The pandemic has given me a new appreciation for something Christians talk a lot about: presence. As a college professor, I miss the presence of my students. I miss the magic that can happen when a group of college students gather together in a room, put away their electronic devices, and focus on the same great piece of literature. And that’s not all I miss. I “attend” church on Facebook. I “get together” with friends and family on FaceTime or some other online platform. I stare at a Zoom screen for hours each week and pretend I am truly in the presence of the people whose faces stare at me from the little boxes. I can’t quite convince myself. I miss everybody.
My longing for the real, physical presence of people reminds me of my lifelong, deep desire for the presence of God. Like the people in my life whose images look close but whose physical selves are tantalizingly out of reach, God himself sometimes seems like a socially distanced, masked stranger. At times I sense his presence deeply and powerfully. At other times he seems like someone in a Zoom meeting with the sound muted and camera disabled, hidden behind an impenetrable square. I know he’s there—I hope he’s there—but I wish I could see him.
I love reading the final chapters of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life, when he makes various physical reappearances after his resurrection. Before that, when he faced his crucifixion, even his closest followers denied, abandoned, and doubted him. They ran, they scattered, and they hid. They nearly gave up.
Then, just a few days after his death and burial, when all hope seemed lost, Jesus showed up again! Presence. He wasn’t a floating spirit. He walked among them in a body. They could hardly believe it. Sometimes they didn’t believe it at first, or didn’t recognize him. Thomas wouldn’t believe until he touched him. Now that he was physically present with them again, even the simplest acts were enough for them to record—eating a meal, walking into a room. He didn’t need to do big miracles of healing or feeding thousands. His presence alone was the miracle. One day Jesus prepared a fire at the water’s edge and cooked his disciples a breakfast of fish and bread. They marveled!
As a couple of his followers walked along the road to the village of Emmaus one day after the resurrection, Jesus showed up beside them. They didn’t recognize him at first, but they enjoyed his presence and conversation so much that they invited him to supper. It wasn’t until he blessed the bread and broke it that they suddenly realized who he was. After he disappeared, they asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). It wasn’t only what he said that made their hearts burn within them. It was that he was with them when he said it.
I sometimes feel envious of the physical manifestations of God’s presence that I read about in the Old Testament: Adam and Eve walking with him in the cool of the day, the pillar of fire and cloud leading the Hebrews though the desert to the promised land. In 1 Kings 8, when the priests brought the ark of the covenant into the temple Solomon had built, a cloud so fully engulfed the place that “the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple” (1 Kings 8:11). That’s the overwhelming presence of God that I long for.
Yet, the fact that God does not make himself known to me in that way does not mean God has cut me off from his presence. Although it’s easy to wish for the physical signs of God that are scattered throughout Scripture, I have to also remind myself that his presence was so powerful it could be dangerous, and the people sometimes had to be kept at a distance. In Exodus 19, when the Israelites came to Mount Sinai, the Lord told Moses he would come to him in a cloud on the mountain, and the people would be able to hear his voice and see the cloud. But the people couldn’t come too close. The Lord told Moses, “Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death’” (Exodus 19:12). The Lord was both concealing himself and revealing himself, which he still does today.
I have often thought that if I could experience just one big, undeniable, miraculous revelation of God, I would never doubt again.
The concealment can be frustrating, since I want to know him fully. I have often thought that if I could experience just one big, undeniable, miraculous revelation of God, I would never doubt again. But scriptural examples show that physical revelations of God and other miracles alone do not solidify one’s faith. The Israelites had manna falling from the sky each day, and they saw the pillar of fire and cloud every day and night, and still they disobeyed. Later, in Jesus’s ministry, Peter saw many miracles and was present on the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah. He heard God’s very own voice that day. Still, Peter later denied Jesus.
As encouraging as it is to read of Jesus’s appearances to his followers after his resurrection, those in-person encounters didn’t last long. He ascended to heaven, and once again they were deprived of his physical presence. But he didn’t leave them alone. The Holy Spirit came, and he is still with us. He is God’s presence, but he is easier to miss—or to ignore—than a person walking into a room.
I spent two years researching the ways God makes his presence known to us when I wrote my book Pieces of Heaven (available from The Foundry Publishing). I found God everywhere, sometimes even in bodily form, disguised in the faces of the poor and the overlooked. I saw him in the faces of my students. I found him in the music, in the wonders of his creation from the stars to the woods to the oceans. I heard his voice in the Bible. I discovered the warmth of his presence in prayer.
For me, as for many people, the biggest problem has not been that I look for him those places and don’t find him. The problem is that I don’t bother to look for him in the first place. I ignore his presence—or mistake it for something else. This is not to say that he doesn’t still conceal himself in frustrating ways. I would love to be overwhelmed by him. But he reaches us in the ways he chooses. Am I paying attention?
Before the pandemic, I didn’t realize how important the presence of my students was to my teaching and my life. I took them for granted because I had never imagined teaching in any way other than having them right there with me. Someday, Lord willing, when I’m back in the classroom with students, I want to truly be aware of them, and be grateful. I want to also make myself more aware of God’s presence in whatever way he chooses to reach me. Even a glimpse of his presence—a glimpse that foreshadows a less distanced and less masked eternity with him—is worth all my attention. To paraphrase Paul, right now I see much of the world through a computer screen, darkly, but someday I will see the Lord face to face.