them. Those are the things I’ve been missing the most. I know I’m not the only one either. I’ve asked my kids what they miss the most and they replied, “our friends”. They miss playing dolls, running around, and just being present with their friends. I’ve spoken to some of my friends who express the same feeling of missing the presence of other people. Zoom, Facebook, FaceTime…they’re just not the same. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate all of the technology and how it has allowed us to still see each other. But even this is a poor substitute for being present with another person.

Poor Substitutes

Yes, the technological tools that we have available to us are quite impressive and helpful. I don’t want to minimize the impact that they have had on our schooling, work, and relationships throughout this crisis. However, no one would say that they would prefer life via video chat rather than being in person. Even the most introvert of introverts can get weary of only seeing people on their computer screen instead of in real life occasionally. God didn’t make us this way, and He doesn’t want us to settle for something less than a real presence with others.

But if we probe a little deeper into what we’re truly missing and take a look at what we’re really longing for, we come up with an answer that might be hard for some people to admit. The presence we’re really longing for is the presence of God. It took me a while to admit this myself, but what I’ve needed most in my life is God’s presence. Missing other people in a face-to-face way that helped me see this. It helped me realize how I’ve been trying to fill the void with various substitutes. I fill my time and focus with woodworking, odd and end jobs, work, family, even some zoom happy hours. Yes, even seeing people on zoom or occasionally face-to-face is a poor substitute of being present with God.

The Presence of God

God has always been present with His people. Even from the time of creation God would walk in the Garden with Adam and Eve. Later at the time of the Exodus God made His presence known in different ways. One of those ways was in His instructions to the Israelites on building the tabernacle. Even the bread that the priests would bake and keep in the tabernacle showed God’s presence. He called “the bread of the Presence.” (Exodus 25:30; 35:13) This bread would remind them of His deliverance from Egypt and God’s life giving presence right there in their midst.

God also instructed the Israelites to follow Him as He led them through the wilderness. He promised them that His presence would be with them all of the time. And He certainly was! Any time of the day, the Israelites could look out and see God with them. If they looked ahead on the trail they could see a pillar of fire leading the way. Or when they encamped they could see a pillar of smoke resting on the tabernacle. Just as they witnessed on Mt. Sinai they could see and sense the presence of God right there with them.

Jesus later clued in His disciples with this same reality of His presence. He spoke about how He is “the Bread of Life” and how their life was dependent on Him. (John 6) Even later in an upper room, Jesus celebrates the passover meal with His disciples, gives them bread and tells them that it is His body. His presence, in a tangible way, given and intended to sustain His people for millennia to come.

Perhaps what I’ve been missing most is what we call Holy Communion or the Eucharist. It’s been a big experience of God’s presence I’ve missed lately. Yet, I know that it isn’t the only way to experience or be in the presence of God. My prayer life has increased and become more disciplined. A friend recommended an app where you can make reminders to pray. My time in God’s Word and other devotionals has increased. Thanks to a different pace of life I can slow down a bit and focus on what matters. Knowing and resting on His promises has been a comfort through this time. Especially in the promise that His presence with us.

Psalm 139:7-12

7   Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! 9If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. 11If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” 12even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.

There’s nowhere we can go, no situation can exist, notice or place where God will not be present with us. It’s not simply if you turn a corner God will be right there, but it’s that He’ll be truly present with us. He will hear our hearts and our cries out to Him. He will comfort us with His words and His Spirit. God will even care for us physically when we are in need, and He does that through His body.

The Body of Christ

The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to followers of Jesus in Corinth because He they were in need of God’s presence. They were there with each other physically, but they weren’t caring for each other. They didn’t recognize God’s presence among them. Because of that, they bickered, argued, abused and generally didn’t care for each other. When it came time for these followers to take part in the Eucharist, they didn’t recognize the Body of Christ. Perhaps this had something to do with recognizing Jesus being present in the gift of Holy Communion, but certainly it was because they didn’t recognize each other as a member and part of the Body of Christ.

Even today we interchange and use this term in both of these ways, and it’s the reality of Jesus being present in both definitions that gives us comfort. If we eat the bread and drink the wine in Communion then we’re receiving Jesus and connecting with Him directly. If we’re feeling down and we’re in need of comfort, God’s people can come and sit with us bringing the reality of God’s Spirit and presence to us as well.

Matthew 25:31-40

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him,  then he will sit on his glorious throne.  32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and  he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  33And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.  34Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom  prepared for you See from the foundation of the world.  35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you  gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  37Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  38And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  39And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’40And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Being present with fellow followers of Jesus can in fact bring us closer and experiencing the real presence of God in our midst. I remember times where I would be away from friends who are close to Jesus in their walk, and later reunited with them. Once we came back together it was as if nothing had changed. It’s not just that we picked up on conversations and life that had passed. It’s as though there was a peace and a mutual care for each other that we experienced in this special reunion. When God’s people come together they are not only encouraging each other and being present with each other, but Jesus is present as well. He promised, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

A Better Perspective

It seems like circular logic, doesn’t it? We don’t need people to fill our void, we need Jesus. But Jesus is present in and among His people. Therefore, people can fill our void. But that’s not exactly what I’m saying here.

If, through our quarantine period, we realize that we’re missing something in our life then trying to fill it with people, stuff or activities is not the answer. Only Jesus can truly fill the void we experience in our lives.But one way that He does lift us up and fill the void is through His people. Again, it’s not the people themselves that are really filling the void. It’s Jesus. His presence through His people is one way that He can and is present with us. But therein lies the dilemma.

How do we experience God’s presence with His people when we’re socially distant? Luckily as I’m writing this things are starting to open up a bit more. But the dilemma still remains and might be an issue for quite a long time to come. I’ve seen plenty of people meeting up at parking lots and sitting on their tailgates to chat. People are sitting in their driveways and front yards spread out so they can see each other and chat in person. We went to a birthday party where we all hung out in the front yard, sung happy birthday and had some real face-time with people for a change. If you’re feeling comfortable with being in the outside air and hanging out then it’s not too difficult for God’s people to come together and experience His presence. We can talk, laugh, cry, pray, be in God’s Word, and encourage each other with the Gospel just as we could before COVID hit. Maybe we’re not back to the hugging and physical contact point yet, but even that will come in time.

Through it all, God is truly present with us and encouraging us in all that we do and experience. He has not abandoned us and knows that His Church is strongest when they are together. Maybe it’s being together on Zoom, or maybe we can find ways to creatively be present with each other in person.