Our Appetite for Presence

by Julian Stock September 2, 2020

Band rehearsal at our new meeting place wasn’t the first time I had ever set foot in this old sanctuary.

It was the first time that we would meet face to face since the 15th of March.

It’s a space filled with dark red carpet. A floor that the feet of many saints—adult and child, old and young—walked upon for generations. The stone white walls are adorned with rich stained glass visuals of God’s covenant story. An old sky-high cross is elevated above what looks to be a well-loved baptistry with cherished realizations of resurrection. The roof gently creaks as it is graced by the wind. As I recollect these images, my mind stirs with wonder and imagination. I visualize people walking into the lobby. I picture bread being broken in the fellowship hall, pats on the back, and people shaking hands for the first time.

Our rehearsal ends and my pastor is celebrating with tears of joy—looking forward to experiencing the gospel story rehearsed with the people he loves the most. People enter in and begin catching up, but there aren’t as many high fives. No hugging, really. It’s not for lack of desire, but our circumstances are peculiar. People want to love sacrificially by protecting their friends and neighbors. I want to do the same. But it’s not the same. Is that bad? Not all of it. Does it create aches and longings? I think we would all be hard-pressed to answer in the negative.

If we can’t connect outwardly through human touch, how can we be welcoming and tender? How can our presence fill the welcome center like a warm hug or a secure handshake? How can the word of God give to us a no-touch, six-feet-apart, mask-donning, embodying love that doesn’t feel all too…embodied?

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God is in the business of creating different pathways to redemption:

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
–Isaiah 43:19

Often, God’s routes to renewal seem strange and alien to us. Backward, even. Yet, I wonder: what if God is doing something in the life of the church that seems cruel presently? A work that reaches even further than our felt need for physical expressions of love.

I delight in the sensed and bodily presence of the people in our church. It seems so odd to not have a brother come up and greet me with a sturdy hand on my shoulder or a hug from a sister. I miss that. I know you do too. We are creatures of comfort and most of us don’t have an appetite for suffering.

The church always flourishes when she is in the fray. When the cravings of the people of God are challenged, it isn’t only the arms and legs that experience hunger pangs, it’s the entire body.

Wouldn’t it be just like our Lord to save the best food for last? In this present moment, I believe we’ve been given appetizers. If we look through the lens of God’s redemptive story, we know that every good gift given to us is because of God’s kindness. When thinking about people who are in admittedly harsher situations, out of perceived humbleness we say, “It could be worse.” On the one hand, it’s undoubtedly true. On the other, it leaves much to be desired. To see all that we are, we need to see from a wide-lens view rather than just zooming in. Close up, we won’t see the whole landscape. In Eugene Peterson’s seminal work The Contemplative Pastor, he frames up the strange and mysterious providence of God:

The assumption of spirituality is that God is always doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it.

Could it be that we need the covering and comfort of the Spirit of God above everything else in this cultural moment? A transcending closeness that exceeds the deepest aspects of human connection? That’s difficult to imagine! But impossibility will be the theme of our song. “It was almost impossible to visualize wearing masks and not laying hands on one another, but the King was good and faithful!”, God’s people will say. “While hospitals were overflowing, death seemed to be giving us a run for our money, and there was societal tension in every which direction, it seemed impossible to see any hope, but the King made a way!” I would like to think we’ll sing refrains like this in glory:

Well of water, ever springing,

Bread of life, so rich and free,

Untold wealth that never faileth,

My Redeemer is to me.

Jesus spent forty days and forty nights without any human interaction, and he did so as the incarnate, dressed-in-flesh, God-man. He knew that he was delighted in and cared for by his Father and mysteriously knew how difficult it was to be alone in the desert at the same time. Perhaps this is a desert where we find that all we needed was living water after all. A moment for God’s beloved to be reminded of the Father’s care and providence. Wouldn’t that be something?

Christ isn’t calling us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Nor is he motioning for us to put on our best game face. We can gaze upon Jesus, the friend of sinners, and sit at his feet. We can recline beside him at the table. And since we are not alone in this desert-like pandemic, we too can sympathize with one another as Christ is sympathetic with us.

We may collectively experience spiritual rumbles for a time, but at just the right time, King Jesus will bring out the finest part of the feast.

How does God's Word impact our prayers?

God invites His children to talk with Him, yet our prayers often become repetitive and stale. How do we have a real conversation with God? How do we come to know Him so that we may pray for His will as our own?

In the Bible, God speaks to us as His children and gives us words for prayer—to praise Him, confess our sins, and request His help in our lives.

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