Zoom. It's not the real thing

Why we should want to meet after the shutdown

After several weeks of meeting my Christian brothers and sisters on Zoom, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:12 have taken on a new significance for me – “For now we see in a mirror, dimly.”

Church on Zoom is like a scene in that old movie Midnight Express, where the guy who’s in prison tries to kiss his girlfriend through the glass that separates them.

I often finish a Zoom meeting feeling exhausted and depleted – when usually I find being with people energising.

It’s great to see familiar faces, but at the same time, it reminds you that you are separated. You are “together,” but not really together. You cannot see the other person in all the three dimensions of who they are. You can’t pick up on “vibes” and “moods.” You cannot read faces well.

And the Zoom experience reminds me of how dependent upon those things we are for authentic human reaction. So much of our being present with one another is to do with gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact – things that don’t translate well across the airwaves.

Take these non-verbal things away, and we have to deal with the words that we say drained of any of that extra framing.

This means I often finish a Zoom meeting feeling exhausted and depleted – when usually I find being with people energising.

Now don’t get me wrong. Meeting via the medium of software is certainly better than not meeting at all. And meeting with people who are a long way away or separated because of age is a joy! I’ve participated in events that have involved people across the world. I’ve started a theology reading group with people from around Australia.

But I am reminded every Sunday that this way of “meeting” is not truly meeting. It just isn’t the real thing. We are separated by the screen, and that is a disappointing experience. It produces an ache – a longing for the real thing.

So what are we going to do with this ache?

It is possible that the longer the lockdown goes on, the more my taste for meeting together with the body of Christ can be dulled. Since I can’t meet with the church, I start to just accept it as “the new normal.” I could just deal with this longing by shrugging my shoulders and moving on. What’s the point in crying about what you can’t have?

After all, there’s a certain inconvenience about meeting together with others that has been taken away – the need to be completely dressed up (you can wear whatever trousers you like!), or the need to prepare food, or the need to travel. You can start to like your own company and the freedom that comes with solitude. Annoying people are certainly less annoying at a distance.

Absence may not, after all, make the heart grow fonder.

There’s a certain philosophy of life which says that “desire produces suffering, so therefore don’t desire.”

So many of the commands of the New Testament to Christians are “one another” commands

I don’t think that is a Christian philosophy at all. There are some desires that do indeed result in suffering – “the lusts of the flesh and the pride of life” as we read in 1 John 2:16. But this is not because they are desires as such. Rather, they are desires for illegitimate or corrupt things.

The desire of Christians to be together, on the other hand, is one of the best desires there is. It is a desire awakened by the Holy Spirit. It’s more than simply our natural human social instinct, which is extremely powerful. We are indeed herd animals!

But this is deeper than that again. The Holy Spirit draws us together to meet around Jesus Christ and to encounter him together in his word. The spiritual reality is that we are united with Christ and so united with one another, and so we deeply long to express this union by meeting together.

So many of the commands of the New Testament to Christians are “one another” commands – commands that we cannot accomplish completely in separation from one another.

And most central of all these commandments, right at the essence of what it is to be church, is the command to “love one another, as I have loved you.” The love that God has for us in Jesus Christ is given to us that we might love one another with the divine love itself. That isn’t a by-product of who we are in Christ. It is who we are in him. To paraphrase John’s first letter, if we claim to know God but don’t have love for one another, then it’s a sham – we don’t know God at all. Or, to put it positively: if love is among us, then that is a love that comes from God, because he first loved us.

As Christians, then, we are like separated lovers. Perhaps you’ve been apart from a significant other for some time and know what I mean. You keep the relationship alive by using whatever means possible to keep in touch – the phone call, the letters, the texts and emails. You don’t simply forget about the other person. You awaken your longing for one another rather than suppress it. You imagine your reunion – you plan for that day, and joyfully anticipate it. And there’s nothing quite like the joy of walking through the passenger terminal and seeing the face of your loved one once more.

We are on an enforced fast from Christian fellowship.

And I think that’s what we should be doing right now – not suppressing our desire to meet together with our church family in the presence of the Spirit but fanning it into flame. We need to awaken that hunger.

We are on an enforced fast from Christian fellowship. Remember how good it was? Imagine how good it will be! Imagine the faces, the buzz in the room, the catching up, the eating together, the singing, the prayers. Let’s not let the sharp edge of our desire grow dull.

Instead, let’s now be praying and planning for the great day of reunion. Let’s make it a day of joy and celebration. We’ve already placed an order with the best scone maker in our church, just for starters! What will your church be doing on that day?

Or maybe the separation has taught you what actually was good about your church community. Perhaps you were frustrated by the clunkiness of the services or the amateurishness of the music. But what you now miss tells you what church really is – the gathering of God’s family by the power of the Spirit in the name of Jesus, our Lord.

If, in the past, you’ve taken for granted the community built by Jesus of which you are a part, could you now value it more deeply and serve it more gladly? Australian Christians have got into the habit of talking about “regular” attendance as about once a month. Now that we know what we have in our Christian families, could we ever be so blasé again?

But our hunger for meeting with one another again will not be completely satisfied by meeting again. Because this ache that we feel is not actually just an ache for St Harriet’s at 10.30 am Sundays, or for our community at Awesomeness Christian Church.

If the Spirit is at work, our homesickness should be for our heavenly home.

For just as our meeting via Zoom is an incomplete experience of church, so even when we can meet together physically and in person there will be an incompleteness. There’ll be those who have died who are not there. There’ll be those who cannot be with us because of distance or because they are in a nursing home. There’ll still be division and sin in our midst, sadly, no matter how hard we try for reconciliation. There’ll be those who separate themselves from us.

Because even when we meet together as we usually do, we are experiencing a foretaste of our heavenly gathering in Christ. The meetings that we attend each week are our homes for now, and we should feel homesick for them. But if the Spirit is at work, our homesickness should be for our heavenly home.

Meeting together – gathering around the throne of God and singing his praises, hearing him speak in his word, and bringing our concerns to him in prayer – is meant to awaken in us this longing. We share the Lord’s Supper “until he returns” – with an eye to the future when we will be completely and always gathered and united in Jesus, made holy and perfected by his blood. We hear the declaration that Jesus is Lord – and we understand as we hear it that it is a present but not yet complete picture of the world. We pray “maranatha” – “come Lord, come,” even as we know that he is present here with us by his Spirit.

For even if now we “see in a mirror, dimly,” we will one day see him “face to face.” I can’t wait.

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.

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