If you want to know my biggest frustration as a Christian, it’s this: the lack of corporeal (bodily) interaction with my God. I don’t think I’m alone. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.
The disciples met Jesus. They knew what His smile looked like – and, I imagine, never forgot it. When they screwed up or made a mistake, they had the benefit of seeing in His eyes that they were forgiven and He loved them just as much as before. Maybe He touched their shoulders when they were feeling down or lonely. They got to hear His laugh. They had a companion with whom to share stories over the table. Years after He returned to heaven, I am sure they had memories and mental images never recorded in Scripture: private jokes, long talks, shared bursts of laughter. Surely the generations that followed heard some of those tales. Even Paul, who became a believer after the resurrection, “met” Jesus in a sense.
But we modern believers exist at a remove from Christ in a way that earlier believers did not. Yes, we have the benefit of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit too is incorporeal: it’s not the same as hands and feet and hugs and skin and smiles. The closest we can get to seeing Jesus’ face is through artists’ representations and our knowledge of the period and culture in which he lived.
I feel the lack of that bodily interaction sorely, sometimes. When I ask forgiveness and I know I’m forgiven because Jesus said so, I still wouldn’t mind feeling a shoulder pat to reassure me that it’s really all right. When I am frustrated or tired and talking to Jesus in the middle of the day, I wouldn’t mind being able to sit across from Him with a cup of coffee and watch Him nod His head. When I am excited and speaking praise, I would give a lot to hug Him.
Jesus knew it would be difficult for us. I think He knew exactly how difficult would be. It’s why He blessed those who would believe without the benefit of sight. It’s why He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane for all those who would long to meet Him “face to face.”
And it’s why He left his church here.
In many of his books, Philip Yancey deals with the question of God and pain: “Where is God when there is suffering?” And throughout many of his books, he presents the same answer: God is in us. The answer to “where is God during the pain?” is “wherever the church is.” Jesus calls on us to be His hands and His feet; His physical, tangible presence in the world.
That means that when we believers are longing for corporeal interaction with God – the hug, the smile, the pat on the shoulder – we should provide it for and find it in each other. Jesus did not leave us “without” those things even as He ascended; He left His church behind to act in His place. Until we see Him again, those interactions we desire to share with Him are the ones we’re meant to provide each other.
It’s a heavy duty, the gift of presence: the gift of simply being there in body for someone. But it is profoundly valuable. And everyone believer can offer it. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a hugger or a physically affectionate person – although being present in body can incorporate those things, it doesn’t require them. Being present just means being there, with your body, and ministering by your presence. By your eye contact. By your nods. By your smile. By a pat on the shoulder or by passing over a tissue. Those gestures may seem small, but they mean everything.
Sadly, I think the gift of presence has been undervalued, especially in our technological era. An email is the same as a text is the same as a Skype session is the same thing as being there – but it isn’t. No amount of representation on a screen can replace the comfort of in-person presence. No amount of emoji or money or ministries-from-afar can replace the value of an actual person who can listen, respond, comfort, and simply be there.
I often tell my students that they’ll be halfway to success in my class just by showing up. The same goes for Christians. Just show up. When people are hurting, or celebrating, or need reassurance, or are simply tired, just show up. Be there with your body. Use it to do the things that Jesus cannot now do right here on earth. And even if you do nothing more than sit there and listen, or pass over a tissue, or make a cup of coffee, it will matter. It will be remembered.
Don’t ever underestimate the simple power of being present. The space you occupy in the room, the small gestures you make, the acts of comfort and encouragement and praise: all of these occur on behalf of your Lord Jesus Christ, and they are a ministry unto themselves. Please don’t forget that or neglect it.