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Like lovers, parted by war

“Well, darling, the day we have waited so long for has come, and on the very day, one year from the day I met you. I hope it won’t be long.”

It was exactly one year before D-Day when American soldier Steve Vlaskamp spotted the red-headed woman who became his wife. During his deployment, he wrote her 300 letters, looking back at their time together and forward to their future.

Some have raised concerns that cancelling embodied gatherings of the local church in the present crisis will lead to more and more people streaming services long-term. I want to suggest the opposite: that we Christians will no more find we prefer streaming services online than lovers parted by war and forced only to write letters would say, when peacetime comes, “Let’s just keep writing to each other, shall we?"

The embarrassing intimacy of church

“Greet one another with the kiss of love,” writes Peter, to God’s people gathering in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. (1 Peter 5:14). This is one of the five times the New Testament authors exhort members of local churches to kiss each other. For Paul, this is a “holy kiss.” For Peter, it's “the kiss of love.” It's one of the markers of the embarrassing level of intimacy to which we Christians are called.

We are “one body” (Romans 12:5), brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:50), “knit together in love” (Colossians 2:2), comrades in arms (Philippians 2:25). Paul calls his friend Onesimus his “very heart” (Philemon 12) and says he was among the Thessalonica like “a nursing mother taking care of her children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7). Paul writes letters to those for whom he yearns. He is parted from them in body, but with them in spirit.

What this normally means for us

How precisely this deep intimacy should look when we are gathered on a Sunday morning will vary by culture. My Christian friends from Ethiopia and Eritrea greet with three kisses, alternating cheeks. I’ve learned to do that when we meet. My American Christian friends are mostly huggers. On a regular Sunday, I probably touch between 15 and 30 people in one form of another, depending on the nature of the relationship. But we are all family.

One older single man who lives alone has become a grandpa figure to my kids. He’ll come for a hug, or to pick up my 18-month-old. I wrap my arms around my female friends, often with kids dangling from one or both of us. We like to distribute our nuclear family on a Sunday. My kids sometimes sing with an arm around a friend. And so do I. We are one body and Sunday morning is a chance to live into that truth.

Writing, for now

But right now - for one moment in an eternity of others – love looks like staying away. We live-streamed our church service this morning, with our pastor and two band members bravely holding the fort, and our dismembered body dispersed into a hundred living rooms. Our community group meets virtually, thankful for the blessing of group video calls, but missing the shared food and physical contact that usually marks our Tuesday nights. My prayer triplet has become a prayer call. For now, we are forced only to write.

But when peacetime comes once more, which of us will stay at home? Will we not much more eagerly resume the things for which we’ve longed? Will we not treasure our embodied siblings all the more, like solders coming home from war?

In one of my favorite moments in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, a naval officer, Captain Harville, explains how he longs for his family when he’s away:

"if I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, 'God knows whether we ever meet again!' And then, if I could convey to you the glow of his soul when he does see them again; when, coming back after a twelvemonth's absence, perhaps, and obliged to put into another port, he calculates how soon it be possible to get them there, pretending to deceive himself, and saying, 'They cannot be here till such a day,' but all the while hoping for them twelve hours sooner, and seeing them arrive at last, as if Heaven had given them wings…”

Longing for then

While we’re forced to be apart, let’s long for the day when we come together again. Let’s long like Steve Vlaskamp longed for his wife, and like Captain Harville longed for his family. Let’s set our sights on the soon-to-come day when we’ll be back in church once more. And in this time of short-term deprivation, let’s long for the long-term: when we’ll gather from every tribe and tongue and nation to worship Jesus as one body together (Revelation 7:9), when the Lamb will be on his throne, and final peacetime will – at last – have come.

During the COVID-19 crisis, I will be featuring stories and insights from a Christian professor at a leading secular university in my weekly email. To access that unique content, subscribe here.

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