A Time For Presence
April 6, 2020

We're forcibly separated from each other. Residents of many cities around the world are sheltered in place, permitted to leave home only for basic necessities.

It's tempting to hunker down in our personal bunkers, avoid contact with others, and wait out the storm.

The opposite is true. More than usual, we need to be present to one another. When fear verging on panic grips the world, we realize more than ever our need for companionship.

We're creatures of mutual presence because we are made in the image of a God who makes Himself present, a God of three co-present Persons.

As John Frame has said for a long time, the covenant God of Scripture not only speaks with authority and controls all things, but speaks and controls by drawing near. Control, authority, and presence make up the triad of covenant attributes.

God makes Himself present in speech. Israel hears His voice from the mountain, Moses and the prophets hear and record His words. Finally, in the last days, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.

He makes Himself present by entering into face-to-face communion, first with chosen representatives like Moses (Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 5:4) and then, in the incarnation, with a whole generation of Jews. He makes Himself tangible, audible, capable of being handled (1 John 1).

By the Spirit, we are brought into the Son's face-to-face communion with the Father. With unveiled face, we see the face of God in the face of Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6).

It's been plausibly argued that Paul is talking about a face-to-face contact mediated through the church. We are face-to-face with Jesus when face-to-face with our brothers, even the least.

This logic has a liturgical application. We assemble before God's face, but we also assemble to be face-to-face with one another. We praise God, but we also "speak to one another with Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).

This isn't just a both-and. We hear God's voice through the voice of a pastor. We're face-to-face with God by being face-to-face with one another. God is present to each of us, yes. God is also present among and through each of us. Jesus remains tangible to us, through one another as together we touch and taste the bread and the wine that is body and blood.

As Brad East put it in a superb essay, the liturgy is a communion among bodies that are, in principle, touchable: "Touch - or in the language of Paul Griffiths, the caress - is the ever-​present possibility of the intimacy of bodily presence: shaken hands, a punch in the gut, a slap on the back, a slap in the face, a hug, a kiss, a total embrace. Genuine communication occurs when human touch is possible."

How do we remain faithful to this anthropological, incarnational, and liturgical reality in the midst of a pandemic lockdown?

In general, these considerations give us some standards for sorting through the available options. We can be present to one another in different modes, different intensities. Bodily, tangible, face-to-face presence is best of all. Second best are interactive technologies that enable us to see and hear one another. Failing that, we may have to rely on the voice, or the written word.

Let me apply this first to pastors and church leaders. Now is not a time to retreat to the study to wait for your church members to call if they need you. They do need you. They need to know Christ is with them now, and you are ordained to be Christ's presence to them.

Now is a time to redouble your efforts to be present to the congregation. They need to hear your voice and see your face, and you need to hear and see them.

For some members, that will mean a personal visit, so you can pray with and for them, even if it's on the front lawn. For others, it means a weekly check-in by Zoom, Skype, or phone.

What about worship? It's not surprising that some churches have adapted easily to online church. After all, online church isn't all that different from live church. When they gather in person, they watch the praise band; they might sing along but they aren't singing to one another. They listen to a sermon. They rarely commune at the Lord's table anyway, so they don't even think to wonder if they can celebrate a virtual Eucharist.

But that form of worship is deeply flawed. It doesn't embody the one-another dimension of Christian liturgy. It doesn't embody mutual presence.

Churches that believe worship is a gathering of bodies as a body find the current situation much more challenging. The gradation of "presences" sketched above might help.

In some states in the U.S., churches are still permitted to meet, within certain restrictions. I believe they should meet, while observing public health guidelines and without grandstanding.

Churches could have several consecutive services on a Sunday, or spread out through the weekend. Churches could subdivide into parishes and hold smaller services at homes. Bodily presence, even if it involves only two or three or ten meeting together, is optimal.

For churches that cannot meet, technologies that permit some form of interactiveness are preferable. As Brad East notes, following Robert Jenson, worship involves "cross-talk" of members to one another.

For the past two Sundays, I've led a Zoom service for a small group from my home. My family worship together in person, while others join us from their homes. We're able to sing and say the liturgy together. Glitches and infelicities abound, but we at least approach the biblical norm of face-to-face, voice-to-voice presence.

Among other things, the closer we get to full bodily presence, the more refreshing our time is. Praying together, saying a creed together, singing together (even badly), laughing together reminds us, in this strange time, that God still sits on the circle of heaven with Jesus at His right hand.

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